Friday, June 15, 2007
Some notes on Decartes's Rules for the Direction of the Mind as an overlooked literary artifact. (This is a little dry: as in Alice in Wonderland when they fall in the pool and need to get dry, so the Mouse retells the history of England because it's the driest thing he knows.)
It’s a genre convention of philosophy to claim that philosophy is starting over right now, but Descartes is particularly good at making us feel that he's really starting from nothing--at creating this nothing to start from, so to speak. Two ways into thinking about this—autobiographical and methodological--are Descartes’s denigration of institutional education and his complementary praise of independent attention. Ideally, Descartes would combine his desires for method and for nature into naturalistic method.
Descartes is palpably resentful about his education (which by all accounts was a good one, the best you could get at the time), and about the concept of education. There’s that “confession” in Rule 10: "The natural bent of my mind, I confess, is such that the greatest pleasure I have taken in my studies has always come not from accepting the arguments of others but from discovering arguments by my own efforts" (in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Vol. 1, trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch [Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985]). The role Descartes grants to education is minimal. His method can't teach anybody how to intuit things, he says later: only to organize what you can do. Similarly, Descartes can’t read a book without wanting to write it instead. Most people want to page ahead to where something is explained; Descartes seems to recognize that this would be a temptation, but he rejects it in favor of the greater pleasure of trying to construct the conclusion himself ahead of the author: "I took great care not to deprive myself of this innocent pleasure through a hasty reading of the book" (Rule 10). He likes number games because in them “nothing . . . remains hidden.” So are things usually hidden? Apparently so, as in his rather bitter statement that “the geometers
of antiquity employed a sort of analysis which they went on to apply to the solution of every problem, though they begrudged revealing it to posterity” (Rule 4). Descartes will not be like them; rather than announcing some solutions, he’s giving us the Rules for the Direction of the Mind themselves, rules out of which you can make more of your own rules. Seeds instead of food; source code. (There is a good passage about how the first things you should make out of metal are tools in Rule 8). Descartes is having a Promethean fantasy of revealing what people have not wanted spoken:
This discipline [his philosophy—but he seems to think it's a new discipline that may not have a name] should contain the primary rudiments of human reason and extend to the discovery of truths in any field whatever. Frankly speaking, I am convinced that it is a more powerful instrument of knowledge than any other with which human beings are endowed, as it is the source of all the rest. I have spoken of its "outer garment," not because I wish to conceal this science and shroud it from the gaze of the public; I wish rather to clothe and adorn it so as to make it easier to present to the human mind. (Rule 4)
He imagines himself transgressing not by seeking knowledge but by giving it out, and it is of course a sexualized knowledge, primary, powerful, generative, "the source of all the rest," and maybe overwhelming when gazed on directly.
Back to Descartes’ talent for seeming to make palpable the nothing we are supposedly starting from. He creates an atmosphere of absorption and of looking at the overlooked. The strongest statement is the phrasing of Rule 9: "We must concentrate our mind's eye totally upon the most insignificant and easiest of matters, and dwell on them long enough to acquire the habit of intuiting the truth distinctly and clearly." Descartes likes the abstract vs. applied sciences because the latter "frequently cause us to overlook many items which are required for a knowledge of other things, because at first glance they seem of little use or of little interest” (Rule 2). He congratulates himself for finding nothing too simple or too apparently clear to be elucidated. Perceptions that may lead to clear intuitions "are more numerous than most people realize, disdaining as they do to turn their minds to such simple matters" (Rule 2). “We must not fall into the error” of those who will think only about lofty things (Rule 11). The value of the insignificant has to do partly with continuity, steps: you can't understand the complex if you don't understand the simple. If you don’t know what to focus on, you should actively seek out the most insignificant and easiest things, so that by through them you can locate the portals of knowledge. The funny thing is that for "most people," there's a difficulty with the simple. It is apparently very difficult for people to train themselves to look at it. And here Descartes is getting into a paradox. He both wants truth to be known by its easiness, its accessibility, and opines repeatedly that it’s hard for most people to realize that the truth is easy. He intends cultural criticism—humans in a state of nature might have an easier time realizing how easy the truth is because they wouldn’t have been miseducated to expect something difficult, while real knowledge is "innate[ly]" easy, "so easy that in order to possess it all we need is some degree of rationality" (Rule 12). Nonetheless, even misguided education leaves unexplained the question of why we enjoy and so easily accept the idea we are given of the difficulty of the truth. The (false) idea that the truth is difficult is easy to accept, the (true) idea that the truth is easy is difficult to accept. This romance of absorption in the simple, of taking time with it, and as it were placing no preconditions on what you're considering (that it be of a certain level of complexity, that it have the rhetoric of an “interesting” thing), is Descartes’ way of suggesting the defensive and distractive nature of most human activity. For Descartes, you learn by considering yourself and objects—and not so much what your inner voices are saying, but even more elemental ways of being. (We’re almost sounding like Heidegger here.) As Descartes distrusts leaning on other people’s thought (borrowing it, even resting in it—he claims that dialectics offers props, resting places: in its complexity, we rest too easy), his positive alternative is to promote contemplation of something that no one else is looking at, a resource hidden in plain sight in the nearly blank. Descartes heads into a landscape of virtual sensory deprivation, not to mention human deprivation, with simultaneous intensity and loneliness edged by fear. He's a meticulous insomniac who's afraid to lose his place or train of thought ("Anyone who sets out in quest of knowledge of things must follow this Rule as closely as he would the thread of Theseus if he were to enter the labyrinth" [Rule Five]). If he gets lost, there's no one else around, only this map he's constructed himself by tracking the stars. But he dreads getting lost not because he doesn’t really know where he is, but because he does know where he is—because he has so good an idea of how vast the universe is and how much may be in it. He actually manages to stir an evocation of the size of the universe by taking seriously the task of ordering the world from the beginning. As in Kafka, Descartes's labyrinth is a straight line.
Image 1: Descartes' analysis of star systems, circa 1644. S is the sun, epsilon is a star, RQD... is a comet's path.
Image 2: Jannis Kounellis, Untitled, 1987.