Descartes' Dream: From Method to Madness

Peter Chojnowski
Reproduced with Permission

It is not surprising that the philosophical/theological error that we refer to as "modernism" should begin with a dream. The dream, or actually a set of 3 consecutive dreams, happened on the night of November 10, 1619, the vigil of the Feast of St. Martin of Tours, which was a time of great feasting in the France of Rene Descartes' time. We are right to wonder whether Descartes "protests too much," when he asserted in his autobiographical work that he had abstained from wine for some time before the night of his famous dreams. What he does admit, however, is that for several days prior to his experience, which would transform the basic orientation of philosophy, he had felt a "steady rise of temperature in his head."

The young Descartes, some 23 years old when he found himself on that cold NovemberŐs night "shut up alone in a stove-heated room (poele)," had been quite an eccentric in his early years. Indeed, there appears to be some controversy amongst English-speaking commentators as to whether poele indicates that Descartes was "shut up in a stove-heated room" or that he was "shut up in a stove." Descartes' general restlessness of spirit (not surprising if he were in the habit of shutting himself up in stoves!) had manifested itself during his adolescent years when he left behind his Jesuit schooling, of which he had a decidedly mixed impression, and "took up the book of the world." Tired of what he felt to be the endless intellectual discussions and controversies that taxed and left dubious the minds of so many, he put aside the reading of books and took up the practical matter of war, which the Central Europe of the early seventeenth century had made available to him in the form of the 30 Years War between the forces of the Habsburg Catholic Holy Roman Emperor and those of the Protestant Princes of Northern Europe. It was as a "fighting man" of the army of the Duke of Bavaria (even though there is no real historical evidence that Descartes himself did any actual fighting) that he found himself on that November day, holed up in a stove-heated room, wintering with the army in the German city of Ulm.

On this particular day, Descartes was meditating on the "disunity and uncertainty" of his knowledge. Since his days at the Jesuit lycee [i.e., high-school/college] at La Fleche, he had marveled at mathematics, especially geometry, a science in which he found certainty, necessity, and precision. How could he find a basis for all knowledge so that it might have the same unity and certainty as mathematics? Having in mind, for a number of years, a project and method to bring all the sciences together within the context of a new universal philosophical "wisdom," Descartes interpreted the vivid dreams that he had on the night of the Vigil of the Feast of St. Martin as a sign from God Himself. From that moment on, Descartes would believe that he had a divine mandate to establish an all-encompassing science of human wisdom. He himself was so convinced of this divine endorsement of his "mission," that he would make a pilgrimage to the Holy House of Loreto in thanksgiving for this "favor."

What could be the content of dreams that incited such a fervid sense of mission; a "mission" taken so seriously that Descartes was ready to treat all systems of thought developed prior to his own, especially that of Scholasticism, as "pre-philosophical."

Of these three dreams, it is the third that best expresses the original thought and intention of Rene Descartes' rationalism. During the dream that William Temple aptly refers to as, "the most disastrous moment in the history of Europe," Descartes saw before him two books. One was a dictionary, which appeared to him to be of little interest and use. The other was a compendium of poetry entitled Corpus Poetarum in which there appeared to be a union of philosophy with wisdom. Moreover, the way in which Descartes interpreted this dream set the stage for the rest of his life-long philosophical endeavors. For Descartes, the dictionary stood merely for the sciences gathered together in their sterile and dry disconnection; the collection of poems marked more particularly and expressly the union of philosophy with wisdom. He indicates that one should not be astonished that poets abound in utterances more weighty, more full of meaning and better expressed, than those found in the writings of philosophers. In utterances which appear odd when coming from a man who would go down in history as the father of Rationalism, Descartes ascribes the "marvel" of the wisdom of the poets to the divine nature of inspiration and to the might of phantasy, which "strikes out" the seeds of wisdom (existing in the minds of all men like the sparks of fire in flints) far more easily and directly than does reason in the philosophers. The writings of the professional philosophers of his time, struck Descartes as failing to supply that certitude, human urgency, and attractive presentation which we associate with a wise vision capable of organizing our knowledge and influencing our conduct.

