Revisiting Descartes

René Descartes is the whipping post of Western philosophy. The arch dualist. The brain in a vat. The physicist whose theory of planetary motion, where a celestial vortex pushed the planets around, was destroyed by Newton’s theory of gravity (action at a distance was very hard to fathom by Newton’s contemporaries, including Leibniz). The closet Copernican who masked his heliocentric views behind a curtain of fiction, too cowardly to risk being burned at the stake like Giordano Bruno. The solipsist who canonized the act of philosophy as an act only fit for a Western White Privileged Male safely seated in the comfort of his own home, ravaging and pillaging the material world with his Rational Gaze, seeding the future of colonialism and climate change.

I don’t particularly like Descartes, and yet I found myself ineluctably drawn to him in graduate school (damn rationalist proclivities!). When applying, I pitched a dissertation exploring the unintuitive connection between 17th-century rationalism (Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz) and late 19th-century symbolism (Mallarmé, Valéry, and Rimbaud). My quest was inspired by a few sentences in Mallarmé’s Notes on Language:

Toute méthode est une fiction, et bonne pour la démonstration. Le language lui est apparu l’instrument de la fiction: il suivra la méthode du Langage. (la déterminer) Le language se réfléchissant. […] Nous n’avons pas compris Descartes, l’étranger s’est emparé de lui: mais il a suscité les mathématiciens français.

[All method is fiction, and good for demonstration. Language came into being as the instrument of fiction: it will follow the method of Language. (determine this method) Language reflecting on itself. […] We haven’t understood Descartes, foreigners have seized him: but he catalyzed the French mathematicians.]

Floating on the metaphysical high that ensues from reading Derrida and Deleuze, I spent a few years racking my brain to argue that Descartes’ famous dictum, I think, therefore I am, was a supreme act of fiction. Language denoting nothing. Words untethered from reference to stuff in and of the world. Language asserting itself as a thing on par with teacups, cesspools, and carrots. God not as Father but as Word. As pure logical starting point. The axiom at the center of any system. Causa sui (the cause of itself). Hello World! as the basis of any future philosophy, where truth is fiction and fiction is truth. It was a battle, a crusade to say something radically important. I always felt I was 97% there, but that it was Zeno impossible to cross that final 3%.

That quest caused a lot of pain, suffering, and anxiety. Metaphysics is the pits.

And then I noticed something. Well, a few things.

First, Descartes’ Geometry, which he published as an appendix to his Discourse on Method, used the pronoun I as, if not more, frequently than the articles the and a/an. I found that strange for a work of mathematics. Sure, lyric poetry, biography, and novels use all the time–but math? Math was supposed to be the stuff of objective truths. We’re all supposed to come to the same conclusions about the properties of triangles, right? Why would Descartes present his subjective opinions about triangles?

Second, while history views the key discovery in the Geometry to be the creation of the Cartesian plane, where Descartes fused formal algebra with planar geometry to change the course of mathematics, (as with all discoveries, he wasn’t the only one thinking this way; he had a lifelong feud with Pierre de Fermat, whose mathematical style he rebuffed as unrefined, the stuff of a bumpkin Gascon), what Descartes himself claims to be most proud of in the work is his discovery of the lost art of analysis. Analysis, here, is a method for solving math and geometry problems where you start by assuming the existence of an object you’d like to construct, e.g., a triangle with certain properties, and work backwards through a set of necessary, logical relationships until something more grounded and real comes into being. The flip side of this process is called synthesis, the more common presentation of mathematical arguments inherited from Euclid, which starts with axioms and postulates, and moves forward through logical arguments to prove something. What excited Descartes was that he thought synthesis was fine to rigorous conclusions once they’d been found, but was useless as a creative tool to make new discoveries and learn new mathematical truths. By recovering the lost method of analysis, which shows up throughout history in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (when deliberating, we consider first what end we want to achieve, and reason backward to the means we might implement to bring about this end), Edgar Allan Poe’s Philosophy of Composition (when writing poetry, commence with the consideration of an effect, and find such combinations of event, or tone, as shall best aid in the construction of the effect), and even Elon Musk’s recursive product strategy (work back from an end goal — five, 10 or 50 years ahead — until you can hit inflection points that propel your company and its customers to the next stage, while ushering both toward the end goal), Descartes thought he was presenting a method for creativity and new discoveries in mathematics.

