The demand for precision and certainty gave rise to some valuable methods which are continually misused, such as statistics. But it also eliminated, in principle, any kind of knowing that was not precise and certain, such as the nature of love or justice.
Children trained on Descartes’ principles are inclined toward despair, since they quickly learn quite certainly that very little is precise and certain, and they don’t have the time Descartes had to think everything through. But what a great device this standard becomes for the philosopher or, worse, the expert to make the common man feel like he doesn’t know anything because, after all, he doesn’t have the research to back up his beliefs.
Can you see how this rather absurd standard is necessarily both radical and unworkable? Tradition and the wisdom of the ages can’t possibly stand up to it. Neither can religion, or ethics, or politics. But why believe it? Why bother demanding that nothing can be known unless it is precise and certain?
I have long wondered what caused Descartes to develop this idea and what its effects were. Its primary effect is what I have called the great reduction. Perhaps this is easiest to make sense of by comparing Descartes’ standard with Plato or Aristotle or St. Augustine or any other pre Scholastic thinker.
The Socratic method, unlike Descartes’ method, is rooted in faith, not doubt. It is rooted in faith because Socrates knew that truth is, that it can be known, and that it can be communicated. He, like every human being who has ever lived and thought, began with that faith.
The Sophists began with it too. But they had it educated out of them by their false premises. So by the time they arrive in Athens in the persons of, for example, Protagoras and Gorgias, they have a very sophisticated set of teachings and practices that all, like Descartes, presume to begin with, though in fact they end with, skepticism or doubt.
But while they were willing to explore the foundations of truth (and couldn’t find them because of their methods), they were never willing to examine the foundations of doubt (which don’t exist). They went around claiming to know something, and what they knew was that you couldn’t know anything.
Socrates responded, in this as in everything, with great irony–since he saw the irony of the Sophists position. He knew that by the Sophists standards he didn’t know anything. So he just admitted it. He went around claiming not to know anything, all the while knowing that knowledge was possible.
But he had set himself an incredibly difficult task. His whole life was devoted to curing Athens of what he rightly saw as the catastrophically destructive influence of the Sophists.
So how do you get someone who has closed his eyes to see? How do you get someone who has determined that because his methods don’t reveal truth to him that perhaps his method is wrong? You ask questions. In fact, you ask rather simple questions, over and over again.
To the Sophist an unknowable world meant undefinable terms. Words had no meanings because there was nothing, really, for them to mean. Communication itself melted down. So Socrates would continually return to one major question, the very asking of which shows the internal contradiction of Sophistry (and of Progressive education, which is the modern Sophism). He would ask, “What do you mean by that?”.
I don’t want to misrepresent this story, but if I remember it correctly it goes like this. My friend Wes Callihan was taking a college class being taught by a Sophist in the modern guise of a Deconstructionist. The professor said, “There is no inherent meaning in a text. You the reader determine what the text means.”
To which Wes replied, “So then, what you are saying is that the text means exactly what the author intended it to mean and the reader simply has to accept its meaning. The professor corrected Wes by repeating his original contention. To which Wes responded by repeating his reply. The professor repeated his text a third time, and Wes replied a third time with his. At this point, as I recall, some students in the class got it and started to laugh. From what I understand, the professor never did.
Now, admittedly, this professor was probably an embarrassment to the great deconstuctors of the world, but isn’t that much of the point. A Protagoras or a Gorgias or even a Thrasymachus maybe can hold to some shallow consistency with such an absurd idea and it might take a Socrates to provide any help for such a man at all.
But what do you do for all the less brilliant people who become professors and teach college students these evil ideas? What do you do for the college students who have no filters, who have never learned the tools of truth-seeking since they grew up in Sophistic schools that don’t believe in Truth? What do you do for young people who have so much potential but who experience an intellectual surgery that removes the organ by which they could have perceived the truth and been fruitful?
If a Sophist or a Deconstructionist or a Post-Modernist or a Naturalist is reading this, he is perhaps somewhat angry, as though he knew something that I have challenged, even though his basic premise is that there is nothing to know. He is probably saying, well then, prove that there is a knowable truth and prove that words have inherent meaning.
To which I would reply, though feebly compared to my model, “What do you mean by prove?” This question has not been answered by the modern, Cartesian philosopher.
I, like Socrates, make no attempt to prove truth. Rather, like everybody else, I simply admit it. Now, the Sophist (Progressive educator) might not consciously admit it, but when he rises in the morning and begins to write his article about how the truth is relative and culturally conditioned, the unconfessed confession beneath everything he thinks and writes is that there is a knowable truth and that it can be communicated to others.
Nor do I, or the Sophist, need to assume the being of truth. I do not assume it. I admit it. I confess it. Indeed, I know it. So do you. That is why, when you try to deny it or live in disregard of it or neglect it, you fall into anxiety and your soul disintegrates and you start looking for new ways of making sense of existence, like utility or existential groping.
What then is the great reduction? The sophist wants to deny truth to anything that is not precise and certain. In so doing, he reduces the faculty of reason, to use only a slight caricature, to the faculty of calculating. When Socrates asks, “What do you mean?”, he expands the work and reach of the mind again. He redirects from appearances to being itself, from what can be measured to what is true.
The faculty of reason, in other words, is not merely a calculating, unemotional faculty. It is instead the faculty that seeks to bring everything into a symphonic harmony. It accepts everything into its orbit and it strives to put everything in its place. It is not calculating and unemotional. Instead it is musical and driven by love.
This essay first appeared on the website of the Circe Institute and is republished here with the gracious permission of the author.
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The featured image is a portrait of René Descartes after Frans Hals and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.