Founding the Modern Project
The Cogito Ergo Sum is the heart of Cartesian philosophy and represents the starting point of his method. It set Descartes apart from the Scholastics who began with real things in a really existing world. He was obviously influenced by the Protestant Reformation and its challenge of authority, tradition and medieval Aristotelianism. Opposing himself to this tradition, Descartes began simply within the certitude of self as a thinking being. Like the pre-Socratics, Descartes was searching for the first principle. This self-evident principle for him was the cogito ergo sum. If I doubt the existence of things, then I think, and if I think, I am! This principle inaugurates “the great anthropocentric shift in philosophy” (John Paul II, pg. 51) and links us to the first rule of his method.
The cogito had its beginning in small, hot German apartment where Descartes began to reflect upon his own knowledge and its sources. He began by imagining the most perfect building, of which he feels “called” to be the architect of, and which cannot be constructed using the “old walls” (i.e. wisdom of the ages) of the past, but must begin with an entirely new foundation and a sigle founder. Therefore, the founding principle of his new method is to “overturn and scatter to the four winds all that men had tried to build up through past ages, and must make a clean sweep of all thinking that has been possible up to his time” (Maritain, pg 23).
The first rule of Descartes’ method then is to accept nothing as true which he didn’t clearly recognize to be so. He would only accept that which is clearly and distinctly in his mind and the only thing which initially meets this mathematically certainty is self-existence. Man is reduced to a thinking thing. We cannot even say that we are a thinking being in a body, since our senses may be deceiving us into thinking we are embodied.
Though he claims to begin with an emptying of all pre-conceived notions, his method is full of pre-suppositions. For example, he assumed that the principle of mathematical certainty could step outside its boundaries and be applied to all things as if they were all mathematical and quantifiable. He reversed the traditional order of acquiring human knowledge. In reality, the mind begins with sense data from real objects and then proceeds to concepts. In Descartes’ dream world, the mind begins with clear and distinct notions which will give it a true knowledge of all objects. Rather than physics advancing to metaphysics, Descartes buries metaphysics below ground and focuses his attention on the trunk of the tree (physics) which will, in his dream, branch out into the sciences and give us the fruit of medicine, mechanics and ethics (Gilson, pg. 59).
When I first read Descartes I was lured in by his apparent humility of speech. It reminded me of Socrates self-depracating dialogue. His early thirst for knowledge was fascinating and his survey of the academic disciplines was almost poetic. His intention to discover truth by emptying his mind and re-examining each piece of knowledge is noble, but it is hard not to believe his self-emptying included the loss of common sense and the real world, which he can never get back again. There is no fault in testing their veracity of each truth offered to us in our education. But Descartes fails to make an important distinction which John Henry Cardinal Newman makes in his Development of Doctrine.
It is there that he distinguishes between questioning a truth and investigating it. We may withhold our assent from a proposed truth while we try and discover whether it is true or not. We can also investigate a doctrine when we assent to it but keep trying to understand it better. In either case it is not required that we cast doubt upon it immediately and seek to prove its veracity by unnaturally subjecting it to the principles of mathematical certainty. That is one of the fundamental flaws in Descartes methodology.
To begin with a wholesale rejection of all previous knowledge is as foolish as trying to separate oneself from his genetic history. Man cannot stand long in the winds that blow when separated from the wisdom of the ages, in fact he will soon stoop to the frame of an ape, returning to his basest passions and turn hopelessly in on himself. This is precisely why John Paul II insists “on the need for a close relationship of continuity between contemporary philosophy and the philosophy developed in the Christian tradition [which] is intended to avert the danger which lies hidden in some currents of thought which are especially prevalent today” (Fides et Ratio, para. 86).
This false autonomy Descartes offers philosophy ends in the unraveling of any certitude about anything. That is why Fides et Ratio correctly labels it as “primal disobedience” which transports us back to that terrestrial paradise where man first decided he alone would discern and decide what was good and evil (true and false). Our first parents failed, how much more futile an enterprise for us with “wounded reason”. This exposes the underlying pride in his feigned humility.
Though touted to be a new method for the emerging science of his day, no serious scientist of the 21st century could operate according to these principles. It would be impossible to conduct research unless scientists first assent to the fundamental laws of their discipline.
There is nothing dangerous about a philosophy that includes a focus on the subject. The great command of the pre-Christian Oracle at Delphi, know thyself is a valid pursuit. Descartes failed in that he focused upon man in a way that overlooks or denies the fact that there are truths that transcends us – which we cannot fully perceive by reason alone. Experimental data and technological knowledge on their own, cannot lift us to full truth and the purpose of our very existence.
Beginning with the cogito ergo sum, Descartes developed a new science “that promised everything and denied everythingand which has made so many men, led astray by it from the eternal verities, into sorrowful beings” (Maritain, pg. 29).
Ariew, Roger and Eric Watkins, eds. 1998. Modern Philosophy: An Anthology of
Primary Sources (Indianapolis: Hacket Publishing Co.).
Gilson, Etienne and Thomas Langan, Modern Philosophy: Descartes to Kant (NewYork: Image, 1963).
John Paul II. Crossing the Threshold of Hope. ed. by Vittorio Messori (New York:
AlfredA. Knopf, 1994).
Maritain, Jacques. The Dream of Descartes. tr. by Mabelle L. Andison (London: EditionsPoetry, 1946).