Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Cogito cogito, ergo cogito sum*

Yesterday I spent the day outside trying to tame this jungle we live in. I’ll tell you what’s real – honeysuckle is real and it’ll take over the world if we give it half a chance. I’m all for reducing carbon emissions if it’ll keep all this plant growth in check – they’ll take over the planet otherwise. But somehow I don’t think that’s what the greenies have in mind with their environmental proposals.

I’m glad to have a slightly better understanding of what Descartes was about. I remember in high school having classmates who were what can only be called skeptics. They doubted whether existence was real. Maybe everything we think we see and know is an illusion. I couldn’t tell whether they’d been educated beyond their level of intelligence or had had too much pot over the weekend. After reading this chapter I’m guessing they were taking a philosophy class and trying on existentialism for size.

Prior to Descartes, there were certain “givens” that were universally recognized by philosophers – that the physical world is real, for instance, and that it can be truly known through the senses. A broad experience of the physical world lays the foundation for further knowledge, so that, eventually one can reason his way to knowledge. I can’t find the quote now, but I think Copernicus said that he came up with the idea of a heliocentric universe by means of philosophy, not science.

Decartes, however, begins with reason. He then applies the scientific method of breaking a thing down to the smallest possible parts and analysing them. This, he claims, is the only place where experience has any value – experiments are made to prove or disprove each particle of information in an effort to build up a factual knowledge of the thing being studied. Interestingly, by starting with reason, by starting with his own thoughts, Descartes removes the possibility of learning anything simply by thinking.

This idea is developed in Dewey’s philosophy, which “neglects the innate powers of the knower to know prior to experiment.” His goal was completely utilitarian: to adapt the student to meet the needs of the community, those needs being political and economic.

Dewey’s so-called pragmatism, as it filtered down to the masses who largely never read a word he wrote, fit neatly into the American view of education for the good life. It was perfect, in its popular versions, for the American oligarchic man, that is, the practical businessman seeking to not only retain, but to increase his property and profits. Ideas were important to these descendants of the European industrial revolutions and the new notions of the wealth of nations, insofar as they worked toward increasing the common wealth of the country and the personal wealth of those practical and clever enough to succeed….

Interestingly, Dewey’s scientific and practical philosophy with its emphasis on dealing with the conflicts of social change was also attractive to some Marxists, although this fact is not surprising, for both systems of economics, industrial capitalism and communism, inevitably in the first case and absolutely in the second, are materialistic and have little or nothing to do with eternal truths, or beauty, or goodness in any transcendent way…. Sooner or later, the education for a student under either way of progressive, materialist life will be informed by the dominance of the practical ends of the state.

Sadly, since most American Christians have been educated this way, it even affects the way we approach the Faith. We either put too much faith in Reason, or we expect to be led by direct revelation.

Taylor doesn’t make this connection himself, but I think this section where he quotes Jacques Maritain describes the over reliance on Reason nicely:

In Descartes the result is the most radical leveling of the things of the spirit: one same single type of certitude, rigid as Law, is imposed on thought; everything which cannot be brought under it must be rejected; absolute exclusion of everything that is not mathematically evident, or deemed so. It is inhuman cognition, because it would be superhuman!

Therefore, some expressions of American Christianity tend “to displace from reality, if not remove altogether, the order of knowing that includes the valid role of the sensory-emotional response, integrated with the will and the intellect.”

At first glance, it seems like a contradiction for me to say that the mystical kind of experience relied upon by another branch of Christianity has the same root, but consider this (quoting Maritain again):

The angel neither reasons, nor proceeds by reasoning; he has but one intellectual act, which is at once perceiving and judging: he sees consequences not successively from the principle, but immediately in the principle.

Taylor continues:

Maritain sees this angelism as the greatest error of Descartes’ philosophy; that is, he begins with the proposition that man is essentially a thinking substance, a definition hitherto reserved for angels whose intellect is “always in act with regard to its intelligible objects [and] does not derive its ideas from things, as does ours, but has them direct from God.”

