Poetic Knowledge Book Club: Descartes and the Cartesian Legacy, part 2

posted in: classical education 0

This week for the Poetic Knowledge Book Club, we are covering part 2 of Chapter 4: Descartes and the Cartesian Legacy (pages 87-105). Next week we will read Chapter 5: Voices for Poetic Knowledge after Descartes.


One negative influence of Descartes’ methodology (taking the mode of one branch of knowledge and applying it to all), has been that “the universe is seen more and more as an obstacle and problem to be conquered instead of a companion reality to be learned from.”

Taylor quotes E.F. Schumacher: “Science and engineering produce “know how”; but “know-how” is nothing by itself; it is a means without an end, a mere potentiality….the task of education would be, first and foremost, the transmission of ideas of value, of what to do with our lives.”

Thus, science, facts, and materialism denies the spiritual aspect of our existence and of our knowledge, leading it to ignore contemplation and revelation as a way of knowing.

Taylor then goes on a discourse about how the medieval Church used images and ritual to communicate about God without “rational discourse.” He seems to believe that it is unfortunate that in the Reformation, not only did the Protestants embrace a more reasoning faith, but the Catholic Church, also, took up a more instructing, defensive, discursive stance. So in Catholic as well as Protestant Christianity, the movement is toward “systematic approach” and “the appeal is now more to reason and the rigors of apologetics.” It is pretty clear he laments this change.

[Disclaimer: I am a Calvinist and a Reformed (that is, I believe those systematics formulated during the Reformation are true to Scripture) Christian, and I know we also have Catholic Christian participants, and Christians who would count themselves in neither camp, and a Mormon to boot. We will each see these issues through our own perspectives and I am sure we can share with one another without being discourteous or ungracious, as well as without taking undue personal offense.]

After the systematics-loving movements had their time to shine, the reaction set it in the form of Romanticism. (a parenthetical disclaimer: I have never met a Romantic-movement author that I didn’t find nauseous). While the Romantics attempt to recover poetic knowledge, their worldview is so fragmentary or plain wrong (primarily the belief that children are born innocent) that it cannot recover true poetic knowledge, which demands an integrated understanding of humanity and persons: spirit/soul, reason/mind, and senses/emotions.

The lack of an integrated sense of personhood and humanity is perpetuated in different incarnations until we reach the modern — or post-modern — era. And now, without a sense that the spiritual dimension is part of reality and without any transcendent purpose or fixed morality or value system, we have our current society which has fixed upon money as the be-all and end-all of our lives. The biblical concept of a dominion mandate, also, has been distorted from a stewardship mindset to a conquer & subjugate mentality.

And, here we are. But Taylor gives us a glimmer of hope at the end, that there has remained a remnant with true poetic understanding and vision.


romanticism: A movement in literature and the fine arts, beginning in the early nineteenth century, that stressed personal emotion, free play of the imagination, and freedom from rules of form.

naturalism: (Philosophy) A scientific account of the world in terms of causes and natural forces that rejects all spiritual, supernatural, or teleological explanations. (Art) Literary and artistic naturalism aims at accuracy and objectivity and cultivates realistic and even sordid portrayals of people and their environment.

Calvinism: The theological system of John Calvin and his followers, characterized by emphasis on the doctrines of predestination, the irresistibility of grace, and justification by faith alone. (fyi: Calvinism does not deny man’s free will, though it can be easily misunderstood to imply it).

Jansenism: The doctrinal system of Cornelis Jansen and his followers, denying free will and maintaining that human nature is corrupt and that Christ died for the elect and not for all humanity.

materialism: The philosophical theory that regards matter and its motions as constituting the universe, and all phenomena, including those of mind, as due to material agencies.

capitalism: An economic and political system characterized by a free market for goods and services and private control of production and consumption.

Marxism: The doctrine that the state throughout history has been a device for the exploitation of the masses by a dominant class, that class struggle has been the main agency of historical change, and that the capitalist system, containing from the first the seeds of its own decay, will inevitably, after the period of the dictatorship of the proletariat, be superseded by a socialist order and a classless society. (So, in college, to write a “Marxist” essay was to write about the literature in a way that saw the economic status of all the characters as the determining factor in the story, that everything the characters do is based on their economic status or class.)

Darwinism: A theory of biological evolution developed by Charles Darwin and others, stating that all species of organisms arise and develop through the natural selection of small, inherited variations that increase the individual’s ability to compete, survive, and reproduce.

Digressions & Conversations

Discussion Question

Taylor comments that in “the ascendancy of the materialistic view of man,” prevalent from the 19th century on, “our existence is defined by doing rather than being. What does it look like to focus on being rather than doing? Would our plans look different? Our assessment? Our goals? Compare and contrast.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *