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November 17, 2007

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Joyless Moralist

But, Nathan, finish the chapter. Chesterton most certainly does not wish to sign onto the project of Descartes or Hume. He declares himself more than willing to accept groundless suppositions -- at least, suppositions that cannot be grounded in the sense that the early moderns meant. He objects, not to the "groundlessness" per se, but only to their peculiar idea it's worth *trying* to ground our beliefs in the way that Descartes wanted to do. The sensible dwellers of "elfland" knew all along that this was a fool's errand.

As for the other Descartes reference, I don't think it can be taken as any serious endorsement of the Cartesian project as a whole... he brought in the cogito because it was useful in setting up the joke at the "philosophic evolutionist's" expense.

Nathan Smith

I have finished the chapter, and there are no disavowals of Descartes or Hume in it. But I agree that Chesterton "does not wish to sign onto the project of Desartes or Hume," certainly at any rate not without reservations or in the same spirit. It would be odd to wish to do so since it ended in evident failure. Hapless old Descartes thought he had re-proved the ordinary verdicts of commonsense, but lo and behold, all his philosophical successors thought he had proved the opposite! And Hume set up to gain enlightenment through reason and ended up in complete skepticism! The trouble is that the materialists think they're heirs of the rationalism of Descartes and Hume, and claim that as the ground of their position. So it's useful to remember that the rationalism of Descartes and Hume provides a ground for nothing of the kind.

re: "He objects, not to the "groundlessness" per se..." I beg to differ: Chesterton *does* object to the groundlessness of materialism, among other things. "Elfland" is an ingenious way of setting up an alternative reality with different rules, to underline the arbitrariness of the rules that seem to govern our world, to underline that they are by no means based in logic, and that materialistic reductionism deserves to be given no epistemic privileges.

As for the cogito, yes it's a joke, but you have to take Chesterton's jokes seriously. Descartes represents an older, more respectable philosophy; the evolutionist, philosophy's modern decadence. You can say that Descartes is to blame for philosophy's later decadence, but that does not follow, and it isn't in Chesterton.

Nato

What in the world does "evolutionist" mean in the context of this discussion? I don't think I'm familiar with the position it references.

Joyless Moralist

Chesterton does not, in the end, think we should embrace utterly "groundless" beliefs, but the point is that he doesn't think we can ground them *in the way that Descartes or Hume wanted.* The mistake of Descartes was to put epistemology in the place of "first philosophy" and, as part of that transformation, to demand that knowledge be understood in what contemporary epistemologists sometimes call an "internalist" way. In simple terms, the internalist is one who thinks that he doesn't know anything unless he knows that he knows it. True beliefs derived from reliable processes are not enough to constitute knowledge; knowledge must carry its own internal warrant or proof. That's the real contribution of Descartes, and Chesterton wants no part of that, as his exposition of Elfland clearly shows.

Nathan Smith

I'm not sure whether-- or to what extent-- you're claiming that this stuff about externalism, or the rejection of Descartes' placing of epistemology in the position of "first philosophy", is in Chesterton, presumably in other language. Probably Chesterton's style doesn't allow him to be pigeonholed in this way, but it seems to me that it would be a much less untrue reduction of Chesterton to say that he *does* accept epistemology as first philosophy, and the Elfland example is an ingenious and engaging way of illustrating what the deductive approach does *not* prove.

A secondary point, which Chesterton makes along with many others I think, is that the rationalist project ultimately shows that we have to be a bit more latitudinarian in what we accept as primary evidences. Chesterton describes the madman, whose views are highly logical and internally consistent; they simply lead to a very bleak and impoverished world. Chesterton lets in a stampede of intuitive and emotive and aesthetic and analogical evidences that might be collectively labeled "common sense," and in that respect his epistemology is going in the opposite direction of Descartes's. But it is certainly internalist: "common sense" is within each of us; and he appeals to no external authority.

On the question of externalism, it seems like the difference may be semantic. The externalist and the internalist may simply mean different things by the word "know." We may imagine a skillful person-- a skier, or a businessman-- that he "knows but does not know he knows" something, in the sense that he holds a belief, and could express the belief, and the belief is right, but he doesn't know why it's right. A mathematician may, perhaps, be in a different situation: he holds a true belief that the quadratic formula is true, and he knows why the quadratic formula is true, i.e., he knows that he knows it. These are different kinds of knowledge.

