Quotable: Aristotle

“Actions, then, are called just and temperate when they are such as the just or the temperate man would do; but it is not the man who does these that is just and temperate, but the man who also does them as just and temperate men do them. It is well said, then, that it is by doing just acts that the just man is produced, and by doing temperate acts the temperate man; without doing these no one would have even a prospect of becoming good.

“But most people do not do these, but take refuge in theory and think they are being philosophers and will become good in this way, behaving somewhat like patients who listen attentively to their doctors, but do none of the things they are ordered to do. As the latter will not be made well in body by such a course of treatment, the former will not be made well in soul by such a course of philosophy.”

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1105b5-17

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Quotable: Buddha

“Look how he abused me and beat me,
How he threw me down and robbed me.”
Live with such thoughts
and you will live in hate.

“Look how he abused me and beat me,
How he threw me down and robbed me.”
Abandon such thoughts and live in love.
In this world, hate never yet dispelled hate.
Only love dispels hate.
This is the law, Ancient and inexhaustible.”

The Dhammapada

Quotable: Mark Johnson on Selfhood

“Human beings are not at all like this [the Enlightenment picture]. We are far more socially constituted, far more historically situated, and far more changeable than objectivism allows. The self is defined not only be its biological makeup as a physical organism, but also by its ends, its interpersonal relationships, its cultural traditions, its institutional commitments, and its historical context. Within this evolving context it must work out its identity.”

Mark Johnson, The Moral Imagination, 150.

Descartes’ Discourse on Method

Descartes’ Discourse on Method, Clearly and Distinctly Summarized

Content

Once upon a time in a century not too distant from our own, there lived a man named René Descartes who put forward his “paths” to knowing as if in a “fable” encouraging men to follow his trail. This Descartes lived in a world where all men were endowed with “good sense” (by virtue of their form or nature being consistent). Therefore, all that was necessary to bring about agreement was a sufficiently well established path, a method. So this Descartes set out to do a service to his fellow man by laying a path that could not cause stumbling, an indubitable one. (And all men lived…dare I say happily ever after?) This path is the topic of his Discourse on Method.

From the beginning of his Discourse, Descartes is clearly troubled with difference in belief. Moreover, it seems to be a source of great discomfort for him not to know whom or what to believe. But this troubles us all. For Descartes the situation is worse because he also believed that reason is the form of man that all men held in common.[1] So for Descartes the difficult question is not if truth exists (as we ask), but how is one to account for error? He is left in the doubly difficult position of explaining difference of opinion and holding a strong account of universal Reason.

Reason is for Descartes the (God given) power for judging what is by way of clear and distinct ideas. The notion of “clear and distinct” is similar to Plato’s notion that reason contains forms that it matches with images produced by the imagination to accurate perception. Descartes seems to think that reason is primary in this way, that perception or imagination (with which it cooperates) only serve reason with impressions of the outside world that reason takes full responsibility for.[2] So it is, Descartes presents as a paradigmatic rule that any idea which reason accepts must be “so clearly and so distinctly” to be beyond doubt. You might call this a snap-to-grid account of reason. When an idea is clear, you have clearly hit a gridline of reality. The source of error is undisciplined ventures of belief by people who accept as true what was not “clear and distinct.” These accepted false notions must be cleared away to pave the road for clear and distinct knowing. So Descartes lives as a “spectator” for nine years traveling the world, essentially living as a modern Socrates. The effect of his travels is to convince him that he does not know a great many things; it effects a clearing away of his knowledge by mere custom.

Next, secluding himself, Descartes seeks to lay sufficiently firm foundations (indubitable) for his entire project of knowing. He applies himself to doubting everything, opinions of morality, sense perception, even mathematics. He finds that while doubting he is thinking and he cannot doubt that he is thinking: cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore, I am.” This is his first principle of knowing, and from here he understand the essence of his nature, a thinking person independent of matter. From here he judges that what he could conceive very clearly and distinctly is true. And since he can conceive of a being more perfect that himself, it must both exist and must not be sourced in himself. This idea is of God and must be sourced in God.[3]

Finally, once Descartes has established the existence of God on the basis of his idea of him—God being more perfect than Descartes—he has good reason to be certain about clear and distinct ideas being true, and can build on this.[4] From here he proceeds to astronomy—though he does not publish this work—and then to the nature of fire. The fact that fire can sometimes produce heat and no light and vice versa, leads him into an inquiry of fire in the human heart. He describes this in great detail in part five. He concludes his work by setting out some principles for continuing his work after his death.

Evaluation

Evaluating Descartes one is tempted simply to throw one’s hands in the air and say “how naïve!” But it is important to understand Descartes in his social setting. It is important to see that while Descartes is typically talked about as the first modern, he was not himself modern. He was remarkably ancient in his epistemological convictions. He treatment of reason and perception for instance follows typically Platonic and Aristotelian judgments, but with the caveat of being more inclined to see error.[5] Further, Descartes thinks that man is vegetative and sensitive on account of God kindling “in the man’s heart one of those fires without light.”[6] It is really unfair to judge Descartes more harshly for his errors that come from his social context than we do others for their errors with the same source. In one sense, Descartes is not modern.

