Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Poetic Knowledge: Descartes and his Legacy

Go to A Healer's Geste for definitions of terms and links to more discussion.

"Before we know what a thing is, we know that it is; and we know this not necessarily by conscious reflection but implicitly, as taken for granted in all our conceptions and judgments". 
A very small baby sees a mobile or his mother's face and doesn't meditate upon Existence and Essence.   He sees his particular mother and is attracted to her by his love and dependency; and he sees a mobile and is attracted by his innate human curiosity, what Aristotle calls "the desire to know" that is part of humans by nature.   His interest and attention are a kind of love or desire.

But seeing what Aquinas called the "whatness" or "quiddity" of a thing, the intuition that this particular thing IS, that it exists in reality, is implied by the very distinguishing between the mobile (or tree or dog) and his mother, as Taylor says.   To know WHAT something is you first have to know that it is indeed, that it exists.. 

Nor does the baby think immediately of himself as the observer or mind perceiving the thing.  I don't remember being a baby, but I think I can almost remember the first time I became aware of myself as what the philosophers call a "subject" -- that is, the being who was perceiving or thinking.  I was probably five or even older.   And I was a teenager before I really started distinguishing between "methods" of thinking or critiquing my own thought processes.    Those stages come later.  

Descartes changed things when he generalized the scientific instrument of "doubt".   Taylor says Aquinas had mentioned "dubia" or doubt as part of the scientific method-- when you are experimenting, you don't want your hypothesis to influence your results, or you end up in a cognitive vortex, seeing only what you want to see, so a kind of skeptical stance can be very helpful there.  

 Descartes saw that people were in disagreement about almost everything.

“There is nothing so evident or so certain that it may not be controverted. Whence then this widespread and deep-rooted anarchy? From the fact that our inquiries are haphazard”.

His solution was to propose a method that would be "certain".   Believing that
"arithmetic and geometry alone are free from any taint of falsehood and uncertainty" because these "wholly consist in the rational deduction of consequences," he took what Taylor calls the dialectic method as the one way for finding knowledge.

Aquinas said "Veritas est adaequatio rei et intellectus"  (“Truth is the squaring of thought and thing")..  There is the subject (us as rationaal beings, who think) and the object (what we perceive and apprehend).   The perceiving is done through the senses which inform the Imagination and Memory, so that we have a connection between ourselves and reality. 
.... art and poetry bring together two infinities: the irreducible complexity of human personality (“the Self”) with the superabundant mystery of being (“the Things”). Poetic Knowledge, which “divines before demonstrating,” can result in art and poetry, but it need not. Simple beholding is sufficient. The end of such knowledge is neither creation nor conceptualization but gaudium (joy). (Knowing the Beautiful)

Descartes approached it a different way.  He wanted to start from a skeptical position.

Recourse must be had to provisional doubt as the only means of distinguishing the true from the false in the labyrinth of contradictory opinions which are held in the schools and in the world at large. We must needs imitate those builders who, in order to erect a lofty structure, begin by digging deep, so that the foundations may be laid on the rock and solid ground   -- Catholic Encyclopedia~
So he started from the only thing one could know for sure -- that one was aware.  Even one's senses could be deceptive.  An evil God could be sending out false sensory information, like a huge cyberwizard that controlled everything. 

At first this doesn't seem to make too much of a difference, but in fact the implications end up way different.

For one thing, as Taylor points out, deserting the different ways of knowing for one "certain way" inevitably flattens the texture of human existence.  If one can only rely on what may be demonstrated with mathematical certainty, one inevitably excludes or marginalizes what can't be seen through this framework.

For another thing, it makes man subtly the measure of all things. 

Is everything, then, capable of being known in this way, and consequently can human knowledge become the complete counterpart of reality? Descartes says so over and over again; it is his controlling idea; and he endeavours to prove it both from the nature of our thought and from the universal connexion of things. The mind is equally intelligent however diverse the objects it considers; and those objects because of their perfect enchainment are always equally intelligible. There is, therefore, no question "so far removed from us as to be beyond our reach or so deeply hidden that we cannot discover it", provided only that we persevere and follow the right method (Disc. de la méth. 2e partie; 4e Règle). Such is the rationalism of Descartes, surpassing even that of Plato, in which under the name of "the Infinite" three-fourths of reality remains for ever unknowable. How then is this mathematical evidence to be obtained

This had several effects in turn:

1.   It put us at odds with, separate from, everything around us.   Descartes wasn't the first to oppose body to spirit -- it is a resonant idea that has appeared in several heresies because it has some truth in proportion.  But he helped make the scientist become the new magician, harnessing the powers of nature with their incantations and apparatus.   But this had an isolating effect. 

