Plan for This Evening
- Leading Class Discussion with Beth (click here for an origin of Beth)
- Anything from St. Augustine to clear up
- Put Descartes before the Horse
- “Red and Black” (Les Misérables selections)
- Midterm Mini-Rhetorical Analyses are Due tonight
Let’s have Beth mount up and lead our discussion on Descartes.* Here are Beth’s notes from class.
*Pronouncing St. Augustine as aw-GUS-tin or aw-gus-TEEN is not a really big deal. Please don’t pronounce either ‘s’ in Descartes. It’s day-CART.
Descartes’ Discourse on Method
Well, Descartes is certainly sure of himself…or is he? Besides being well known in Western Civilization for cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore, I am”), Descartes is important for math (Cartesian coordinate system) and the scientific method. More importantly for us, though, is that he’s (nearly) the last one who thinks linearly…
I think Descartes is a proto-solipsist (here’s a link to a contemporary discussion). Although he’s certainly no nihilist, he thinks that one can know best when one doesn’t have the “noise” of other thinkers (thought is much simpler when you don’t have to deal with the opinions of others…). However, even though he believes he has THE idea of reality that applies to all people, he is concerned with his own way of knowing. Unlike the 19th- and 20th-century existentialists, he thinks that his way of knowing is universal and others will get to his conclusion…eventually.
What can Descartes teach us about rhetoric? I think we have to think about epistemology first and then try to answer how Descartes might answer these questions:
- From where does knowledge come?
- How can we best discover knowledge?
- Who are knowledge authorites?
- What is the role of education (the Schools) in creating and disseminating knowledge?
- How can one know the world around him or her?
Specifics from the Book
I know we’re going to have a difficult time pointing to exact passages in the various translations/editions you’ll have, so let’s try to remember to read the exact quotation when commenting on it.
Descartes attempted to replace the Ancient philosophers’ teaching (namely, Aristotle’s) with his much simpler one. Here are some highlights:
- Descartes on the history of philosophy:
- I will say nothing of philosophy other than this: once I saw that it had been cultivated for several centuries by the most excellent minds which had ever lived, and that, nonetheless, there was still nothing in it which was not disputed and which was thus not still in doubt, I did not have sufficient presumption to hope to fare better there than the others. Considering how many different opinions, maintained by learned people, philosophy could have about the same matter, without there ever being more than one which could be true, I reckoned as virtually false all those which were merely probable. (“Discourse 1,” para. 11)
- I shall say nothing about philosophy, except that, seeing that it has been cultivated by the very best minds which have ever existed over several centuries and that, nevertheless, not one of its problems is not subject to disagreement, and consequently is uncertain, I was not presumptuous enough to hope to succeed in it any better than others; and seeing how many different opinions are sustained by learned men about one item, without its being possible for more than one ever to be true, I took to be tantamount to false everything which was merely probable. (Trans. Sutcliffe, p. 32)
- The benefit of one thinker:
Among these, one of the first was that I noticed myself thinking about how often there is not so much perfection in works created from several pieces and made by the hands of various masters as there is in those which one person has worked on alone. (“Discourse 2,” para. 1)
- …it is almost impossible that our judgments are as pure and solid as they would have been if we had had the total use of our reason from the moment of our birth and had never been led by anything but our reason. (“Discourse 2,” [bottom of] para. 1)
- …a plurality of voices is not a proof worth anything for truths which are a little difficult to discover, because it is far more probable that one man by himself would have found them than an entire people. (“Discourse 2,” [bottom of] para. 4)
- Three or Four Maxims for a “provisional moral code”
- Obey laws and customs of my country; obey the church (Discourse 3, para. 2; Trans. Sutcliffe, p. 45)
- Be firm and resolute in my actions; don’t follow doubtful opinions (Discourse 3, para. 3; Trans. Sutcliffe, p. 46)
- Conquer myself–not fortune; change my desires–don’t order the world (Discourse 3, para. 4; Trans. Sutcliffe, p. 47)
- Choose the best occupation–devote my life to cultivating my reason (Discourse 3, para. 5; Trans. Sutcliffe, p. 48)
- Reject all doubt:
I wanted only to carry out research into the truth, I thought I must do the opposite and reject as absolutely false everything about which I could imagine the least doubt, in order to see if there would be anything totally indisputable remaining after that in my belief. (“Discourse 4,” para. 1)
- Knowledge of perfection:
I concluded that the idea had been put in me by a nature which was truly more perfect than I was, even one which contained in itself all the perfections about which I could have some idea, that is to say, to explain myself in a single phrase, a nature which was God….it must of necessity be the case that there was some other more perfect being, on whom I depended and from whom I had acquired all that I had. (“Discourse 4,” para. 4)
- Laws of Nature Universal:
I made known the laws of nature, and without basing my reasoning on any principle other than the infinite perfections of God, I tried to demonstrate all of these laws about which one could entertain any doubts, to show that they are such that, although God could have created several worlds, there would not be one where these failed to be observed. (“Discourse 5,” [middle of] para. 2)
- True reasons vs. Verisimilitudes (probabilities)
so that those who do not understand the force of mathematical proofs and who are not accustomed to distinguishing true reasons from probable reasons do not venture to deny this matter without examining it, I wish to advise them that this movement which I have just explained is as necessarily a result of the mere arrangement of the organs which one can see in the heart with one’s own eyes and of the heat which one can feel there with one’s fingers and of the nature of blood which one can recognize from experience, as the movement of a clock is necessarily a result of the force, the placement, and the shape of its counter-weights and wheels. (“Discourse 5,” [bottom of] para. 6)
- Even morons can form sentences:
For it is really remarkable that there are no men so dull and stupid, including even idiots, who are not capable of putting together different words and of creating out of them a conversation through which they make their thoughts known; by contrast, there is no other animal, no matter how perfect and how successful it might be, which can do anything like that. (“Discourse 5,” [middle of] next to last para.)
