Descartes, Spinoza And Leibniz -|- Educational Philosophy Theory

Descartes, Spinoza And Leibniz

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"The chief defect of all previous materialism (that of Feuerbach included) is that things, reality, sensuousness are conceived only as the form of the object, or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively. Hence, in contradistinction to materialism, the active side was set forth abstractly by idealism—which, of course, does not know real, sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively." (MECW, Vol. 5, p. 3.)

This phrase of Marx, from the First Thesis on Feuerbach has often caused a certain puzzlement. Its meaning is not immediately clear, nor can it be made clear unless we place it in the context of the history of philosophy. Yet the idea contained within it is the starting-point for the development of dialectical materialism, and of Marxism in general.

Once thought begins to develop, it takes on a certain life of its own, which proceeds more rapidly with the development of the division of labour and the growth of civilisation, which coincides with the division of society into classes. Thought itself becomes an object of study. Its material origins are lost sight of. It appears as something mystical, separate and apart from matter, a divine substance, linked to God, an immortal soul, independent of our body, which will not perish when we die.

The rise of a new kind of materialism in the period of the Renaissance was the prior condition for the rebirth of science on a qualitatively higher level. But, as we have seen, it suffered from a one-sidedness, in the form of empiricism, which had extremely negative consequences. The denial of the validity of anything which did not come from immediate observation, the rejection of theory and broad generalisations ("I do not make hypotheses," Newton said) doomed this kind of materialism to sterility. The main result was that the representatives of this school could not rise above the limitations of the outlook of the science of the day, which was fundamentally mechanical and static in character. This defect applies not only to the English empiricists, but even to the French materialists, despite their far broader outlook and occasionally brilliant forays into dialectics.

The old materialism was one-sided in that it considered human thought in a static, passive and contemplative way. Man was merely an observer of nature, taking note of "the facts." "The mind is to it in itself void, a mere mirror of the external world, a mere mirror of the external world, a dark room into which the images of the things without fall, without any contribution or action its part; its entire contents are due to the impressions made on it by material things." (Schwegler, op. cit., p. 180-1.) Setting out from a correct idea, this narrow conception of materialism ended up in a blind alley, incapable of further development. In fact, until the revolution effected by Marx and Engels and their theory of materialist dialectics, no further development of materialism took place. Even Feuerbach really went no further than the French materialists of the 18th century.

We therefore come face to face with one of the greatest paradoxes in the history of philosophy—that the really significant advances in thought in the period after Locke were made, not by the materialists, but by the idealists. Unrestricted by the self-imposed limits of empiricism, they arrived at a whole series of brilliant theoretical generalisations, although, setting out from false hypotheses, they invariably had a fantastic character. This peculiar phenomenon reached its most extreme expression in the philosophy of Hegel, "the most colossal miscarriage in history," where all the main elements of dialectics appear in a systematic form, but standing on their head, as Marx put it.

That thought and being are two different things is self-evident to most people. In one of his comedies, Sheridan, the great Irish dramatist of the 18th century, makes one of his characters, an inveterate gambler, say "I never lose at cards—or, at least, I never feel that I am losing, which is the same thing." Of course, we know that it is not the same thing, just as it is not the same thing to think one has a million pounds, and actually to possess that amount of money. Thought itself is immaterial, despite the efforts of some mechanical materialists to prove that it is a material substance, secreted by the brain, as bile is secreted from the liver. Thought is the property of matter organised in a particular way, but it is not itself matter. The question arises, if thought and material reality are completely different, how does it happen that they are so often found to be in agreement? The exact relation between thought and being was the source of all the main philosophical disputes for two and a half thousand years, and was only resolved satisfactorily by dialectical materialism.

The question of the relation of thought to being was posed by the French philosopher Descartes (1596-1650) in a different way to the English empiricists. Born into a moderately wealthy family, he had studied with the Jesuits. This taste of arid orthodoxy produced in him a lifetime’s aversion for dogmatism of any kind, and an impatience with received ideas. His scepticism, in contrast with the jaundiced pessimism of Hume, had a lively and positive character. He began to doubt, not the possibility of knowledge in general, but only the existing opinions put forward as infallible truths. From an early age, his motto was "Doubt everything."

