The appeal of Descartes

Descartes makes a convenient beginning for modern philosophy, or, if you like, for a new kind of philosophy markedly different from what came before. In what precisely did this newness  consist? The usual accounts of this are all necessary: stress on the subject of knowledge; a turn to epistemic concerns (especially methods of acquiring knowledge); and a greater separation of anything philosophical from the realm of revealed theology. All of these elements are present in earlier philosophers, however, but they never quite managed to spark a new kind of philosophy until they coalesced in The writing of Descartes. What did he have that made the ideas catch on? In one sense to ask the question is to answer it: Descartes had a power of popularizing ideas. Very well, in what does popularization consist?

Note first that here is general agreement that philosophy considers its subject matter by reason alone, but in Descartes, his popularizing streak sees “reason alone” in a very particular way.  For most of the thinkers before Descartes, to see things “by reason alone” meant an appeal to all human thought that came before you: Medieval of all philosophical schools are constantly quoting others, and they seem at times to be rather suspect of ever speaking for themselves. In Descartes, an appeal to reason alone means having recourse to ones own reason as opposed to all of the thought that came before it. In much the same way that the Protestant appeal to “Scripture alone” was ordered to cutting off Scripture from the vast ediface of tradition that had grown around Scripture, so too Descartes’ understanding of the way in which philosophy must appeal to reason alone was an ordered to cutting off an individual human reason from the vast edifice of tradition that had grown from reason. Again, just as the Reformation was a trumpet-summons for each man to turn to his own Bible and figure it out for himself, so too modern philosophy was an appeal for each man to turn to his own mind and figure things out for himself. The appeal of this philosophy is obvious, and some authors have even gone so far as to claim that it is the only truly sincere philosophy. Doesn’t one always have to judge the worth of something for himself? Hasn’t the individual really always been the standard of what was acceptable or not? If one puts himself under a tradition, he still has to choose to do so, does he not, and won’t he leave as soon as some part of the tradition seems unreasonable?

The short answer to all those seemingly rhetorical questions is no. There is an irreconcilable difference between being a disciple to some master and figuring things out by  ones own reason alone. The disciple views the Master’s words as perfect, and his job as a disciple is first to “clear the ground” for an understanding of it, then to comment on it, and then trying to apply it actually to what it only applied to before potentially. But how ridiculous this all sounds to modern ears! “The Master’s word” what, are we all slaves here? Fawning sycophants? Zombies? even more ridiculous is to call it “perfect”! We all know that no authors are perfect. Right? Aristotle was a Geocentrist! St. Thomas was wrong about the Immaculate Conception (there is a great number of Catholics for whom this is the only thing they know about St. Thomas)

I’ll pass over these considerations or the moment. All I will point out now is that one will never understand either o these authors until he makes himself their disciple, and treat them as Masters. Descartes really did start something new- and if we want to understand the things that came before Descartes on their own terms, we must see ourselves as disciples, not as Masters to whom all others must justify themselves.

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