And yet, in another Descartes is the cardinal modern. Descartes seems to begin modernity in two related ways. First, Descartes is really concerned with difference in belief. There are historical reasons for this concern coming to the foreground at this particular moment, but the important point is that it continues to today. Negotiating difference of belief is the principle cause of the entire epistemic turn. Second, Descartes seems to be the first to flip the priority of epistemology and metaphysics.[7] In other words, Descartes at least makes methodological claims to start with epistemology rather than starting with faith seeking understanding. This is a massive shift in method that gets taken up with greater consistency by later philosophers to devastating effect on religious belief.

[1] In an Aristotelian sense, or “nature.

[2] For instance, he wonders in Meditations how we recognize wax as wax when its properties are altered through melting. He notes that bare perception would be confused, but that reason still recognizes it.

[3] This is obviously a very insufficient summary of the argument due to space limitations. The key moves are 1) ideas of things more perfect than Descartes cannot come from nowhere, and 2) ideas that exist clearly and distinctly must be true. It should be obvious that Descartes’ “foundation” relies on a massive set of assumptions about the nature of reason and reality and their relation.

[4] He says, “[W]e should never allow ourselves to be persuaded except by the evidence of our reason.” René Descartes, Discourse on Method, translated by Donald A. Cress. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1998.

[5] I have written a paper comparing Descartes and Aristotle’s accounts of error. They are remarkable for their similarity even though Aristotle famously says that sense perception cannot err in what is proper to it and Descartes doubts it all.

[6] Discourse, 26.

[7] Interestingly, there are two senses in which Descartes seems to be contradictory on this point. First, he claims not to have abandoned his religious beliefs. But later he talks of abandoning all beliefs. I take it that Descartes is simply deceitful about always holding to his religious beliefs; this is inconsistent with his stated methodology. He would have reason to be deceitful, something he explicitly admits in part six. But second, he is inconsistent even with his methodological claims since he does have some metaphysical assumptions that he cannot rid himself of. Later philosophers, like Hume, more consistently adopt his methodological claims without his metaphysical assumptions.

Quotable: Amélie Oksenberg Rorty, “the mind changed”

This is one of those paragraphs that states clearly a growing poorly defined awareness I have had I as have read philosophical and theological sources that there is a seismic shift in the nature of the mind and reason, which most theologians pass over in speaking of the nature or authority of reason. This change is massive, and ought to alter the conversation about the authority of reason in theology.

“During the period from Descartes to Rousseau, the mind changed. Its domain was redefined; its activities were redescribed; and its various powers were redistributed. Once a part of cosmic Nous, its various functions delimited by its embodied condition, the individual mind now becomes a field of forces with desires impinging on one another, their forces resolved according to their strengths and directions.”

Amélie Oksenberg Rorty, “From Passions to Emotions and Sentiments,” Philosophy 57 (1982), 159.

Robert Solomon on “who made me a radical.”

This quote is perfect for capturing the very human aspect of scholarly work. Robert Solomon writes this four years before his death about what made him over-state his views. This is self-critical and refreshing. Note especially the blame-shifting. Fantastic.

“It was John Rawls who made me a radical. It was more than twenty-five years ago, when I was just starting to think my way through The Passions, that Rawls and I were having lunch while we were both visiting the University of Michigan. I explained my blooming thesis to him, and he asked, rather matter of factly, ‘But surely when you say we choose our emotions you are saying something more than the fact that we choose what to do to bring about a certain emotion?’ This was John Rawls, whose Great Book had just been published, and I was not about to say, ‘Oh, well, yes, only that.’ Thus began a twenty-year stint of dramatic over-statement, to the effect of ‘we choose our emotions.’

Robert Solomon, “Emotions, Thoughts and Feelings: What is a ‘Cognitive Theory’ of the Emotions and Does it Neglect Affectivity?” in Philosophy and the Emotions, edited by Anthony Hatzimoysis, 16-17 (1-18).

Aquinas on Reason

[2] There is a twofold mode of truth in what we profess about God. Some truths about God exceed all the ability of the human reason. Such is the truth that God is triune. But there are some truths which the natural reason also is able to reach. Such are that God exists, that He is one, and the like. In fact, such truths about God have been proved demonstratively by the philosophers, guided by the light of the natural reason.

[3] That there are certain truths about God that totally surpass man’s ability appears with the greatest evidence. Since, indeed, the principle of all knowledge that the reason perceives about some thing is the understanding of the very substance of that being (for according to Aristotle ‘what a thing is’ is the principle of demonstration), it is necessary that the way in which we understand the substance of a thing determines the way in which we know what belongs to it. Hence, if the human intellect comprehends the substance of some thing, for example, that of a stone or of a triangle, no intelligible characteristic belonging to that thing surpasses the grasp of the human reason. But this does not happen to us in the case of God. For the human intellect is not able to read a comprehension of the divine substance through its natural power. For, according to its manner of knowing in the present life, the intellect depends on the sense for the origin of knowledge; and so those things that do not fall under the senses cannot be grasped by the human intellect except in so far as the knowledge of them is gathered from sensible things. Now, sensible things cannot lead the human intellect to the point of seeing in them the nature of the divine substance; for sensible things are effects that fall short of the power of their cause. Yet, beginning with sensible things, our intellect is led to the point of knowing about God that He exists, and other such characteristics that must be attributed to the First Principle. There are, consequently, some intelligible truths about God that are open to the human reason; but there are truths that absolutely surpass its power.

Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, I.3.2-3. (emphasis mine)