Sunday, November 19, 2006

The I

There is a very interesting New Yorker article on Descartes by Anthony Gottlieb. I found this pasage especially interesting:

But is Grayling’s spy theory any more fanciful than the late Pope’s account? In "Crossing the Threshold of Hope" (1994), John Paul II says that, for Descartes, "only that which corresponds to human thought makes sense. The objective truth of this thought is not as important as the fact that something exists in human consciousness." Later, in "Memory and Identity," published in 2005, John Paul II argues further that the philosophical revolution brought about by Descartes downgraded God and put the mind of man in his place: "according to the logic of cogito, ergo sum, God was reduced to an element within human consciousness."In other words, Descartes inaugurated a shift to a view of the world in which the "I" is the foundation of everything, and a selfish monstrosity rules.

Given that Descartes did not mince his words when attacking his critics—the writings of one French mathematician were "impertinent, ridiculous and despicable"; the rector of the University of Utrecht was "stupid," "malicious," and "incompetent"; the work of Pierre Fermat, the greatest mathematician of his time, was "shit"—one wonders what he would have said about John Paul II. For Descartes repeatedly makes it clear that his own existence (and, indeed, that of the whole world) depends on God, not the other way around. Those who suspect Descartes of rampant subjectivism have confused the style of his reasoning with its substance. Descartes cast his philosophical inquiries in an autobiographical style. He looked within himself. But there was nothing subjective about what he found.

Which is right about Descartes. I think Gottlieb is not quite catching JPII's perspective, though. Karol Wojtyla was a phenomenologist, and read Descartes in that light; more specifically, he read him in light of the major philosophical problem to exercise the great phenomenologists who gathered around Husserl: objectivity and realism. Read phenomenologically -- which is easy to do -- Descartes does look like Wojtyla claimed. There are good reasons not to read him this way, of course; but it's hardly fanciful, and certainly not as fanciful as Grayling's spy theory.

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