Category: Guest Articles.
What René Descartes and many others can teach us today.
I have chosen a line from Hamlet that says it all.
“Our world, the world of progress, the world of the Enlightenment is out of joint.”
The Enlightenment, the 18th-century intellectual and secular movement which had asserted the centrality of our rationality, has been defeated by the many Trumps around the world and unaccounted for ignorance. This contribution will endeavour to explain why this situation is (unfortunately) the case and how philosophy has tried to respond to this situation. I will analyse the contributions made by the realist Niccolò Machiavelli, the rationalist René Descartes, the scientific Francis Bacon, and his equally scientific disciple Thomas Browne. Conclusion will be then drawn.
Ignorance and Trumpism.
If I were to define the cause of present-day irrationality and pervasive ignorance, I would refer myself to the current US President Donald Trump. Trump is the archetype (the model) of anything irrational. Two years ago, he unexpectedly won the US presidential election on a platform of fake news and verbal violence. By ‘fake news’ I mean the conscious and deliberate spread of news that is not true. Ironically, despite the many electronic devices allowing checking information or news, people buy into the rhetoric of these politicians. We are interconnected, but egregiously ignorant at the same time. What has caused the re-emergence of what we heirs of the Enlightenment could not anticipate? I will endeavour to answer this question at the end of this contribution, but now I intend to describe those thinkers who can help us confront this situation.
Niccolò Machiavelli, or Socio-political realism.
Yes, Niccolò Machiavelli’s philosophy is my lodestar. He wrote his Prince and Discourses on Livy at a similar time: politics and the way politics was made needed reconsidering. No pre-established moral rules or morals can guide politicians in their day-to-day interactions. We need to take the context(shorthand for ‘reality.’) and act accordingly. This involves taking decisions that, on paper, can be questionable or immoral, but this is something we are supposed to be doing if we want to address crises. In the present circumstances, a new Machiavelli is needed: if progressive agents want to effectively respond to the many Trumps around the world, they will have to hone their political skills and make sure they live up to the expectations of the people. Yes, this means taking decisions or acting in a way that could be disingenuous. But, as Machiavelli powerfully stated, the powers that be will have to evaluate the consequences of their actions. And if they are bad but, in the long term can help them achieve their ends, then so be it.
René Descartes, the importance of the mind.
Any student of philosophy is familiar this phrase:
cogito, ergo sum (‘I think, therefore I am.’).
This is the intellectual inheritance of René Descartes. The French philosopher is the father of rationalism, the philosophical school whose main interest is to make people more rational and more reflective. Like Machiavelli, Descartes lived at a time of unrest: France was torn by clashes between Protestants and Roman Catholics, and Europe was ready to fight a thirty-year-long war. No doubt he wanted to teach people how to be rational and how to think. The above phrase is the result of his thought experiment that is described in his meditations (one of his works along with his Discourse on Method). Here is the experiment:
Suppose an evil demon plagues me whilst I am asleep. I can be made doubt of anything, but what I cannot certainly deny is the fact that I am doubting. Therefore, since I can cast doubt on me doubting and therefore I can think, I must necessarily exist.
The Cartesian doubt should be the foundation of what we need today:
Yes, we are confronted with a daily influx of news, but is this news genuine?
We have a new evil genius that makes us doubt of everything, but we have a powerful response to him: double-check. So if we hear that ‘the government want to increase the taxes,’ then we should check the source. Once we have done so, then we can (rationally) decide on believing or refuting this claim.
Francis Bacon, and the necessity of a new scientific method
Francis Bacon, along with Galileo Galilei, is the father of what we call ‘scientific method.’ This is shorthand for how to assess the outcomes of an experiment. And the outcomes of an experiment are clear, provided we observe and assess reality. Bacon is the scientific Machiavelli: only by observing the context (the situation), we can draw conclusions. But, in order to draw effective conclusions, then our minds have got to be free. And Bacon suggests getting rid of what he calls ‘idola.’ Idola , in Greek, means ‘images.’
What Bacon critiques are the pre-established images beleaguering our minds.
Therefore, our minds must be completely free; we should be modest enough to accept the fact we cannot know everything, and thus only a rigorous study of reality can help us.
Thomas Browne, or when a bizarre polymath knows better than us.
Hydrotaphia or Urn- Burial. This could be an arresting title, a book written by somebody who is soft in the head. But this is one of the works of the bizarre but learned English polymath Thomas Browne. Thomas Browne is a dutiful disciple of Francis Bacon. And like his teacher, he believed reality can be scientifically described. Thus, Browne debunked the ‘fake news’ of his own time in his Pseudoxia Epidemica, or Vulgar Errors. Like Bacon, he believed science can debunk egregious errors and the least scientific theories of his own epoch. Yes, the author of a book detailing the discovery of an urn can help us get rid of unscientific balderdash.
These conclusions have to be accepted with the caveat:
The age of irrationality is still among us
But the above thinkers, in their own political, philosophical, and scientific programmes have explained us how to make sense of our world and be less complicit in the questionable way we describe it.
Good luck to us all, and thanks to Machiavelli, Descartes, Bacon, and the bizarre but bright Thomas Browne.