Sunday, October 26, 2008

Descartes and Unification

When René Descartes set out to write his Meditation on First Philosophy, his intention was to come to an understanding of the terrestrial world through a linear analysis whose steps would be so logical as to require limited examination. The task required of him—before he could bother with more important matters like the logical argument for the existence of god—that he discover the basis on which all further philosophical extrapolation could be anchored.

His assertion that “I am nothing but a thinking thing” (this is the passage that is often interpreted as “Cogito Ergo Sum”) serves as the basis of all possible human knowledge does not interest me so much as his use of universal doubt. In the course of searching out the acorn of thought from which the entire tree of knowledge could grow Descartes manages to disbelieve every major field of academic study (present in his time). He declares all of what we would understand as the hard sciences suspect, explaining that we should doubt “even of the demonstrations of mathematics, and of their principles which we have hitherto deemed self-evident.”

Attempt (by Paul Richeter) to display that Descartes was, in fact, more than a thinking thing

What his task amounts to at this early stage of the Meditation is the widespread elimination of difference. As he progresses he reminds us more and more of John Lennon: “there is neither God, nor sky, nor bodies, and that we ourselves even have neither hands nor feet, nor, finally, a body” (that’s Descartes, by the way, not the late Beatle). The result, Descartes assumes, is that there will be an unassailable remainder when his policy of universal doubt has been applied. According to Descartes, there is: hence the Cogito we are so familiar with.

The early years: blissfully unaware of eventual convergence with Cartesian principle of universal doubt.

To be fair, as soon as he finds the kernel on which he will base the rest of his philosophy, Descartes reestablishes the differences he attacks in his introduction. This is one of the points at which he diverges from the project we propose here. Although we do not assume such lofty goals as proving the non-existence of god, the illusory nature of mathematics, or the fallacy of the sky; our project does involve the elimination of differences that establish our humanities departments as we understand them today.

In Gutenberg Galaxy, Marshall McLuhan asks, "is it not possible to emancipate ourselves from the subliminal operation of our own technologies? Is not the essence of education civil defense against media fall-out?" These questions are asked in the context of a reading of Descartes as a breaking point in our reading of the world around us; McLuhan compares philosophical progress since as the progression from a "steam engine" to a "gas or diesel engine." It is from this perspective, and in the attempt to answer McLuhan's questions, that we suggest a return (in part) to the point in history where our educational model faced a multitude of possibilities--of which our current system is only one.

The stamp is the message?

We want to reverse the segregation of the academies.

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