Renee Descartes (1596-1650) is widely held as the 'father of modern philosophy' and I think rightly so. He has the exalted distinction of being the first savant of high philosophic capacity to arise since the subjugation of the Greeks to
a gap of nearly 2,000 years! Rome-
Descartes was born in
to parents of some means and received the liberal education of the day; very
much in the scholastic mould. This entailed a great deal of Latin grammar and
theology according to the Angelic doctor, St Thomas Aquinas. And although much
of his thinking is thought of as 'modern' he still retains much which
delineates the 'Medieval Schoolmen' even though he despised the system as a
Philosophy of the period was dominated by the 'Schoolmen': friars who upheld ancient doctrines and adapted those doctrines to support their religious views and dogma. The preeminent position of the scholastics was based on the philosophy of Aristotle. Aristotle was the last of the great ancient Greek philosophers and when his philosophy was rediscovered in the West during the Middle Ages his wisdom was revered beyond any other ancient sage. Aristotle had much to say about everything and most of what he had to say, except in the guise of logic and ethics, has been subsequently found to be wrong. Therefore, in the late 1600 century, every new discovery in science and philosophy had to compete and ultimately supplant some form of Aristotelian doctrine. And as Aristotelian philosophy was considered the only system compatible with the Catholic Church, the revealing of contrary knowledge and doctrine was akin to heresy, at least in
and . Italy
Descartes was a true example of the gentleman, amateur, polymath. Not only did he pontificate on matters philosophical he also made important discoveries in science and mathematics (coordinate geometry). In philosophy his greatest contribution centred on his ability to dismiss certain aspects of established metaphysical systems which were exclusively ancient. He disregarded swathes of the philosophy which had preceded and began to construct an intellectual edifice of his own, from scratch. Alas, he couldn't overcome all his prior learning and could not help but fall back on elder teachings in the final analysis. His philosophical synthesis was not necessarily better than ancient Greek ponderings but at least it was different and what's more had a ‘modern’ flavour. Thus it provided an intellectual spur for those who followed, to do better. And more importantly, it was not totally saturated in Aristotelian metaphysical concepts.
He began with the notion that we could not trust our senses. What if everything was a dream? What if a malevolent demon of immense power was deluding us- imposing a virtual reality which became our ultimate reality? He considered this a grave problem which in turn conjures up its own demon of solipsism (if you are of a sound mind you might wish to review an old post of mine on this very problem). Descartes' solution was to consider his consciousness, or more importantly his thoughts, inviolable from tampering (is this actually the case?). This is something that could not be faked if he truly existed. And thus he came up with his famous: ‘I think therefore I am’ (cogito ergo sum). Whether this is a viable premise is certainly debatable. However, it typifies the awakened and brash intellectual confidence which is the hallmark of the high renaissance period.
Descartes argues, from his first established premise, that things which we conceive very distinctly and very clearly are also true. From here he argues stepwise adding successive layers to his conceptual model. For all his intellectual confidence and innovation he maintains an element of sceptical doubt which can only be dispelled by proving the existence of God, or at least the Christian conception of the deity. Descartes' 'proofs' of God are not very original or even convincing to the modern mind. Once Descartes has proved God's existence, to his satisfaction at least, the rest of his philosophy falls into place. As God is good and not deceitful He would not delude his creation or allow an evil demon to deceive and therefore we must possess physical bodies.
The principle of Cartesian doubt starts with great promise but ends by foregoing its initial and laudable principle. Descartes, for all his supposed rationalism, finally falls back to the default: 'God did it'. If he had been born a century later I think he would have thought differently but ultimately he was a man of his time: born with part of his mind entrenched in the medieval world and the rest striking out into new and unchartered intellectual territory- a strange dichotomy tis true. With our modern mind set we struggle to grasp why a man of such intellectual gifts could have thought so logically and yet seemed unable to relinquish certain entrenched dogmas.
Perhaps we should not judge Descartes too harshly. He was born at a time of great societal and intellectual flux. In particular, the great influence of religious thought was starting to lose its vice like grip on intellectual endeavour and men of intellectual quality, but only just. It must have taken prodigious powers of concentration to break with engrained academic systems. It is thanks to intellectual pioneers such as Descartes and others (I’m looking at you Galileo) that we think the way we do today (some of us anyways), unfettered by the irrational and the poverty of religious strictures.
|Sorry, couldn't help it. This post was way too sensible. Arse.|