Pernicious Modernism: Cartesian Dishonesty

Modernism is pernicious.

Just about everything wrong with the world today comes from the pernicious thought of modernity, particularly the thought of self-named ‘Enlightenment.’

Most people would understand me if I said “Postmodernism is pernicious,” since they understand that the thoroughgoing relativism and subjectivism of postmodernism, the replacement of truth with rhetoric, in the belief that all truth claims reduce to attempts to assert power or domination, its nihilism, are all pernicious.

Supposing we divide Western history into periods, as traditional, we might say there are three or four: Antiquity, Christendom, Modernity and, perhaps, Postmodernity.  One reason to question whether Postmodernity is really distinct from Modernity, though, is that Postmodernity is simply Hypermodernity. It is Modernity taken to its conclusion according to its inner logic and nature.

This is not true of the other epochs.  Christendom was able to incorporate much of classical Antiquity, but it both added things which were new, and decisively set itself against some aspects of the ancient pagan world.

Similarly, Modernity is not the logical outcome of Christendom (pace Nietzsche and others), but a decisive turning against the spirit of Christendom (and Antiquity, as I intend to show).

Postmodernity cannot be said to be a turning against the spirit of Modernity, for it is the spirit of Modernity to reject the old in favor of the new; the turning-against what went before just is modernity.  It is the spirit of Modernity to elevate man above all things. It is the spirit of Modernity to elevate the will above the intellect, to make the I or self the foundation of all being, all truth, all meaning.

I was thinking about a passage from Descartes that I quoted recently in another post. It has bothered me for years. It’s from the Regulae, or Rules for the Direction of the Mind, Rule 12 to be specific.  It is a “criticism” of Aristotle’s definition of motion.  I hope to show why “criticism” deserves to be put in inverted commas:

When people say that motion, something perfectly familiar to everyone, is ‘the actuality of a potentiality just as a potentiality,’ do they not give the impression of uttering magic words  which have a hidden meaning beyond the grasp of the human mind? For who can understand such expressions? Who does not know what motion is?

Descartes is dishonestly pretending not to understand Aristotle’s definition.  How do I know this? Because I can and do make the meaning of this definition clear to undergraduates, which gives us the following:

  1. Descartes is either dishonestly pretending not to understand Aristotle’s definition or he is dumb.
  2. Descartes is not dumb.
  3. ∴ Therefore Descartes is dishonestly pretending not to understand Aristotle’s definition of motion.

First, just to show how easy it is, an account of Aristotle’s definition. When Aristotle says “motion” (Latin motus), he is referring to what would best be called “change” in English. “Change of place” or “local motion” is only one kind of motion—Descartes holds, as an unproven dogma, that this kind of change is the only kind of change. He also does the “pretending to be totally ignorant” trick about other kinds of change.  For example, according to Aristotle, (and most other people) death would be a change, and so would learning something.  According to Descartes, changes such as death and learning are really changes in the position of matter in space.  Or else, Descartes is dishonestly pretending that “motion” means only “local motion,” which is what he wants it to mean, and denying these other things are cases of “motion.”

What does it mean to say that motion or change is “the actuality of a potentiality just as a potentiality”? To understand this, it is necessary to understand the terms “actuality” and “potentiality.” Actuality is the primary meaning of being, according to Aristotle; it cannot, he says, be defined (it is too basic) but can readily be illustrated:  A copper cube, for example is actually solid.  But things are more than what they actually are.  Everything that exists has a range of things that, in addition to what and how it actually is, it could be or become.  I am actually sitting and typing, but I could eat dinner later. My hypothetical copper cube does not have the potentiality “to eat.” It does, however, by its nature have the potentiality to melt.  The copper cube is actually solid but is potentially liquid.  It is not potentially fluent in Russian, but I am (I am not actually fluent in Russian).

