Monday, June 22, 2015

Descartes' tremendous idea

Science is a modern idea. In my last blog I wrote that Montaigne was an essayist and a writer. He was also a keen observer. By writing down his observations, Montaigne broadened our view on ourselves and environment and our self-insight. But Montaigne was not a scientist; he was not an investigator. In his time the idea of science was yet developing and by his view that everything can be doubted Montaigne contributed to its development. His adage was “What do I know?”, which would later find expression in the doubt that Descartes used for laying the foundations of the ideas of knowledge and consciousness with his famous words “I think so I am”. The idea of consciousness was fully developed by John Locke, but we can see René Descartes as the father of epistemology.
Descartes blamed many researchers of his time for not working systematically. He reproached them that there was no line in the way they worked. But then, so Descartes, it is impossible to get at the truth. What we need is a method: certain and easy rules that lead us to true knowledge. Moreover, Descartes was not satisfied with the old syllogistic logic of Aristotle and the medieval scholastic logic. It’s so that they help systemize existing knowledge and that they are useful in helping explain arguments to other people, but they are not useful in getting new knowledge. For getting new knowledge we need something else: A research methodology. Therefore Descartes wrote his Rules for the Direction of the Mind. However, this work, written in 1628 or just thereafter, was not published before 1684, so after his death. And the first publication was not in the original Latin but it was a Dutch translation. The first Latin edition came out in 1701. This work and other ideas on methodology made Descartes the founder of epistemology.
These Rules and generally Descartes’ approach of science gave us not only a new way of investigating nature, including man, but it gave us also a new view on knowledge. Or rather, it lead not only to a new view on knowledge but it changed the whole idea of knowledge, because we got a new way to experience what is around us. Before Descartes, from Aristotle till the Middle Ages, those experiences were considered knowledge that could be fit in a coherent way in what we already knew. New experiences had to be fitted in frames accepted by tradition. But from Descartes on only those experiences were considered knowledge that could be justified by the right method. Knowledge became what stands the tests of science. Four centuries later Karl R. Popper would sharpen the question what knowledge is: what we think to know has always to be formulated that way that we can test it. Montaigne and Descartes introduced the relation between doubt and knowledge. Popper made doubt a part of knowledge.
Descartes did not go that far. He believed yet that absolute certain knowledge is possible. It was only a matter of time to get it. But what he did do was founding knowledge no longer on experiences, so on what we think to see and hear as such, but on method, so on the way we see and think. Already this was a tremendous idea. It was a new idea, an idea that would lead to a new world: the world we live in today.

This blog is based on an unpublished manuscript by me, titled Science as Method (1988).


Jens Oliver Meiert said...

Are you going to publish that manuscript eventually? Or only in excerpts, here?

(I have a similar situation with a tech manuscript, and in the past I’ve simply opened up and shared drafts, as with, though German, Typographie und CSS.)

HbdW said...

Hello Jens Oliver Meiert,
Thank you for your reaction. I wrote the manuscript about 30 years ago. Then I couldn't find a publisher and now I have no intention to publish it, although I think it would be worth to do it. I could publish it on my website but reasons for not doing are:
- It has been written with a typewriter, so I should have to type it anew.
- It's in Dutch. It's a beautiful language but not enough people would read it to make it worth the effort.
- It least one point should have to be changed because I have changed my opinion (not on Descartes).
- It's full of quotes in several languages that would have to be translated.
But maybe I'll think it over again.
Best wishes,
Henk bij de Weg