Poetic Knowledge Book Club: Descartes and the Cartesian Legacy, part 1

For information and previous posts, see the page for this Poetic Knowledge Book Club

This week we are covering part 1 of Chapter 4: Descartes and the Cartesian Legacy (pages 87-105). Next week we will read Chapter 4, part 2: pages 105-120).


Descartes wanted mathematical procedure and certainty in every field of knowledge, and although he himself wished to prove Christianity with his reasoning, and even to prove that we do know, his later followers, using his method and reasoning processes, eventually come to the point where we can’t know anything.

That is the grand understatement, and possibly a slight misstatement — I did my best.

Matt reminded me that R.C. Sproul, in his apologetics course, favorably explained Descartes’ contribution to apologetics. So I found that and I thought it was helpful. Sproul is amazing at presenting philosophy and theology to laymen. In the video lecture, he gives a brief and very informative historical context of Descartes. I recommend watching it, but basically Sproul laid out that after the Reformation and Copernicus/Galileo, there was a crisis of authority. Descartes, then, wanted to discover what can be known by anyone without a doubt. His design seemed much more sympathetic in light of Sproul’s perspective of historic background than Taylor’s presentation made him out to be. Taylor seems to indicate Descartes wished to break with tradition and previous knowledge and strike out on his own in pride. Sproul claims tradition and previous knowledge had been broken and Descartes was “starting over” because the society as a whole didn’t know where it should start or what tradition and previous knowledge they could trust.

I think this related lecture about The Case for God — that is, ways to approach apologetics — is also helpful, since it is essentially dealing with how we know, with epistemology.

I thought I’d provide short definitions for the philosophical terms that might get bandied about this week, too:

rationalism: a) the doctrine that knowledge about reality can be obtained by reason alone without recourse to experience. b) the doctrine that human knowledge can all be encompassed within a single, usually deductive, system. c) the belief that knowledge and truth are ascertained by rational thought and not by divine or supernatural revelation

empiricism: the doctrine that all knowledge of matters of fact derives from experience and that the mind is not furnished with a set of concepts in advance of experience

pragmatism: a philosophical movement or system having various forms, but generally stressing practical consequences as constituting the essential criterion in determining meaning, truth, or value.

Last summer we had a church intern who was a very strong rationalist, and we had many lively discussions. What I don’t get is that while the rationalist opposes empirical approaches because our senses can be deceived, he does not allow for our reason to be deceived. But it’s just as possible. What makes my mind any less prone to error than my senses?

I think the answer is generally that erroneous thinking is irrational, not rational, but our rationalist friend was never able to explain how someone could tell whether he was being rational or irrational. I do not want morality based on what the majority deems is rational and reasonable. What is actually rational might be an absolute (because rationality is found in God), but what is considered rational in one’s own day and age — the “spirit of the age” in Charlotte Mason’s works — isn’t necessarily actually rational. So how do we know what is ultimately rational? Either we take Descartes’ method and start at the very beginning and construct an edifice from scratch, or we accept God’s Word and God’s nature and character and make that our only rule for life and practice.

So, if one isn’t a rationalist and one isn’t an empiricist, what other options does one have? Anyone know?

Participants’ Posts

Discussion Question

In what ways are we (individually, not culturally) pragmatists? What truth do we need to grasp to counter prevailing pragmatism? What effect would that have on our educational efforts?