Donkey Cartesianism

One of the most famous statements from Philosophy, one of the few to permeate through into the general consciousness is Descartes’ ‘I think, therefore I am’. Even 350 years on this is still discussed, and perhaps a better rendering of the Latin original would be ‘I am thinking, therefore I am’, meaning that no matter how sceptical one’s endeavour (if our senses are deceived, if we dream, if we’re in the Matrix), we cannot doubt that something is cogitating, even at our most sceptical, and from that certain bedrock we can rebuild what we can know.

Of course, Descartes then rebuilt everything we already thought we knew, rendering the whole sceptical journey somewhat redundant. The most questionable part would seem to be the contention that any level of thought was going on at all, at least by him.

Scepticism in general is a worthy tradition, though epistemological scepticism is definitely something to get over as soon as you realise you cannot usefully contribute anything to a life you don’t believe is really there. But of course Descartes was not a sceptic. He only ever wanted to provide a schema for feeling justified in one’s prevailing beliefs, especially theistic ones. After all, one might grudgingly agree that it is hard to doubt that something is thinking as we sit there wondering what we know. But can we extend the same tentative acceptance to someone’s claim that they feel they have a clear idea of god, and that’s the same thing?

I have probably written about the prejudices of philosophers before, and this is a good example of philosophy being reduced to a platform for simply asserting such prejudices. Scepticism is an antidote against that. To understand that no belief is sacred, that any conviction can be overturned, that all we want to believe should be assailed with the greatest degree of enquiry. If one was not an utter shambles of random, ill-thought out beliefs and stances beforehand, what reason to believe our houses would fly apart in tatters? And if we were… well, what in the end have we lost? What could we gain?

A Socratic, a Nietzschean, sceptic, is one simply averse to dogma, especially one’s own. It is even roughly scientific in character, in that in the best tradition only that which constantly survives tests and challenges is ever given regard, but even then is never given authority, or made off-limits to criticism.

Descartes missed this. Or, rather, he had no interest in it. And yes, within the bounds of philosophical inquiry, this was by no means his worst contribution. The preceding musing is just a precursor to a far more serious detraction I wish to aim at him. All in good time.


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