A) Math, Method, and Madness

It would be an unfortunate intellectual and historical mistake to take Rene Descartes for a relativist, who wished to undermine all certainty, along with dividing the individual sciences from each other into airtight compartments. That the contemporary end result of Cartesian Rationalism has been nothing but relativism and the fragmentation of knowledge is, simply, the ironic outcome of Descartes' efforts towards the attainment of certainty and a "universal mathematics." Here we must remember the traditional Aristotelian/Thomistic understanding that each specific science (e.g., botany and entomology) had not only its own proper object of study (e.g., plants or insects), but, also, its own proper method of investigation and demonstration. This is why Descartes' insistence upon a single "universal" method, resembling the method employed in geometry, is so destructive and disorienting. As we shall see when we consider the method that Descartes constructs in order to achieve scientific certainty, it was his departure from agreed upon philosophical principles and fundamental presuppositions that causes the philosophical trend he initiates to steer the post-Christian mind into the ditch of democratic relativism and religious indifferentism.

To clear up misconceptions about the thought of Rene Descartes, we need first emphasize that even though Mathematics, especially the mathematical science of Geometry, was going to provide for Descartes the general structure and procedure of his intellectual method, it must be remembered that Descartes did not at all view Mathematics as the highest and most intellectually efficacious science. Rather, he took from Mathematics its "method," which he defines as "reliable rules which are easy to apply, and such that if one follows them exactly, one will never take what is false to be true or fruitlessly expend one's mental efforts, but will gradually and constantly increase oneŐs knowledge (scientia) till one arrives at a true understanding within one's capacity." What disturbed Descartes about his own intellectual milieu was that men of learning were becoming specialists to the extent that they were forgetting about achieving the state of "wisdom," which had traditionally been the objective of both philosopher and sage.

The image that Descartes used to portray his understanding of the new rationalist scientific "wisdom," was a tree, the "tree of wisdom." Every tree has three aspects, roots from which the tree is fixed to the ground and from which it gains its nourishment, the trunk of the tree which constitutes the main quantitative mass of the tree and upholds the branches, and, finally, the branches which produce the flower or the fruit which both perpetuate the treeŐs existence and express the highest productive capabilities of the tree; so too with the tree of philosophical and scientific knowledge. Descartes identifies the roots of the tree with metaphysics, especially the three most fundamental metaphysical concepts of God, the human thinking self, and the external material world. These three ideas (N.B., already we can see the inevitable movement of Rationalism and all the philosophical schools that are related to it. The most fundamental realities in existence are spoken of and philosophically treated as ideas rather than things), provide the intellectual justification for the "trunk" of the tree, a philosophically grounded physics that would give an account of all motions of quantitative being. The three branches, which Descartes speaks of, are the practical sciences of ethics, mechanics, and medicine. These three were the sciences, which Descartes felt had to be necessarily grounded in metaphysical knowledge, which would allow mankind to attain the goal that Descartes stated to be the primary goal of his new scientific method, making mankind the "master of nature."

It is very interesting here to see that, from the perspective of the perennial philosophical tradition, Descartes has inverted the very orientation of pedagogy and scientific speculation. In a very real way, Descartes' tree is "upside down." The practical arts and sciences should serve as the practical "ground" (i.e., in the sense of providing for the necessary ordering of the physical and social realm of man) for the ultimate act of human intelligence that of intellectual contemplation of nature, the human soul, and most especially God. In Descartes' "Tree of Wisdom," the newly characterized "ideas" of God, the human "self," and the external material world, are only the intellectually efficacious principles, which allow for the deduction of an entire system of truths derived from an analysis of the conceptual necessities inherent in the "ideas" of God, the human thinking self, and the external material world themselves. In other words, what ought to be the highest objects of intellectual contemplation -- the goal and fruit of all scientific speculation -- become no more than a necessary intellectual step in a logical method that has as its intent the subjection of nature to the natural wishes and desires of man. It is interesting to note that Descartes had as one of his greatest hopes for his new rationalist science, the indefinite extension of human longevity. That Descartes himself should have died at the relatively young age of 54, after a short spell of cold weather in Stockholm, Sweden in 1650, foreshadowed the sterility of rationalist "first principles" both in the speculative and in the practical domains.

