In his Cartesian dreams, Dr. Wren thinks, therefore he is (or so he thinks...)

For better or worse, even though few of us look like Renè Descartes, we all think like him at least some of the time. As I see it, the most important point of similarity between him and us is our shared desire to be sure about something, a desire which was later characterized by John Dewey as the Quest for Certainty. One of the many quotable quotes penned by Descartes is: "If you would be a real seeker after truth, you must at least once in your life doubt, as far as possible, all things" (from his Discours de la Mèthode, 1637). And one of my most enjoyable moments in teaching undergraduates about Descartes is the "Oh yeah!" moment that comes when I ask them who has wondered, a là Descartes, whether they are really just dreaming that the world around them is as it seems to be.

But what I'd like to emphasize here is the modern character of Cartesian thought. (Why, you ask, do we say "Cartesian" and not "Descartesian" or even "Descartesque"? Because the Latin form of his name is Cartesius. The French literally means "from Cartes," wherever that is, and in fact "Descartes" used to be spelled as two separate words. There, now we have that straight!) As you know from Palmer's chapter, "Descartes believed that he would have to tear down the old 'house of knowledge,' riddled as it was with rotten beams and unsupported planks, and rebuild it from the foundations. Intellectually, he would have to start all over again from ground zero" (p. 128). Or as Descartes himself put it, "It is not customary to pull down all the houses of a town with the single design of rebuilding them differently, and thereby rendering the streets more handsome; but it often happens that a private individual takes down his own with the view of erecting it anew, and that people are even sometimes constrained to this when their houses are in danger of falling from age, or when the foundations are insecure" (Discours de la Mèthode, part 2).

To do so, Descartes developed a philosophical system that has generated controversy on every one of its main claims, including the claim that his famous Cogito — the logical and/or psychological passage from the thought that I'm thinking to the thought that I'm existing — is self-evident. But what did not generate controversy, at least not until very recently, was the belief expressed in the two quotations cited above. That is, virtually everyone in the western intellectual world since Descartes has agreed with his judgment that it was time to rebuild the edifice of knowledge and thus set aside the old ways of thinking — which included not only the medieval scholasticism that Descartes had studied at the Royal Jesuit College of La Flèche but also the more bombastic thinking of the Renaissance (which thought of itself as a return to classical Greek and Roman thinking) and its counter-movement, the Baroque period (which thought of itself as a rejection of the classical, i.e., pagan, worldview).

And so it came to pass that for intellectuals the magic word modern now means in effect "from Descartes onwards." However, around the time that you were a glint in your father's eye or a lump in your mother's womb, a bunch of so-called postmodern intellectuals decided that the Cartesian love affair with rational certainty had run its course, and that it was time to tear down the house once again. Unfortunately, they have yet to find an architect of Descartes' stature, and so postmodern edifices like certain recent theories in French philosophy or Anglo-American cultural studies tend to look like vacant lots or, at the very best, construction sites in their early stages. The very sobriquet "postmodern" bears this out. Even though these thinkers claim to be going beyond Descartes, they generally prefer to characterize their thought oppositionally, i.e., negatively rather than positively. There are exceptions, of course, but most of the philosophical writings by postmodernists are devoted to saying what's wrong with modernism.

I should say at this point that I am sympathetic with much of the postmodern agenda, insofar as I understand it (perhaps a real postmodernist would reject the idea that there is any such agenda, but that's another story). But what I want to do here is lay out in very broad strokes what it means to speak of Descartes as the "Father of Modern Philosophy." Although Descartes was a believing Catholic and indeed an alum of a Jesuit school, he contrasted Reason with Authority and declared that in earthly matters Reason was definitely the better master. To use a different metaphor, Descartes thought that reality, including the reality of his own personhood, was transparent to reason, and that if one followed the right method one could thoroughly understand the world and oneself. A century or so later this view was institutionalized as The Enlightenment or, in Germany, Die Aufklàrung, and had its most extravagent moment when the French revolutionaries pulled down the statue of the Virgin in Notre Dame de Paris and replaced it with a statue of the "Goddess of Reason." Not surprisingly, such excesses created a backlash so that during the 19th century many conservatives called for a return to traditions (the Church, Monarchy, common law, etc.) even though their idea of tradition was really just a slightly earlier version of modernism. Interestingly, the so-called Romantic thinkers and artists of that century tried to have things both ways: they were suspicious of reason and traditional authority, and felt that the respectives opposites — emotion and freedom — were the twin pillars on which any new housing projects should be erected. It's probably safe to extend this broad characterization of 19th century romanticism to late 20th century postmodernism, but many postmodernists try to put as much distance as possible between themselves and warm fuzzy romantics like Wordsworth or Novalis. (A side note for our English and art majors: In literary studies and art history you will often see the word "modernism" used to denote the early 20th century reaction against 19th centeury romanticism, and sometimes extended so far into the century that it overlaps with what I have here called post-modernism. For instance, Nabokov is called a modernist by the English professors like Annie Dillard [in her Living by Fiction] but a postmodernist by philosophers. Are these echoes of the Tower of Babel?)

Descartes' two most famous philosophy books are probably his Discours de la Mèthode pour bien conduire sa raison,et chercher la verite dans les sciences (1637) and Les Mèditations metaphysiques (1641). The former, often just called The Discourse, is a somewhat rough precurser of the latter (usually just called The Meditations). But he also wrote important scientific studies that overlapped with philosophy, one of the most important of which is Les Passions de l'Ame (Passions of the Soul), which in spite of its title is not a lace-and-velvet romance. He was interested in medical matters such as the circulatory system, psycho-neurological puzzles about sensation, and of course mathethematics (guess who invented the Cartesian coordinate system). In this class we are focusing on his philosophical career, but don't be surprised if some other teacher focuses on his scientific work: both dimensions of his thought shaped the modern age that we have grown up in.



Have you taken the assessment quiz for this chapter?

Did you call home to say you had a good break and are now safely back at school? Parents take a weird delight in hearing such things.










Supplemental readings (required readings have asterisks):

*Discourse on Method, pts. 2 and 4. In Part 2 Descartes describes his intellectual coming of age in this very short and charming selection, which shows his exasperation with the old ways of thought. Part 4 contains an earlier version of the famous Cogito, ergo sum (except that he what he wrote in that book was actually Je pense, donc je suis.)

* The Second of Descartes' Meditations. This meditation repeats, much more elegantly, the thought process that culminates in the Cogito.

Susan Bordo, The Flight into Objectivity: On Cartesianism and Culture. Albany: SUNY Press, 1987. Any chapter.

There are many terrific web sites on Descartes and the Enlightenment period, although I wish there were more about the Thirty Years War that was so important to his life and that of continental Europe during the first half of the 17th century. Instead of giving you a list of readings in these areas I will just recommend that when you are searching for webliography entries you linger a moment or two on those pages that catch your attention. There are also many historical treatments of early 17th century France on the web as well as in the library. If you liked Cyrano deBergerac and the Three Musketeers, you'll like this literature. For cinematographic spectacle you could see any of the films by those names (try the one with Errol Flynn) or The Man in the Iron Mask (starring Leonardo DiCaprio but with an even greater cast of musketeers). If you want a different sort of treat, watch the classic film Cartouche, in which Jean-Paul Belmondo plays a swashbuckling character who is a mix of Robin Hood and D'Artangnan. All of these renditions are latter-day reconstructions of an age that is far too complex to be captured by their extravagently flamboyant imagery, but that doesn't mean you can't get from them a valid feel for the period.