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A Superfluous Man thinks, therefore A Superfluous Man exists.

Title: Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy, by René Descartes

Motivation: A desire to dip into philosophy once again–education was wasted on the young.

Completed: June 27, 2012 (#45)

Recommendation: Western Canon Seal of Approval©

And a philosophical chaser:

Title: Descartes’ Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict between Faith and Reason, by Russell Shorto

Motivation: Recommended by Amazon.com.

Completed: June 29, 2012 (#46)

Recommendation: A fascinating anecdote in the history of philosophy–well worth it for those with an interest in Cartesian thought.

Not having encountered Descartes’ cogito since a freshman philosophy course, A Superfluous Man thought it was high time to strip down to first principles and rebuild from philosophical bedrock:

And finally, considering the fact that all the same thoughts we have when we are awake can also come to us when we are asleep, without any of them being true, I resolved to pretend that all the things that had ever entered my mind were no more true than the illusions of my dreams. But immediately afterward I noticed that, while I wanted thus to think that everything was false, it necessarily had to be the case that I, who was thinking this, was something. And noticing that this truth—I think, therefore I am—was so firm and so assured that all the most extravagant suppositions of the skeptics were incapable of shaking it, I judged that I could accept it without scruple as the first principle of the philosophy I was seeking.

Philosophers will cavil that the cogito fails to prove the ego and that Descartes merely established that “something is thinking, therefore something exists.” And the epistemic edifice Descartes constructed after stripping knowledge to its foundations surely has its flaws–few have been (or are) convinced by his ontological proof of God’s existence. Nevertheless, one can hardly help but enjoy following Descartes’ arguments. This is “modern” philosophy delivered in the conversational tone of Socrates and Plato, not the incoherent turgidity of  many of Descartes’ successors (as to whom, more to come in future posts).

After expiring at the court of Queen Christina in Stockholm in 1650, Descartes’ bones (and later, just his skull) were deployed as pawns in a variety of struggles political and philosophical, finally coming to rest in Paris, where his cranium is today apparently stored in a cabinet beneath the Musée de l’Homme. Mr. Shorto’s book uses the history of Descartes’ mortal remains as a metaphor for the eternal querelle between Faith and Reason:

In the perennial conflict between faith and reason, we tend to think of the one as old and the other as new, but today both the left and the right rely on Descartes. His remains—his metaphorical remains but also his actual bones—are so elemental that both of these competing camps put them to use. It’s not surprising that the archetypal modern philosopher would be godfather to the left; since Cartesianism was based on doubt, on questioning everything until you reach a bedrock of fact, it can be seen as the root not only of the scientific method but of self-government, the modern idea of individual rights, and of the equally modern distrust of authority. At the same time, another element of Descartes’ philosophy—what is known as Cartesian dualism, the notion that our minds (and souls) exist separately from the physical world—has been embraced by the right. Conservative thinkers—monarchs, theologians, philosophers—have followed Descartes’ mind-body distinction to buttress their argument that there is an eternal realm of thought, belief, and ideals that can’t be touched by the prying fingers of science and that human morality and earthly power are grounded in this timeless sphere.

Mr. Shorto writes elegantly and accessibly to the non-specialist. A delightful rumination on the continuing influence of one of history’s great minds.