- Technological discovery:
my notions had made me see that it is possible to reach understandings which are extremely useful for life, and that instead of the speculative philosophy which is taught in the schools, we can find a practical philosophy by which, through understanding the force and actions of fire, water, air, stars, heavens, and all the other bodies which surround us as distinctly as we understand the various crafts of our artisans, we could use them in the same way for all applications for which they are appropriate and thus make ourselves, as it were, the masters and possessors of nature. (“Discourse 6,” para. 2)
- Science (medicine) will continue to advance and cure our ills:
But without having any design to denigrate it, I am confident that there is no one, not even those who make a living from medicine, who would not claim that everything we know in medicine is almost nothing in comparison to what remains to be known about it and that we could liberate ourselves from an infinity of illnesses, both of the body and the mind, and also perhaps even of the infirmities of ageing, if we had sufficient knowledge of their causes and of all the remedies which nature has provided for us. (“Discourse 6,” para. 2)
- Knowledge begets knowledge:
it is almost the same with those who discover truth little by little in the sciences as it is with those who, once they start to become rich, have less trouble in making large acquisitions than they did previously, when they were poorer, in making much smaller ones. (“Discourse 6,” para. 6)
- Is it just me or is this a contradiction? Maybe I’m just thinking about technology as a group problem to be solved…
- Illuminating the contemporary intellectual conflicts:
However, their way of practising philosophy is extremely comfortable for those who have nothing but really mediocre minds, for the obscurity of the distinctions and the principles they use enables them to speak of everything as boldly as if they understood what they were talking about and to defend everything that they state against the most subtle and skillful minds, without anyone having the means to argue against them. In this it strikes me they are similar to a blind man who, in order to fight on equal terms against someone who can see, makes him come into the bottom of some really obscure cave. And I can state that such people have an interest in my abstaining from publishing the principles of philosophy I use, because, given that they are very simple and very evident, if I published them, I would be doing roughly the equivalent of opening some windows and bringing the light of day into this cave where they have gone down to fight each other. But even the best minds have no occasion to want to know these principles.
- We need to talk about Descartes the Science Fiction writer–he’s talking about robots! (p. 32 in Donald Cress; p. 74 in Sutcliffe)
Descartes believes he can advance a philosophy that explains all…what’s the assumption in that?
Here’s a link to papal infallibility and ex cathedra.
Remind me to tell you a story about two students from an Intro to Technical Comm class from several years ago that discussed the connotations of “feminism.”
Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables
While I read this book over Winter break one year, I thought about all I knew regarding France, French History, European history, etc., and I realized that philosophy and philosophers always played a major role in the narratives I’ve absorbed. The French Revolution was a HUGE deal. Ok, that’s obvious, but Hugo’s book seems to capture the difference in society after the Revolution. It’s fallacious to think that all history leads ideally to the present as if it were staged, but we (historians included) can’t help but think about history as progressing.
Anyway, Descartes is a major influence on French/European thinking (again, probably obvious). Although Hugo isn’t responding to Descartes, he’s capturing an essence of French intellectual thought in the context of post-Waterloo Europe.
While reading Les Misérables, I was thinking about how to work it into the reading. I wasn’t going to assign the 1463-page book! But I wanted to see if we could discuss the thinking and ideology that made this book possible. After all, novels (as are people, technologies, ideas, etc.) are products of the society from which they come.
Selections from Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
The above chapters claim the revolution was progress, progress towards liberty. Even though Napoleon was defeated, the other monarchs of Europe “saw the writing on the wall” and were willing to limit their monarchal powers.
- Vol 5: Jean Valjean, Book 1: War B/tw 4 Walls, Ch. 5
- Vol 5: Jean Valjean, Book 1: War B/tw 4 Walls, Ch. 20
The above chapters (pp. 1188-1192 and pp. 1234-1242) also mention Progress! as the purpose of revolution or, in this case, the doomed insurgency. In Ch. 5, Enjolras speaks to the insurgents, but he’s really speaking to all French citizens, the people. He espouses Liberty, Fraternity, Equality, and education will bring that to the people.
What’s interesting for this class? From where do these ideas come? Why would he harken back to make that point? The time period is the culmination of historical progress to democracy…
Next Class’s Reading
I’m giving you next week off (3/01-3/08). When we meet again on Monday, 3/09, we’ll be discussing Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women.
Don’t forget your presents for me: your Mini-Rhetorical Analysis.