Descartes (LH) & Montaigne (How to Live, ch1); LISTEN: Sarah Bakewell on Michel de Montaigne (PB); A.C. Grayling on Descartes' Cogito (PB); WATCH: Montaigne (SoL); Descartes (HI); Midterm group report presentations continue... Podcast
It's "Super Tuesday" - cousin John Oliver has some thoughts...
1. What state of mind, belief, or knowledge was Descartes' Method of Doubt supposed to establish? OR, What did Descartes seek that Pyrrho spurned?
2. Did Descartes claim to know (at the outset of his "meditations") that he was not dreaming?
3. What strange and mythic specter did Gilbert Ryle compare to Descartes' dualism of mind and body? ("The ____ in the ______.")
4. Sarah Bakewell says Montaigne's first answer to the question "How to live?" is: "Don't worry about _____."
6. Montaigne said "my mind will not budge unless _____."
BONUS: What pragmatic American philosopher was Descartes' "most practical critic"?
BONUS: (T/F) A.C. Grayling thinks that, because Descartes was so wrong about consciousness and the mind-body problem, he cannot be considered a historically-important philosopher.
BONUS: What skeptical slogan did Montaigne inscribe on the ceiling of his study?
1. Is there anything you know or believe that you could not possibly be mistaken about, or cannot reasonably doubt? If so, what? How do you know it? If not, is that a problem for you?
2. How do you know you're awake and not dreaming? Is it meaningful to say "life is but a dream"? (And again: "Inception" - ?!)
3. Are you essentially identical with or distinct from your body (which includes your brain)? If distinct, who/what/where are you? How do you know? Can you prove it? OR, Do you believe in immaterial spirits? Can you explain how it is possible for your (or anyone's) material senses to perceive them?
4. At what age do you hope to retire? What will you do with yourself then? Will you plan to spend more time thinking?
5. Have you had a near-death experience, or known someone who did? What did it teach you/them? How often does the thought occur to you that you're always one misstep (or fall, or driving mistake) away from death?
6. What have you learned, so far, about "how to live"? Have you formulated any life-lessons based on personal experience, inscribed any slogans, written down any "rules"?
It’s the birthday (Feb. 28) of essayist Michel de Montaigne (books by this author), born in Périgord, in Bordeaux, France (1533). He is considered by many to be the creator of the personal essay, in which he used self-portrayal as a mirror of humanity in general. Writers up to the present time have imitated his informal, conversational style. He said, “The highest of wisdom is continual cheerfulness: such a state, like the region above the moon, is always clear and serene.” WA
Montaigne in The Stone...
- “How to Live,” Sarah Bakewell’s elegant portrait of Montaigne, the 16th-century patriarch of the genre, and an edited volume by Carl H. Klaus and Ned Stuckey-French called “Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne...May 26, 2013 -
- In August of 1563, Michel de Montaigne, the famous French essayist, was introduced to three Brazilian cannibals who were visiting Rouen, France, at the invitation of King Charles the Ninth. The three men had never before left...February 17, 2013 -
- getting on board a student’s own agenda. Sometimes understanding is best reached when we expend our skeptical faculties, as Montaigne did, on our own beliefs, our own opinions. If debate is meant to be a means to truth — an idea...September 03, 2013 -
- questions have no logical or empirical answers. They are philosophical problems par excellence. Many thinkers, including Cicero, Montaigne, Karl Jaspers, and The Stone’s own Simon Critchley, have argued that studying philosophy is...
Tuesday, March 17, 2015
Montaigne was originally scheduled for just before our Spring Break, but it got a jump-start week before last. Looked like a snow-globe out there for awhile. Now, it's practically Spring!
Older Daughter and I went and did what we'd been talking about doing for years, now that her Break and mine finally coincided: went to Florida's Grapefruit League Spring Training! Day after day of waking to 72 degrees, on the way to high 80s. Baseball and bliss.
But that was then. Now, Montaigne (& Bakewell on How to Live acc'ing to M)...
One good way to live, he thought, was by writing and reflecting on our many uncertainties. Embracing and celebrating them, in fact. That makes him an anti-Descartes, a happy and humane modern skeptic.
One thing we know for sure is the historical timeline. Montaigne comes first, but since I always introduce him as the anti-Descartes he rarely gets top billing. The late Robert Solomon did the same thing. Not fair, for a guy who gave us the essay and (as Sarah Bakewell says) is so much "fun" to read. Unlike Descartes he was a true skeptic (again though, not so far over the cliff as Pyrrho) and "quite happy to live with that." His slogan was Que sçais-je?
Montaigne retired in his mid-30s to think and write, and ponder what must have felt to him (ever since his unplanned equine-dismounting event) like ever-looming mortality. He inscribed the beams of his study with many of his favorite quotes, including "nothing human is foreign to me" and "the only certainty is that nothing is certain."
Some of Montaigne's life-lessons and rules for how to live, as decoded by Sarah Bakewell: Don't worry about death; Pay attention; Question everything; Be convivial; Reflect on everything, regret nothing; Give up control; Be ordinary and imperfect; Let life be its own answer.
Montaigne leaps from the page as mindful, both ruminative and constantly attentive to the present moment. He has good advice for the walker. "When I walk alone in the beautiful orchard, if my thoughts have been dwelling on extraneous incidents for some part of the time, for some other part I bring them back to the walk, to the orchard, to the sweetness of this solitude, and to me."
There's just something irresistibly alluring about the candid and disarming familiarity of his tone, that's drawn readers to this original essayist for four and a half centuries and obliterates the long interval between him and us. He makes uncertainty fun.
"The highest of wisdom is continual cheerfulness"...
