Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Norman Smith's Studies in the Cartesian Philosophy 1903

Norman Smith's Studies in the Cartesian Philosophy, Review by W.R. Boyce Gibson 1903

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This book should prove a real boon to the advanced philosophical student. Mr. Smith has most ably and effectively singled out the guiding ideas and assumptions of Descartes' metaphysics, and from their picturesque genesis in Augustine's writings—the philosopher and the saint are not confused by Mr. Smith—has traced their development through Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke and Hume to the Critique of Pure Reason. It is the story of the Cartesian assumptions sketched with singular freshness and respect for facts in a clean, terse style, the one very pardonable defect of which is perhaps an over-readiness to sacrifice lucidity of exposition to thoroughness of treatment. The reader's indulgence towards footnotes is somewhat overtaxed (many of them might with advantage have been promoted to the text), but, as though to offset the element of distraction thereby introduced there is a short but exceedingly serviceable index.

The opening chapter deals with 'the Problem of Descartes,' the dualism between Self and Nature, which was involved in the general thought of Descartes' day and was the product partly of the individualistic tendencies of Christian Philosophy and partly of the then awakening conception of a despiritualised Nature. This dualism Descartes seems to have accepted as self-evident, and as equally self-evident the theory of representative perception which is logically deducible from it. His assigning the cogito ergo sum as the ultimate element in his system would therefore be due to his overlooking the two more fundamental presuppositions on account of their self-evidence. Our author indeed insists that if we are to avoid an utter misrepresentation of the facts we must note that, so far as the internal dialectic of Descartes' thought is concerned the dualistic theory is the most fundamental basis of the Cartesian system, the theory of representative perception being a mere deduction from it, and the cogito ergo sum, a mere logical deduction from the theory of representative perception.

Though much stress is laid on the logical order here indicated, the evidence adduced in its support is not convincing (cf. p. 116 and note, and p. 249 and note). Moreover the analogy of Augustine's internal dialectic {cf. p. 6) distinctly points another way. Readers of Scottish Philosophy are further aware that it is at least as easy to deduce the theory of representative perception from the cogito as it is to deduce the cogito from the theory of representative perception.

Buy: Descartes' Bones - A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason by Russell Shorto

The treatment of Descartes' Method in chapter ii. is excellent. It is shown that Descartes' insistence on Method is due to the fact that, as he interprets it, it expresses the innermost essence of mind and so that the problem of method is identical with the problem as to the nature and limits of knowledge. Descartes' Method is the intuitive-deductive method of mathematics. Intuition, which is 'not a fitting together of premisses but a dialectic,' 'a growing capacity of the mind for truth,' is the source of all our knowledge. Deduction is 'simply the process by which intuition extends itself so as to take in the complex, that at first appears to lie outside its sphere '. It is knowledge in the making. The limits of knowledge lie on the one side in the simple natures from which Intuition starts, on the other in the "possible fruitfulness" of these and in their " adequacy to the comprehension of the real ". .

In the criterion of truth which Descartes utilises in the employment of his Method we have the first clear evidence of that rationalism which is one of the characteristic features of Cartesianism. Misled by the scholastic doctrine of essence, he interpreted his criterion as meaning not only "that all that in thought is clearly and distinctly conceived to be necessarily connected must be likewise inseparable in existence," but that "in the case of ideas between which the mind can perceive no connexion, the existences corresponding to them must also be unconnected ".

Now as the simple natures with which Descartes starts are one and all abstract general conceptions we are led by this criterion to see the mirror of real existence in the rational, ordered concatenation of general conceptions. Nature reveals herself adequately and transparently in the rational framework of mechanical science.

This rationalism, then, which, by its elimination of the accidental as unreal, becomes also a conceptual atomism, involves by its elimination of contingency from reality a view of nature so abstract that no room is left for change and the operation of physical causes, so that causation is necessarily identified with explanation. Our author proceeds to show that whether we insist on the abstract conceptualism of Descartes' scheme or on its atomism we are either way inevitably led to a thorough-going Occasionalism. One of the most instructive features in these studies is the way in which our author shows how the imperfections of Descartes' rationalism, not only in his own writings but in that of his followers, are shown up at every turn by the logical necessity of resorting to an illogical deus ex machina, the occasionalistic solution being " the attempt to introduce in an external form that necessary relation to the infinite which ought to have been kept in view from the start ". To construct a philosophy on an abstract basis, whether on rationalistic or empiricist lines, is simply to court the necessity of occasionalistic theory. Thus Dr. Ward's criticism of Spencer's philosophy in his Gifford Lectures amounts to a censure of Spencer's Occasionalism. We infer, indeed, from our author's treatment that the only way of avoiding Occasionalism in the development of a philosophical theory is to start, without making any assumptions, from an analysis of actual experience. This is the final conclusion of the book as reached in the chapter dealing with the transition to Kant, and, in its general form, seems to be one of those truths which philosophers might well be induced to accept as a common basis for further discussion; the conflict might then be suitably concentrated on the meaning to be attached to experience.

