November 16, 2006

Descartes Ancient and Modern

Rene Descartes the great French philosopher and man of letters deserves and has received a great amount of educated criticism and study down the years. His profile though in the popular world of ideas is limited almost solely to one phrase- cogito ergo sum. This welcome article in the New Yorker puts him securely in his position as a uniquely thoughtful exponent of ideas circulating during his time. Rather than drawing up a fictional Descartes with the manners and mores of a modern philosopher, interested in participating in a culture war, the Descartes sketched here, whose lines one would imagine are filled in by the biographies reviewed, stands more in the seventeenth than the twenty first century.

What has been done to Descartes, might easily be done for Hobbes (as Quentin Skinner has done on an academic level) or even figures like Adam Smith. Restoring our sense of for example the fact that these men were far from being academic philosophers in the sense we use today, but were system builders whose systems expanded from insights into epistemology, morals and philosophy into those of manners, politics, history and science restores a sense both of the ambitions and flaws of their projects. It also demonstrates to us some of the foundations of the modern disciplines that have evolved out of their thought. Restoring the notion of a deity to the thinkers of the 'enlightenment', almost all of whom shared at least a deist faith, again makes us better understand the roots of what Fox News would call secular liberalism in the culture of natural theology and eighteenth century deism.

Restoring philosophers to more than caricatures, used in an argument for a phrase or an insight, means that we can actually understand much better the arguments and languages that we use about political and other ideas. Just as understanding our own mental histories, enables us to understand much better our own selves, so understanding the geneaology of ideas in a historical sense (ie looking at them as much as possible without the distorting effects of our modern eyes) means that we that we can understand our mental pressumptions and unseen postulates and question them.


edmund said...

when did Fox news as a channel (as opposed to commentos on it) refer to secular liberalism-and surely it is the anti-secularist right rather than the secularist left that is the heir to enlight ideas of god-which is why post-Vatlican II catholics, orthdoox jews and mormons take such an easy role in it despite thier massive theological diffeerneces with evangelical protestants

good post

Gracchi said...

Edmund, unfortunately we disagree. But thanks for the compliment. I don't think you can read back as easily as you. I find it hard to imagine Gibbon say taking the position that religion ought to have a place within the life of a nation- given that he thought that Christianity destroyed the Roman Empire. The emmense distinctions within the enlightenment are worth grappling with here- many enlightenment thinkers like Jefferson resisted any attempt to make state policy upon religious principles because they thought that those principles were redundant. Central to the enlightenment was a hostility to waht was then called priestcraft.

As for Fox, take Bill O'Reilly's secular progressives- SPs I think he calls them.

I don't think that the idea you have about religious unity on some issues dating from enlightenment principles is right either- it doesn't harmonise with much of the world view of the enlightenment- many enlightenment thinkers were outright deists and objected to religion- many others like I would guess though I don't know Descartes were outspokenly sectarian. Its very dangerous and I think a mistake to read across from now to thinkers of another age adn infer their support for our principles.