Descartes is Dead

I printed out the first chapter of this quite a while ago, and started reading it Tuesday, but it took me ’til Friday to finish it. And I still haven’t completely processed it.

If you read this all the way thru, post a comment.  I’d like to know what kind of person would read this.  The philosophy herein is not light.  Not that I’m all that, but this is a long, complex post.

Here are my initial thoughts:

  • I am an Impure Thinker.”  That’s true, and now I’m no longer afraid to admit it!  “I am hurt, swayed, shaken, elated, disillusioned, shocked, comforted, and I have to transmit my mental experiences lest I die.  And although I may die.”
    It’s nowhere near as strong as Jeremiah 20:9, but it’s similar in thought.
  • respondeo etsi mutabor — yes!  I respond although I will be changed.  That’s a good mantra, I think.

It would be worthwhile to explain how I found this, and why.  Here’s the story in reverse: “Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy was a historian and social philosopher, who work spanned the disciples of history, theology, sociology, linguistics and beyond.”  So says Wikipedia.  I read this brief biography and found half a dozen more books to read (Wikipedia lists a three page of bibilography, not counting the references section).

Rosenstock-Huessy was a notable influence on Harold J. Berman, a Christian legal scholar, who passed away in November, 2008.  Specifically, his theory of revolution in the West “postulated … that there is no such thing as smooth history, … there are cataclysmic moments” when “civilization explodes, or implodes, and new metaphors are summoned to govern the next era in Western civilization.”  This idea inspired Berman, which can be seen in his important work, still referenced today, Law & Revolution, published in 1983.  The quotes here are by John Witte, Jr., who I listened to on Mars Hill Audio magazine, volume 91, Director at the Law School at Emory University, where Berman taught since 1985, after teaching for 37 years at Harvard.

This history is greatly condensed, not including Berman’s vision of Christ, a Damascus road experience in Russia shortly after World War II….


Okay, so here goes.  A “brief” overview.  This is my attempt to digest the thoughts herein.

So much of the chapter, Farewell to Descartes, is quotable, I will use part of the closing (p. 18-19) to start with.

Never did mankind acquire a common knowledge by storing it away in libraries.  Tell me, however, that you are willing to experience your life as a sentence in humankind’s autobiography, tell me how far you share responsibility with the blunderers of the past, and when you have shown me to what extent you are capable of identification with the rest of mankind, I shall know whether your knowledge is survival knowledge, “metanomics” of society as a whole, or merely your private metaphysics.

… In the community that common sense rebuilds, after the earthquake, upon the ashes on the slope of Vesuvius, the red wine of life tastes better than anywhere else.  And a man writes a book, even as he stretches out his hand, so that he may find that he is not alone in the survival of mankind.

I like what I’ve read in that this writer really seems to be solid and deep in thought, but also poetic in expression.

In order to begin to understand “metanomics,” you’ll have to read the chapter — beyond the brutalities of social chaos.

Let me summarize the ideas, and then move on:

Knowledge, in order to be useful, can’t be the abstract, ‘objective’ knowledge advocated by Descartes; rather, it must be ‘living’ knowledge.

Physics … and metaphysics … do not touch the core, since they begin by investigating dead things or abstract notions.  They are not concerned with the real life, ….  This may explain the former presumption that, in studying a vast quantity of stones, gravel and dust, or an endless series of doctrines and ideas, one was attacking the substances which preponderate in the world.  Yet this presumption remains a vicious circle.  In the whole valley of stones and lava, one blade of grass is enough to refute a system which pretends to explore the grass by weighing and measuring all the gravel in the valley.  In the same way, the presence of one living soul among the three million volumes of a great library offers sufficient proof against the notion that the secret of this soul is to be found by reading those three million books. [emphasis mine, except for “explain” above, which was the authors original]

The objective knowledge creates a (false) dicotomy of “It” and “Ego” — the object, which is also a subject.  “Our survey of revolution shows that they are both insupportable extremes.  The positions of Ego and It are deadening caricatures of man’s true location in society.”