Man was a consciousness trapped in matter -- the "ghost in the machine"

...the subject had first to leave the stage, so that the world might be elucidated mathematically.  While man found himself imbedded in nature and at one with it, as in scholastic times, he could not be scientifically objective..Cartesian dualism was thus a prerequisite for a scientific methodology...... Descartes contributed to the devaluation of poetic knowledge, and his theory was a step on the road to modern positivism -- with its view that a poetic statement has no cognitive validity, ....

poetic knowledge is acquired by union with and attachment to the object:  scientific knowledge is acquired by distance and detachment from the object.  The poetic relation to nature is one of imbeddedness; the scientific one is that of confrontation. (Education and Philosophical Anthropology)
2.  IT alienates us from our surroundings and our early consciousness.  Since Cartesian doubt and demand for certainty is in so many ways an artificial mental stance (it is not built on the perception of babyhood and early childhood, but self-consciously set apart from it, as a rebellious teenager might try to leave his home and childhood things way behind him but lose part of himself in the process -- it leads to a sort of angsty relation to the world, a dualism between body and spirit, a self-consciousness and even insecurity about one's own identity that is subtly false and intellectually uncomfortable..

3.   Mystery and objectivity leave the stage.    The individual consciousness is in effect the universe.   Whereas the traditional philosophers say "The mind is in a way all things" but focused on the mind in a way "becoming" what it saw by forming a representation within, Descartes started with the mind and therefore the universe in some sense becomes one's mind.  John Paul II wrote of the implications of this Cartesian legacy (which Descartes probably did not intend):

“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.”  and “according to the logic of cogito, ergo sum, God was reduced to an element within human consciousness"
 This opened the door for the radical doubt of philosophers like Kant who did not believe that our minds could ever truly know what is outside them.

4.  Science becomes utilitarian.  It is not for the purpose of knowledge.  It is to better our condition.  Descartes hoped that we would discover the secret of immortality.  As a scientific society we are still essentially on that quest.    The corollary to "science as useful" is that technology becomes very important and poetry in the broad sense (art, literature, etc) becomes very subjective, purely the expression of the individual consciousness, and not a means of expressing Beauty or Truth.   Either that or poetry becomes utilitarian -- stories become propaganda. 

5.  God is put in a box.  I already talked about that but it bears repeating.  If you start with your individual consciousness and judge everything by that measure, God becomes part of your mental furniture.    You get "well, that is what YOU believe" as if you had expressed faith in crystal skulls or mushrooms as the central power of the universe. 

There is probably more.   As a scientific methodology, Descartes' approach has been very fruitful.    As a philosophical stance it was devastating to clarity of thought.

The poetic stance, as Maritain seems to say, is subjective..... that is, deeply and unavoidably personal. 

“the content of poetic intuition is both the reality of the things of the world and the subjectivity of the poet....That is poetic experience or poetic knowledge, where subjectivity is not grasped as an object, but as a source…. The more deeply poetry becomes conscious of itself, the more deeply it becomes conscious also of its power to know, and of the mysterious movement by which… it draws near to the sources of being.”  Jacques Maritain and the Many Ways of Knowing

I tend to distrust that part of myself. ... is that part of the Cartesian legacy?    Lots of psychological books nowadays talk about the "left brain" and "right brain" -- I am wondering if Descartes' legacy put the left brain in charge, leaving the more poetic, holistic right brain to simmer quietly under the surface in the form of Freud's "id" , coming out in weird beliefs or self-defeating behavior.  And  according to these modern ways of talking, when the more obscure (right brain) ways of knowing are invalidated, the left brain becomes somewhat crazed -- it talks the "language of reason" but says absurd things.    

I am glad we are going to revisit this chapter next week as I have to go to state tests now which is about the polar opposite of the poetic mode! 


  1. Reading your post made me ponder if the push to start schooling ever younger in our Dewey inspired system is because you need to get children away from their moms otherwise known as "reality touchstones" to get them to fit into the school mode of thinking (or non-thinking). Great post!

  2. I was nodding the whole time! Where were you in my college years? I could not "think" because I was too immersed in the completely scientific mode of looking at things. I read but not read, as Taylor says in his critic of Dewey.

    It's funny. I thought the same. I distrust that part of me too. I wrote before reading your post that I doubt my ability to know poetically, and I said "look at what Descartes has done to us", (grin).

    Thanks for your fantastic explanation, I agree with your five points, and I particularly agree with the isolation and science as our new religion and the desperation of the postmodern person.

  3. "Look at what Descartes has done to us" indeed! I tend to be more of a poetic learner, at least compared to most people I know. A lot of what I think I know has "come to me all in a flash"--I really identify with that phrase. The funny thing is, though, that I distrust this as a mode of learning for my children so I still spent a lot of their early years--especially for my oldest--trying to teach him using a scientific method, and I distrusted silence or sitting still and thinking, etc.

    This is turning into group therapy, no? :)

    So glad blogger is back up...


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!