Third, while history records (and perverts) the central dictum of Cartesian philosophy as I think, therefore I am, which appeared in the 1637 Discourse on Method, Descartes later replaced this with I am, I exist in his 1641 Meditations on First Philosophy. What?!? What happened to the res cogitans, the thinking thing defined by its free will, in contrast to the res extensa of the material world determined by the laws of mechanics? And what happened to the therefore, the indelible connection between thinking and being that inspired so much time and energy in Western philosophy, be it in the radical idealism of Berkeley or even the life-is-but-a-simulation narratives of the Matrix and, more recently, Nick Bostrom and Elon Musk? (He keeps coming up. There must be some secret connection between hyper-masculine contemporary futurists and 17th-century rationalism? Or maybe we’re really living in the Neobaroque, a postmodern Calderonian stalemate of life is a dream? Would be a welcome escape from our current recession into myopic nationalism…) As it happens, the Finnish philosopher Jaakko Hintikka (and Columbia historian of science Matthew Jones after him) had already argued back in 1962 that the logic Cogito was performative, not inferential. Hintikka thinks what Descartes is saying is that it’s impossible for us to say “I do not exist” because there has to be something there uttering “I do not exist.” It’s a performative contradiction. As such, we can use the Cogito as a piece on unshakeable truth to ground our system. No matter how hard we try, we can’t get rid of ourselves.

Here’s the punchline: like Mallarmé said, we haven’t understood Descartes.

I think there’s a possibility to rewrite the history of philosophy (this sounds bombastic) by showing how repetition, mindfulness, and habit played a central role in Descartes’ epistemology. In my dissertation, I trace Descartes’ affiliation to the Jesuit tradition of Spiritual Exercises, which Ignatius of Loyola created to help practitioners mentally and imaginatively relive Christ’s experiences. I show how the of the Geometry is used to encourage the reader to do the problems together with Descartes, a rhetorical move to encourage learning by doing, a guidebook or script to perform and learn the method of analysis. I mention how he thought all philosophers should learn how to sew, viewing crochet excellent training for method and repetition. I show how the I am, I exist serves as a meditative mantra the reader can return to again and again, practicing it and repeating it until she has a “clear and distinct” intuition for an act of thought with a single logical step (as opposed to a series of deductions from postulates). The ties back to analysis using the logic of fake it ’til you make it. The meditator starts with a cloudy, noisy mind, a mind that easily slips back to the mental cacophony of yore; but she wills herself to focus on that one clear idea, the central fulcrum if I am, I exist to train an epistemology based on clear and distinct ideas. Habit, here, isn’t the same thing as the logical relationship between two legs of a triangle, but the overall conceptual gesture is similar.

Descartes sought to drain the intellectual swamp (cringe) inherited from the medieval tradition. Doing so required the mindfulness and attention we see today in meditation practices, disciplining the mind to return back to the emptiness of breath when it inevitably wanders to the messy habits we acquire in our day-to-day life. Descartes’ mediations were just that, meditations, practice, actions we could return to daily to cultivate habits of mind that could permit a new kind of philosophy. His method was an act of freedom, empowering us to define and agree upon the subset of experiences abstract enough for us to share and communicate to one another without confusion. Unfortunately, this subset is very tight and constrained, and misses out on much of what is beautiful in life.

I wrote this post to share ideas hidden away in my dissertation, the work of a few years in some graduate student’s life that now lies silent and dormant in the annals of academic history. While I question the value literature has to foster empathy in my post about the utility of the humanities in the 21st century, I firmly believe that studying primary sources can train us to be empathetic and openminded, train us to rid ourselves of preconceptions and prejudice so we can see something we’d miss if we blindly following the authority of inherited tradition. George Smith, one of my favorite professors at Stanford (a Newton expert visiting from Tufts), once helped me understand that secondary sources can only scratch the tip of the iceberg of what may exist in primary sources because authors are constrained by the logic of their argument, presenting at most five percent of what they’ve read and know. We make choices when we write, and can never include everything. Asking What did Descartes think he was thinking? rather than What does my professor think Descartes was thinking? or Was Descartes right or wrong? invites us to reconstruct a past world, to empathize deeply with a style of thought radically different from how we live and think today. As I’ve argued before, these skills make us good businesspeople, and better citizens.

The image is from the cover page of an 1886 edition of the Géométrie, which Guillaume Troianowski once thoughtfully gave me as a gift. 

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