Apr 6, 2018

Descartes And The Third Class of Person

Readers typically encounter Rene Descartes through one of two of his main works. It's either the Discourse on Method or the Meditations on First Philosophy.  Both provide some of the same outlines, insights, and even arguments central to Cartesian philosophy, but they do so in quite distinct manners.

In the Discourse - the one I focus upon here - Descartes begins by telling us the story of his own education, or more properly speaking, the narrative of his quest for knowledge that he could be certain about and thereby orient his life by.  This tale is in its broadest traits one we are all familiar with.  It furnishes the basic plot structure to many movies, shows, stories, and even songs in our own time.

A person starts out young, naive, and talented.  Endowed with a quick intellect, but not knowing much of anything at the start, he applies himself to the studies set before him by his teachers, and he excels.  But as he thinks over what he has learned, and as he compares it to what he learns through living and observing the world outside the school, worries and doubts begin to get their grips in him. 

This student has learned widely within, perhaps even mastered, what are acknowledged to be main subjects - domains of knowledge - but he comes to suspect and then realize that what he possesses does not amount to genuine knowledge.  It's not - to use the master-metaphor Descartes makes recourse to - a solid foundation upon which a lasting and secure edifice can be progressively constructed.

What then?  How will the hero of our story attain the object of his desire?  We typically telescope the narrative at this point - making it easier upon our students, or perhaps also ourselves - and move straightaway into the Cartesian method and the chain of arguments found in short form in the Discourse and in much greater depth within the Meditations.  Let's not do that here.

Two Classes of People

Descartes tells us that: "the single resolution to undo for oneself [se défaire] all of the opinions one has previously accepted is not an example that everyone ought to follow."  Why not?  Isn't that the  very starting point for the entire Cartesian project - doubting everything that one can?

He goes on to describe "two kinds of minds for whom this is a totally bad idea" (auxquels il ne convient aucunement - here I'm translating rather loosely in order to convey the stress.  Who shouldn't engage in the sort of hyperbolic or methodological doubt at the very center of Descartes' project?

The first group are:
those who, thinking themselves more capable than they are, cannot keep themselves from making judgements far too quickly, nor do they have the patience needed to conduct their thoughts in an orderly manner.  The result is that, should they just once have taken the liberty of doubting the principles they accepted and of leaving the common road, they will never  be able to stick to the path one must take in order to go rightly, and they will remain lost the rest of their lives.
Not good. Doubt is not something that Descartes values for its own sake, and it can actually be hazardous for some people - this first type - to systematically doubt what they have previously accepted. 

What about the second group?  They are at the other end of the spectrum:
Then there are those who, having enough good sense [raison] or modesty to judge that they are less able to distinguish the true from the false than certain other people, by whom they could be instructed, really ought to content themselves with following those others' opinions, rather than seeking out better ones themselves.
At first read, Descartes seems places himself into this second class.  So why then did he embrace a method of doubt, and produce new principles for himself?

A Third Class of Person

Descartes does not actually say that he is in the second class.  He say that he would have been numbered among them, if - and this is an entirely counterfactual "if" - one of two things had been the case.

If he had had only one "master" - which we should understand to be one person not only in charge of his learning, but providing a coherent and systematic perspective throughout - then he would have been in that second class.  He would have been content to take what this master gave, and think - and live - in accordance with that teaching.

Alternately, if he had not come to know the differences between the opinions of the most learned people - not just at his own time, but "in all times" (de tout temps) - on key matters, then he also would have been able to remain content with what he happened to be taught.

As Descartes represents himself to us readers, his awareness of the controversies - on nearly any matter you pick - between people who are employing their reason, makes it impossible for him to be in that second class.  But he doesn't belong in the first class either.  He is careful rather than precipitate.  He doubts either because he has to, or because that doubt can be hopefully be used as a tool to get to a state beyond doubt.

It is precisely because he does not have any other person whose opinions or approach he can unquestionably rely upon that he embarks upon a new course.  "I found myself forced, as it were, to take on myself the task of guiding myself."  (Those three "myself"s do belong in that passage - he uses the reflexive "me" twice, and "moi-même" once).

The third type of person - in these matters of doubt, knowledge, trust, and certainty - is one who has to work out for him or herself a method and starting points for reconstructing a foundation for knowledge.  Descartes himself is such a person, but the question we should ask ourselves then, as we read and reflect upon his work is whether we belong in that third class as well.

There's a rather clever structure here - at once narrative, epistemological, and methodological.  Follow Descartes along just so far as hyperbolic doubt, and then never really come out of it - you're in the first class of people, and then you're better off not reading Descartes at all (but. . .  too late!).

Follow out the entire Cartesian line of reasoning faithfully, taking on his perspective as well-reasoned-out truths, just focusing on getting his ideas down, without ever really allowing yourself to call them into question or feel the existential weight of the doubt he deals in - you're among the second class.

Or, we join Descartes as an interlocutor.  Treat the monological structure of his Discourse, or even his Meditations, as if it is in some way a dialogue - after all he tells us in part 1 that "reading good books is like a conversation with the most cultivated [honnêtes] people of past centuries. . .  a well-conducted [étudiée] conversation, in which they reveal to us only the best of their thoughts".  And then we find ourselves, perhaps, with him in that third class.