What is initially difficult to fathom, is how a system can be given the name "rationalism" and, yet, appear prima facie to be so counter-intuitive and irrational. Descartes' honest hope to derive all scientific knowledge concerning the structure and motions of the universe in a deductive way from three "self-evident" ideas by simply analyzing the conceptual necessities inherent in those ideas appears not only supremely irrational, but also downright fanciful. It is not surprising that the young scientist Huygens, who was both a physicist and an astronomer, along with being a contemporary of Descartes, saw nothing more in Descartes' great "scientific" work Principes de la philosophie, than an extraordinarily interesting novel. What is even more irrational and counter-intuitive, is that Descartes understood it to be necessary to derive this literal "universe" of scientific knowledge from the idea that Descartes had of himself as an existing and thinking being. By having as the foundation of oneŐs science oneŐs own mind and by determining that the mind itself, by conceiving its own ideas "clearly and distinctly," could judge whether the ideas that came to it were certain and true, the Rationalists of the 17th and 18th centuries upheld a teaching on human intellectual autonomy that was both absolute and without the slightest basis in normal human experience. Moreover, one significant consequence of such a view of human knowledge was the rejection of all appeals to authority, both philosophical and dogmatic, in establishing intellectual certainty. Another part of the fall out of the Rationalist attack on the Thomistic synthesis of theological and philosophical learning, was the relegation of Theology, since it could not be derived from the idea of the thinking self, to the realm of "catechism," which was upheld solely on the basis of faith. Thus, Cartesian Rationalism would relegate the believing man to a position of fideism (i.e., an act of blind faith, unsupported or unsupportable by rational proof or argument).

B) Intuition and Deduction

In order to derive these foundational "first notions" (i.e., of God, the thinking self, and the external material world) from which all the rest of human knowledge and science would be derived in an a priori fashion (i.e., prior to and exclusive of any sensible experience of the external natural world), the mind, according the Cartesian Method, needed to engage in two distinct processes. The first was analysis and the second was synthesis. Analysis involved "divid[ing] up each of the difficulties which I was to examine into as many parts as possible and as seemed requisite." Descartes was convinced that he had followed this way of "analysis" (really, what should be called reductionism) in his most influential book The Meditations on First Philosophy, by resolving the bounteous data of human knowledge and experience into the primary existential proposition, Cogito, ergo sum (i.e., I think, therefore, I am).

According to Descartes, all mental content could be reduced to three "innate" (i.e., meaning "in born," that is, not gained by experience of the external world known through the senses) ideas, the idea which I have of myself, the idea I have of God, and the idea I have of materiality. These ideas were to be grasped with an absolute and certain intuition. By "intuition," Descartes meant a purely intellectual activity, an intellectual "seeing" or "vision," which is so clear and distinct that it leaves no room for doubt. In another definition of intuition, Descartes said, "Intuition is the conception, without doubt, of an unclouded and attentive mind, which springs from the light of reason alone." It was from these primary and "irreducible" ideas, that Cartesian Rationalism believed it could derive, through the intellectual process of deduction, all the content of human science and wisdom. That such an apriori (i.e., that which is gained prior to and independent of concrete, sensible experience of the material world) conception of human science could ever pass itself off as "rationalism," is one of the many ironies present in the history of philosophy. Surely such counter-intuitive gibber can only be explained by the Cartesian desire to establish the mindŐs reasoning process on the foundation of the mind itself, rather than on a rational and lived encounter with a material created order that the mind necessarily recognizes to exist independently of the thinking "self."

C) The Cogito and Philosophical Modernism

"Several years have now passed since I realized how numerous were the false opinions that in my youth I had taken to be true, and thus how doubtful were all those that I had subsequently built upon them. And thus I realized that once in my life I had to raze everything to the ground and begin again from the original foundations, if I wanted to establish anything firm and lasting in the sciences." With these words, Descartes opens his Meditations, which will be the text destined to create a revolution in the science of philosophy, providing to those who follow this revolution an entirely new orientation and object of philosophical study. As we see by the quotation above, it was Descartes' intention to "raze" the edifice of his previously held opinions and build upon these discredited ruins a new structure that would be stand the test of every doubt that the Skeptics could throw at it.

It is the key to understanding Descartes, however, that we realize that he commenced his method to eliminate doubt by appealing to doubt. This Cartesian technique of employing doubt to achieve an overcoming of doubt and a putative certainty can be referred to as a methodological doubt (i.e., it is a doubt employed so that all doubt can be overcome). The most important thing to notice here is that Descartes begins his philosophical reflection with doubt, rather than the wonder at the order of material creation that characterizes Aristotelian/Thomistic philosophy. Since Descartes realized that he could not analyze, in any reasonable amount of time, all of his opinions that he had newfound doubts about, he writes that, "Nor therefore need I survey each opinion individually, a task that would be endless. Rather, because undermining the foundations will cause whatever has been built upon them to crumble of its own accord, I will attack those principles that supported everything I once believed."

What the kamikaze crafts of Cartesian Doubt and Rationalism hit were the "twin towers" of the Aristotelian philosophical system, 1) our trust that the ideas in our minds are simply perfect reflections of the perceived object in the natural world and 2) the understanding that the five senses provide us with a real and exact knowledge of the natures of things in the material world. These two attacks were definitely part of a philosophical jihad on Aristotle and his explanation of nature and the human mind and person. To forget this overarching anti-Aristotelian aim, would be to overlook the heart of the matter. In this regard, we must say that Descartes himself was more anti-Aristotelian than anti-Thomistic, since he admitted, near the end of his life, that he had never read St. Thomas' Summa Theologiae and, even, regretted the fact. What he knew about St. Thomas was, therefore, received second hand from his scholastic manuals and his Jesuit teachers.

Descartes tell us that it is the information supplied to us by sensation that is the primary object of attack in his attempt to "strike at the foundations" of his former opinions. It was his "uncertainty" about the reliability of the data of sensation and of the images in the imagination, which have their origin in the sensible species coming from sensation, that provoked him to state the following: "Surely whatever I had admitted until now as most true I received either from the senses or through the senses. However, I have noticed that the senses are sometimes deceptive; and it is a mark of prudence never to place our complete trust in those who have deceived us even once." Following up on the observation that was made at the beginning of this article, that much of Descartes' philosophical analysis is related, by Descartes himself, to the phenomenon of dreaming. At the end of Meditation 6, Descartes states that it was the continual misjudgments that the mind made while "in" a dream-state, that most undermined his trust in his sensible experience of the world around him. In Meditation 1, Descartes states that his normal trust in the veracity of his mental experience of the sensible world was all "well and good," "were I not a man who is accustomed to sleeping at night, and to experiencing in my dreams the very same things, or now and then even less plausible ones, as these insane people do when they are awake."

By inserting this slight doubt concerning the veracity of his sensible and imaginative experience, Descartes moved to the next stage of his method that was to state that, "I should withhold my assent no less from opinions that are not completely certain and indubitable than I would from those that are patently false. For this reason, it will suffice for the rejection of all these opinions, if I find in each one some reason for doubt." Therefore, for the sake of a method that is supposed to yield only certain knowledge, Descartes is going to reject as deceptive and distortive all his ideas that have their origin in sensation.