"And, as I made it my business in each matter to reflect particularly upon what might fairly be doubted and prove a source of error, I gradually rooted out from my mind all the errors which had hitherto crept into it. Not that in this I imitated the skeptics who doubt only that they may doubt, and seek nothing beyond uncertainty itself; for, on the contrary, my design was singly to find ground of assurance, and cast aside the loose earth and sand, that I might reach the rock or the clay." (Descartes, Discourse on Method, p. 23)

"For these reasons," he wrote, "as soon as my age permitted me to pass from under the control of my instructors, I entirely abandoned the study of letters, and resolved no longer to seek any other science than the knowledge of myself, or of the great book of the world." (ibid, p. 8.) In order to gain knowledge and expand his horizons he enlisted first in the Dutch and then the Bavarian army, at the start of the Thirty Years War. While still in the army, he wrote a book on philosophy, but, on hearing of the trial of Galileo, he decided to withhold publication for fear of provoking the anger of the Church. Later on, his writings appear liberally sprinkled with references aimed at placating the religious authorities and averting the dreadful charge of godlessness. Even so, like Locke, he felt obliged to move to Holland, the only country in Europe where there existed a relatively free atmosphere to speak and write. Even here he faced the attacks of religious bigots (in this case, Protestants), who accused him of atheism. Only the personal intervention of the Prince of Orange saved him from prosecution. Even then, the authorities of the University of Leyden placed him under a total ban, forbidding the very mention of his name. Eventually, he had to move to Sweden, where he died, partly because of the effects of the climate on his weak constitution.

While, in all probability, Descartes was a believer, when reading his works, one has the impression of a man all the time looking over his shoulder. In order to get round the Church, Descartes accepts the existence of God, but then says that religion is too lofty a subject to be "submitted to the impotency of our reason." When dealing with natural history, he accepts that God created the world, but then adds, as if hypothetically, that "it may be believed, without discredit to the miracle of creation, that, in this way alone, things purely material might, in course of time, have become such as we observe them at present; and their nature is much more easily conceived when they are beheld coming in this manner gradually into existence, than when they are only considered as produced at once in a finished and perfect state." (Ibid., p, 36.) To such subterfuges did the greatest French philosopher have to resort in order to publish his ideas.

In the field of science, Descartes’ approach was the exact opposite of his English counterparts. Whereas they put all the emphasis on experiment, his approach was rationalistic, more concerned with general principles than the detailed work of observation. His contribution to science was outstanding, especially in the field of mathematics, where he may be considered one of the founders of analytical geometry. His great contribution was the invention of co-ordinate geometry, which determines the position of a point in a plane by its distance from two fixed lines. In physics, he was a materialist, as Marx and Engels point out:

"Descartes in his physics endowed matter with self-creative power and conceived mechanical motion as the manifestation of its life. He completely separated his physics from his metaphysics. Within his physics, matter is the sole substance, the sole basis of being and of knowledge." (MECW, Vol. 4, p. 125.)

Yet Descartes was unable to resolve the fundamental question of the relation between thought and being. In his celebrated Discourse on Method, he searches for a truth which everyone can accept as unquestionable. He comes up with the famous phrase "I think, therefore I am." This is the corner-stone of his philosophy. And yet it does not follow. At most he could assert, "I think, therefore thought exists." What is this "I"? Evidently a human nervous system, a brain, a body, and so on. Gassendi, the French materialist, objected that existence may equally well be inferred from every other human function. Idealists replied that none of these functions can be perceived without thought. But it is also necessary to say what thought is.

Thought, from a consistent materialist position is matter that thinks. It does not and cannot exist by itself, separate from matter. On this decisive question Descartes adopted an unsatisfactory and inconsistent position, which ended up in all kinds of contradictions. The fundamental difference between thought and matter, he said, was that matter had extension, whereas thought, spirit, soul, had none. This leads us straight to a dualist position. According to Descartes, there is nothing in common between thought and matter. They are not only different, but diametrically opposed. The union of soul and body is, therefore, an entirely mechanical one. The soul inhabits the body as an alien thing, a mechanical and entirely artificial relationship. Without the soul, the body is like a lifeless machine or automatum. Even the best-constructed robot cannot acquire a human consciousness, even if it is programmed to speak (this was written in 1637, but the subject matter is very modern).