Occasionalism means further the introduction of an unauthorised Spiritualism into philosophical doctrine and into the Cartesian doctrine in particular. 'Spirit,' we read, 'is in the system of Leibniz, as in that of Descartes, the deus ex machina that solves all the irresolvable difficulties caused by a rationalism that is based on the scholastic doctrine of essence. Hence we are not surprised to find further on that "with Hume's destruction of the occult self, the occasionalist system of Descartes collapses like a house of cards".

The fortunes of the doctrine of representative perception through all the line of thinkers between Descartes and Kant are fully discussed by our author. Indeed the greater portion of the volume is devoted to following up the history of Descartes' three fundamental tenets, his theory of representative perception, his rationalism and his spiritualism, to their final collapse under Hume and Kant. In Spinoza it is Descartes' rationalism which is the main undermining influence, compelling Spinoza to identify causation with explanation, to evolve an empty pantheism—the counterpart of the Cartesian atomism—and so to negative a strong tendency of his to view reality concretely, a tendency not sufficiently recognised by Spinoza's critics. In Leibniz, Descartes' rationalism, through the doctrine of essences on which it is based, affords the mainstay of his monadism. The influence of Descartes' rationalism over Locke is especially felt in the Fourth Book of the Essay. "For Locke, as for Descartes, mathematical reasoning, falsely interpreted, remains the ideal of knowledge. Empirical knowledge when compared with this ideal is condemned in every respect." Our author, indeed, gives excellent grounds for justifying one in regarding Locke as essentially a rationalist, his sensationalism being "but externally tagged on to his rationalism". This is good criticism, but it seems a remarkable oversight that in this connexion Bacon's influence over Locke should not have been taken into account. Bacon's own empiricism is weighted with a theory of forms which, like Descartes' theory of abstract conceptions, is rooted in the scholastic theory of essence, itself a product of Greek thought, and it would be more just to attribute to this hoary prejudice, which is par excellence the butt of modern Idealism, the responsibility for atomic rationalism wherever it appears as a philosophy, whether in Bacon or Descartes, Leibniz or Locke, than to press the central responsibility back upon Descartes.

The excising of the spiritualism and rationalism from the Cartesian system, together with the Occasionalism they involved,—an Occasionalism which reached its climax in Berkeley's spiritualistic system, is shown to be due to Hume. Hume is, however, only a half-emancipated Cartesian, though he is working towards Kant's position. He is still under the spell of the doctrine of representative perception, holding the Cartesian view ' that the function of knowledge is to reduplicate an independent reality '. At the same time his logical position, like that of Kant, is rather phenomenalism than subjective idealism. He is logically committed, not to the contention 'that we know nothing but purely subjective states,' but rather to the view 'that nothing subjective as distinguished from objective is conceivable by us'.

The transition to Kant by which the Cartesian assumptions are transcended is peculiarly well treated. The theory of representative perception falls before the Copernican idea that as cognition cannot be made to conform to objects, it may well be that objects conform to our ways of knowing; and in the Objective Deduction of the Categories this revolutionary thought is tempered by what amounts to the admission that it is as true to assert that nature makes the Self possible as that the understanding creates Nature.

As regards Kant's method the refreshing confession is made that "the outlandish title of 'transcendental' need not conceal from us that it is simply the hypothetical method of physical science applied in the explanation of knowledge," and the conclusion is drawn that, starting as Kant does with experience (and indeed not with experience as a whole, but with the simplest act of knowledge, viz., Consciousness of Time), Kant is alone the truly empirical philosopher, Hume's method being by contrast a priori and dogmatic. We are thus introduced by Kant to the true concrete, experimental point of view whence ' Modern Philosophy makes a fresh start'.

Such is the gist of these Studies in the Cartesian Philosophy. Though essentially a student's book, closely reasoned and in fresh contact with the original sources, it is full of suggestion even to the mere reader. Mr. Norman Smith has the insight and expressive force of an original thinker and to the many who love to see old problems freshly handled the book cannot be too cordially recommended. They will find these studies striking to the point of vividness and eminently suggestive.

W. R Boyce Gibson.

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