Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Descartes' Understanding of Man

I am still reading Michael Allen Gillespie's thought-provoking book entitled The Theological Origins of Modernity (U. of Chicago Press, 2008). I have to return it to the library tomorrow since I'm off canoeing on Friday morning. The hardback edidition seems to be sold out and the paperback edition is scheduled for Sept. 15. This book is a detailed exposition of the thesis Gillespie first developed in his Nihilism Before Nietzsche (U. of Chicago Press, 1995).

He contends that modernity develops out of late medieval nominalism, which became believable in the midst of the multiple crises that afflicted Europe in the 14th century including the Black Death, the 100 Years War, the Little Ice Age and so on. The remote, unpredictable God of nominalism, who is so different from the rational God of Scholasticism, made sense to the people of the 14th century. The rise of modernity, and this is crucial, was not the rejection of theology and religion, but a new approach to metaphysics based on this new concept of God. The medieval culture in which the God of the classical Augustinian-Thomist tradition made sense had suffered such a series of shocks that the new teaching of nominalism and its God of sheer will took hold and shaped the thinking of many in the Rennaissance, the Reformation and early modern philosophy, including the thought of Descartes.

Here is what Gillespie has to say about Descartes: (my bolding)

Descartes' solution to the problem posed by the omnipotent God thus leads to a radically new vision of what it is to be a human being.

A human being for Descartes is a thinking thing (res cogitans). A thinking thing, however, is a representing, constructing thing, and is especially always a self-representing or self-positing thing. The Cartesian human being is thus at its core a self-positing thing, self-grounding being. Man in this way ceases to be considered the rational animal and instead is conceived as the willing being. Both humanism and the Reformation, as we have seen, similarly located man's humanity in the will rather than in the reason. Descartes is indebeted to both of them but moves also beyond them. In contrast to humanism, his subject is abstracted from the historical world, and has no personality, no virtues or vices, no concern with immortal fame. The willing subject, however, is thus not constrained by the finitude of this world and consequently can imagine becoming its absolute master. Similarly, the subject's will is not subordinate to or in conflict with the will of God. . .

This subject's rethinking of thinking as willing is the ground of Descartes' attempt to construct a citidal of reason for human beings against the potentially malevolent omnipotence of God. . . Doubting in one sense seems to stand between affirming and denying, but in another sense it looks as if it should be paired with faith or belief, which is perhaps surpressed in Descartes' account because of its controversial place in Reformation debates. In fact, for Descartes the concealed opposite of doubt is not belief or faith but certainty. Certainty and natural science thereby replace faith and theology for Descartes. (p. 199)

I have never read a better short summary of how modernity got started. In Gillsepie's account, it is easy to see how what begins in Descartes ultimately leads through Kant to Nietzsche. The willing self is the common thread through all three phases of modernity: (1) the rational phase of the 17-18th century Enlightenment, (2) the romantic or feeling phase of the 19th century and (3) the will to power phase of the 20th century.

Behind the new account of the Promethean, infinite will of the human subject lies the dark and foreboding vision of the unpredictable God of sheer will of nominalism. So if the autonomous, willing self is the central thread of modernity, behind the anthropology lies a theology. This means that modernity is essentially a Christian heresy. It is a heresy which has led to materialism, atheism and the culture of death. It is not something new in history (as for Hans Blumenberg) or a logical development of Christianity (Karl Lowith), but a heretical doctrine of God and a heretical doctrine of man. It can even be understood as a revival of ancient heresies in a new historical form. If this analysis is correct, then modernity is a dead end and the only way forward is the recovery of classical, Christian orthodoxy.


David said...

This is very apposite on the heels of your post about the abortion debate and helps introduce a tension I feel with the position celebrated in that posting.

Descartes 'Res Cogitans" is central to many pro-abortion positions, self awareness being the criteria of humanness. And this is my problem with any attempts to understand the person qua any attribute of the person. This is precisely what modernity tries to do, ground human dignity in aspects of humanity rather than in God and God's love for us. If our dignity is grounded in this love then it is never contingent upon our sentience and so cannot be gained (through birth - or even later for Peter Singer) or lost (as in the case of those who have suffered severe brain trauma). The culture of death, which proposes killing such "valueless" humans as the unborn and those lacking sentience, is inaugurated through the bizarre entity imagined in modernity, the human qua human, cut of from God, understood only in terms of itself.

And so I don't always see the value of playing this game, the pretending that we can imagine the human person in the same way as secularists, that is, in terms of it's own attributes or biological facticity.

