Philosophy, perhaps more than any other academic discipline, is thought to deal with intellectual things, or 'ideas'. In our culture we tend to separate the intellectual world from the practical and the useful, often with very good reason. The study of philosophy falls under the category of 'impractical' and is often critiqued in this way.
Yet it is undeniable that, in any culture and at any time in history, human beings are called to think on ultimate questions: what is it to live rightly, what is nature, truth, justice and so on. These questions are not simply resolved, but constantly challenge individuals and communities alike. The way a community attempts to respond to these questions, through its insights, ideas and values, determines what world that community creates for itself. For ideas, if they are genuine, do not merely influence a culture: they ground it. Philosophy therefore, more than a complacent pursuit of intellectual truth as it is often seen, refers to how humanity attempts to respond to the challenges of reality.
Modernity - the culture to which all of us belong - is a philosophy in its own right, and has its own specific approach to the questions cited above. One of the pillars of modernity is the search for impartial objectivity. To find out the truth of something, one needs to adopt an objective viewpoint. This is invariably the case, both in the sciences and in the humanities: only through the observation of 'facts', we believe, can a truth, a correct apprehension of something, come to light. And there is no doubt this objective, factual approach has been and continues to be highly satisfactory in that it produces measurable results. Hence it also fuels our idea of 'progress': the greater the amount of facts gathered, it is thought, the more human beings know about themselves and the world they live in.
Yet this method of enquiry, however convincing and universally accepted, is based on assumptions and ideas that are specifically modern, and which are so embedded in the culture that they are hardly noticed at all. In this article we will attempt to trace the development of a basic philosophical idea that inspired the beginnings of modernity, and present how this notion - no matter how critiqued - still has a strong hold on our thinking today. Likewise we hope to show that the study of philosophy is not a self-enclosed intellectual pursuit, but, if intelligently done, can provide profound insight into our culture, its ideas and its problems, and how we may address them.
The Beginnings of Modernity
Several key ideas of modernity are clearly expressed in Descartes' famous saying: 'I think therefore I am'. In fact, concealed in this little statement is a complete ideological turn from what had been thought for more than two thousand years.
'I think therefore I am', simply considered, means that thought comes prior to reality. Being, says Descartes, can only be deduced through the abstractions of the mind. In order to be qualified, 'truth' must therefore be measurable. A thing, to be held as real, must attain the same degree of certainty in the mind as a mathematical truth. Somehow this also means that the mind is more real than what it attends to, since only by submitting to the demands of conceptual thought can a thing be said to be true. According to Descartes 'truth' could be simply a project of the mind. It is not truth, therefore, that becomes the arbiter of what is true, but the mind itself, and through the mind, measurement.
This approach, which became universally adopted in the late 17th century, expressed the triumph of 'reason'. Yet, to illustrate the sharp distinction between Descartes' time and the previous, it is worth reflecting on what that word originally meant. For Classical and Mediaeval thinkers 'reason' (logos) referred to the intelligent and harmonious order of the universe. Since it was thought that mind and universe were in essence one and the same, the mind could contemplate reason, its order and perfection, because of its essential identity with it. This understanding of knowledge was not abstracting or measuring, but participative. The essence of things, as Aristotle held, was to be found not by the mind but in things themselves. True knowing was thus a contemplative act which united the knower with the known.
With the rise of rationalism as the new philosophy, however, this unity between mind and cosmos was discarded, and the measuring aspect of thought became the all-important factor. This allowed the scientific revolution to take flight; at the same time, however, it also created an unbridgeable gap between man and nature. Nature for the ancients had been the living pattern of intelligence; now, rather than what nature revealed, the new understanding stressed what the mind chose to acknowledge. The primary qualities of nature ceased to be metaphysical - truth, essence, or meaning - and became conceptual (extension, motion and mass).