The externalist-"know" is certainly of sociological interest, perhaps even of philosophical interest in certain ways. But what does the externalist-knower say if you ask him, "How do you know that?" He can only say, "I don't know." Or, ask him: "Do you know that?" Again, by assumption, he does not know if he knows it, so he answers, "I don't know."

And how do we, as third parties, know whether anyone knows anything. If we "know" (in some sense) that x's true belief that p=q was formed in a reliable way, *we* know that x knows that p=q, even if x doesn't. But how do *we* know, and in what sense, that x knows that p=q? Do we externalist-know it, and in that case, if we don't know that we know it, who does? We have gotten ourselves into an infinite regress of sorts... Or do we internalist-know it? In that case, we terminate the regress, but externalist knowledge seems to become dependent on internalist knowledge.

At the very least, I think this line of inquiry shows that internalist knowledge is a topic of *interest* even if for some purposes it might be adequate to define knowledge in an externalist way. It seems to me, at any rate, that internalist knowledge, if we can get any of it, would be a bit more valuable than externalist knowledge. Perhaps Descartes ought to rephrase his argument to make room for externalist objections, but we can hardly blame him for *wanting* internalist knowledge, for raising the question. So what is the answer to the question? Maybe it's just impossible for us to get any internalist knowledge, and that was why Descartes was on the wrong track? Fair enough, if you can prove that; and you should acknowledge that from the perspective of those who define knowledge in an internalist way that will amount to a form of skepticism. Or maybe we can get internalist knowledge, but not very much of it, and to really get anywhere in life we need to rely on externalist knowledge. Well, all right, but if some of us want to know just how much internalist knowledge we *can* get, what's wrong with that?

Joyless Moralist

Ah, but this is the point: Descartes did not set these epistemic conditions just to call attention to certain differences in the way I know, say, that I exist, and the way I know that snow is white. Look at the way he sets the project up: "if I let in the smallest unjustified belief, I jeopardize the whole project. I risk that my whole belief system may be built on falsehoods." And of course, he is understanding justification in this internalist sense; formal or mathematical reasoning is his archetype. In essence, he is spelling out a new standard for what we can acknowledge as truth. For the medievals, *being* is truth. For the moderns, truth is what we can know... except that raises a problem because, using these epistemic standards, we can't know very much. This is why the spectre of radical skepticism looms so large over the early modern period (and to some degree over all of philosophy up to the present day. Isn't it interesting how so many philosophers are still working hard to refute this position, although almost nobody ever identifies with it?)

The problem is eventually solved by Kant (though Pope Benedict suggests that Vico formulated the key idea even before Kant developed it so brilliantly in the Critique of Pure Reason.) If the cogito is the only thing we can affirm with confidence, then the "ergo sum" will have to be the foundation of all knowledge. So we get to Vico's suggestion that truth is what is made. If truth is what I know, and I know only myself, then truth must be that which I make myself. Hence the Kantian solution, wherein we know nothing whatever of the nouminal world (what's really out there); everything we know is made by our own faculty for reason.

For the medievals, everything that exists (including ourselves) was created in the mind of God. It thus points beyond itself to God, and we, being ourselves products of the divine mind, are able to understand creation in this light. We can "rethink" to some degree what God has thought. (So, for example, the solution to Meno's paradox would lie in a development of this idea.) But the moderns, having accepted that truth must be man-made, cannot resort to this kind of reasoning. This explains, for example, their insistance that many or most of the precepts of Catholic moral theory fall prey to the "naturalistic fallacy" (thinking that one can derive an 'ought' from an 'is', which indeed one can in the ancient or medieval way of thinking.) It also explains why it remains an implicit assumption of philosophy even up through the present day that the philosopher must always strive for the most minimalist metaphysics possible. A mind committed to techne (the man-made) is unable to look beyond that which can be held in the hand or reproduced in the laboratory. It has no means for grasping at the supernatural and the immaterial, so ontological commitments can only be seen as wild and basically unjustified leaps into the unknown. Consequently, philosophy over the last few centuries has striven to rid itself of such commitments as much as possible. Presumably you can see the connections to other branches of thought that you yourself identify as erroneous (materialism, supervenience theories in the philosophy of mind, etc.)

I'm not actually sure to what degree Descartes himself was a pioneer, as opposed to just the one who most famously articulated certain ideas that were being thrown around in his time. And you're right, he's early in the modern era -- depending on how you like to think of it, you might even say pre-modern -- and still carries over many, many ideas from the medieval period. But to the extent that the Meditations on First Philosophy represent a watershed moment, that is the reason. They propose a new understanding of *truth* that undercuts the medieval approach and sets the tone for the era to come.

