No, Not Everything is Descartes’ Fault

It seems like a common philosophy 101 (or maybe 201) move to lay all the sins of our current mental models at the feet of Descartes (assuming you’re not just regurgitating reactionary talking points about how postmodernism and Marxism are destroying the West, and that you’re actually reading some deeper material).

I don’t think this is right or fair, though I do myself agree with certain critiques of Descartes and the later reception of his thought. There seems to be this basic urge to find a point in the history of (Western) philosophy where it all went wrong, and place the blame on a particular thinker or movement. Personally, I’d be more inclined to say Aquinas is perhaps more to blame than Descartes, as already in his scholasticism you find a more reified distinction between heaven and earth, the natural and the supernatural, which provides fertile soil for a sharp Cartesian divide between mind and body, as well as ushuring in the possibility for a kind of decadent literalism which imagines this now separate category of the supernatural in terms of the natural, leading to things like the God-as-powerful-bearded-guy-in-the-sky trope.

If we are even more honest, though, I think we can find the roots of Aquinas’ faults far earlier within Aristotle and his particular teaching concerning substance among other things. But then also the fact that Plato even decided to write philosophy in the first place, thus reifying thought into something monolithic rather than inherently dynamic and relational is perhaps an even deeper root for these problems. This is beyond the scope of my familiarity, but I’m sure even the pre-Socratics could be blamed by an astute scholar of ancient philosophy.

Critique is necessary and good, especially when it is in the service of a constructive project, but at the base of this preoccupation I believe there’s ultimately a drive for purity — a quest which often prefers clears distinctions over truth and deeper understandings.

Thought can always be a double-edged sword. No thinker has ever been 100% right about reality and even if they were, thoughts are embedded in language which is fickle and imperfect, and the older the philosophy, the more likely it is to be read in translation, adding still another layer of interpretation where things have the possibility to be understood in different ways than the original intent of the author.

My contention is this is actually fine, or even a good thing. There was no pure and perfect era of philosophy which was subsequently ruined thanks to a certain figure or movement. Perhaps a certain form of philosophy was particularly well-suited to its own era, but is maladapted to our current age. Go read some primary texts (as I’m doing with Descartes currently), and use your own discernment. Take the good and leave the bad.

Yes, listen to critical secondary sources, but I think it’s an all-too-common pathology, especially among autodidacts, to read a text critical of Descartes (for example) and take this to be the final word, and the one true interpretation of both Descartes and the history of philosophy. This is, frankly, naive.

Polemical secondary sources often have a bone to pick, and are advancing a particular project. This is fine, as that’s just the natural of argumentative writing, but to assume automatic primacy of this type of work, not thinking that perhaps the author simplified at places or that they may have excluded certain counter arguments that make themselves known in other receptions of the thinker in scrutiny — again, this to me shows a lack of maturity in how one approaches academic and philosophical material.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store