Who Can Use the New Method?

In document Socrates Meets Descartes - Peter Kreeft (Page 79-83)

SOCRATES: Your next passage contains such a blatant contradiction to what you wrote in your book’s very first paragraph that I cannot believe it was anything less than deliberate and was a kind of code that only your disciples would be able to read aright, but not your enemies. You write here two texts superimposed on each other like a double exposure in photography—oh, I’m sorry, I forgot that you lived before that invention—let us say, then, like a palimpsest: one text, written with visible ink, is for the dogs, and the other, written with invisible ink, is for the disciples.

DESCARTES: I congratulate you on your perception again, Socrates. And I deduce that I can trust you to be a disciple and not a dog. For the dogs are not bright enough to perceive the contradiction, and thus they will chew contentedly on the bone I gave them here, rather than on my bones. But my disciples will find my clue. For I took care to contradict not just the spirit but even the letter of my first and foundational point, the very first sentence of my book, in the passage you are now scrutinizing.

SOCRATES: A rather dangerous device, don’t you think? Shouldn’t a spy have a less transparent cover?

DESCARTES: I think you overestimate the intelligence of the dogs, Socrates. They chewed your bones to death, after all. But they did not chew mine. My code worked well.

SOCRATES: Well, here is the passage. Let us call it “the bone”:

[DM 2, para. 3]

The single resolution to detach oneself from all the beliefs one has once accepted as true [you here refer to the first and most important step of your method, namely, universal methodic doubt] is not an example that everyone ought to follow; and the world consists almost completely of but two kinds of people, and for these two kinds it is not at all suitable: namely (1) those who, believing themselves more capable than they really are, cannot help making premature judgments and do not have enough patience to conduct their thoughts in an orderly manner. . . . (2) Now as for those people who have enough reason or modesty to judge that they are less capable to distinguish the true from the false than are others by whom they can be instructed, they ought to content themselves more with following the opinions of these others than to look for better opinions on their own.

In the very first sentence of your book you claimed that reason (which you identified with common sense, or “good sense”, or “the ability to distinguish the true from the

false”) was common to all and equal in all. Yet here you say that some men have less of this capability than others do.

Also, in the very first paragraph of your book you claimed that all men are satisfied with the amount of “good sense” they have, and that “it is unlikely that anyone is mistaken about that.” So the second class of people in “the bone” passage simply does not exist according to your first paragraph: the class of people who have the “modesty to judge that they are less capable to distinguish the true from the false than are others”. That describes my attitude. So since that class of people includes me, and since you say that that class of people does not exist, you are telling me that I do not exist. To whom are you talking now, then? It is wonderful to dialogue with the dead, but why dialogue with the nonexistent? You will later prove your own existence, by your famous

“I think, therefore I am”, but you deny mine.

DESCARTES: Are you joking or are you serious?

SOCRATES: May a man not be both? However, my serious point is that you seem to write as two different people. In your first paragraph you are modern, egalitarian, and optimistic about man’s reason and about his estimation of his own reason; but in “the bone” you are premodern, aristocratic, and pessimistic about both the quantity of reason in most men and about the accuracy of their self-estimate—just as Plato was. Surely one cannot take both passages seriously.

DESCARTES: Unless you are a dog looking for a bone.

SOCRATES: I understand. So let us return, as disciples rather than dogs, to your program for enlightenment. You are explaining why you felt the need for a new method by telling us your dissatisfaction with the results of the old ones; and that dissatisfaction, in one word, was “uncertainty”, or “doubt”. You were very sensitive to this because your age, like mine, was one of decreasing provincialism and increasing contact with other cultures, with the natural result of a skepticism and cultural relativism. Thus you say:

[DM 2, para. 4]

Having learned since my school days that one cannot imagine anything so strange or unbelievable that it has not been said by some philosopher, and since then, during my travels, having acknowledged that those who have feelings quite contrary to our own are not for that reason barbarians or savages, but that many of them use their reason as much or more than we do, and having considered how the very same man with his very own mind, having been brought up from infancy among the French or the Germans becomes different from what he would be had he always lived among the Chinese or among cannibals [by the way, I notice that another edition of your text has, instead of “cannibals”, “Americans”!], and how, even to the fashions of our

clothing, the same thing that pleased us ten years ago and that perhaps might again please us ten years from now seems to us extravagant and ridiculous.

Thus it is more custom and example that persuades us than certain knowledge.

But was there not a method already in place for judging between different opinions and customs, and transforming mere opinion into certainty through demonstration? I mean the method of logic. It had been known and used for two thousand years, and I thought I had a little to do with that. And Aristotle had systematized the rules of this method that I had discovered and used, in his Organon, the world’s first logic textbook.

What was wrong with that as a method for attaining certainty?

DESCARTES: Oh, I am very grateful to you and Aristotle for your valuable example and for his valuable principles. But, as I wrote next, “I saw that in the case of logic, its syllogisms and the greater part of its other lessons served more to explain to someone else what one knows . . . than to learn them.”

SOCRATES: If you were looking for a logic for learning new truths, why didn’t you use Bacon’s new inductive logic text, the New Organon?

DESCARTES: Because I found the same problem in it as I did in your deductive logic: the problem of complexity. I do not accuse either Aristotle or Bacon of theoretical error but of a practical defect; as I wrote,

[DM 2, para. 6]

Since the multiplicity of laws often provides excuses for vices, so that a state is much better when, having but a few laws, its laws are strictly observed; so, in place of the large number of rules of which logic is composed, I believed that the following four rules would be sufficient, provided I made a firm and constant resolution not even once to fail to observe them. . . .

SOCRATES: So we come here at last to the heart of your book: the scientific method in its barest essentials, its most general principles.

DESCARTES: Exactly. And my subsequent chapters apply this method, first to morality, in chapter 3, then to philosophy, in chapter 4, then to theoretical physics, in chapter 5, and then to applied physics, or technology, in chapter 6.

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In document Socrates Meets Descartes - Peter Kreeft (Page 79-83)