This echoes of course our conversation on Regensburg. I don't really believe we can dialog with Cartesians or Kantians on the matter. Our goal should be to offer a counter ontology, one which understands the person not based on us, but based on God. They can only "get" this through conversion, through the work of the spirit and the spirit filled people of God. We can't prove to them that human life begins with "x" or that humans are valuable because of "x", because humans are only valuable because of God's love for us! If we offer an account which does not reference God we are guilty of precisely the kind of illicit abstraction that fuels secular modernity.

It may be argued "But if this convinces one pro- abortion person then it's a valid enterprise" or, the catchcry of liberal Catholics, "you have to meet people where they are and if this involves using the grammar of modernity then so be it". It might seem barbaric but I think Aquinas would say that such arguments conflate contingent and ultimate ends. The contingent end, even an end which seems so good such as convincing a pro abortionist, should not come at the cost of bearing false witness, which damages our relationship with God, our ultimate end. We are for God, not convincing, saving life or even saving the world, all of which we are for only qua our ultimate end of relationship with God.

So "winning" the abortion debate seems to imply a common grammar through which the debate can be won. Such a grammar does not exist. Secularists see the person in Cartesian or Kantian terms and so reduce human dignity to an aspect of the human subject, any attempt to play this game for whatever reason is contrary to our end, in my opinion.

Thanks again for a wonderful blog Craig!

Best Wishes,

Craig Carter said...

Thank you for this comment. You are very perceptive and very right in you analysis - as far as it goes. I am coming from what is perhaps an extreme Barthian position back toward a kind of Biblical Thomism in which there is truth to be seen but who sees that truth depends on who is open to the help of Divine grace to overcome the downward pull of sin that prevents us from seeing what is right in front of our eyes. (As Mark Shea likes to put it: "Sin makes us stupid.") This is why you are absolutely right in one sense in saying that we cannot dialogue with Cartesians or Kantians.

However, there are two senses in which we can speak of "winning" this debate. In one sense, it means that the advasary ends by agreeing with us. In another sense, it means that we know the truth and the debate confirms that fact, but our enemy refuses to acknowledge the truth and rebels against the truth (and the Truth) by an act of will.

Now, you can say that this distinction is meaningless in that our opponent does not acknowledge truth so it remains just our assertion that he is rebelling against the Truth. But what is at stake here is the nature of what we declare, the character of our Gospel, the meaning of the claims we are making.

In our postmodern age, it is so tempting to pull back from truth claims and to slip into a lazy relativism: "This is what I believe, but of course no one expects you to agree with my religion." (Those who support Obama say this all the time about same sex marriage, for example.) This is what the world wants us to say and will allow us to say and will not persecute us for saying. But this is precisely what the Gospel claims for the Lordship of Jesus Christ will not permit us to say.

In order to be faithful to the Gospel, we must claim that God has made us in his image of love and so each human being is of incalculable worth whether he or she knows it or not. We must proclaim this as truth not only in worship services but in Parliament and in scientific labs as well. We will be regarded as nuisances and as arrogant for doing this - but if we don't do it the world will never know what the Gospel really says!

My point in both the abortion debate post and in this post is that the pro-choice position depends on a philosophical/religious position taken by the pro-choice person and that this position is intellectually incoherent. Only orthodox Christianity is an adequate protection for human dignity and human rights. The world does not want to hear this, but Christians must not forget that this is what we believe and proclaim.

Ultimately the only hope for the West is religious revival and a return to an orthodox view of God and man. Otherwise, our culture is doomed. Is this philosophy? Is this theology? Is it dialogue? Is it apologetics? Is it proclamation? Is it evangelism? Yes, all of the above.

David said...

Many thanks Craig, I do agree. I agree that only a theological rationality is reasonable. I agree that we ought never concede "reason" to the secular, irrational, construal of the real which begins with the world without God and, therefore, with a error.

And I admire the boldness of you and the RO people and Benedict too with which you reclaim reason. We (Christian theologians) have shaken off what Milbank has called our "false humility" and emerged from the ghetto in which modernity sought to subdue us.

For my part I'd just like, while agreeing, to stress the foundation of the rationality on which we depend. I am firmly in the first millennium here!
Reason is very very different from how it appears in secular modernity and even before then. In fact the reason which we encounter in Jesus Christ stands opposed to the reason we associate with such core Aristotelian principles as the logic of non contradiction. We shouldn't forget this. Our reason holds that Abraham did the only rational thing on Mount Moriah. The logic which is innately ours is an idol that drives Arianism and the other attempts to straighten and subdue the paradox of Christ in the fourth century, a logic which is named definitively as the truth in modernity. This logic holds that if 'x' is 'a' and 'a' is not 'b' then 'x' can not be 'b'. And yet the truth, who is Jesus Christ, refuses this. 'a' is not 'b', God is not man, and yet the x of Christ reveals true God and true man.

