Koyre Entretiens (1)

Alexandre Koyré: Entretiens sur Descartes (Brentano's, 1944) Entretiens sur Descartes occupies the worst of all possible worlds. It doesn’t take particular advantage of Koyré’s acquaintance with secondary figures from 16th and 17th century philosophy and science. But neither does it deal with Descartes’ issues or arguments in any except the most superficial and misleading ways. Rather he projects back in time a concern with a crisis in culture – a fashionable concern when Nazi bombs were dropping hither and yon. It seems nearly everything Descartes did, including cutting open cow eyes and contemplating mechanical fountains, was motivated by a dialogue with Montaigne and the specter of skepticism. For my money that’s like trying to find the sources for Heidegger and Wittgenstein in Goethe because they read him in the gymnasium.

Koyré draws historical conclusions by association. He does not do or show the research, at least in the Entretiens, that proves a thread of common issues. That philosophers use the same words or seem to be talking about the same things is insufficient.

Accordingly a rather large amount of space is given to a story about Descartes’ reaction to l’ombre puissant of Montaigne. Descartes did have an acquaintance with Montaigne (at least he read him in school and took issue with him regarding animal souls). And it’s a lot of fun to read about men losing their way and attempting to regain their cosmic security. But it may not be altogether true. Koyré’s fable about uncertainty and disarray sounds suspiciously like the crisis in European science that intellectuals felt they were experiencing just about the time Koyré was writing. It is not so compelling for a period when refutations of skeptics, atheists and libertines were enacted with something of the formulaic ceremony of courtly warfare. Even Montaigne, after all, propounded a profession of faith while that other purported skeptic, Thomas More, was willing, for reasons known only to him, to kill and be killed in defense of a particular Xtian sect. Rather than Koyré’s quasi existentialist drama of a world set adrift in a sea of doubt, one might better contrast Descartes with the largely Calvinist distrust of rational proofs in favor of faith alone, a much more explicit issue in the 17th and 18th centuries (suitably immortalized in Tom Jones’ dinner table symposia between tutors and preachers). Or else one can see Descartes as motivated by Mersenne’s nagging (perhaps reinforced at the famous meeting at Cardinal de Bagni’s where Descartes, the by then famous physicist, was, shall we say, encouraged to align himself ever after ’neath the banner of the Lord) to tie the physical and physiological theories of the Traité du monde to a refutation of skeptics, atheists etc. This would account for the rather late appearance of metaphysical and theological concerns in the Discours and the Méditations.

Galileo for one was just as worried as Montaigne about the deceptions of the senses, but he like Descartes was content to carry on scientific research in spite of the possibility of perceptual error. I fear Descartes’ very talents as a writer (His tropes come from sources as mutually unharmonious as Loyola, La Rochefoucauld and Tristan L’Hermite) ensnared the crisis-sensitive Koyré. It is a mistake (or rather a hasty superficiality; the drama cannot be summed up in a few bumper sticker phrases) to read Descartes’ metaphysical reasoning as intertwined in some grand European drama. It is also a mistake to see Descartes’ professed universal doubt as anything more than an addendum to his physical and physiological theories. He certainly did not create the latter to assuage the former. Perhaps his intention was to provide a pleasing literary setting for difficult scientific theories.

In the same way Koyré subscribes to a highly dubious view of Bacon the empiricist vs. Descartes the rationalist, as if Bacon had a firm enough grasp of the notion of a scientific theory to attack it. In fact Bacon’s concept of induction as a search for essences and his comments about experimentation as a kind of up and down process (where in effect theory informs observation and experiments refine the theory) describe very well how the stage is set for universal physical theories, such as, for example Descartes’ corpuscular theory.

Koyré makes much of the subjective turn in Descartes and the reliance on certainty. This fits nicely with the post-Hegelian narrative of classical philosophy as objective and modern philosophy as subjective. But the narrative is at best sketchy and Koyré’s use of it is so poorly thought out as to merit dismissal as superficial. For one thing, by rejecting syllogistic logic as a preferred means of scientific reasoning, Descartes was left without a way of distinguishing the results of scientific research and theorizing as more compelling than just any old thing we might assert about the world. In other words, since method did not consist in Descartes formulation in a chain of syllogisms, he also forfeited the logically necessary QED as a seal of approval. I speculate that Descartes’ method was at least partly designed to fill the void left by the insufficiency of logically necessary conclusions derived in the framework Aristotelian logic. Likewise, certainty was at least in part designed to occupy the place of necessity from pre-Cartesian philosophy. Does this mean that Descartes - along with Locke and perhaps the new novelists of the period - inaugurates a subjective turn in Western civilization with all its attendant psychological discomfort? Perhaps. One thing is certain: The protagonists did not seem to be much bothered about losing their way despite their constant appeal to introspection.