The cube’s potentiality to be liquid can be actualized by the application heat.  Heat will cause the cube to melt.  This will cause the potentiality of the cube to melt to “switch on” so to speak.  Once the cube has melted, it is now actually liquid, no longer a cube, and as a pool of liquid copper, has the potentiality to become solid, which it no longer actually is. So the copper cube went from “actually solid, potentially liquid” to “actually liquid, potentially solid” as the beginning and end states. What about the in-between, when the cube is the the process of melting? Well, it isn’t fully actually solid nor fully actually liquid. The solid cube’s potentiality to be liquid is being actualized, that is, it is presently active as a potentiality.  And that is what change or motion is. It is the potentially of something to be something else that is presently active, causing it be otherwise.  All change has a beginning state of Actually A, Potentially B, an end state of Actually B, and the change proper, which is the span between these two points. A thing is changing or moving just when it is in this intermediate or transitional state.  So change is the actuality (activeness, switched-on-ness) of a potentiality (to melt) but as a potentiality (presently melting, not melted). If “melted” or liquid is the full actualization of a potentiality to melt or to be liquid, melting is the motion.

This is not terribly hard to understand. Typically, I have found that the major source of misunderstanding is simply the word “motion.” Using the word “change” instead usually clears up the problem.

So why is Descartes pretending not to understand this? He was not only brilliant, but had the finest education of his day, and certainly understood Aristotle.

He’s doing it because he has an agenda, obviously. He isn’t interested in understanding what motion is. What he wants instead is what we might today call an operational definition. He doesn’t want to understand what motion is; he wants to get a handle on motion in such a way that he can use it or manipulate it, preferably by his favorite tool, mathematics.  Understanding what motion actually is is counterproductive to this.  And this is also why he wants to reduce all motion to local motion or change of place; changes such as death or learning are unquantifiable; local motion, on the other hand, is eminently quantifiable, especially if you happen to be the inventor of the Cartesian XYZ coordinate system.

Therefore Descartes is acting in a quintessentially unphilosophical manner. He is not, after the manner of Socrates, asking “What is X?” but after the manner of, well, Descartes, asking “How can I make use of X?” This isn’t a secret. He tells us plainly enough that the New Science is practical. It’s aim is not to understand nature, but to “make ourselves, as it were, masters and possessors of nature” (Discourse on the Method). It’s a cliché to say that science is about “the conquest of nature,” but it is a Cartesian cliché.  Modern science has never been, at bottom, about understanding nature.  It has always been primarily about controlling and manipulating nature.

Does that mean science doesn’t understand a great deal about nature? No, of course not. Science obviously has a lot to teach us about nature.  But the point is that modern natural science just as such doesn’t aim at understanding. This shouldn’t be a controversial point (but it will be, because we moderns tend to worship science)—it can be readily seen in what has always been considered the most basic of the natural sciences, physics.  Physics today doesn’t even claim to be interested in the truth of the physical world. Rather, it makes mathematical models of the physical world, and the test of a good model is whether it works or not. Period.

Some people have argued that a mathematical-scientific model must be “true” in order to work, but this is false.  A model is a construction, and from the same set of facts or observations, innumerable models may be constructed that are equivalent in explanatory power. They differ in how useful they are, and how easy to use they are.  We know from Einstein that we certainly could make the earth motionless, using it as our frame of reference for all other motions.  Why don’t we? Because it would make the math unnecessarily complicated. And since the object of scientific knowledge is control rather than understanding, science typically doesn’t bother with those parts of nature which cannot be controlled. And all of reality has those aspects.

Notice how Descartes makes this plausible: he deliberate substitutes familiarity for understanding. “Motion is … something perfectly familiar to everyone … Who does not know what motion is?” Sure, and water is perfectly familiar to fish. What fish does not know what water is? Obviously, if what we mean by “knowledge of X” is “familiarity with X” then yes, everyone does indeed know what motion is. But does it really follow that we understand motion, because we are familiar with it? Obviously, not. Else there would be no reason (1) for Socrates to ask his “What is X?” questions, something he couldn’t do to begin with if both he and his interlocutors weren’t already familiar with X is some way, and no reason (2) to do Cartesian natural science.  Why would we look for a metaphysical account of motion (like Aristotle’s) or a mathematical-scientific account of motion (like Galileo’s or Descartes’) AT ALL? After all, we ALREADY KNOW WHAT MOTION IS, RIGHT?

