Archive for February 8th, 2012

Descartes before the horse

February 8, 2012

Sorry. That was the first philosophy pun I ever heard, and sadly it’s stuck with me. (Thanks, Cogan.) The second, also delivered with a Scots brogue by a smug grad student, waved at materialism and dualism: “No matter, never mind.” Philosophical humor (not to be confused with the philosophy of humor) is not for everyone. But you should still check out the Pythons arguing, singing and singing and playing. Now, though, something completely different…

It’s the 17th century already, in Co-Phi. How time flies when you’re getting the big picture!

W 8/Th 9 PW 72-88. Descartes & Montaigne, Rationalism (Spinoza, Leibniz), Empiricism (Locke, Berkeley, Hume), Philosophy & Revolution (Voltaire, Rousseau, Jefferson), Adam Smith.

Modern philosophy begins with Descartes, in many ways. He adopted a skeptical methodology but was no Pyrrho, no all-devouring non-believer. Skepticism did not feel therapeutic to him, he wanted to get over it and formulate definite beliefs leading to certain knowledge. His countryman Montaigne, on the other hand, was more Old School. His slogan: “What do I know?”

Montaigne is the subject of a terrific new book called How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, by Sarah Bakewell. This is skepticism blended with fallibilism and intellectual humility and earthy humanism. Montaigne invented the essay, and remains one of its great masters.  Can you tell I prefer him to Descartes? Well, I do.

The Rationalists and Empiricists continued to footnote Plato (and Socrates and Aristotle). Revolution was in the air of Paris and Philadelphia. Adam Smith‘s Invisible Hand didn’t write what some of his name-droppers think it did.  His pal David Hume expressed a shocking-sounding view of the limits of reason, but what he really wanted to emphasize was the primacy and power of custom and tradition.

Spinoza & Leibniz (& Einstein)modern timesQue sais-jeDescartes & MontaigneConsolation for inadequacyWho knows?…Hume on miraclesHume’s pricked fingerempiricistsrationalists & empiricistsShow Me