Descartes' mathematician's jihad against the probable will even turn itself upon the science of mathematics, when, in his attempt to radicalize his methodological doubt, Descartes will postulate the idea of an evil genius. This "evil genius" is used as a conceptual device to undermine our trust in the certainty of our judgments concerning mathematical truths. That 4+4=8 seems perfectly evident, with no serious reason for doubt. However, what if a being had created me who desired to deceive me and he made me in such a way that everything that I take to be absolutely certain is actually false. With this idea of a creative "evil genius," Descartes clears the mental field of all certain that could upstage his autonomous thinking self.

It is in Meditation 2, where Descartes initiates the long lasting trend, which we could name "philosophical modernism" or subjectivism, which bears its bitter fruit in the New Theology in the 20th century. It is here where we see the fatal "movement towards the thinking self," which characterizes most all of the philosophical movements the last 350 years. It is, no doubt, fitting that Descartes use this counter-intuitive idea of the "evil creative genius," to finally achieve his one absolutely certain truth, the truth that his own thinking mind exists, precisely at the moment that he is thinking the idea "I exist." Descartes, referring to the methodological device of the "evil genius," states, "there is some deceiver or other who is supremely powerful and supremely sly and who is always deliberately deceiving me. Then too there is no doubt that that I exist, if he is deceiving me. And let him do his best at deception, he will never bring it about that I am nothing so long as I shall think that I am something." Descartes must exist, since even if there were such a thing as an "evil genius" who is perpetually deceiving him, still he must exist in order to be deceived. The very fact of his possible complete deception is proof for the certain existence of the thinking self. Descartes has found his first certainty; he has established a new foundation for philosophy. For all those who follow in his wake, philosophy will have as its grounding human consciousness, and it will have as its subject matter the ideas present in the human mind.

Descartes, however, whatever the ultimate philosophical consequences of his ideas, did not want to fall into a position of solipsism (i.e., the philosophical position which states that the only thing which one can know are the ideas in one's own mind). But, in order to avoid this imprisoning subjectivism, Descartes needed to establish for certain that there existed a being that had its existence independently of the Descartes' own thinking self. He, also, needed to discover an "idea," not subject to doubt, which would be conceptually rich enough to yield an entire physics of the material world. Descartes knew that the idea that he had of himself as a thinking and willing self was not enough. The only reality that could fit the bill was God Himself, an infinite, perfect, and all-powerful being. However, a God, which is merely an idea, would not yield such results. Descartes' task in Meditation 3, will be to prove, on the fact that Descartes has an idea of God in his mind, that such a God truly exists as in infinite, perfect, and all-powerful being. Even though, in doing this, Descartes uses an ostensibly old argument called the "ontological argument," nevertheless, the use of such an argument is going to have profound effects on modern philosophy and theologyŐs position on the origin of the idea of God.

D) The Self and the Idea of God

Descartes' proof for the real existence of God, being restricted by his method to analyzing his own ideas and not the created natural world around him, is that since he had an idea of a God who was an infinite and perfect being, that God must truly exist, since he, as a limited and imperfect thinking self, could not be the origin of the idea of a unlimited and perfect being. A really existing God, who is unlimited and perfect, must than have imprinted in Descartes' mind the idea of Himself. Therefore, God must truly exist and He must exist independently of Descartes' thinking self.

Having secured the real existence of God, Descartes then uses the perfection of God to infer his veracity (i.e., God does not lie). If it is against God's nature to be a deceitful evil genius, then I can infer that what I, His creature, perceive as "clear and distinct" with my mind or what is told me by God-given "common sense" (what Descartes calls the "teachings of nature") is true and certain. One of the things that are taught me by my "common sense" is that the ideas which I have of the material world come to me from outside myself. Since the Creator God is not a deceiver, we can infer that such a material world, independent of the thinking self, truly exists.

