Sunday, 27 January 2013

Practical Stupidity

Unlike Bacon, the French philosopher Descartes allowed himself few explicitly utopian moments.  While as a good English Protestant Bacon could live his life at home, in the 1630s Descartes stayed out of France and found freedom abroad.  In the safe haven of the Dutch city Leiden, he published his Discourse on Method as an alternative to the medieval philosophies taught by the clergy who controlled the French universities.  Illustrated on its title page by a peasant digging his field, it insisted in clear and simple language that every movement or change in nature had to be explained mechanically, that is, by the pulling and pushing of bodies against one another.  No spirits or magical agents, no inherent tendencies, belonged in a philosophy of nature that encompassed everything from the movement of the planets to the action of the nerve endings in the human hand.  In the Cartesian universe, pain results not from an affliction of the soul, but from impulses travelling to the brain.  In the place of speculations by medieval philosophers and theologians, Descartes proclaimed that “a practical philosophy can be found by which… we thereby make ourselves, as it were, masters and possessors of nature.”

Safe from the Inquisition that in 1613 had condemned Galileo, Descartes lived and wrote in the Dutch and largely Protestant cities because, as he explained, in them men got on with their business and left others to their speculations  (Telling the Truth About History, by Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt & Margaret Jacob.  My emphasis.)

Non-utopian; tending to one’s own business; the emphasis on practical knowledge; a reference to “a peasant digging his field”… Sound familiar?

It is Candide! 

My last two pieces were based on the assumption that Voltaire’s inspiration came from his Anglomania; especially his addiction to the British empiricists, which he used to attack the continental metaphysicians who he believed were upholders of an outdated intellectual system and purveyors of an inhumane philosophy.  It now appears that a Frenchman may have inspired him after all.  How explain this anomaly?  Peter Gay suggests an answer.

The propagandists of the Enlightenment were French, but its patron saints and pioneers were British: Bacon, Newton, and Locke had such splendid reputations on the Continent that they quite overshadowed the revolutionary ideas of a Descartes or a Fontenelle, and it became not only tactically useful but intellectually respectable in eighteenth-century France to attribute to British savants ideas they may well have learned from Frenchmen.  (The Enlightenment: An Interpretation; The Rise of Modern Paganism)

Descartes was at the cusp of an intellectual revolution when knowledge was rapidly accumulating; and therefore changing.1  Inevitably some of his ideas went quickly out of date.  Academics being what they are he was severely criticised, mocked even, for his mistakes; particularly by Locke and Newton, two thinkers who proved politically useful to the Philosophes in their intellectual battles with the Catholic Church.  No longer quite the authority he once was, his reputation on the wane, he was to be displaced by more fashionable thinkers who used the revolution he started to destroy the intellectual foundations of the system he created – God was on the way out in the 18th century.  The most radical effects of his thought occurring not when he was alive but a century after his death, although typically he wasn’t given the credit.2  The result?  We believe Candide is an English Locke rather than the French Descartes he has been all along.  Was Voltaire aware of this injustice?  Was this his irony?

It is not the origin of ideas that is important so much as their influence; especially in the wider intellectual community.  This is often determined by the epigones of an original genius, who canalise the richness and variety of his thought into ideologies that although more limited are usually more logical, and thus easier to communicate than the source material, which is too diffuse and difficult to be readily understood.  Thinkers such as Descartes and Newton need interpreters who can simplify their thought, and thereby give it popular appeal.  Disciples like cleaners tidying up the house after the great man has left.

Followers tend to simplify their founder’s ideas in order to support a prevailing ideology,3 such as the entrenched views of the followers of Cartesian and Newtonian science,4 or to tame them so as to buttress an existing religion - Descartes’ thought having a complex (and partially modernising) influence on a Christianity which the Philosophes sort to debunk.5 And it is these ideologies that have the most impact; intellectuals on the whole wanting a stable system of ideas that gives them a secure meaning, which they can absorb and then communicate; to willing pupils and a curious public.  Most intellectuals are preachers at heart.  Pangloss is their archetype.  He doesn’t think for himself; instead he regurgitates a revealed message, which his students are expected to memorise but not question.  Candide highlighting the danger if they do…

