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( Originally Published Early 1900's )
René Descartes is almost always regarded as the greatest thinker of France, and he is frequently opposed to Bacon, with whom he was contemporary, as being the father of modern philosophy. Professor Huxley, who, in spite of his vast labors in the physical sciences, occupied some of his time with the consideration of philosophy, metaphysics, theology, exegesis, and, toward the close of his life, with social and economic science, places the Frenchman upon a pedestal so high as to almost obscure the real outlines of the philosopher's figure.
Descartes is famous for the oft-repeated formula, "I think, therefore I am," (cogito, ergo sum), a formula which does not seem to have been of more real value in the accumulation and unification of knowledge than the vain repetitions of the heathens. And, oddly enough, Professor Huxley is at as much pains to disparage Comte as he is to extol Descartes. This state of mind on the part of the eminent dogmatist of science is possibly due to a reactionary feeling of resentment against the former philosopher because he wrote of the sciences without having first discovered a Bathybius Huxleyi, which did not exist; a reaction which carried Huxley over into the camp of Descartes, who thought he had arrived at a knowledge of God and of soul by the application of his "Method of using the Reason."
The Cartesian method, which we will presently consider in relation to the Baconian method, is interesting enough, but not so interesting as the life of the philosopher himself.
When Descartes was born, in March, 1596, Bacon was thirty-five years old, and had already been a public man for nearly twelve years. The famous Frenchman was derived from a noble family of Touraine, who were, of course, intense Catholics, as are all noble French, and who saw that the boy was given an excellent education. The future thinker was puny as a lad, and it was probably owing to the fact that he was thus deprived of the enjoyments to which vigorous youth naturally turns that he gave himself up to study and to the delights and strife of the intellect. His education was confided to the Jesuits at their college of La Flèche. His masters found no necessity of spurring the delicate boy to his studies. He learned rapidly and absorbed all he was taught with an eagerness that was not altogether pleasing to his teachers, for he was in the way of asking questions that were dangerous to the orthodoxy of his future faith.
The Jesuits are capital educators in the arts, and it may be believed that Descartes was well trained in the humanities. He was especially proficient in belle lettres, in oratory, and in the study of mathematics. At the same time he disclosed a precocity of intellect in other things that was alarming to the ecclesiasts who were his professors. They deemed his persistent desire to have the why and the how explained to him as the manifestations of an unhealthy inquisitiveness. His father, amused at the boy's seriousness and his obtrusive propensity for asking "foolish questions," called him "my philosopher." When a boy who is no more than a fledgeling, gravely concerns himself about the processes of digestion,-about the functions of the heart, and other physiological and biological questions of this sort, the best way to satisfy his mind is to teach him all he can understand about such matters. Now, physiology as conceived by the Jesuits in that day was the physiology of Aristotle. They could not answer Descartes' questions. Their astronomy, if they had any, was quite as bad as their physiology. Descartes, perhaps, desired to know why the moon was round instead of cubical. This, from the Seventeenth Century and Jesuitical point of view, was not only a foolish but an impious question. The moon was round because God had made it round. Why had God made it round and not cube? Another impious question. How were human beings and beasts created? Why had beasts four legs, and why did men have toes when they did not use toes? Why were men's faces bearded and women's faces smooth? Why was the sky round and fixed and solid as a dome? Why was it blue, and not green? How did food maintain the life of the body? What was blood? Why did men perform acts that pleased them and avoid conduct that pained them?
These are childish questions, and are put by children now as well as they were put by Descartes. The hunger of a growing mind is seldom satisfied, and the experience of having stones given it for bread atrophies the organ of mental assimilation, and the child, as a rule, grows up into a very ignorant man. But Descartes was not to be put off. If the Jesuits would not explain these things he would seek elsewhere. His thirst for know-ledge only waxed the fiercer for being plied with gall and vinegar. He grew weary of the mechanical motions of the religious regimen he was required to live, and left the college. Going to Paris in quest of the larger sphere of thought he would find in the capital, he was caught in the whirl of Parisian gayety. Ere this he had passed his adolescence and much of his physical weakness had passed away. For the first time he regarded the pleasures of youth with a fond eye. He cultivated his muscles with the foil, slept well, ate heartily, and was not a stranger to those comforts and satisfactions that make the functions of the body a pleasure as well as a necessity. At twenty Descartes had gained health and strength, and his contact with the debonair life of the capital aroused in him an interest in the military spirit of his companions. He tried war, and served as a soldier in Holland, and afterward in Germany. But his bent was purely intellectual. There was nothing substantial for him in the pursuits of men such as he saw about him. Their concerns were no concerns of his. His interest in military matters was only half hearted, as was his interest in athletics. It is said he invented a theory of fencing.