This is actually a splitting apart of Descartes’ method, which insists “that all knowledge, after an exercise in the rigor of mathematical method, be angelically intuitive,” but it makes sense, as his method itself “causes a disintegration of the natural unity of the knower to know.”

Poetic Knowledge(Follow the discussion of Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of Education, by James S. Taylor at Mystie's blog)

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*I can’t take credit for the clever title – a forum friend uses it for his signature line.


  1. Thank you for focusing more on Descartes' method. I didn't spend much time getting to know it, but in reading your post I realized that this is why Taylor is warning us against analysis and encouraging us to try and see wholes first--this is anti-Cartesian at core.

    Nice title.

    Does your wonderful daughter have any witty contributions to our discussion this time around? :)

  2. Just wondering if Taylor addresses *presuppositionalism* in his book?

    Forgive me, if this questions is way out in left field, but I havent bought the book yet (hangs head).

  3. "Interestingly, by starting with reason, by starting with his own thoughts, Descartes removes the possibility of learning anything simply by thinking."

    So are you saying that he made impossible exactly what he was trying to do? Because he was a rationalist, the opposite of empiricist -- he thought *only* thinking could get you to real knowing. The empiricists later took on his method.

    And the helpful thing I picked up from the Sproul video was that Descartes wasn't the one who broke with tradition out of the blue. He was trying to answer skeptics and people who believed everything was an illusion and those who thought you couldn't believe anything or anyone after the Reformation and Copernican revolution. Unfortunately, then, the skeptics took his stuff over and led it down paths he didn't intend.

    I thought Taylor portrayed Descartes as someone who was nearly blasphemous with his signature motto -- man is the end & the beginning -- while Sproul presented it that Descartes' motto was the death-blow to existentialists.

    Dana -- I think presuppositionalism is *very* relevant, but Taylor didn't address it. Maybe I'll take that tangent with my post today or tomorrow. :)

  4. Brandy, I don't know, but I'll ask her. :-)

    Mystie, Taylor said that Descartes was a man of faith and was trying to combat skepticism, so I didn't get a negative impression of him, same as with William of Occam who gave us Nominalism that ultimately means that transcendentals don't exist (cf. Ideas Have Consequences).

    How long is that Sproul video? I'd like to have my older kids nearby when I watch it, and want to make sure we have time to watch it in one sitting.

    Dana, I don't know if it'll ever come up in the book, but I think he writes like a Roman Catholic, so I kind of doubt it would.

  5. "So are you saying that he made impossible exactly what he was trying to do? Because he was a rationalist, the opposite of empiricist -- he thought *only* thinking could get you to real knowing. The empiricists later took on his method."

    Mystie, I'm thinking specifically of the many areas of life that are nearly impossible to discuss with other people unless you have scientific evidence to back up your claims -- mainly related to food, health, and agriculture. Things that, ISTM, ought to be common sense, but are generally regarded as kooky or backward, like how people ought to eat food rather than "edible food-like substances," and how to define "food" in the first place.

  6. There is no time indications on the video, but I think it's about 20 minutes. My church bought the video series a few years ago and did one video then discussion for Sunday School. I think I learned more about logic from it than I did from the course I took in college. :)

    I see what you mean and I definitely have seen the same thing. I suppose it was more of a poetic experience when I finally gave up boxed mac & cheese last year. I didn't buy it often, but it's just so cheap and easy (I think partly because you don't have to find a recipe and think -- you just see the box, dump the box, and presto!) that I kept adding it back to our pantry every now and again. Then, one day, I dumped that packet of neon orange powder into the noodles (I buy the cheapest brand, and it was neon), and said, "I cannot do this ever again." Of course, I still fed that batch to the children. :) I think part of it was just noticing, and opening my eyes and seeing it, instead of mindlessly dumping and letting my perception of "convenience, ease, cheap" color what it was I actually saw.

    Hm. I wonder how that would apply in other areas....

  7. Love the title! It feels a little like being in a fish bowl looking out and trying to figure out the world (Plato's cave?) this being educated with Dewey's theories and methods and trying to figure out the hows and whys of real, poetic knowledge. Great post!


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