There are genuine philosophical problems with certainty (as well as the family of concepts involving evidence, self-evidence, clear and distinct ideas, introspection etc. as well as the technique of examination of consciousness much favored by Locke and Berkeley). Certainty is a state of mind. Is it a state that can be discovered by research and measured like the physical states of extended bodies? Indeed how can anyone else be certain that a given philosopher is certain? And if he is verifiably certain, can he still be wrong? Is certainty par dessus le marché a psychological state? Can it be classified among what Descartes called the passions, and, if so, doesn’t that raise a number of unwieldy problems? Or is there a kind of conceptual certainty that is completely distinct from psychological certainty, some sort of non-emotional structure or necessary component of mind? In that case, why do the philosophers in question reach certainty through the observational procedure of introspection? And how different are certainty and logical necessity? Minus the inner conviction, certainty seems to come down to a sort of non-syllogistic necessity that results from non-syllogistic types of reasoning. Indeed how can this non-psychological theory of certainty be established and defended? Is it not circular to say that we are certain that there is a necessary structure of mind that includes certainty? Perhaps certainty is even less satisfactory than necessity because it introduced what looks like an empirical element into the equation. As the ancient gardener observed , “…no one except the wise man is unshakeably persuaded of anything.”

Unfortunately Koyré’s account is peppered with punctual absurdities. The claim that Descartes’ scientific theories require the presupposition of a metaphysics because they utilize mathematical techniques is just absurd. Equally absurd is the view he attributes to Descartes that atheists cannot be scientists. A historical error (at least if we are to believe Descartes) is that Descartes advocated a return to Augustine against Aristotle and Thomism. For Descartes frequently denied ever having read Augustine until after he had devised his own Cogito and proof of the existence of God. A much more likely source for the sort of reasoning Descartes used in metaphysical writings lies in the indirect proofs from Euclid’s Elements. It is an inexplicable error to say that classical physics was based on the immediate givens of the senses. Epicurus for one was well aware of the phenomenon of perceptual error and the problem it posed for philosophy.

Speaking of Epicurus, we need more evidence than Koyré provides, to give Descartes sole credit for reviving a version of the atomist view of unobservably small particles characterized only by extension and motion and his rejection of scholastic qualities as essential to their description. This does not take Gassendi into account. Also Hobbes presents a theory of extended bodies causing perceptions that he could have lifted from Descartes (The Discours appeared in 1637 and the Principes in 1644. Hobbes could have met Mersenne as early as 1634 but his Elements of Philosophy did not appear until 1655 though he does not cite Descartes in this text. The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic, containing a rudimentary version of the primary and secondary quality distinction appeared in 1640 and Leviathan in 1650. It is possible, though unlikely, that Hobbes arrived at his conclusions independently from Descartes.) or that he could have derived independently from his reading of Epicurus.

No matter who gets the credit for the 17th century corpuscular theory, that physical theory is not in conflict with a purely logical version of the substance-accident conceptual scheme. For tiny particles (parties invisibles) do have qualities, if qualities are viewed in the logical sense as being things we assert about them. They may simply not have in any simple way those qualities we speak of as sensible qualities, such as color etc. Emission or reflection of light of a certain wavelength (to use modern terminology) is a quality in the logical sense. It is just not a secondary quality (to use Lockean language). It does maintain a causal relation of a sort with certain secondary qualities. All of this is not just compatible with what Descartes says, it is implied in certain passages of the Principes.

It is worth mentioning that the notion of a world view constitutes a sort of conceptual background to Koyré’s Entretiens.  World views as an organizing principle for the interpretation of intellectual history were much used and discussed in the generation of philosophers of history preceding Koyré. For many reasons, not the least of which is the sheer mass of material that has to be assessed to describe a world view, this principle can be simply misleading. Misused it can lead to the sort of bad history that bases conclusions on association without investigating deeper to see whether what seems related really is so. In addition, the idea of an historical epoch or period could itself be arbitrary and misleading. Because a few writers proposed certain views we are not justified in asserting that what they said constitutes the world view of their epoch. On an obvious level, “the people” might have had very different world views from the educated, as left wing historical research shows us. There is in fact much confusion and ambiguity in the opinions of individuals and how those relate to the educated opinion of their time. Or, as other recent historians have proposed, the idea of a field of discourse may be more accurate than a strict categorization by periods or world views. A better strategy would at the very least be to try to set conditions or conceptual limits that an individual from a period cannot exceed without “revolutionizing” thought, so to speak, i.e. setting the terms for a new and different field of discourse.