Descartes put aside his uniform at twenty-five and turned his attention to the sciences. Being mathematical, he was attracted by the nascent science of optics, and spent some time in study and experiment with instruments of this character. Meanwhile his mind was busy with thoughts concerning a criterium of human knowledge and with speculations concerning God and the cause of things. The one-time soldier was contemptuously disregardful of the big-sounding names of heroes he found in history. These he cast aside as worthless. He adopted Bacon's method of interpreting nature and permitted the spirit of that method to guide him in all his scientific researches. He was careful to verify all his conclusions by rigid experiment, and it is possible that had he persisted in this course he might have placed his name on the grand roll of Seventeenth Century achievement. But he seems to have become impatient of Baconian restraint and to have forgotten tilt warning of the English philosopher against flying to generalizations instead of creeping. On leaving the Jesuits' college at La Flèche Descartes said that his time spent in that institution had been wasted. This was probably a hasty judgment. If a knowledge of the arts is chiefly of conventional use, it cannot be denied that the arts prepare the mind for more serious pursuits and are by no means deterrents to a scientific career. Educators who now make it a fashion to affect a contempt of Latin and Greek, of history, and even of mathematics, take good care to show that they themselves are proficient in all these graces of mind. When Descartes became convinced that his education in college had only served to inform him of his own ignorance he implied that that education had been to him a vast and lasting good.
"As soon as my age permitted. me to quit my preceptors," he says in his "Discourse," "I entirely gave up the study of letters, and, resolving to seek no other science than that I could find in myself, or else in the great book of the world, I employed the remainder of my youth in travel, in seeing courts and camps, in frequenting people's diverse humors and conditions, in collecting various experiences, and above all in endeavoring to draw some profitable reflection from what I saw. For it seemed to me that I should meet with more truth in the reasonings which each man makes in his own affairs, and which if wrong would be speedily punished by failure, than by those reasonings which a philosopher makes in his study upon speculations which produce no effect and which are of no consequence to him except perhaps he will be more vain of them the more remote they are from common sense, because he would then have been forced to employ more ingenuity and subtlety to render them too plausible."
It is remarkable that a man with such a spirit and with such a disdain of the philosophy he found in the books should have remained a steadfast Catholic, but such is the fact. For all his science and his scorn and deduction, his works everywhere seek to placate the Church, and in practice he was a careful follower of the religion of Rome. He speaks of God in the most reverent way, and does not ignore theology by any means. He was anxious, it has been said, to escape the hindrances which he knew must surely have been put in his way did he proclaim himself heretic. He did not attack the authority of the Church as did Bruno. On the contrary, he called attention to the wisdom of his philosophy in having proved without doubt that God was a reality and that the human soul was immortal. Perhaps the ecclesiastical judges who passed upon his doctrines were no more deceived by these protestations than have been later critics. Not much toleration could be expected from a congregation that could find in the discoveries of Galileo a heresy or at least heterodoxy the most displeasing. Descartes' works, with all their theology, were placed upon the Index Expurgatorius. Protesting that he had demonstrated the existence of a God, he was condemned as an atheist by his former preceptors, the Jesuits, and his Christian friends in Holland denounced him as a limb of the Jesuits who, beneath an ostentatious pageant of words "ad majorem Dei gloriam," concealed the virulent and subtle poison of the worst infidelity.
In such condemnations is nowadays found matter that appeals to one's sense of humor, but three centuries ago the man whose books were indicated by the congregation or objurgated by the Church was very near the dungeon or the rack, if not the blazing fagots. The congregation of the Index in the Nineteenth Century is a body of very learned men who are as competent, in a way, to pass upon scientific as upon theological subjects, but who do not concern themselves with pure science. The congregation has not escaped evolution, and wisely confines its activities to its own special function of inquiry into theological teaching. Even the Darwinian theory of the descent of man is only a question of demonstration with the congregation and has not been condemned. But Descartes lived in the Seventeenth, not in the Nineteenth Century. The universities of Utrecht and Leyden accused him of atheism and infidelity, and he was beginning to be sorely harassed when the Queen of Sweden invited him to her court and offered him the presidency of a scientific school which was to have been organized by him and endowed by her. His journey to Sweden was ill advised, for his health suffered from the rigors of the peninsular climate, and he died in 165o, one year after his works were condemned as dangerous.
In the very beginning of his philosophy Descartes declares himself a skeptic. But it must not be supposed that by this he means the skepticism of the Greeks, which doubted everything, even existence itself. He uses doubt as a means rather than as an end. He prefers it above all other means as the best instrument of ascertaining what can be known as certain. To doubt everything until its truth is established and the mind rests in perfect satisfaction as to its certainty, is the method proposed for himself by Descartes. He is skeptical of all matters save alone mathematics. "Mathematical certainty" is a proverb, but Descartes overvalues mathematics, which is perfect as an instrument of inquiry or verification when the premises with which it works are true. The computations of a New-ton or of a Leverrier or of a Gauss had been worthless were they not securely based on the lodgment of facts. Mathematics is not a science in itself; it is a tool of science which can be used in the hand of thé artificer to shape his block of thought into whatever form he wills. Once begun, the mathematical process is inevitably regular, and while the calculations may be absolutely true, mathematically, it does not follow that the conclusions are true in any way other than a mathematical way. The form of mathematics is constant; the matter of mathematics may be variable. But Descartes does not reject mathematics for this reason. He rejects it because it was not, in his opinion, of universal application. He reduces his method to four principles of procedure which may be described as follows: I doubt everything until it has been demonstrated as true. 2. Subject all problems to the most careful analysis. 3. Proceed from simple matters that are easy of comprehension to those matters that are more difficult of apprehension. 4. Take extreme caution that no possible factors are forgotten or ignored in your solution. This he declares to be the true method of inquiry and asserts that all those who use it will arrive at the same conclusion respecting all questions, diverse conclusions being manifestations only of disagreement in the methods used.