E) The Rationalist Transformation

When at the end of Meditation 6, the last of the meditations, Descartes says, "Hence I should no longer fear that those things that are daily shown me by the senses are false. On the contrary, the hyperbolic doubts of the last few days ought to be rejected as ludicrous," one is lead to believe that the created and uncreated orders, as they stood prior to the employment of the rationalist doubt, have now been reinforced as they were with the added note of "mathematical" certainty. This initial impression is deceptive, however. Coming out from the employment of a universal and radical doubt, the basic realities, of God, man, and the natural material world have been transformed. Man has become a thinking thing. A thing that is philosophically and epistemologically restricted to analyzing its own ideas, the disembodied modern consciousness floating in the consumerist shopping mall.

The material world that emerges from this doubt, is not the one which Aristotle and St. Thomas speak of, a world of quality and fragrance and form, with a movement inculcated in the "bosom" of every being, directing it towards its own proper end, with the ultimate end of all things being, in some real way, God Himself. Descartes files such rational orientation and divinely planned fulfillment, away from all beings. The red rose has become, not a thing to be marveled at, but a thing to be measured. The only aspect of nature that is taken seriously by modern science and education is that aspect of nature that can be quantified and measured. The ghost of human consciousness floats from mall to machine.

It is the reality of God, however, which suffers the most abuse from Descartes' rationalist method, even though it seems as if no one in the history of philosophy has "used" God more extensively than does Descartes. Now, however, God is reduced to a "fruitful" idea that helps Descartes achieve the practical scientific results that he so much wants. It will not be too long before philosophers, following the path that Descartes laid out, will being treating God as an idea, emerging from human consciousness alone, whose time is up! When Nietzsche makes the famous statement, echoing Hegel, that "God is dead," he is simply stating that the "idea" of God, has slipped out, for good, of the consciousness of European Man. The God known by the plenitude of His creation, always studiously avoided by Descartes' apriori mind, is thus banished and, therefore, hidden from the inquiring manŐs reflective eye.

F) Descartes and Education

When considering the fallout from the Rationalist "razing" of Scholastic philosophy in so much of the Christian World, more most be considered than merely the obvious subjectivism and encroaching relativism that has been seen for the past 350 years. It was the point in which Descartes agreed with the Skeptics of his time, their rejection of the reliability of sensation as a foundation for understanding, which should concern us most and indicate the path of restoration ahead. Now, in the contemporary process of education, the young are being presented with mathematical reconstructions of the world around them. Having been reduced to its quantitative aspects, at least for the "hard sciences," the world of common human experience is ignored while reconstructed "models" of reality are presented to the young mind. Since God, the real God and not the "idea" of God of course, did not make man to interact, both physically and psychologically, with Cartesian models of things, there will necessarily be, and we might even say that it is a healthy sign of nature "revolting," a lack of interest in such mathematical and scientific models on the part of the great majority of students, and a mere mechanical, "problem solving" habit on the part of those who are "interested." Nothing resonates; nothing follows the grain of the created human embodied psyche. Is it surprising then that much of the "work" which is done in the mathematically oriented disciplines has no long lasting impact on the emerging self-understanding of contemporary youth? To build bombs, it is useful; to build boys it is not.

To strike at Modernism, we must plunge into the very heart of the matter. If man is to gain both his theological, philosophical, political, and psychological balance, he must recover that hardy realm which Descartes banished. To take seriously, St. Thomas' teaching that all knowledge begins with sensation, that all our knowledge concerning the existence of real things depends first on our seeing, touching, tasting, smelling, and feeling them, such would be the beginning of a return to sanity. For the great Thomistic tradition, the soft, bitter, pungent, melodious aspects of the natural world provide us with both a knowledge of the existence and the nature of things, along with stepping-stones from creatures to Creator. Let the myriads of Cartesian Men have their "mastery of nature." For us, it is hard to love the gas station that stands on the spot where the lilies once grew.

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