So when you say that Chesterton wants to be more "latitudinarian" in what he accepts as evidence, you're on the right track to understanding the way in which he would be opposed to Descartes and his philosophical legacy. Chesterton would reject Descartes' idea that formal or mathematical reasoning is the archetypical truth, and he would likewise reject Vico's assertion that truth is what we have made ourselves. It seems to me that much of the point of this playful little essay is to demonstrate how little this approach has really accomplished.

Nathan Smith

Very interesting essay, very well woven together. But let me unstitch it a bit to show why I see things a bit differently.

re: "Look at the way he sets the project up: 'if I let in the smallest unjustified belief, I jeopardize the whole project. I risk that my whole belief system may be built on falsehoods.'"

But how is Descartes wrong about this? 'Externalism' doesn't help. If Descartes forms his beliefs by a reliable mechanism, but doesn't know that the mechanism is reliable, then from the *internal* point of view-- the only to which he has access-- he risks that his whole belief system may be built on falsehoods. Joyless Moralist seems to suggest she is offering us a way out of this, but what is it?

"... For the medievals, *being* is truth. For the moderns, truth is what we can know..."

For me, truth is a characteristic of propositions. It is nonsense to say that a house is true, or a tree is false, or the chemical element helium is true. 2+2=4 is true. The idea that "*being* is truth" seems to make two kinds of errors: (a) it would seem to attribute truth to objects such as cars and houses and trees, which can neither be true nor false, and (b) it would seem to attribute truth to statements which exist, regardless of whether they are true as propositions, merely by virtue of their existence. Thus, if I write a lying book about my enemy, the book certainly *is*, and if *being* is truth, being makes the book true-- right? No doubt I've misunderstood something because JM can't be arguing *that.* If the medievals used "truth" to refer to *being*, perhaps it's just a semantic difference. No harm done then; but I still sympathize with Descartes's interest in the truth or falsity of propositions.

re: "If the cogito is the only thing we can affirm with confidence, then the "ergo sum" will have to be the foundation of all knowledge. So we get to Vico's suggestion that truth is what is made. If truth is what I know, and I know only myself, then truth must be that which I make myself. Hence the Kantian solution, wherein we know nothing whatever of the nouminal world (what's really out there); everything we know is made by our own faculty for reason."

I wonder if Kant would assent to this summary of his thought. It seems clear to me that while the way I see the world is a sort of *reconstruction*, derived from recognizing patterns in sense-experience (which I do more skillfully as I gain more experience, which is why adults can derive much more complete, elaborate and accurate information sets from a given set of physical observations than children can, and children have a similar, though probably much larger, advantage over infants), the world is still external to myself, and the truth of my accounts of it depend on their faithfulness to the real world. A proposition which is strictly man-made, i.e., invented by myself out of my own head, is not truth, but (depending on whether I intend for my audience to believe it or not) a fictional story, or a lie. The best elucidation of the Kantian idea about the *nouminal* world I have read is the discussion of "appearance" between Ransom, Mars, and Venus in C.S. Lewis's *Perelandra.*

"For the medievals, everything that exists (including ourselves) was created in the mind of God. It thus points beyond itself to God, and we, being ourselves products of the divine mind, are able to understand creation in this light."

I don't understand the difference between this and what Descartes thought. His proof of the existence of God and his reliance on God not being a deceiver seems to follow this pattern. Certainly later thinkers in the Cartesian tradition dropped the emphasis on God, which may be a mistake, because where does our power of pattern-recognition come from, and why should we believe it reliable? Hume exposed the lack of logical grounding even of a thought-process as basic and indispensable as inductive reasoning. I don't think anyone can *really* doubt the efficacy of inductive reasoning-- anyone who formally denies it will betray in their behavior a thousand times a day that they still believe it-- but it has no logical validity. To say that we are creatures of God and by that light we can understand the world is an answer to Hume's devastating question.

A weakness in the medievals' position is that you can ask: "How do you know? How do you know we were created in the divine mind? And how do you know *what* we are able to understand about creation in that light?" The approach to answering that question to which Descartes pointed the way, and which the empiricists and myself hope to extend, is certainly imperfectly and not wholly satisfying, but it seems preferable to: "Shut up or we'll burn you at the stake."

re: "A mind committed to techne (the man-made) is unable to look beyond that which can be held in the hand or reproduced in the laboratory. It has no means for grasping at the supernatural and the immaterial, so ontological commitments can only be seen as wild and basically unjustified leaps into the unknown."

