Montaigne, Descartes, Pascal, & Rorty

We’re back from Fall Break today, in CoPhi, with Descartes (& Grayling on Descartes) , Montaigne (& Bakewell on How to Live acc’ing to M), Pascal, and Romano on Richard Rorty. Three old French philosophers and one recent American. Only one of them (Descartes) thought we could truly know anything, but even he admitted he wasn’t entirely sure life is not a dream.

That’s a bit misleading. None of them was a skeptic. Montaigne and Rorty in particular were really taking issue with unreasonably high expectations for what we call knowledge. Lower those, and we’ll know more than enough. In any event we know plenty that can’t be “known” and (as Mark Twain put it) more that just ain’t so. 

One other thing we know is the historical timeline. Montaigne comes first, but since I always introduce him as the anti-Descartes he rarely gets top billing. The late Robert Solomon did the same thing. Not fair, for a guy who gave us the essay and (as Sarah Bakewell says) is so much “fun” to read. Unlike Descartes he was a true skeptic and “quite happy to live with that.” His slogan, carved into the beams of his castle tower study, was Que sçais-je?  [Montaigne @dawn… M’s tower]



Rene Descartes, not at all (Pythons notwithstanding) a “drunken fart,” simply wanted to know what he could know for certain. His skepticism was methodological, his goal was indubitable certainty. This, he thought, would serve the new science well. He misunderstood the self-correcting, probabilistic, fallibilistic nature of empirical reasoning. But most philosophers still think it’s worth wondering: how do you know you’re not dreaming, not being deceived by a demon or by your senses, not mistaking your own essential nature?


Still, cogito ergo sum overrates intellect. You don’t have to think, to demonstrate your existence. You just have to do something… even, as an old grad school pal used to say, if it’s wrong.


I usually think of Charles Sanders Peirce as Descartes’ most practical critic, and I agree with him that a contrived and methodological doubt is not the best starting place in philosophy.

But it occurs to me that an even more practical alternative to what I consider the misguided Cartesian quest for certainty is old Ben Franklin’s Poore RichardHis is not armchair wisdom, it comes straight from the accumulated experience of the folk. Some of that “common sense” is too common, but plenty is dead-on. “Early to bed, early to rise…” has definitely worked for me.

Still, says Grayling, “we may disagree with Descartes that the right place to start is with the private data of consciousness” rather than the shared world of language and common experience; but even if he was wrong he was “powerfully, interestingly, and importantly wrong.”

As Group #2 ((17) rightly pointed out the other day, there’s much more to Blaise Pascal than his famous Wager [SEP], besides his mathematics and “Pascaline,” his proto-computer, there are all those thoughts (Pensees) and there’s also his antipathy for his fellow  philosophe FrancaisMontaigne. I usually compare-&-contrast Montaigne and Descartes, so this makes for a nice new menage a trois (without an accent). Blaise is hostile to both Rene and Michel but is a cautious gambler, finding Descartes’ God too antiseptic and too, well, philosophical. And he finds Montaigne a self-absorbed, trivia-mongering potty-mouth.

But Montaigne would not at all disagree that “the heart has its reasons which reason knows not.” And isn’t it funny to think of Descartes philosophizing in his hypothetical armchair, asking if his fire and his body (etc.) are real, pretending to speculate that all the world and its philosophical problems might be figments of his solipsistic or dreamy or demon-instigated imagination? And then funnier still to come across this quote from Pascal: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”  But look what happens when a philosopher sits quietly in a room alone: you get the Meditations!
Pascal also said

“Truth is so obscure in these times, and falsehood so established, that, unless we love the truth, we cannot know it.” And “It is man’s natural sickness to believe that he possesses the Truth.”

And

“There are two equally dangerous extremes: to exclude reason, to admit nothing but reason.”

And

“The nature of man is wholly natural, omne animal. There is nothing he may not make natural; there is nothing natural he may not lose.”*

And

“The weather and my mood have little connection. I have my foggy and my fine days within me…” [Or as Jimmy Buffett says, carry the weather with you.]

And all military veterans especially should appreciate this one:

“Can anything be stupider than that a man has the right to kill me because he lives on the other side of a river and his ruler has a quarrel with mine, though I have not quarrelled with him?”

And this will be an epigraph for my Philosophy Walks (or its sequel Philosophy Rides):

“Our nature lies in movement; complete calm is death.”


But Pascal does finally blow the big game of life, for betting too heavily on self-interest. He’s obsessed with “saving [his] own soul at all costs.” That’s a losing proposition.

[*That statement about us being “omne animal” sounded flattering, to me, being a philosophical naturalist and a friend to animals. But later epigraphs indicate Pascal’s platonist perfectionism and his derogatory attitude towards humanity and its natural condition. Without God’s grace, he writes, we are “like unto the brute beasts.” He doesn’t seem pleased about that, but I’m with Walt Whitman: “I think I could turn and live with animals, they’re so placid and self contain’d… They do not sweat and whine about their condition… They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God…”]

Julia Sweeney, donning her no-god glasses, gets to the nub of what’s wrong with Pascal’s Wager:

So how can I come up against this biggest question, the ultimate question, “Do I really believe in a personal God,” and then turn away from the evidence? How can I believe, just because I want to? How will I have any respect for myself if I did that?

I thought of Pascal’s Wager. Pascal argued that it’s better to bet there is a God, because if you’re wrong there’s nothing to lose, but if there is, you win an eternity in heaven. But I can’t force myself to believe, just in case it turns out to be true. The God I’ve been praying to knows what I think, he doesn’t just make sure I show up for church. How could I possibly pretend to believe? I might convince other people, but surely not God.


And probably not Richard Rorty, for whom philosophy is not about nailing down the unequivocal Truth but rather continuing the never-concluding Conversation of humankind. 

Rorty was the most controversial philosopher on the scene back when I began grad school, having just published his brilliantly and infuriatingly iconoclastic Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Everybody had to have a view on it, and on his view that philosophy’s long quest to represent “external reality” accurately was a waste of time we were free to give up. We could ditch our “comic” efforts “to guarantee this and clarify that.” 

Philosophers get attention only when they appear to be doing something sinister–corrupting the youth, undermining the foundations of civilization, sneering at all we hold dear. The rest of the time everybody assumes that they are hard at work somewhere down in the sub-basement, keeping those foundations in good repair. Nobody much cares what brand of intellectual duct tape is being used.

My current position, after several oscillations, has settled at last into the earnest wish that more philosophers wrote as wittily and as well as he did. Almost none do. Did he get pragmatism and truth right? I guess that’s what he’d call a duct tape question.

via Blogger http://jposopher.blogspot.com/2013/10/montaigne-descartes-pascal-rorty.html

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