The method is safe enough, but Descartes did not permit himself to doubt as generously as his advice would lead us to believe. He assumes that he exists because he thinks. Sensation, perception, ideas, all may be questioned in the light that they are delusions or illusions, but the fact that consciousness itself exists is beyond cavil. In his metaphysics Descartes adopts the doctrine of innate ideas and in this way proves the existence of a God. It is evident, he argues, that such ideas as truth, infinity, unlimited existence, do not enter the mind from without. Those ideas that come from with-out are easily perceived as such. But if we have ideas that evidently have no external source whatever, we are driven to the conclusion that these ideas have been born with our consciousness, that the mind has been impressed with them from its beginning. One such idea is that of an infinitely good being. Thus we know that there must be an infinite being that has so informed our minds, and that infinite being is God. Therefore we know that God is. If there be no such infinite being, and this being be not the creator of the intelligence which so conceives of such being, whence comes the idea of God? Descartes here neglects his second principle. He does not exhaust the analytical possibilities of his problem. The problem is none other than that of the origin of ideas. The mind has no idea of the infinite.
Descartes asks, How can I have a clear conception of the infinitely perfect when I myself am finite and imperfect? His question is petitio principii. He has no idea of the infinite. That supposed idea is not a true idea, and he had reached this conclusion had he pushed his analysis sufficiently far. Such categories as the Infinite, the Unlimited, the Absolute, the Unconditioned (which Huxley says are capped with big letters in order to frighten people after the fashion of the ferocious head-gear of fur worn by grenadiers) are mere negations. They are tricks of the imagination. They are not even correlations of thought. Darkness, for example, does not exist. It is the absence of light, which is a positive something a true idea. We do not perceive darkness; we lack the perception of light. The infinite to man's mind is only the absence of the finite. Whether Des-cartes, in sober earnestness, thus attempted to establish the existence of the infinite as a fact which can be and is known to the mind, or whether he so argued, as is held by many of his commentators, because he did not desire to be anathematized, is beside the question. He does not seem to have fared much better than Bruno even though he escaped with his life.
More interesting than his theology are his conclusions concerning nature and man in their physical aspects. Here he again departs widely from the cautions he lays down in his method of procedure. We find him speculating on the qualitative analysis of mat-ter, of the effect of spirit on matter, and teaching that the earth does not revolve around the sun, but is whirled forward in a vortex. One view entertained by Descartes is striking, inasmuch as it anticipates the mechanical theory now so widely entertained by men of science. Animals, he says, are mere living machines. This, at least, is the inference we are warranted in drawing from his writings. He did not give utterance to this view in plain words. Such utterance might have brought his researches to an intempestive end. But he compared the vital processes and activities of animals to those of an automaton controlled by a motive power within or without the mechanism. Anatomy and physiology have indisputably proved that in this theory Descartes was perfectly right. But psychology departs from him when he teaches that the soul is an immaterial something which acts on the body of a man through the pineal gland. Psychology does not take into account any organ which 'physiology and anatomy do not demonstrate. It regards the nervous system as a mechanism, but deals only with the phenomena presented by the action of that mechanism, or apparatus, and does not assume an hypothetical soul to explain the phenomena of mind, reducing these phenomena, as it does, to motions of nerve matter and rearrangement of ganglion cells. The mechanical theory, as we have seen in a former section, was held by the Greeks, and Descartes did no more to demonstrate its truth than did the ancients themselves. Descartes' psychology is primitive. He divides the emotions into six principal passions, and discusses the "animal spirits" as if the words conveyed to him a definite meaning. Deity is the central point of his system. The judgment of critics like Professor Huxley will not hold if we remove the God-head from Cartesian philosophy.
The value of the Cartesian method no one will gain-say. But when it is compared with the clearly defined and simply stated formula of the Baconian method laid down in Novum Organum, and quoted in a preceding page, it will be difficult for even the most pronounced defamer of Bacon to make a choice in favor of the continental philosopher. The more difficult will be such judgment if it be remembered that Bacon's work was already in print while Descartes was yet a soldier in Bavaria, and was just beginning to conceive his plan of reforming philosophy. That he reformed philosophy does not appear in his system. To Bacon and to Bacon alone is due the credit for having placed philosophy on a basis that is totally independent of theology, and the basis upon which the methods of the present day rest secure.