Descartes and the Great Unraveling

2 02 2011

I placed a great value on eloquence, and I was in love with poetry, but I thought that both of them were gifts given to the mind rather than fruits of study. Those who have the most powerful reasoning and who direct their thoughts best in order to make them clear and intelligible can always convince us best of what they are proposing, even if they speak only the language of Lower Brittany and have never learned rhetoric. And those who possess the most pleasant creative talents and who know how to express them with the most adornment and smoothness cannot help being the best poets, even though the art of poetry is unknown to them…

I will say nothing of philosophy other than this: once I saw that it had been cultivated for several centuries by the most excellent minds which had ever lived, and that, nonetheless, there was still nothing in it which was not disputed and which was thus not still in doubt, I did not have sufficient presumption to hope to fare better there than the others. Considering how many different opinions, maintained by learned people, philosophy could have about the same matter, without there ever being more than one which could be true, I reckoned as virtually false all those which were merely probable.

These of course are some of the more notable paragraphs from Descartes’ Discourse on Method. I have touched on this point before, but one cannot separate the philosophical question from questions of economic and social transformation. (Indeed, such Catholic thinkers as M.D. Chenu have done this as well.) What is really going on in Descartes is the use of ancient philosophical methods in the context of the transition between the feudal to the capitalist mode of production. Whereas in the medieval world, knowledge was controlled by a clerical caste, using its own language (in this case, Latin), Descartes’ praise of the vernacular poet is indicative of the rise of the nation state that will make general commodity production possible. Philosophy as well cannot rely on the clerical caste to preserve a certain method of thinking; its general hegemony over society has been weakening by the day. This is coupled with the growth of such technologies as the printing press and the growth of a literate, non-clerical middle class that feels entitled to knowledge as a form of power (Francis Bacon).

That is the materialist analysis of the rise of Descartes. It is not an issue of the actual ideas involved, but rather the conditions that allowed those ideas to flourish. My more idealist reader will continue to ask, however, “but is it true?” I think this a pointless question. For one cannot pretend to be a real medieval scholastic or classical Aristotelian in the current age; the rules of the game have already changed. You can no longer pretend to get an “ought” from an “is” (Hume), especially when the “is” is far from a static entity. You cannot seal yourself in the analogia entis in a world that has long ago cast off hierarchy in both the material and ideal realms. There is a certain knowledge inflation that has taken over the philosophical economy, and clamoring for some sort of epistemic “gold standard” will not solve the problems of a world defined by pluralism. For advocates of such misguided nostalgia, there will always be a disconnect between how they live their lives and how they claim they live their lives.

At this point, any call for “realism” is wishful thinking. Perhaps we should start calling for a “virtual realism”.