Essay—Descartes in Ten Minutes (Issue 27)

Summary—Descartes in Ten Minutes tells the story of René Descartes and his philosophy set against a history of existentialism.

George Bernhard Shaw (1856-1950) was an the Irish-born writer who is considered the most significant British dramatist since Shakespeare.  He once told the story of where he was talking to a woman at a social function.  He asked the woman whether she would sleep with him for a million dollars.  She paused and then said sure.  He then asked her whether she would sleep with him for fifty dollars.  She responded by saying—No, what type of woman do you think I am?  He said—Well, we know what type of woman you are—now we are just trying to determine the price.

Socrates and Plato.  The Greek Socrates (470-399 BC) radically insisted that we must first answer the question of what X is before we can say anything else about X.  In that Socrates never wrote a single word of philosophy—we know him from the writings of Plato (427-347 BC).  Plato used his famous allegory of the cave to illustrate the difference between spurious belief and genuine knowledge.  Imagine prisoners chained inside a cave such that they only see the shadows projected on the wall from the fire behind them.  A prisoner named Socrates breaks free of his chains and climbs out of the cave into daylight.  After his eyes adjust to the light he returns to the cave intending to free the prisoners.  But back inside the cave Socrates now has trouble making out the shadows.  And his obvious attempt at liberation only serves to anger the prisoners for revealing the illusionary nature of their existence.  They become so overwrought with anxiety that they proceed to kill him for it.  Plato also wrote the definitive argument of knowledge by asserting that true or a priori knowledge must be certain and infallible and it must be of real, eternal objects or Forms.

Saint Augustine and Saint Anselm.  Saint Augustine (354-430) once portrayed existence as an ontological set of stairs leading to God.  Augustine also foreshowed the Cartesian cogito—ie. cogito, ergo sum—ie. I think, therefore I exist.  In helping to formulate Neoplatonism, Augustine converted Platonic philosophy into that which was acceptable to the Church.  The ontological argument is an a priori argument for the existence of God—asserting that the conception of the perfect being implies the existence of that being outside the mind of man.  The crux of the argument lies with the notion that a perfect being must necessarily exist for that being to be considered perfect—for otherwise the being would lack an essential component of perfection, namely existence.  In other words, according to the argument, the very conceptualization of God directly leads to the conclusion of Her existence.  The argument originated in the eleventh century with an Augustinian by the name of Saint Anselm (1033-1109).  An Augustinian is a member of the Roman Catholic Church whose constitutions are based on the teachings of religious life as set forth by Saint Augustine.  The Augustinian order allowed Anselm the latitude within the Church to authentically reexamine the notion of God.

Ockham and Pascal.  The English monk William of Ockham (1285-1349) was one of the greatest thinkers of all time.  He was known for his keen sense of logic and his enduring theological ideologies.  Going entirely against the philosophy of his time, Ockham put forth his now famous principle of economy—which states the plurality of reasons should not be postulated without necessity.  Or in other words, if all things are equal, the simplest theory tends to be the right one.  Ockham employed his principle so frequently and with such purpose that it became known as Ockham’s razor.  He claimed it is vain to do with more what can be done with less.  And even today, Ockham’s razor still remains the very foundation of all truly authentic philosophic and scientific reasoning.  The French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-62) originated option theory with his famous wager regarding the questions of existence and ultimate nature of God.  His argument came during the Renaissance in response to those unwilling to believe in God strictly on faith and authority.  Pascal argued that living a simple life which seeks to understand God represents the option premium which then allows for the possibility of salvation should it turn out that God does exist.

