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.)

Teaching Descartes: It Ain’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be

In ‘Five Parables’ (from Historical Ontology, Harvard University Press, 2002), Ian Hacking writes,

I had been giving a course introducing undergraduates to the philosophers who were contemporaries of the green family and August der Stark. My hero had been Leibniz, and as usual my audience gave me pained looks. But after the last meeting, some students gathered around and began with the conventional, ‘Gee, what a great course.’ The subsequent remarks were more instructive: ‘But you could not help it…what with all those great books, I mean like Descartes…’ They loved Descartes and his Meditations.

I happen to give terrible lectures on Descartes, for I mumble along saying that I do not understand him much. It does not matter. Descartes speaks directly to these young people, who know as little about Descartes and his times as I know about the green family and its time. But just as the green family showed itself to me, so Descartes shows himself to them….The value of Descartes to these students is completely anachronistic, out of time. Half will have begun with the idea that Descartes and Sartre were contemporaries, both being French. Descartes, even more than Sartre, can speak directly to them….I do find it very hard to make sense of Descartes, even after reading commentaries, predecessors, and more arcane texts of the same period. The more I make consistent sense of him, the more he seems to me to inhabit an alien universe.

A few brief responses:

1. ‘Conventional’? This makes me think Hacking inhabits ‘an alien universe.’ Students gathering around me at the end of the semester and telling me they thought they had just finished a ‘great course’? Be still my beating heart.

2. I suspect I too give ‘terrible lectures on Descartes.’ I’ve now taught Descartes four times–twice in introductory core classes, and twice in Modern Philosophy–and I remain unconvinced that I’ve been competent in making Descartes understandable on any of those occasions. In part, this is because, like Hacking, I  ‘find it very hard to make sense of Descartes.’ Perhaps it’s because of the apparatus that Descartes employs, perhaps because I don’t find foundationalism a coherent doctrine, or perhaps it’s the scholastic language in the Meditations. Whatever the reason, I feel defeated by Descartes.

3. What I find most surprising about Hacking’s comments is his recounting of his students’ reactions. For  I am not alone in this relationship with Descartes: I sense a general skepticism directed at him from my students as well. This might be because of my incompetent teaching of Descartes, but I’ve come to think that many students find the Meditations a let down after the Discourse on Method (and the opening of the Meditations). There is an austerity, a novelty, promised there that the subsequent sections simply do not deliver on; students, in particular, feel cheated by Descartes’ reliance on a benevolent, non-deceiving God to make his arguments work. (Of course, this is merely an impressionistic take on students’ reactions whenever these portions make their appearance: ‘All that talk about the Enlightenment, a new method, rejection of authority, an intellectual hygiene and discipline, and then we get this?’)

My second time teaching Modern Philosophy, I geared up, determined to finally lay the Descartes bugbear to rest, reading the Meditations carefully, determined to make sense of them to myself and to my students, to give good ‘ol Rene the best chance possible. Three weeks later, I surrendered.