[Montaigne @dawn... M on Self-esteem (deB)... M quotes... M's beam inscriptions... M "In Our Time" (BBC)...M's tower...M's Essays...]
Also today, we'll consider the philosophical status of science. Montaigne the fallible skeptic actually had a better handle on it than Descartes, the self-appointed defender of scientific certainty. That's because science is a trial-and-error affair, making "essays" or attempts at evidence/-based understanding through observation, prediction, and test, but always retreating happily to the drawing board when conjectures meet refutation.
To answer some of my own DQs today:
Q: Are there any "authorities" (personal, textual, political, religious, institutional, traditional...) to whom you always and automatically defer? Can you justify this, intellectually or ethically? A: I don't think so. Whenever I feel a deferential impulse coming on I remind myself of the Emerson line about young men in libraries...
Q: Can you give an example of something you believe on the basis of probability, something else you believe because it has to be true (= follows necessarily from other premises you accept as true), and something you believe because you think it's the "best explanation")? Do you think most of your beliefs conform to one or another of these kinds of explanation? A: Hmmm... The sun will probably rise within the hour. I'm mortal. Life evolves. Yes.
Q: Do you think science makes genuine progress? Does it gradually give us a better, richer account of the natural world and our place in it? Is there a definite correlation between technology and scientific understanding? Do you think there is anything that cannot or should not be studied scientifically? Why? A: Yes, yes, yes, no. Science is a flawed instrument, because the humans who practice it are finite and fallible; but we have nothing to take its place. We shouldn't be scientistic, to the neglect of all the other tools in our kit (including poetry, literature, history, humor), but we definitely should be as scientific as we can.
Wednesday, March 18, 2015
Rene Descartes, not at all (Pythons notwithstanding) a "drunken fart," simply wanted to know what he could know for certain. He asked his version of the Howard Baker question. (The majority of students in my Tennessee classrooms could not identify the statesman-Senator when asked, the other day. Sigh.)
His skepticism was methodological, his goal was indubitable certainty. This, he thought, would serve the new science well. He misunderstood the self-correcting, probabilistic, fallibilistic nature of empirical reasoning. But most philosophers still think it’s worth wondering: how do you know you’re not dreaming, not being deceived by a demon or by your senses, not mistaking your own essential nature?
Still, cogito ergo sum overrates intellect. You don’t have to think, to demonstrate your existence. You just have to do something… even, as an old grad school pal used to say, if it’s wrong. (NOTE TO CLASS: I flip-flopped Descartes and his predecessor Montaigne, the anti-Descartes, on our syllabus: Descartes before the horse M. fell off of.)
Descartes' different aspects - mathematician, scientist, Catholic etc. - might suggest his split allegiance between Teams Aristotle and Plato. Both would probably like to claim him. I think he belongs with the armchair Platonists.
Reducing the operations of the universe to a series of lines,circles, numbers, and equations suited his reclusive personality. His most famous saying, “I think, therefore Iam” (cogito, ergo sum), could be stated less succinctly but more accurately as 'Because we are the only beings who do math, we rule.'
For Descartes, the essence of mind is to think, and the essence of matter is to exist-and the two never meet... we are the ghosts in the machine: souls in a world machine that operates inexorably and impersonally according to the laws of geometry and mechanics, while we operate the levers and spin the dials." The Cave and the Light
I usually think of Charles Sanders Peirce as Descartes’ most practical critic, and I agree with him that a contrived and methodological doubt is not the best starting place in philosophy.
But it occurs to me that an even more practical alternative to what I consider the misguided Cartesian quest for certainty is old Ben Franklin’s Poore Richard. His is not armchair wisdom, it comes straight from the accumulated experience of the folk. Some of that “common sense” is too common, but plenty is dead-on. “Early to bed, early to rise…” has definitely worked for me.
Still, says A.C. Grayling, "we may disagree with Descartes that the right place to start is with the private data of consciousness" rather than the shared world of language and common experience; but even if he was wrong he was "powerfully, interestingly, and importantly wrong." Russell concurs.
The thing is, the quest for certainty in philosophy tends to go hand-in-glove with the assertion of rational necessity. That, in turn, courts determinism and fatalism. Do we really want to rubber-stamp everything that happens as fated, not free? Hobbes (the contractarian and the cat) did. Calvin learned not to.
Is there anything we know or believe that we could not possibly be mistaken about, or cannot reasonably doubt? Certainly not, speaking at least for myself. But I'm next to certain that I'm more-or-less awake, at this hour, as the coffee drains.
I'm also pretty darn sure that I am (and do not "have") a body/brain. When I think of who, what, and where I am, though, the answer is interestingly complicated by all my relations (I don't just mean my familial relations): I am inclusive of a past and a future (though it keeps shrinking), and of wherever my influence (for better or worse) manages to stretch. I am vitally related by experience (actual, virtual, vicarious, possible, personal, interpersonal) to points far and wide. And, to actual physical objects in the extended world - not merely to possibilities of familiar object-like patterns of perception, as the phenomenalist has it. I'm not trapped in my skin, and we are definitely not alone in a solipsistic universe. Like Dr. Johnson, contra Berkeley, I find the pain in my toes (or hips) decidedly more substantial than an immaterial idea.
I don't believe in ghosts, except metaphorically. (I am haunted by opportunities missed, possibilities unnnoticed, diems uncarped.) But most of my metaphorical spooks are Casperishly friendly (albeit incoherent, dualistically speaking). This is true of most people who read and think a lot, isn't it? We're in constant, happy communion with the dead, the remote, and the prospective members of our continuous human community. Books transport us to their realms, and to the great undiscovered country of our future.