Though man tends to become an Ego and is pressed by his environment to behave like an It, he never is what these tendencies try to make him.  A man so pressed into behaviourism by awkward circumstances that he reats like matter, is dead.  A man so completely self-centred that he is constantly behaving as a sovereign Ego, runs insane.  Real man enjoys the privilege of occasionally sacrificing personality to passion. … To veer between Ego and It is the secret of man’s soul.  And as long as a man can return to this happy balance he is sound.”

There is a discourse on the subject of our non-independence (my term, what would you call it?), the fact that we do not begin from a blank slate (more later).

A man is commanded from the outside for a longer time in his life than he can dispose of the “I.”  Before we can speak or think, the imperative is aiming at us all the time, by mother, nurse, sisters and neighbors: “Eat, come, drink, be quiet!” … We are called a Man and we are summoned by our name long before we are aware of ourselves as an Ego.  And in all weak and childlike situations later we find ourselves in need of somebody to talk to us, call us by our name and tell us what to do.

The crux of this chain of thought is the fact that our situation (remember this was written in 1938 – right after World War I), calls for an answer that is beyond us.

The problem is put to us by a power which far transcends our free will and by situations beyond our choice.  Crisis, injustice, death, depression, are problems put to us by the power that shaped our miseries.  We can only try to give a momentary answer, our answer, to the everlasting protean question.  Our knowledge and science are no leisure-hour luxury.  They are our instruments for survival, for answering, at any given hour of life, the universal problem.  The answer given by science and wisdom are like a chain of which every link fits one special cog on the wheel of time.  The greatest and most universal answers that man has tried to give, like the Reformation or the Great Revolution, even these, as we have seen, were temporary answers, and had to be supplemented after a century had passed.

Again, a poetic expression:  “We are swimmers in a buoyant and everlasting medium.  The dawn of creation is upon us, and we await our question, our specific mandate, in the silence of the beginnings of time.”

The real riddles are put before us not by our own curiosity.  They fall upon us out of the blue sky.  But we are “respondents.”  That is man’s pride, that is what makes him take his stand between God and nature as a human being.

Next there is a section, the first of several, praising the maxim cogito ergo sum, and the positive results, and setting the stage.  “Or formula ‘respondeo etsi mutabor’ reminds us that human society has outgrown the stage of mere existence which prevails in nature.”

Then a note that although Descartes complains that man is “unable to think clearly from the day of his birth, or that he should have memories which antedate his maturity,” the right response to that is laughter!  It is ludicrous, as he said before, to think we should be a blank slate.  But the fact that we take the idea seriously shows what is missing from “science” “today.”  

Common sense … acs on the principle that a man who fails to apply laughing and weeping in the discovery of vital truth simply is immature.

There is a lengthy explanation of why and how knowledge must “make an impression” on us — it must stir an emotional response, or it is not vital knowledge.

No scientific fact may be verified before it has made an indelible impression. … “Indelible” is a quality that differs widely from “clear.”  In fact, the more confused and complex and violent the impression, the longer it will stick, the more results will it produce.

The cowardice of the social thinker who denies that he is impressed and shellshocked personally by a revolution or a war-scar, makes him turn to statistics describing the buttons on the uniforms of the soldiers,  or makes him list the botanical names of the trees of the trees on the parkways where the insurgents fell.  The impressions that matter, as they are given, for instance, in Tolstoy’s War and PEace (his own fears, hopes, etc.), he is at a loss to admit: and so he looks for second-rate impressions that are too funny for words.  And again, nobody dares laugh.

Hence, scientific progress in the social field depends on the regulating power of humor.  Humor precludes wrong methods by simply ridiculing them.  Le ridicule tue.  … If we could place mirth on the throne of society, the war-scar that produced this volume would finally have vanished.  [emphasis mine]

Now, that was a long summary, but it was still shorter than the nineteen pages it would take to read the entire chapter.

If you got this far, please let me know.  I’d be more than happy to elaborate more, or shorten some too long section.


One Response to “Descartes is Dead”

  1. lparks2 Says:

    BRAIN CRAMP!! This is why you are the brainiac in the family! Ok, I read it (a lot of it anyway) and the part I liked was the “regulating power of humor.” (Yes, I punctuated that your way just for you!). I wish there was a little more on that. (Did I just say I wanted MORE??!) Anyway, it is an interesting read…

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