Saturday, September 25, 2010

Descartes as a Moral Thinker

"'I think, therefore I am', said Descartes, and the world rejoiced at the perspective of the expansion of individual personality and human powers through the liberation of the intellect." — C.L.R. James et al

The watershed marked by the philosophy of Descartes has long been recognized. The dualism of Descartes' philosophy has often been linked to his historical and social position, e.g.:

Descartes' Dualism (Extract) by Albert William Levi

One can find such treatments also in the Marxist tradition (e.g. C.L.R. James & the Johnson-Forest Tendency, quoted above):

Descartes & Marxism: Selected Bibliography

There is, of course, the perennial favorite which deals not with Descartes specifically but with the contradictions of Enlightenment, unsatisfactorily in my view: Dialectic of Enlightenment by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. See also my web guide/bibliography:

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

Here is a book I just discovered which is alleged to challenge common wisdom about Descartes:

Steiner, Gary. Descartes as a Moral Thinker: Christianity, Technology, Nihilism. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 2004. See also at Prometheus Books.

There is one brief passage on Marx, and, surprisingly, Steiner finds an affinity between Descartes and Marx. Otherwise, the book appears to be innocent of Marxism. Looking through the bibliography, the one author I'm tempted to pursue is Hans Blumenberg (also known for a debate with Karl Löwith).

Here is the publisher's product description:
Although commentary on Descartes is extensive, the importance of morality in his thought has been all but overlooked in contemporary English-language scholarship. Considered to be the first modern philosopher, Descartes is often interpreted as a wholly secular thinker who acknowledged no authority above the human will. In this important reassessment of the great French philosopher, Gary Steiner shows the influence of Christian thought on the moral foundations of Descartes's philosophy.

Descartes's commitment to Christian piety and to the autonomy of human reason stand in an uneasy tension with one another. In DESCARTES AS A MORAL THINKER, Steiner examines this tension between the "angelic" aspirations in Descartes's Christian commitments and the "earthly" or technological aspirations reflected in his endeavor to use reason to ground scientific practice. Steiner provides a close analysis of all Descartes's texts and correspondence that bear on morality. By placing Descartes's work in historical context, Steiner demonstrates Descartes's indebtedness not only to Galileo and Bacon in developing his conception of autonomous human reason but also to Augustine and Aquinas in conceptualizing the human condition and the role of belief in God. Providing a detailed survey of German, French, and English scholarship on Descartes, Steiner concludes with an in-depth examination of contemporary debates about secularization, nihilism, and modernity in such thinkers as Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Hans Blumenberg, and Karl Lowith. Steiner shows how Descartes's own ambivalence about the relation between faith and reason can shed light on contemporary controversies regarding what Blumenberg calls "the legitimacy of the modern age."
This bears looking into. I think this will inadvertently confirm the incomparable greatness of Baruch Spinoza.

No comments: