Thursday, February 12, 2009

Cartesian heresy

In Descartes’ philosophy, there is a thread that ties together his epistemic concerns in a way that is shockingly similar (in one respect) to the kinds of concerns of those ancient epistemologies adopted by Stoics and Pyrrhonians.

Those ancient philosophers were wildly obsessed with ethics and the good life. I say that with tongue-in-cheek, partly in the mode of satire and partly in the mode of (imagined) nostalgia. I qualify with “imagined” because I do not know what it must have been like to be always connecting one’s metaphysics and epistemology to concerns about the good life. There was a time, not too long ago even, when the very term “metaphysics” connoted also a treatment of philosophical cosmology wherein one would naturally discuss the place of humanity in the wider order of the structured cosmos. That conversation is largely dead, as far as I can tell. It was of course alive and well, for example, in a medieval philosopher such as Boethius who went so far in his Consolation to identify (well... maybe that’s too strong) or at any rate closely relate his own flourishing to that of the cosmos. What’s good for the cosmos must in some sense be good for him, and as such, his intense suffering must be justified. In his mind, a metaphysics that combined Stoic and Christian categories seemed right. (I suppose that I too would cling to almost anything that made sense of my impending death-by-bludgeoning.) But I digress...

Much as the Stoics (who pursued apathia) and Pyrrhonians (who pursued ataraxia) were concerned about a peaceful existence that comes from ordering one’s beliefs in the right way, Descartes also has designs on an epistemic system that will stay put. The possible heresy about which I am wondering: What if Descartes, unlike the ancient epistemologists, had truth in the backseat in his concerns? What if Descartes is really more interested in the calm, intellectual peace that comes with a stable system of beliefs that is psychologically unassailable, independent of the truth question?

If this is the case, then the Cartesian project is non-normative from an epistemic point of view. Descartes is actually like Quine.

An obvious rejoinder is to suggest that Descartes is after both: (i) an efficient, stable superstructure of beliefs that (ii) is actually true!

Granted that he could be after both... But I’m playing with an idea here...

Are there reasons to think that he could be after (i) by itself independent of any concern for (ii)? I think there is. When Descartes begins to deal with his modal notions of what is and is not possible, he adopts a shockingly blunt psychological criterion about the limits and constitution of human noetic structures. This is fascinating. It suggests that he thinks clear and distinct modal notions are brokered not so much by truth/falsity but by dubitability, where the latter is not a reliable indication of the former.

That’s dynamite.

No comments: