Farewell to Descartes? Print
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Sunday, 27 February 2011 09:43

It seems everyone is saying farewell to Descartes these days. “Descartes” has become a symbol of all that is wrong with modern civilization – its abstraction, its Gnosticism, its mathematicized rationalism.

One of the most thoroughgoing renunciations came decades ago from Martin Heidegger. Building on the theories of Galileo and Newton, Heidegger said, Descartes worked modern developments in mathematics into an epistemology and a metaphysics. Descartes made mathematics “the measure of the inquiring mind,” and he pursued a method of doubt not because he was a skeptic but because “he posits the mathematical as the absolute ground and seeks for all knowledge a foundation that will be in accord with it.” In mathematics, Descartes finds “the very first and highest basic principle for the Being of beings in general.” From his exposure of Descartes’ mathematization of metaphysics, Heidegger launched a wide-ranging critique of modern technology, which he saw as the “metaphysics” of the modern age.

Before Heidegger, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy wrote a brief essay on Descartes (first published as part of the German version of Out of Revolution in 1931). Rosenstock-Huessy’s essay is entitled “Farewell to Descartes,” but his farewell isn’t nearly as thorough as Heidegger’s.

Like Heidegger, Rosenstock-Huessy claims that Descartes’s importance lies in the fact that he laid “the rational foundations of modern science.” The cogito is not merely an effort to secure epistemological certainty, but the basis for the “programme of man’s scientific conquest of nature.”  Descartes separates the human subject from the world of objects, and, bound as it is with Descartes’s notion that man is a “thinking thing,” the cogito implies that human beings are “things” rather than persons. A thing is spoken about, not spoken to. In a single formula, Descartes both reduced human subjectivity to “thingness” and declared that the relationship between man and the world to be one of mastery.

Rosenstock-Huessy compares the cogito to Anselm’s axiom, credo ut intelligam (“I believe that I may understand”), which defined an earlier age of Western civilization. Anselm declares that “truth is divine and has been divinely revealed”; Descartes’s formulate implies that “Truth is pure and can be scientifically stated.” Rosenstock-Huessy’s own formula – “I respond, though I shall be changed” – states that “Truth is vital and must be socially represented.” In a post-World War I situation, it is impossible to continue with Descartes because Cartesian “purity” “encroaches everywhere on the field of social studies.” Rosenstock-Huessy revels in his living impurity: “I am hurt, swayed, shaken, elated, disillusioned, shocked, comforted, and I have to transmit my mental experiences lest I die.”  He is not engaged in a detached, “pure” intellectual exercise. Vulnerable, he is plunged into life, with all its obstacles, frustrations, the thousand shocks.

Following Descartes’s pursuit of purity, modern science privileges physics with its “abstract” and mathematical figures (rather than biology), and modern philosophy aims to formulate “general ideas” in metaphysics. Both are obsessed with the dead: “Neither from the laws of gravity nor from the ideas of logic or ethics is there any bridge to lead into the realms of life, be it the life of plants and animals or of human society. Dead things are forever divided from the living; figures and ideas belong to the limbo of unreality.” Despite the variations within modern thought, all assumed that “scientific thought should proceed from the simple facts of physics or general ideas,” and that on this foundation they could build all the other sciences.

As powerful as this critique of Descartes is, Rosenstock-Huessy hedges. He recognizes and honors the achievements of Cartesian science. The cogito “invited us all to join the army of research in its fight against irrational nature.” The George Washington Bridge and Lindberg’s flight across the Atlantic are two signs of the greatness of the cogito’s achievement, which “deserves our lasting support.” He could have added dozens of fresh examples from the past several decades.

Rosenstock-Huessy is able to acknowledge the benefits of Descartes because of his profound affirmation of historical change. Timing is all. What needs to be said changes with historical circumstances, and Descartes said something valuable and timely. Thus, instead of dismissing Cartesian science outright, Rosentock-Huessy argues that it was “most useful when man’s path opened up into the co-operative discourse of nature.” The cogito established “distance” from nature, and helped men “overcome their natural weaknesses and to remove them far enough away from the world that had to be objectified.”

Even Cartesian doubt had its use in its time. The phase of thought where we know “nothing but our thought” is essential to the development of science. Descartes was in a sense building on the scholastic heritage. Scholasticism had liberated Europe from “local myths,” and this created a kind of distance within the thinking process, the distance between impression and reality. Descartes established a second distance of subjects and objects. And this scholastic distance assumed the prior distance between God and man in knowledge that is embodied in Anselm’s formula. If Descartes has outlived his usefulness, it’s not because he was useless at the time.

Rosenstock-Huessy is also able to value Descartes’ achievement because he distinguishes sharply between nature and humanity, and here his argument goes wobbly. The problem with Descartes is that “the reality that confronts the bionomist and economist cannot be divided into subject and object.” Man becomes object only when reduced to “hands” or “cogs in a machine.” With physics in the driver’s seat, and man treated as an It, modern society has become “mechanistic” and “wrong.”  Applied to human existence, Cartesianism thus inexorably leads to tyranny: “An imagination which could divide the world into subject and object, mind and matter, will not only accept the cog in the machine with perfect equanimity, but will shrink even less from the cold skepticism of the intellectual.”

Heidegger has the better of the argument here, I think. Rosenstock-Huessy acknowledges that the subject/object dichotomy is not even scientifically defensible, since subjectivity has been discovered in “every living object that comes under the microscope.” Every living “object” is an Ego,” and this means that “the whole nomenclature of subject and object is revealed as ambiguous and useless for any practical purpose.” But if that’s the case, then his sharp distinction between nature and humanity breaks down. Even when applied to “nature” in science and technology, Cartesian mathematical idolatry is corrosive. In Rosenstock’s analysis, Descartes seems almost inevitable, and as a result he fails to ask a crucial question: What shape would modern technology have had if it had been guided by a fuller view of nature, man, and the interactions between them?

Regardless of who has the final word, both thinkers make it abundantly clear that the debate over Descartes is not finally a dispute about academic trivia. If we say farewell to Descartes, we are saying farewell to much of the world we live in. If we’re going to keep saying farewell (and I think we should), we should understand what we’re saying farewell to.

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