Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Father of Modernity

Portrait of René Descartes
Although there are many people who have contributed to our modern way of thinking, if I were to choose one person who caused the radical shift of thinking that led to modernity, I would choose René Descartes (31 March 1596 – 11 February 1650). He certainly saw himself as creating a new way of thinking that he hoped would change the world.

According to his Discourse on Method, although he attended "one of the most renowned schools of Europe," he was "confounded by so many doubts and errors" that he was frustrated in his desire to "acquire a clear and assured knowledge of everything that is useful in life" (5). The one subject he admired from his schooling was mathematics, "because of the certainty and the evidence of its reasonings," but he was surprised that it had not been put to more practical use (8). He was most disappointed with philosophy, "seeing that it has been cultivated for many centuries by the most excellent minds that have ever lived and that, nevertheless, there still is nothing in it about which there is not some dispute, and consequently nothing that is not doubtful ... I deemed everything that was merely probable to be well-nigh false" (9). In other words, even though great minds have studied philosophy over the centuries, they don't come up with solid conclusions that can be known with certainty. To Descartes, anything that can't be proved as certain might as well be taken as false.

Descartes goes on to attempt to build a system of thought that has the certainty of mathematics, but can be applied to solving the problems of life, which he believed the great philosophical minds of the past had failed to do. He did this by systematically discarding every bit of knowledge of which he could not be certain. As he went through this process of doubting, he realized that he could be certain at least that he was doubting, which led to his famous statement, "I think, therefore I am." He realized that his experience of thinking established the fact of his own existence, and he used this fact as the first principle of his philosophy (32). However, his knowledge of his own existence is only as himself as a thinking thing distinct from his physical existence, and this leads him to make a distinction between "intelligent nature" and "corporeal nature" (36), which has come to be known as Cartesian Dualism.

By making this separation, Descartes was able separate concerns of the mind and the soul from concerns of the body, allowing him to treat the body as a machine. Descartes wanted to take the principles of mechanics that allowed a building to be constructed, and apply them to the physical world, and the human body (36).

In the last part of his Discourse on Method, Descartes goes into detail about what he thinks can be accomplished with this new thinking.
For these notions made me see that it is possible to arrive at knowledge that would be very useful in life and that, in place of that speculative philosophy taught in the schools, it is possible to find a practical philosophy, by means which, knowing the force and the actions of fire, water, air, the stars, the heavens, and all the other bodies that surround us ... and thus render ourselves, as it were, masters and possessors of nature. This is desirable not only for the invention of an infinity of devices that would enable one to enjoy trouble-free the fruits of the earth and all the goods found there, but also principally for the maintenance of health, which unquestionably is the first good and the foundation of all the other goods of this life... (62)

Decartes wants us to be able to understand nature in order to control it, invent useful devices, and to improve our health and quality of life, and he thinks a mathematical and mechanical approach is the best way to accomplish this. Even though Descartes still believes in God and the human soul, his dualistic approach allows him to separate issues concerning them from issues concerning the physical world. By contrast, in the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, which was dominant before Descartes, the physical and the spiritual are seen as tightly integrated, and all human activity, including the study of the natural world, is directed to the goal of salvation and growth in the knowledge of God. Descartes made a substantial break from Aquinas, and is much more aligned with today's modern thought.

In summary, here is a list of important aspects of modern thought which are found in Descartes' Discourse on Method.

  1. A new, practical philosophy (science) must be developed that is a break from the philosophy of the past.

  2. It must only deal with that which can be known with certainty.

  3. The physical world, including the human body, is understood in a mechanical way, in isolation from the mind or spirit.

  4. The purpose of this knowledge is for us to become masters and possessors of nature in order to improve our health and quality of life.

I will come back to these points repeatedly in future posts as I look at the problems we wrestle with today.


Toni Graham said...

Whenever I hear the word, "modernity", I think of this line that I was fortunate enough to utter in a play:
"Whenever I see moderns such as yourself I always see a certain ... weariness. Modernity being such a shifty beast."
(Anyway. Great post, Greg. Thanks!)

Ron said...

"You can only find truth with logic if you have already found truth without it." -- GKC

From St. Chesterton's Introduction to the Book of Job:
"In this drama of scepticism God Himself takes up the role of sceptic. He does what all the great voices defending religion have always done. He does, for instance, what Socrates did. He turns rationalism against itself... He asks Job who he is. And Job, being a man of candid intellect, takes a little time to consider, and comes to the conclusion that he does not know... In dealing with the arrogant asserter of doubt, it is not the right method to tell him to stop doubting. It is rather the right method to tell him to go on doubting, to doubt a little more, to doubt every day newer and wilder things in the universe, until at last, by some strange enlightenment, he may begin to doubt himself."

Perhaps Descartes did not doubt deeply enough.

Ron said...

BTW, I can't find an RSS feed...

Greg Graham said...

@Ron: Perhaps he didn't. What I think is interesting is that it didn't take long for the limitations of Rationalism to show themselves, especially in the realm of theology and other non-hard sciences. Later philosophers were soon overturning or improving on him, but they did not seem to question his starting point of rejecting all previous philosophy. There are very few in philosophy in the last 350 years who have asked whether or not that was a wrong turn to make. Of course, Chesterton is one of those few.

Greg Graham said...

I had forgotten about that line until you mentioned it. You uttered it very well in the play.

Greg Graham said...

The feed is available at . I also added links in the sidebar.

Ron said...

The pursuit of certainty is a hazardous game. Descartes may have been certain that he existed because he thought. But modern science is certain that it has reduced his "thought" to mere chemical interactions in neural cells. In doing so, it demonstrates that truth is but illusion and that there is nothing about which to be certain in the first place. Not a very firm place to stand.

One's reason is only as good as one's assumptions. The pure rationalist isn't starting with much.

Perhaps the blind man in John 9 had the right approach: "One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see."

Or, going back to Chesterton:
The sages have a hundred maps to give
That trace their crawling cosmos like a tree,
They rattle reason out through many a sieve
That stores the sand and lets the gold go free:
And all these things are less than dust to me
Because my name is Lazarus and I live.