Descartes’ Work.  René Descartes (1596-1650) was a French philosopher, scientist, mathematician and solider.  He was the father of modern philosophy—ie. the Cartesian cogito—and the father of modern mathematics—ie. algebra plus geometry equals analytic geometry—and the system of Cartesian coordinates.  Descartes insisted on the primacy of the individual and the analysis of human consciousness.  This starting point for existential philosophy is the Cartesian cogito—ie. cogito, ergo sum—ie. I think, therefore I exist.  Descartes formulated his famous Cartesian Model for constructing arguments which is—Order thoughts from simple to complex—Only accept clear and distinct ideas as true—Divide arguments into as many parts as necessary—Check thoroughly for oversights—And, using reversibility, rehearse, examine and test arguments over and over until they can be grasped with a single act of intuition or faith.  Initially, one faithfully or intuitively senses truth, which is followed up by constructing rational arguments and then intuitively capturing completed arguments.  In other words, faith leads us to reason and then reason leads us back to faith.  Descartes also formulated the theory of systematic doubt whereby the existentialist says no to any argument no matter how plausible so long as he saw the possibility of doubting the argument.

Descartes’ Life.  By the end of the sixteenth century philosophy had ceased to progress—and it was Descartes who started it up again.  Descartes sought certainly throughout life.  He graduated from law school although he never practiced law.  His father was a judge.  Descartes slept until noon every day of his life and never worked a day of his life.  He lived off his mother’s inheritance.  Descartes was afforded the luxury of being largely self-taught while attending a Jesuit school.  In the afternoon he would study mathematics, riding, fencing and flute-playing.  After law school Descartes went on an extended tour of Europe—finally settling in the philosophically liberal Holland.  Queen Christina of Sweden was a fan of Descartes—and sent a warship to collect him from Holland with the intention of turning Stockholm into the philosophic centre of the north.  At fifty-three he was still rising at noon every day.  Christina insisted on philosophy and science lessons taught at five in the morning.  After a month in an icy Sweden Descartes caught pneumonia and died.  Upon hearing of his death, Christina said that her philosopher had promised her that he would to live until one hundred—It seems he has not kept his promise.  One of the greatest minds of all time sacrificed to the whim of royalty at the age of fifty-four.

Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.  Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was a Danish religious philosopher concerned with subjective existence and moral choice.  In his first major work Either/Or Kierkegaard described two spheres of existence in the aesthetic and the ethical.  The aesthetic chooses a way of life that is a refined version of hedonism and sensualism consisting of a search for pleasure.  The ethical way of life involves an intense and passionate commitment to duty and to the unconditional social and religious obligations.  Kierkegaard then advocated taking a leap of faith from the aesthetic to the ethical.  Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was a German philosopher and poet who made philosophy dangerous for not only philosophers but for the Everyman as well—ie. those choosing the aesthetic sphere of existence.  The Will to Power is the basic impulse of our actions.  It is the essence of Being oneself.  He defined Superman as an individual who chooses the road less traveled—and also chooses the ethical sphere of existence.  Nietzsche defined eternal reoccurrence as the notion that we live our lives over and over again.

Sartre and Camus.  Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) was a French philosopher, dramatist, novelist and political journalist, who was a leading exponent of existentialism and later on he advocated Marxism.  He defined existentialism as the philosophy for which existence precedes essence.  For manmade things, the idea of the thing comes before the actual thing itself—that is, essence precedes existence.  But for man, who arrives on the scene and then becomes what he is, existence precedes essence.  The difference is that man continually creates his own essence in every moment through his decisions and actions.  Like Socrates and Descartes before him, Sartre insisted on the primacy of the individual and the analysis of human consciousness.  Albert Camus (1913-1960) was a French-Algerian novelist, essayist, dramatist and journalist—and friend of Sartre.  He was a Nobel laureate whose concepts of the absurd and of human revolt address and suggest solutions to the existentialism problem of meaninglessness in modern human life.  Every great writer touches the young—and Camus was no exception.  He spoke to his generation.  Not only did he write about existentialism, but he lived the life of an existentialist.  His works exist today and still exerts an extraordinary influence.

Conclusion.  The entire world of philosophy radiates outwardly from the Cartesian cogito.  According to the Freudian cognitive model, the reality-based ego is the decisionmaker who must choose between the internal values of the id—and the external authority of the superego.  The Cartesian cogito chooses the id over the superego.  The Cartesian Model combined with the method of systematic doubt puts forth an awesome model for constructing arguments.