What bothers me, what I find so pernicious here, is Descartes’ fundamentally dishonest rhetoric.  He is not content to define knowledge as familiarity, and he knows he isn’t. In fact he has already defined knowledge in this very book in such a way that rules out familiarity as knowledge.  He only appeals to familiarity to try to ridicule Socrates’ and Aristotle’s attempts to understand reality, in other words, to ridicule philosophy.  Because “fuck understanding, I want power.” What Descartes really means is “our familiarity with motion is enough to work with, operationally, in our attempt to gain power over nature. Aristotle’s attempts to understand motion more deeply, in its reality, don’t go anywhere useful in our quest for power, because we can’t change the essences of things; things are what they are, so studying them is a waste of time: gaining wisdom doesn’t help us gain power over nature. If anything, it is counterproductive, since it might teach us to (1) accommodate ourselves to nature, instead of nature to us, and (2) to become interested in fruitless activities such as understanding for its own sake, that is, in wisdom. But fuck wisdom. Power is the only good.”

Hence also Descartes’ very obvious slap at Socrates in the Regulae (Socrates needs to be slapped, because he taught that understanding was an end, good in itself, not merely a means to power, and was not even a little interested in power over nature):

All knowledge is certain and evident cognition. Someone who has doubts about many things is no wiser than one who has never given them a thought … Hence it is better never to study at all than to occupy ourselves with objects which are so difficult that we are unable to distinguish what is true from what is false, and are forced to take the doubtful as certain.

First, it is worth noting that this passage entirely suffices to confirm that Descartes was being thoroughly dishonest in his slap at Aristotle (which is found in Rule 12—this is the start of Rule 2).  Descartes defines knowledge here, as certain and evident cognition.  Nevermind for the moment that “cognition” means “knowledge,” so he is defining knowledge as certain and evident knowledge, which is patently circular.  At the very least, this definition completely rules out mere familiarity as “knowledge.”  That’s why he put it as a question: Who does not know what motion is? Well, according to the definition of knowledge you are using, René, NO ONE KNOWS WHAT MOTION IS, BECAUSE “KNOWING” IS “CERTAIN AND EVIDENT” AND NOT MERELY “ACQUAINTED WITH.”

How can you tell when Descartes is lying to you? When he is speaking.

More importantly though, is Descartes’ pissing on Socrates.  The entire lesson of Socrates’ life and death were that his, Socrates’, human wisdom consists in “knowledge of his own ignorance,” as per the Apology:

 It seemed to me that this man seemed to be wise, both to many other human beings and most of all to himself, but that he was not. And then I tried to show him that he supposed he was wise, but was not. So from this I became hateful both to him and to many of those present.

For my part, as I went away, I reasoned with regard to myself: “I am wiser than this human being. For probably neither of us knows anything noble and good, but he supposes that he does know, while I, just as I do not know, do not even suppose that I do. I am likely to be a little bit wiser that he in this very thing: that whatever I do not know, I do not even suppose I know.”

And a bit later

This is the examination, men of Athens, from which I have incurred many hatreds, the sort that are harshest and gravest, so that many slanders have arisen from them, and I got this name of being “wise.” For those present on each occasion suppose that I myself am wise in the things concerning which I refute someone else, whereas it is probable, men, that really the God is wise, and that in this oracle He is saying that human wisdom is worth little or nothing. And he appears to say this of Socrates and to have made use of my name in order to make me a paradigm, as if He would say, “That one of you, O human beings, is wisest, who, like Socrates, has become cognizant that in truth he is worth nothing with respect to wisdom.”

Very obviously, if your game is to exalt man to the status of God-on-earth, the new and rightful Master and Possessor of nature, the thought that “God alone is wise” and “human wisdom is worth little or nothing” is not going to appeal to you.

Socrates is NOT WISE, according to the standard of Descartes. And Descartes, supposing he knows many things he does not, e.g. that the quantity of motion in nature is conserved, is NOT WISE, according to the standard of Socrates.  Descartes can only claim to be wise on the basis of his discovery of an infallible Method, whereby he can have “certain and evident knowledge” of the things of nature. Except, oops, his Method isn’t actually infallible.

I end, as I am wont to, with a modus tollens:

  1. According to Descartes’ teaching, Socrates is not wise.
  2. But Socrates is wise.
  3. ∴ Descartes’ teaching is false.

2 comments on “Pernicious Modernism: Cartesian Dishonesty

  1. Reblogged this on Chris Lansdown and commented:
    A very interesting in-depth look into some of Descartes’ writing which I haven’t read.


  2. […] i.e., the response to postmodernism is not to be found in modernism.  I’ve found people who do claim this, but it’s an entirely different topic and this footnote is far too long […]


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