Book review: DESCARTES in the DOCK

by Elf S. Raymond

"CARTESIAN NIGHTMARE: an introduction to Transcendental Sophistry", by Peter A. Redpath, Value Inquiry Book Series, RODOPI, Amsterdam - Atlanta, GA, 1997; 187 pages, with notes, bibliography, index.

With "CARTESIAN NIGHTMARE" Peter Redpath writes a most timely book in a gallant attempt to reclaim ground in the battle between Sophists and Philosophers, or, more in line with Plato's diction, between the power-happy Giants and the justice-loving God(s). In antiquity juxtapositions of this sort were sufficient to draw the battle lines. Today, two-and-a-half millenia of rapidly accelerating cultural development later, there rarely are such clear demarcations. Thus it is truly a delight to see a book written with philosophical acumen, passion, command of the significant facts, skilled strategy, and a clearly stated goal.

This goal is as ambitious as it is desirable: Redpath wants to deliver the current Zeitgeist, ruling town and gown alike, from the spell of Cartesian ideology and break the power of Descartes' egotism-spreading myth of an utterly subjective mental faculty of pure and self-sufficient reason. This mythic tale of reason, a tale which hides the will to power, inaugurated the modern period and furnished it with the mental habits that form the attitudes and outlook called modernity. These habits of the mind and heart turn not only away from but aggressively against objective reality, whether as nature, science, or history, and posit the introspective self's reflexive subjectivity as nothing less but the very fountain of truth. Little wonder that, over the course of the last three centuries, the myth's pathogenic force eroded traditional, authoritative moral foundations, dissolving human ties indispensable for society to flourish and endow its individual members with lawful liberty. It is this egocentric and, seen in hindsight, catastrophic Cartesian turn of mind Redpath seeks to leave behind in favor of a sound and reasonable Aristotlelian-Thomistic realism. Time has come, his argument insists, to recover the classical wisdom of the Greeks and remember that true Philosophy does not live by the Mind alone, but by carefully tending the "knowledge of the being of individual things." (Redpath, p151)

Now, the kind reader of this review may be tempted to ask, is it not quixotic to attack singlehanded an existential stance as widespread and contagious as modernity? Such a question is particularly pointed when one considers sophistry's commandeering role in today's culture at large. Redpath reminds us that the academy underwrites the proposition that the disciplines of philosophy, religion, theology, law, literature, history, the social sciences and even science, are all subsumed under the genus rhetoric. Keeping in mind that rhetoric, i.e. the art of persuasion by all available means, is an off-shoot of politics (Aristotle "On Rhetoric", 1.2.7), where does this leave us? Indubitably, whether in the polity at large, or in the academy, this leaves us in the midst of slick power politics, haunted by sectarian strife and ruled by the "after virtue" ethics of might is right.

In response to the question of whether Redpath's book is quixotic, the answer is no. It is indeed brave, but the author's courage is matched by his learning. He buttresses his polemic against the ills of Descartes's subjective idealism by an historical account of how ancient cultural myths, featuring Moses, crude superstitions, and neo-platonic theurgical doctrines subverted the cultural transmission of the classical inheritance during the Renaissance. In addition, he bases his case on the authority of the scholastic tradition at its humanistic best, a tradition whose perhaps greatest recent spokesman can be found in the contemporary philosopher Jacques Maritain. Maritain criticises Descartes's lack of a true philosophical stance in his essay "THE DREAM OF DESCARTES"and it is this dream the book here under review identifies as modern nightmare. Relying on Plato's dialectic, Redpath exposes the systemic flaws of sham and pretence in the life of our institutions, while prosecuting Cartesian ideology with the help of the formidable weapons of judicial rhetoric. The charge is levelled with precision at the deceptive myth of pure reason as the formal as well as the efficient cause of modernity's morbidity. Staying clear of ad hominem argumentation permits Redpath to pay tribute to Descartes as thinker. Although he delights in satirizing some of the more self-serving aspects of Descartes's self-centered reflections, he acknowledges and appreciates his epochal accomplishment in the "DISCOURSE ON METHOD" (1637) and the "MEDITATIONS" (1641).

Nevertheless, the father of modernity, according to Redpath's revisionist argument, is no philosopher. He is rather an inspired sophist equating 'mind' with 'self', whose dualistic doctrine proclaims that the disembodied self, i.e., mind or, of all things, pure reason, is able to garner true perceptions and knowledge without recourse to empirical reality accessed by the senses. Trained to perfection by Jesuits in logic, grammar, and rhetoric, Descartes succeeded in putting his skills to use inventing a method which serves, he claims, to arrive at an indubitable knowledge of clear and distinct ideas. Ironically, it was his expertise in the three qualitative liberal arts, the trivium of rhetoric, logic and grammar, which secured the problematic modern triumph of the four quantitative or computational arts, especially mathemathics. Yet whether Descartes's method is a philosophic one is a question worth investigating, and Redpath does so in three provocative, closely reasoned chapters. After detailing the Cartesian method's genesis with satirical flair, he focuses attention on its reliance on introspection. From the evidence presented the conclusion flows that the method Descarted invented is not philosophic but rather a sophistically construed transcendental method of secularized theology. Cartesianism's heirs, in turn, are not philosophers either. They are but neo-sophists who, under the Cartesian nightmare's spell, are deaf and blind to their own condition.

Will this audacious work act as a spell-breaker and wake-up call? Or will it prove to be but one more twist in the strangulating coils of modern self-consciousness? Time will tell. In an optimal scenario, Redpath's "CARTESIAN NIGHTMARE" will engender informed and spirited debate whether his diagnosis of modernity as morbid cultural condition is indeed accurate and whether the accusation levelled against Cartesianism is justified. Doubtless, Redpath's case now before the court of public opinion is of great importance, compelling attention by its urgency. Yet only through the well-established discipline of judicial controversy can the accusation's true merits be ascertained. So, may the defense come forward and launch the rebuttal!

Editor's note: Peter Redpath's sequel to "CARTESIAN NIGHTMARE" has just been published under the title "WISDOM'S ODYSSEE: from Philosophy to Transcendental Sophistry." It will be reviewed in the next issue of CONTEMPORARY PHILOSOPHY.

In the Centraal Museum of Utrecht is a portrait of Descartes by Jan Baptist Weenix from the year 1647 that bears the legend: MUNDUS EST FABULA. (This is in brief the thesis of Stephen Daniel's pro-Descartes monograph "Myth and Modern Philosophy.")