For example, a machine may be taught to speak and even express "feelings," "but not that it should arrange them variously so as appositely to reply to what is said in its presence, as men of the lowest grade of intellect can do. The second test is, that although such machines might execute many things with equal or perhaps greater perfection than any of us, they would, without doubt, fail in certain others from which it could be discovered that they did not act from knowledge, but solely from the disposition of their organs: for while reason is an universal instrument that is alike available on every occasion, these organs, on the contrary, need a particular arrangement for each particular action; whence it must be morally impossible that there should exist in any machine a diversity of organs sufficient to enable it to act in all the occurrences of like, in the way in which our reason enables us to act." (Descartes, op. cit., pp. 44-5.)

The lower animals are classed as "automata" for the same reason. It is worth quoting this passage at some length because it shows a markedly materialist line of argument, and certainly is vastly superior to the mystical nonsense talked by some scientists today in relation to animal intelligence, such as our friend Dr. Wickremassinge and his ants, who keep the secret of their success to themselves:

"For it is highly deserving of remark, that there are no men so dull and stupid, not even idiots, as to be incapable of joining together different words, and thereby constructing a declaration by which to make their thoughts understood; and that on the other hand, there is no other animal, however perfect or happily circumstanced, which can do the like. Nor does this inability arise from want of organs: for we observe that magpies and parrots can utter words like ourselves, and are yet unable to speak as we do, that is, so as to show that they understand what they say: in place of which men born deaf and dumb, and thus not less, but rather more than the brutes, destitute of the organs which others use in speaking, are in the habit of spontaneously inventing certain signs by which they discover their thoughts to those who, being usually in their company, have leisure to learn their language.

"And this proves not only that the brutes have less reason than man, but that they have none at all: for we see that very little is required to enable a person to speak; and since a certain inequality of capacity is observable among animals of the same species, as well as among men, and since some are more capable of being instructed than others, it is incredible that the most perfect ape or parrot of its species, should not in this be equal to the most stupid infant of its kind, or at least to one that was crack-brained, unless the soul of brutes were of a nature wholly different form ours." (Ibid., pp. 45-6.)

Descartes’ idealism led him into the trap of dividing mind from body, and regarding the body as a mere automaton, inside which the soul dwelt. This became a source of considerable confusion, and had a harmful effect on the scientific understanding of the real nature of the mind and its relation to the body, the brain and the nervous system.

Despite the generally idealist thrust of the Discourse, Descartes’ materialist physics and biology keep on intruding. He cannot, for example, conceal his enthusiasm for Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood, to which he dedicates no fewer than six pages. Yet when he comes to the vexed question of the relationship of mind and body, he takes refuge in unscientific and metaphysical concepts. He locates the soul in the so-called "pineal gland" in the centre of the brain, purely because all the other parts of the brain are double, and therefore disqualified from acting as the organ of the soul, which would thereby presumably end up with a bad case of double-vision!

The problem with all this is that, if thought and matter are considered as completely separate, by what means are they united and kept together? The only option open to Descartes was to bring in an external agent—divine intervention. Even so, it is impossible to see how they can have any effect upon each other. By what mechanism could they interpenetrate? For example, the mind can will that I lift my arm, but how can it actually lift it? Descartes’ disciple, Geulinx, answered with admirable frankness that it could not, that the fact that the arm rises at the same time as I will it to was mere coincidence. This brings out the contradiction of the Cartesian philosophy, the unresolved dualism, which was its Achilles’ heel.

Despite its weaknesses, Descartes’ philosophy had a notably progressive side. Its advances in science stimulated the growth of natural science in France. Philosophically, Descartes’ idealism was overthrown by the prevailing materialist trend of the Enlightenment, though he influenced people like La Mettrie. But outside France his ideas were the staring point for two of the greatest philosophers of all, Spinoza and Leibniz.

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