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Thread: The genius of Descartes

  1. #1 The genius of Descartes 
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    I'm sure I'm missing something. Having read all his major works I can only appreciate a historical relevance to Descartes ideas, given that his logic seems entirely misguided. He is massively quoted and respected, however, with the French of the time (notably Voltaire) considering him on a par with Newton.

    I actually wrote a quick critique as I was reading through the Discourse on Method and not a single argument stood up to inspection.

    Does his fame stem entirely from a single sentence (which with further consideration is not even logically correct), or did he genuinely possess a genius I fail to see?



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    Veracity Vigilante inow's Avatar
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    Are you familiar with Cartesian coordinates on graphs, and how they link geometry with algebra? Notice the root of the word? There's that.


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    Descartes’ legacy to all of us via philosophy can be labeled, I think, as rationalism (discovery of truth through pure reason), dichotomy (mind/body split), and certainty. Even though very few of us know anything about philosophy, almost everything we think results from the philosophy we inherit through social osmosis (unconscious assimilation). Philosophy theory permeates almost all of our mental gymnastics without our conscious recognition.

    I speculate that such is true because it fits well for the ego of all humans, especially philosophers, and because it also fits well with the interests of the Christian faith. Descartes’ legacy makes it easy to place our self in a hierarchy of being with humans one step below God and a giant step above animals. If one thinks about it too much we might have difficulty eating the progeny our own ancestors.

    It appears to me that psychology would say that we are essentially creatures of desire rather than creatures of contemplation. A modern day Descartes, who was tuned into Freudian psychology, might very well conclude that “I desire, therefore, I am”.

    If we want to understand our self and our world we will necessarily have to learn some bit of philosophy and psychology. We become interested in philosophy when we begin to ask questions that go to the ‘root’ of all matters and we turn to psychology if we want to comprehend why humans do the things we do.

    Someone said that only one person in a thousand ever “strikes at the root”. I do not think a liberal democracy in a hi-tech world can survive if such remains to be true. Hi-tech gives us the ability to easily destroy our self and our world; liberal democracy makes all citizens to be sovereign and thus responsible in some small way for the integrity of our existence.

    We are all in the same boat and if only one person in a thousand accepts the responsibility of democracy I think our species may have a very limited engagement on this planet. I think that we must become much more intellectually sophisticated than we are now and I do not expect that our educational systems can help us much in that effort. We must become independent learners.
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  5. #4  
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    Quote Originally Posted by coberst
    Descartes’ legacy to all of us via philosophy can be labeled, I think, as rationalism (discovery of truth through pure reason), dichotomy (mind/body split), and certainty. Even though very few of us know anything about philosophy, almost everything we think results from the philosophy we inherit through social osmosis (unconscious assimilation). Philosophy theory permeates almost all of our mental gymnastics without our conscious recognition.

    I speculate that such is true because it fits well for the ego of all humans, especially philosophers, and because it also fits well with the interests of the Christian faith. Descartes’ legacy makes it easy to place our self in a hierarchy of being with humans one step below God and a giant step above animals. If one thinks about it too much we might have difficulty eating the progeny our own ancestors.

    It appears to me that psychology would say that we are essentially creatures of desire rather than creatures of contemplation. A modern day Descartes, who was tuned into Freudian psychology, might very well conclude that “I desire, therefore, I am”.

    If we want to understand our self and our world we will necessarily have to learn some bit of philosophy and psychology. We become interested in philosophy when we begin to ask questions that go to the ‘root’ of all matters and we turn to psychology if we want to comprehend why humans do the things we do.

    Someone said that only one person in a thousand ever “strikes at the root”. I do not think a liberal democracy in a hi-tech world can survive if such remains to be true. Hi-tech gives us the ability to easily destroy our self and our world; liberal democracy makes all citizens to be sovereign and thus responsible in some small way for the integrity of our existence.

    We are all in the same boat and if only one person in a thousand accepts the responsibility of democracy I think our species may have a very limited engagement on this planet. I think that we must become much more intellectually sophisticated than we are now and I do not expect that our educational systems can help us much in that effort. We must become independent learners.
    Well I enjoyed the first paragraph's rhetoric and the complete change of topic of the later paragraphs. I understand your meaning to be that the acceptance of Descartes was primarily a result of his ideas fitting snugly with those of religion and the natural desire for continuity of life in humans (and particularly in our subconscious). This seems a reasonable explanation to me, though I admit to being disappointed that it is so. Newton himself made a strong (if unnecessarily in-depth) rebuttal of Descartes ideas which, IMO, should have been enough to confine his ideas to being of strictly historical interest.

    I also think that it is the case that because Descartes is so easy to read and understand he has gained an undeserved reputation as a great philosopher, simply because he is often used as an introduction to philosophy. I do not refute using his works as introductory texts of course, but they should be read very critically and, as I've said, more as a history of thought than a modern work. If they are to be used as philosophy course books they should be for critical analysis, not simply learning his ideas. This should apply to all works of philosophy though; this depends upon the institute in which it is taught.

    As to your later point I consider education as more of an opportunity to those who will take it seriously. The grading system allows those who consider their intellectual studies to be of serious importance to be the ones most likely to get any form of power.
    You cannot easily persuade people to learn; those who want to learn will do so and subsequently achieve; thus we have intellectuals in the positions we need them in. These are the 'independant learners' you spoke about and, to them, education serves only as a starting block. I do not think there is a massive flaw in this system.

    @inow, although I'm speaking mainly about his philosophy here, I take your point. His input concerning mathematics was undoubtedly of importance. It is also true that a number of beneficial ideas have originated from the Cartesian method, however flawed his own attempts to apply it to philosophy may have been.

    In conclusion then, I feel that his importance to philosophy was entirely as a fundamental thinker. Not even that his attempt to create a fundamental system was a success, but that it lead others to think along similar lines. If we accept that he was responsible for developments by Spinoza, for example, his importance is undeniable.
    His own conclusions I find unsatisfactory, however. I would contest his proof for God and mind/body independance being taught as anything more than an exercise in critical thinking or logical breakdown. I also feel that comparing him to Newton is either nationalism, or simply a lack of understanding of the importance of Newton's ideas in the French of the time.
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