I don't follow any of this. I've already rejected the idea that Descartes/Kant end up believing in only the man-made-- it seems to me that even for Kant the real world remains the criterion of truth, even if it has to be filtered through our own pattern-recogntion faculties-- but what does that have to do with "what can be held in the hand or reproduced in the laboratory?" Mathematical formulas are man-made. They can't be held in the hand or reproduced in the laboratory. And how can we have no access to the supernatural? We *are* supernatural, at least according to the Catholics, or Descartes, or me. I have access to my own thoughts, feelings, and will. And Descartes was moving in precisely the opposite direction from making "ontological commitments... a leap into the unknown." *Cogito ergo sum* is precisely an ontological commitment made on the firmest ground possible, and it is, please note, *not* an ontological commitment to anything that can be held in the hand or reproduced in the laboratory. For Descartes, commitments to the existence of the supernatural are more fundamental than commitments to the natural. Certainly the shift JM describes, towards a bias against the supernatural or immaterial, but it seems to me it was *despite*, not because of, the influence of Descartes (and Kant).

"Consequently, philosophy over the last few centuries has striven to rid itself of such commitments as much as possible. Presumably you can see the connections to other branches of thought that you yourself identify as erroneous (materialism, supervenience theories in the philosophy of mind, etc.)"

But this has it completely backwards. The problem with materialism (and mind-brain supervenience, which follows from it) is precisely that it is blind obeisance to an authority, like an appeal to the Bible or the Koran or the Pope or the Mormon prophet, except that in this case the authority is Science. The Scientist says "Everything is reducible to particles and forces and energy." The contemporary Cartesian asks "How do we *know* that?" and there is no answer. I see no connection at all between Descartes and ontological reductionism. On the contrary, a Cartesian should demand rigorous proof for the validity of any reductionist move. And the last thing he will accept reductionist accounts of is the soul, for, as the saying goes, *cogito ergo sum*.

I thank JM for this intellectual history, because it helps to illuminate for me where I differ. I don't think the rise of materialism, which is perhaps Christianity's most formidable rival today, follows from Descartes at all. It seems to me that the contemporary influence of materialism comes mainly from the increased prestige of the natural sciences as a result of advancing technology, which had such marvelous effects on living standards and military power. I think I'm following Dostoyevsky here: in *The Grand Inquisitor*, he talks a lot about "Miracle," how the masses will bow down before any miracle. Science worked miracles, so a lot of people became blindly obeisant to it, and turned its methodological assumption of materialism into a universal dogma. All this was quite contrary to the tendency of Descartes and Kant, who leaned towards an introspective approach and to *downplaying* what we can know about the physical world relative to what we can know about ourselves. And Descartes sheds light on the way out of the materialist trap.

Nato

It's true - Science is the magic that works, or perhaps the religion that produces miracles like clockwork. Those evangelizing the quid-pro-quo aspects of their religion have a serious competitor in that sense, and I would expect the competition to stiffen considerably once death becomes much rarer. That said, that's probably a relatively minor part of why most people have a religion.

Nathan Smith

Well, there's a lot science hasn't done very well. When it comes to improving character, or creating community, the most generous verdict on what science has achieved is probably zero. When science-- or what is described by its advocates/practitioners as science-- is applied there, the results have typically ranged from dismal to disastrous.

Nato

Sadly, it doesn't seem very popular to value character and community. It seems more critical to "keep up" and to get one's own private slice. I'm not saying this is some sort of recent development - it seems to have always been true of people above a certain level of affluence. The only difference is the percentage of society that has reached that level.

Joyless Moralist

Okay, there are quite a lot of questions and misunderstandings here, but let me see what I can do.

In the first place, consider this. Christ called himself "the truth." Obviously Christ is not a proposition, so what did he mean by that? Well, I think you might get a little more perspective if you think about occasions when we do apply the term "true" to things -- for example a sword, a friend, or the pitch of a musical note. You'll probably be tempted to say right off that this is another semantic issue, just a different way of using the word, but if you think you'll see that they are related. "True" in this context means something like "the way the thing is supposed to be." Swords should be sturdy, friends loyal, and musical notes in tune. "True" ones are closest to this ideal. In the medieval metaphysics (and obviously Platonism is a strong influence here), being is goodness, so, in other words, things that are closer to the way they should be actually have more being. The same would be true of statements. A statement is supposed to reflect something about the world, and the ones that do this are thus "true." Your lying book, because it contained little truth, would also have little being. God is Being itself, as well as Truth itself; when Christ calls himself truth, we should see parallels with the God in the burning bush telling Moses, "I Am Who Am."