I agree that to over-stress this truth risks the siloization we find in contemporary relativism. And I agree, in contrast to this siloization, that we must proclaim, and testify and engage. But this process is an attempt to contaminate the reason of the secular with the truth of Christ. It is a viral process (yes I have read too much Derrida) which infects and transforms because the Spirit is not distinct from the Word which (pace Marion) speaks itself through our words.

So Habermas nor Riceour nor analytic philosophy can provide any kind of model for the "dialogue" with the secular or the quasi theological pro-abortionists, which isn't really a dialogue as we don't share parameters with those we are engaging (infecting).

So, again, I agree with you, but think of me as your Barthian conscience! not disagreeing but just reminding us, not that you need to be reminded, of the "No" to human reason God speaks on mount Moriah and most definitively, on Calvary.

Craig Carter said...

I'm mulling over two of your statements that worry me.

"the reason which we encounter in Jesus Christ stands OPPOSED to the reason we associate with such core Aristotelian principles as the logic of non contradiction."

"the "NO" to human reason God speaks on mount Moriah and most definitively, on Calvary."

My problem with the first is that the Fathers never saw the two natures doctrine or the doctrine of the Trinity as examples of contradictions which must be believed anyway. That is to say, I don't think they saw the Nicene and Chalcedonian formulations as opposed to the law of non-contradiction. Our mutual friend Ayres, for example, claims that the various pro-Nicene theologies agreed that we must affirm the threeness of God and the oneness of God and the inability of human reason to understand fully how they go together. This is a statement of paradox and mystery, not contradiction. A paradox or mystery is a statement that appears to be contradictory but which we by faith believe is not actually contradictory. Now it may seem like splitting hairs to distingish between a mystery and a contradiction, but I think it is as important as the iota in the creed. If you had said "The reason we encounter in Jesus Christ leads us BEYOND the reason we associate ..." instead of "is OPPOSED to ..." then I would be happy. As your statement stands, I believe it condedes too much to the nominalist conception of God as beyond reason and logic and utterly arbitrary. If that were true, then Jesus Christ could not properly be identified with the Logos as the Gospel of John teaches. (cf. The Regensburg Lecture)

As for the second statement, the "No" of God at Moriah and Calvary is not directed, I contend, against human reason as such, but is a thunderbolt hurled at a hubristic, inflated, immodest, Promethean concept of reason that is actually unreasonable! Reason is not the problem; sin is. Sin affects our reason (makes us stupid). But why blame reason?

If God really is the Good Creator and we are really made in his image, why should we locate the source of sin in our reason? Why not locate it in a particular type of reasoning which exalts itself against God, as for example in Satan's rebellion (cf. Milton) or in Hobbes' conception of science (see my next post.)

Not to be too cute, but I must reply that while I agree with you, I must remain your Thomist conscience lest you catch the nominalist infection while trying to spread the Gospel virus.

David said...

This is very interesting and I know I'm in the minority here. But when I'm back in the office tomorrow and have access to my library I'll make a pitch that the Fathers have a considerably less positive take on human reason than is usually understood to be the case today. I'll also claim that our best neurological accounts support a notion of reason as innately "deficient" from a Christian perspective. This will allow me to juxtapose reason in faith, which heals and transforms it, and reason unaided by faith, which can only see the Trinity as scandal, a contradiction.

Many thanks for this Craig, it has propelled me to re-read sections of Gregory of Nyssa that I haven't read for a long time. I look forward to this reading tomorrow morning and will reply with my "pitch" soon after :)

Sue said...

This reference describes how modernity got started. It was both an at the time completely justifiable reaction to the "religious" mumbo-jumbo of the time.

And an EXTENSION of the power and control seeking European (emotional)mind-set altogether.




Western culture turned from the contemplation of the then dominant (half-baked) god-idea, to that of an investigation into the latent potentials of meat-body man, in and of himself.

Modernity being a power and control seeking PERCEPTUAL STRAIGHT-JACKET in which we now ALL trapped, with NO exceptions, including every-one who presumes to be "religious".

Modernity is essentially the objectification "culture" created in the image of scientism---the limitations of which are described here.