This eventually resulted in Nature being relegated to the status of mere raw material made available to further human ends. From 'What is the Essence of Nature?' the important question became 'How does Nature Work?', followed by 'How can I use it Efficiently?'. Man was now a 'subject' and the world around him the 'object' of his enquiry. 'Facts' - as units of measurable data - began to take hold as undisputable items of knowledge. Interestingly enough, the original sense of the word referred to the changeable appearances of material things as opposed to their eternal essence. At the beginning of modernity, however, the word 'fact' was equated with 'truth', as it still is today.
Descartes' idea also enabled other dualistic ideas to take hold: the difference between reason and feeling, for example. Knowing oneself meant gathering facts about oneself and relegating what could not be analysed in this way to a status of unreality. Of course, this caused great psychological unrest. Because of the split between subject and object, clues to one's inner harmony could no longer be found in one's relation to nature (or to the church). Psychology eventually arose from this dualism and sought to use the scientific method to understand man's subjective inner life - in an attempt to regulate and give meaning to it.
The Influence of Rationalism on Modernity
Retracing these ideas in the context of a history of philosophy is obvious enough. What is less obvious is how deeply these ideas are rooted, and how much they still influence our way of enquiry into ourselves and the world. Many of the disciplines that are involved in seeking to understand culture still grapple with the problems of modernity. When we study our own history, for example, we tend to consider it as a struggle between social classes, a striving which has for ultimate aim the complete affirmation of individual freedom. What is seldom given much attention to is that the concept of freedom we use is thoroughly modern. The classical conception of freedom differed from it widely in that it was, again, a participatory idea: to be free was to be free to participate in the community or state, in the order of nature, and ultimately in the whole cosmos. The greater the freedom, the more the integration into reality, resulting in infinite freedom for those who lived in perfect harmony with the (deified) order of the cosmos. Freedom was therefore, ultimately, pure existence.
Yet the rational dualisms, granting complete autonomy to the 'subject', could not accommodate this idea. Freedom eventually became freedom for the subject to secure itself against fate and an unpredictable and meaningless cosmos. From an ideal of infinite participation it became a finite freedom: a freedom to be a subject in an objective world. The individual's greatest right is to give his own individual meaning to a universe devoid of a sense of its own. As a result, the idea of social order changed from a natural law that humanity seeks to align itself with, to a moral and juridical contract between individuals. Thus history was reinterpreted: its metaphysical significance was discarded to give way to a view that could account for the new theory of the individual.
The idea of freedom and social struggle, however, are very soon problematic: if taken on board, they present ancient history as a collection of strange events to be seen with great suspicion. If refuted, they cannot account for our notion of the individual subject. What is undeniable, however, is that they give us little clue into what those who viewed their lives in such profoundly different ways might think. This is not merely an academic problem, but is symptomatic of a culture that has little or no relation with its own roots. In other words, it suggests that modernity fails to reflect upon itself. For how are we to understand the fundamental ideas of our culture if we only apprehend it in its own terms and by its own rules?
Like all other cultures, modernity has a responsibility to become aware of itself, its values and limitations. Unquestionably, its key ideas are challenged on a daily basis: multiplying natural catastrophes, ever-increasing psychological fragmentation and profound misunderstanding between cultures all attest to this. As is suggested above, however, an 'objective' enquiry may fall short of what it wants to achieve, for in order to work it must examine a host of unspoken assumptions. Yet does not true self-reflection require that we question our very method of reflecting? Can human beings, then, ever learn to think and enquire in a non-dualistic, non-fragmented manner?
In pointing out the great influence of Descartes' theorem in our thinking, one merely begins to probe at a very vast question. This question, however, is of no passing theoretical interest. As was said above, philosophical ideas have enormous implications: in them, as we see from Descartes, our whole relationship to the world, to nature and to ourselves is intimated. Bringing these relationships to light and attempting to address their challenges is the real task of philosophy. With this in mind, studying philosophy can then become what it truly should be - a springboard for true learning and profound enquiry.
Valentin Gerlier is at present completing an MA in the study of Mysticism and Religious Experience in the University of Kent, and is looking to progress into further research in the field of philosophy and religious studies. He is also a novelist, musician and songwrtier and teaches Guitar and Singing at Brockwood Park School.