But seriously, if this metaphysics seems very strange to you, you should go do some reading about it, because a blog comment isn't the best place for fully elucidating the whole metaphysical system of the Platonists and the medievals.

So on to Descartes. I still don't think you appreciate how subversive he is when he jumps into the arena of philosophy with the bomb of a title, "Meditations on First Philosophy", attached to a work about *epistemology*! To the medievals it was clear that the highest science, the beginning and end of philosophy, was metaphysics. Being is truth, remember... and all of it is created in the mind of God, so the main thing was to go on discovering what *is*, again using the faculties given by God. Once you knew a certain amount about that, you could turn some attention to epistemology. With your metaphysical foundations in place, you'd be in a position to make some progress there too. But how could you possibly say anything useful about 'how we know things', if you don't first have some account of what sort of creatures we are, or what things we might know?

Nope, says Descartes. Not good enough... burn everything to the ground and make epistemology square one! No fact can be admitted as true unless it carries its own internal justification, as mathematical truths seem to do! Now, don't be fooled by the way he tried (or perhaps pretended to try) to smuggle so much of medieval philosophy in the back door. By slamming the front door, he was going straight for the jugular of medieval philosophy, and he knew it perfectly well. Make no mistake: Descartes is remembered for the right thing. Hapless nothing.

To better understand what this did to philosophy, consider an analogy. It's not perfect but it might help some. Suppose a person became concerned about the efficiency of language. He decides that the problem with language is that it's forever hobbled by *tradition*, with people mainly just using whatever words they were taught in childhood. He decrees, therefore, that language must be built from the ground up, with no word being used unless there is some justification for why it's the appropriate one to attach to a particular meaning. Well, obviously you'd have a problem here... you can't really justify the use of any given word without the help of *words*... which are precisely what's been forbidden you. Maybe you could get a few words through onomodopeia, but for the most part you'd be pretty, well, tongue-tied. This is something like the effect Descartes' strategy has on philosophy. He poses a question, and then takes away all the tools needed to answer it.

You claim that there's no good alternative; the method suggested is the only reliable one if we want to know anything! This just shows that you've already conceded the match to Descartes. You're convinced that "real" knowledge is the internalist kind. There might be certain advantages to just having true beliefs, but unless you know beyond a shadow of a doubt THAT they're true, you basically don't know anything. Well, if that's your definite view, all I can say is... welcome to the world of Radical Skepticism. Enjoy your stay! Like the self-justifying language user, you really just can't get very far with that project.

Actually, Kant does offer a strategy for dealing with this problem, but before I say more about that, perhaps I should elaborate on the alternative that *I* suggest, which is basically: just go with what already seemed to be working. If you had to give advice to the (mute) person wanting to improve language, you'd presumably tell him just to do the best he can with the language he already knows. Yes, there's a chance that the whole project will thus be corrupted by the inefficiencies of his native tongue, but at least he'll be able to *talk* to people about it. Similarly here: we already have some capacities for learning. We have reason and sense perception, and we seem to have some idea how to use them. So use them. Figure out some things about being, and then use that understanding to look back at the methods themselves. Yes, you'll be running some risk that many/most of your beliefs are ultimately built upon errors. But when we see how creation itself bears all the marks of a rational creator -- how it is unexpected but at the same time comprehensible to us -- that will surely provide some comfort. When we see how nature unfolds her secrets for us, we'll be reassured.

There *is* something of an ontological leap when we first decide to embrace this understanding of the universe, which admittedly does not come sealed with the kind of self-justifying stamp of certainty that Descartes wanted. We'll have to live with some uncertainty. This is another of the pope's favorite subjects, actually. Every person, whatever his commitments in life, is always susceptible to doubt. The believer is periodically assailed by doubts... and the unbeliever is likewise haunted at times by the whispering worry, "but what if it *is* true?" Such is the human condition. But, that said, we aren't left completely helpless. When we see how the faith resonates with what we see and experience, and how it invests life not just with *sense* but also with *meaning*, that will give us some grounds for confidence in our decision to believe, and to place ourselves on the ground of the eternal logos.

Now, about Kant. You said this:

"I wonder if Kant would assent to this summary of his thought. It seems clear to me that while the way I see the world is a sort of *reconstruction*, derived from recognizing patterns in sense-experience... the world is still external to myself, and the truth of my accounts of it depend on their faithfulness to the real world."

