Descartes, The Planned City, And Misplaced Philosophical Desires

In Part 2 of Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason and Seeking for Truth in the Sciences Rene Descartes, as a prelude to his ‘clearing away’ of prior philosophy, writes:

[T]here is very often less perfection in works composed of several portions, and carried out by the hands of various masters, than in those on which one individual alone has worked. Thus we see that buildings planned and carried out by one architect alone are usually more beautiful and better proportioned than those which many have tried to put in order and improve, making use of old walls which were built with other ends in view. In the same way also, those ancient cities which, originally mere villages, have become in the process of time great towns, are usually badly constructed in comparison with those which are regularly laid out on a plain by a surveyor who is free to follow his own ideas….we understand how difficult it is to bring about much that is satisfactory in operating only upon the works of others.

Interestingly enough, as the examples of Chandigarh, Brasilia, and Canberra show, the planned city, built from scratch to purpose, the product of a singular architectural vision, is very often a counterpart to the bustling, chaotic, cosmopolitan cities whose growth has proceeded, at best, along an entirely haphazard trajectory.The ostensible beauty of the planned city’s design has not compensated for its lack of history, the absence of accretions of culture and lives lived within its precincts; the planned city gets off the ground with little interference from what came before, but it does not encourage riffs and improvisation. The planned city offers a gleaming surface and little else; it lacks the blemishes that speak of a rich interior. It has set itself apart, and there it shall stay. (No offense is intended to the residents of these cities; still, I think they would agree their city’s lack of a past, its ab initio origins, contribute in some measure to the contrast it offers to the great metropolises of the world.)

There is much that goes wrong with Western philosophy thanks to Descartes: the obsession with system building, the epistemic foundationalism, the quest for certainty, the alignment of philosophy with the sciences and mathematics, the appearance-reality distinction, the desire to ground truths in something beyond the human, the divorce of philosophy from history. (These sins cannot all be laid at Descartes door, of course; Plato is the original culprit for many of them.) Here, in the Discourse, we see the glimmerings of another problematic vision, one manifest in domains other than philosophy as well: that works made in splendid solitude are necessarily inferior to those made jointly with others, through acts of creative, even if sometimes clumsy and flawed, appropriation and improvisation. In doing so, Descartes reinforces–among other things–the fallacy of the lone creator, the solitary artist, the self-made man, the sole author.

Ironically, Descartes ended up generating a great deal of undergrowth that hasn’t been cleared yet (or alternatively, a foundation that still tempts too many of those who came after.)

Yertle The Turtle, Cosmological Anti-Foundationalism, And Political Change

Bertrand Russell and William James were informed, in rather arch fashion, we are told, that the solution to the age-old cosmological problem was that it was turtles all the way down. Another no less distinguished philosopher, Theodor Seuss Geisel suggested, however, that the chain of turtles, rather than extending into the deepest recesses of a cosmic infinitude, might terminate in a particular turtle, one named Mack, with a proclivity for burping at inopportune moments. Especially if you happened to be the top of the heap, and gazing fondly over the vast reaches of your empire, as Yertle, Mack’s oppressor, was. This rather simple opposition, however, does not do justice to the political and metaphysical sophistication of Geisel’s vision of this world’s orderings and the motive powers that might disturb them.

Consider that Mack does not remove himself from the bottom of the stack by shrugging, which might be considered the correct way to displace off one’s shoulders, the weight of an oppressive, individuality-destroying hierarchy (as Ayn Rand so memorably suggested in, er, Atlas Shrugged); rather, he burps. Why does Geisel chose the emission of the burp as the prime stack-toppling agent?

A burp is, as Wikipedia informs us, “the release of gas from the digestive tract (mainly esophagus and stomach) through the mouth. It is usually accompanied with a typical sound and, at times, an odor.”  As mention of “gas,” “mouth,” “digestive,” “stomach,” and “odor” suggest, a burp is a lowly, bodily thing. There is little reason in it; no premeditation, no planning, no ratiocination; it is irredeemably sordid with nary a hint of the sublime. It is all praxis and no theory. It is pure, elemental physicality, a surge of bodily power, a summoning up from the primeval depths of forces beyond our control. The murk stirs at the bottom of the pit, double bubble toil and trouble, and a gaseous charge is emitted, racing upwards for release at our oral orifice. (Modesty forbids me mention the alternate passageways that may be followed by such vaporous emissions when they race downwards instead.) The burp is the roiling forces of the Id, the dark Unconscious, made palpable and manifest. Especially to our olfactory and aural senses.

Thus does Geisel suggest that the greatest manifestations of power, the most towering reaches of human vanity, arrogance, and hubris, which seek to place themselves beyond the reaches of grubby, earthly powers, will be displaced by, not the high winds that blow at the summits, but rather by forces that reach up from below, from the deepest depths, from those most repressed, those that are the least visible. The political lesson here is clear and stark: do not expect change to come from the top, it must become from below, from those who are the most reviled, the most oppressed, the ones whose voices are all too easily ignored and shouted over. And when they do rise up, they will not do so in fancy, prettified ways; they will revel in the ugliness that was always ascribed to them. It will be their greatest weapon.