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.
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.”
(Follow the discussion of Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of Education, by James S. Taylor at Mystie's blog)
*I can’t take credit for the clever title – a forum friend uses it for his signature line.