Descartes & Montaigne

Today’s reading focuses on Descartes, Leibniz, and Spinoza, three Rationalists with different ideas about “substance” or ultimate reality. But first, it’s useful to contrast “the father of modern philosophy” with his mischievous French cousin Montaigne– an anti-Descartes, at least with respect to the knowledge quest. Instead of trying to know the world through first principles that couldn’t be doubted, Montaigne tried to seek self-knowledge through his chatty and personal essays. (An essay just is a try, an attempt, a stab in the dark.)

Montaigne was a happy skeptic: “The most manifest sign of wisdom is continual cheerfulness.” Where Descartes sought certainty and indubitability, Montaigne supposed we might need eight or nine senses to really know the world. Since we don’t have ’em, we ought (he thought) to free ourselves from any doomed quest for certainty. Accept and enjoy. We can’t really be certain of our own sanity, let alone the foundational solidity of our first principles. “Cogito ergo sum” might just as well be “Dubito ergo sum.” The custom of the country is not the same thing as rational and objective proof, different countries accept different truths. And so, Montaigne chiseled the wisdom of Pyrrho and Sextus into his rafters and kept on essaying to understand himself and the benighted world.

[JMHcool medium (books)… consolation for inadequacy (deB)… Who knows?…”Que scais-je?”… Pyrrho’s PigNew Yorker… Spanish Inquisition]

NOTE TO STUDENTS: All midterm presenters need to be present and ready to report today. Exam 2 is on Thursday.

UPDATE: I’m canceling afternoon classes today, after a series of “take shelter” tornado warnings. Hunker down. We’ll do the exam on Tuesday. More on Descartes, Montaigne, Leibniz, & Spinoza on Thursday.

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