The English thinkers were consciously used as a weapon by the Philosophes to attack the Catholic Church and the absolutism it supported; and while Descartes could sometimes be used as an ally, Voltaire contrasting his exile from France with Britain’s tolerance of Newton, he was too useful a target, his rationalist system building too similar to the hated scholasticism, not to be lambasted and lampooned.6  By ridiculing the Cartesians Voltaire and his friends were seeking to undermine Catholicism; for by equating its scholastic underpinnings with Descartes’ discredited physics it could be portrayed as being defeated by the new science; which proved it to be antiquated and useless.  And indeed in his introduction to Candide Professor Butt emphasises the essentially Christian message of the philosophic Optimists; a message requiring the subtlety of a profound thinker that was too often propagated by the clever but crude - the followers of Leibniz not Leibniz himself; intelligent men who being too rational missed the essence of their master’s thought.  Their soul not large enough to think deeply.  On the surface they appeared uncaring, the ostensible object of Voltaire’s attack, but this is a sign of a more serious intellectual failing: they lacked the requisite feeling, the “touch”, to question their own premises; that is, to think new thoughts.7  Unable to create new knowledge they can only copy and manipulate what already exists; Pangloss filing away all the rough edges of the world so that it fits smoothly into his too capacious theory.  How easy it is to explain away the facts we do not like.  Ideology is like maquillage!  It hides all the defects in our thinking.  Reason the make-up bag an intellectual carries in his briefcase.  Lipstick, eyeliner and foundation are his logical arguments!

And yet… Descartes was to have his revenge, sneaking in between Voltaire’s covers. 

Although it is a curious victory, because Candide must give up serious thinking in order to find earthly satisfaction.  Is this the sacrifice Voltaire himself had to make when he became a polemicist?  For by simplifying the Englishmen’s ideas, by turning them into the crudest of experimental empiricism,8 he filtered out the rationalism on which all science and serious inquiry depends.  By leaving Mr Profundity behind on this way to popularity Voltaire thus loses thought’s most important attribute – abstract reason - in a polemic that is brilliant but superficial.  Reduced to a utopian caricature pure reason is misrepresented; which in turn falsifies the nature of the scientific revolution; the empiricist bricks that built that great edifice now believed to be held together without any rationalist cement.  No wonder Voltaire’s conclusion is so shaky!  His mistake is to equate Pangloss with Leibniz, a mediocrity with a thinker of genius; the richness of one thus lost to the poverty of the other.  It is why the comedy is so sharp - because it is so crude. Candide, we now realise, an unfortunate victim of his author’s propaganda.  The reason he suffers so.

Descartes, as befits an original thinker, was wiser: he makes a distinction between those who “got on with their business” and those who were allowed “their speculations”.  Both are important. Voltaire’s mistake is to worship one at the expense of the other; at base, it seems, this great writer wanted to be a commercial success.  Bourgeois riches more important that poorly paid thought, popularity preferred over profundity, practical utility over creative reason…  Of course these preferences are disguised; a fool standing in for the greats who are too dangerous to be confronted directly.  They have too much to say; their words flowing over the stereotypes their epigones and critics have constructed to control their influence.  Whatever happens these ideas must not be contaminated by the outpourings of their genius; a Pangloss cannot afford to meet a Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, who would demolish his childish concepts.  Instead a disciple builds his own irrigation ditches to feed his own neatly tended fields; leaving the great river to flow on safely between the high banks of conventional wisdom that have been erected to prevent their flood.  The rest can be forgotten.  A great philosopher reduced to a simple phrase, and an unimaginative bourgeois elevated to the epitome of human society.  It is a scandal.  It is so unjust.  But how we love it! 




[i] Basil Wiley captures this turmoil and oddness in his The Eighteenth Century Background, where he describes the intellectual confusion of a later period; where thinkers would try to reconcile Christian theology to the new knowledge; the Bible with the discovery of America.
Newton famously was both a scientist of genius and a searcher after arcane knowledge; which included alchemy and the decoding of ancient religious texts.
            For a brilliant summary of Descartes’ intellectual relationship to Newton and his complex influence on the Philosophes see Peter Gay’s The Enlightenment: An Interpretation; The Science of Freedom.
            For a wider survey of the overlapping influences of the three great systems of thought (British Empiricism, Cartesianism and Leibniz’s accommodation between the new science and the old theology) see Jonathan Israel’s Radical Enlightenment.  For Israel, controversially, it is a particular brand of Cartesian, Spinoza’s, that was the most radical, even revolutionary, of them all.  While the thesis may be overstated the brilliance of this book lies in its depiction of the intellectual complexity and movement of the period, where no settled system of thought dominated; the new ideologies battling it out between themselves and with orthodox religion; Catholic, Protestant and Jewish.
[ii] Peter Gay calls Descartes both one of the teachers of the Enlightenment and one of its victims (The Enlightenment: An Interpretation; The Science of Freedom).
[iii] A marvellous quote from Nietzsche captures this quality of change in the nature of ideas as they move from their original creation to their later systematization:
            Doubt as sin.  Christianity has done its utmost to close the circle and declared even doubt to be sin.  One is supposed to be cast into belief without reason, by a miracle, and from then on to swim in it as in the brightest and least ambiguous of elements: even a glance towards land, even the thought that one perhaps exists for something else as well as swimming, even the slightest impulse of our amphibious nature – is sin!  And notice that all this means that the foundation of belief and reflection on its origin is likewise excluded as sinful.  What is wanted are blindness and intoxication and an eternal song over the waves in which reason has drowned!”  (Daybreak; Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality)
            The remarkable feature of a disciple is their intoxication with the thought of their founder.  Once they have achieved this miracle of belief, the moment, for example, when Descartes is experienced as a revelation, the rest of their lives are an endless attempt to deepen and extend the doctrine, now accepted as divine truth.  Disciples are natural evangelists.  This evangelism preferred to an understanding the world, which would need to put the founder’s ideas to one side, or even to question them; the essence of an original thinker their capacity to doubt what they have been told.  A genius starts with the world; their epigones with his ideas about it.
Nietzsche is here writing about faith, but in other places he writes about the blindness of reason; of a particular kind of reason to be sure; a reason that shares many of the same features of a belief - a mode of thought that does not question its own premises.  This is a characteristic of the disciple who usually relies too much on rationality, and is thus misled by it.  Believing in the ideologies they have created over time disciples tend to simplify the world into cliché; an original insight into the class struggle becoming the only explanation for social conflict a few generations down the line…  It is this tendency to expand over time, until a point is reached where they can explain everything, that is an ideology’s undoing - emptied of all particular content they become absurd.  This is the moment when they are ripe for dissolution.  It is the moment when Pangloss describes poverty as the best of all possible worlds.
[iv] For a study of how Newton’s ideas became an ideology see Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs and Margaret C. Jacobs, Newton and the Culture of Newtonianism.
[v] Nicely captured by Norman Hampson:
            “The Roman Church put all Descartes’ works on the Index of prohibited books, but his influence permeated much of Christian Europe to an extent that would have been impossible if he had been an adversary of the faith.”  (The Enlightenment)
            Peter Gay fills in the details:
            “…Descartes became fashionable in high society and valuable to highly placed apologists; gradually, in the hands of the philosophers like Malebranche and Fénelon and biographers like Baillet, there emerged a pious, safe, modern but wholly reliable Descartes… not an invitation to, but a bulwark against, atheism.”  (Science of Freedom)
[vi] The Science of Freedom
[vii] Although this doesn’t apply to Pangloss, he is indifferent to his enemies, we often find that ideologues are good haters with little sympathy with those different from themselves.  They want to be in a club of the like-minded.  Members only please!  It is as if ideas exist only to protect them from other people (and from experience – is it so terrible?).  It is as if… they… have a fear of the unknown.  Are they scared of the fluidity and amorphousness of emotion?  Hate and worship, those two emotional extremes, the two emotions one can be sure about, are preferred to the infinite graduations, the complexity, of ordinary feelings that cannot be so easily categorised; and which rely on judgements that require “touch” and “feel”, and which are relative to the moment.  There are no clearly defined labels in ordinary feeling.  They are too complex and subtle, too often shading into each other, for that.  Thus they create uncertainty; and unease in those used to the absolutism of their own minds.  Their minds must always be in charge.  They want precise descriptions and clear commands.  They are jury and judge,  and always they know the guilty from the innocent.  Believing themselves different from everybody else they have a tendency to separate out thought from feeling.  Reason is their god.  They believe they have more of it than anyone else.  Always they must remain aloof - from others and from their own body.  They will not lose themselves in themselves!  Thus the usefulness of an ideology – it helps them “fix” an identity by securing for themselves ideas that never change.  Now they know who they are!  “I am what I believe”.  What an odd idea.  That mistakes the instrument for the person who holds it; a human for a machine; thought for feeling… Now we see!  They use ideas to protect themselves from their own mutability.  They are a Marxist.  A Darwinian.  Even a Libertarian… (The last one particularly odd – think about it.)  How they like their labels!  It is the only way they can identify themselves.  For an ideologue ideas are like mirrors; they look at them to confirm their own existence.
[viii] John Locke was always far more complicated than this.  See his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

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