Kant definitely would not say that. It's one of the most fundamental principles of his system that he knows nothing at all about the external world, what it's like, or how/if our ideas correspond to it. It exerts some influence on us, but we can never know what kind or how. To understand Kant's strategy, imagine a child who has been watching a sci-fi television show in which a person is trapped in a kind of holo-world that is actually controlled by aliens. He spends some days worrying about whether he might be in the same situation... but he finally solves the problem by concluding, "Well, as long as things continue in the way that I'm used to, I suppose it doesn't matter."

This is what Kant has done with epistemology and metaphysics. He accepts Descartes' ideas about knowledge. He grants Hume's point that induction can tell us nothing about the world. But he realizes, of course, that we can't function without making sense out of what we experience, so he concludes that we can go on using induction and all the other principles of reason that are necessary to us -- with the understanding that this tells nothing whatsoever about the world "out there" but only about ourselves. We live inside our heads, and the inside of our heads is all we know. The nouminal world could be anything -- we could be dreaming, hallucinating, brains in vats or whatever you please. It doesn't matter. Our existence is rational and lawlike simply because we make it so. So you see that your statements about "faithfulness to the real world" have no place within a Kantian framework.

"I don't understand the difference between this and what Descartes thought. His proof of the existence of God and his reliance on God not being a deceiver seems to follow this pattern. Certainly later thinkers in the Cartesian tradition dropped the emphasis on God, which may be a mistake, because where does our power of pattern-recognition come from, and why should we believe it reliable? Hume exposed the lack of logical grounding even of a thought-process as basic and indispensable as inductive reasoning. I don't think anyone can *really* doubt the efficacy of inductive reasoning-- anyone who formally denies it will betray in their behavior a thousand times a day that they still believe it-- but it has no logical validity. To say that we are creatures of God and by that light we can understand the world is an answer to Hume's devastating question."

"We are creatures of God and by that light we can understand the world"... Kant knew he had no grounds for saying anything like that. Descartes didn't either, and neither do you if you accept Descartes' epistemic standards as being the right ones. Yes, Descartes ran an argument somewhat like this (as I said, he tried, or at least pretended to try, to smuggle a lot of medieval philosophy in the back door) but there's a reason later philosophers dropped it. His internalist argument for the existence of God *didn't work*! He has no good grounds (by his own standards) on which to believe in a god of any kind, good or evil. The only thing he does know is himself, but even there he doesn't have the materials with which to justify anything so deep and rich as a doctrine of the immortal soul. Later philosophers recognized this and rightly discarded those parts of his project as basically ungrounded.

I'm surprised that you don't see by now how the Cartesian move helps lay the foundation for materialism. Look: for a Platonist, a Catholic, or an Orthodox thinker, there's no problem with integrating the supernatural into your understanding of reality. If all being is the "thought" of a rational Creator, who is infinitely greater than us, we should expect that many truths will be beyond our understanding. There can nonetheless be great value in pursuing these great mysteries, which yield to us certain insights while nonetheless remaining beyond our view. The medieval philosopher is always looking beyond what is evident to his senses, peering eagerly for a glimpse of the higher mysteries that lie beyond the material.

The Cartesian, meanwhile, is looking exactly the opposite direction, squinting to find things he can "clearly and distinctly understand." And the Kantian, who sees himself as the creator and imposer of sense and reason, naturally prefers to focus on things that are more fully in his grasp. The last thing he wants is to make unnecessary ontological commitments to things beyond his ken. It should be no wonder, then, that the intellectual offspring of these philosophers likewise turn their sights towards things that can be controlled and manipulated. For many, the natural move is towards the material. It's not just that they were wowed by the advances of science -- though that does play into the picture, of course. But at its root, materialism is motivated by the intuition that matter is the "real stuff." It's a flight from mysterious supernatural entities that we can't grasp, and towards that which does seem to be within our grip. And this is a very typically modern instinct. The medievals thought that the most perfect things were the most real, but modern intuitions run the opposite way: the most real things are the techne, the things which are most under our control. Descartes and Kant didn't themselves preach materialism, but it's a predictable development in the wake of their epistemology and metaphysics.

When you talk about "where you differ" I don't quite know whether you're disputing my historical picture, or just arguing that Descartes, Kant, etc. have been misused and misunderstood. In any case, I may or may not be able to write any more this week (we're driving to Cleveland tomorrow for Thanksgiving) but I hope this helped somewhat.

Nathan Smith

Fascinating. You'll not be surprised to hear that I'm not convinced, but I'm learning a lot from this. Happy Thanksgiving!

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