MF Response to David and Sam

From: Matt Kundert (
Date: Sat Oct 09 2004 - 18:09:15 BST

  • Next message: Sam Norton: "Re: MF Discussion Topic for October 2004"

    David and Sam suggested a couple different ways of understanding
    Cartesianism and modernism and I'd just like to comment.

    David's first suggestion was, "Would it be fair to say that modernism was
    either materialist or positivist in outlook, but later moves towards
    post-modernism?" My reaction is no. Like Sam, I would for the most part
    take "modernism" and "Cartesianism" to pretty much be synonymous and the
    reason for this is that I take both to be about the idea of epistemology
    being an important subject. If we were to limit one of the terms, I would
    go for Cartesianism, which you could limit to kinds of dualisms, or whatever
    (see below for a couple of other ways). I think we have to leave "modern
    philosophy" as a designator for epistemological concerns (at least as long
    as we are making historiographical demarcations, which I'm not necessarily
    against revising; it might be important to do so at some point, in some
    other direction) because if we made it revolve around materialism or
    postivism, you'd have to leave out Berkeley and Spinoza, let alone the
    "father of modern philosophy," Descartes, and then have to figure out what
    Kant was, etc. You could do it, but I don't think it catches what these
    people thought was important (certainly not what I think is important). The
    other reason I would resist the move to identifying "modernism" with
    "materialism" is that pragmatists think that once we forget about
    epistemology (which I take to be the move towards post-modernism (which
    really has nothing to do with ontological theses, but rather the status of
    concepts like "truth")) we won't have any real desire to do ontology, no
    reason to be all that concerned about materialism v. idealism, or any of the

    David's other suggestion was, "So SOM and cartesianism are both dualisms,
    are there any candidates for non-cartesian dualisms?" I take this to be a
    suggestion (rather than a question) because it considers the possibility of
    there being non-Cartesian dualisms. I don't think there can be because I
    think that as long as you are under any kind of dualism (or any other kind
    of substance demarcating philosophy), you will hopelessly fall into doing
    epistemology, having to answer the skeptic's stupid questions.

    Sam's suggestion was this: "The central idea of Cartesianism is that the
    mind is separate from the body and that the mind can be better and more
    fully understood than the body. One's essential identity is one's mind and
    the interior processes of the mind have more reality than the physical
    processes of the body. It follows from this that what you think
    (subjectivity) is more important than anything outside you in the physical
    world (objectivity); from this would be developed the Enlightenment concept
    of the subject." This is an example of a more specific, restricted sense of
    "Cartesianism" and is perfectly accurate (though obviously "central idea"
    may always remain debateable). This sense of Cartesianism reflects (using
    the rough-and-ready designators still used by undergraduate philosophy
    courses) pre-Kantian rationalism. Under this sense, though, I think we have
    to say that SOM is _not_ Cartesianism. The above passage misleadingly puts
    it as "subjectivity is more important than objectivity" (I don't think the
    categories quite existed as they do now when Descartes was writing), which
    is clearly not Pirsig's target when he first sets up the problem in ZMM.
    Pirsig's target is at least the post-Kantian reconciliation of the
    empiricists (Locke, Berkeley, Hume) and the rationalists (Descartes,
    Leibniz, Spinoza) and more certainly the logical positivists (which is
    clearly obvious by the time of Lila).

    There are at least two problems at this point. If, at least in Lila, his
    professed target is a more recent creation, than his philosophy can
    reasonably called post-postivistic, as building upon the themes of
    postivism, but without all the excess. And it does look like this when he
    talks about the MoQ and logical positivism subscribing to empiricism, the
    version of which is the exact opposite of the above, restricted sense of
    Cartesianism. And though Pirsig does not go into any of the so-called
    "problems of philosophy" in any great depth, in the case of the mind-body
    problem, I think Pirsig has given us the tools to deal adequately with it
    (though I won't go into that here). But calling Pirsig "post-postivistic"
    seems a little much, as Pirsig doesn't write in the idiom of the analytic
    philosophers. To be post-positivistic, I would think that you would have to
    follow the trail of philosophy up to a certain point, and then diverge
    (like, say Donald Davidson). This confronts us, again then, with the
    Greeks. His professed target in ZMM are the Greeks, which then gives us a
    much wider sense of SOM. It is this wider sense of SOM that I would want to
    identify with modern philosophy/Cartesianism because I think the problem
    Pirsig identifies in the Greeks is a problem that only reaches full
    self-consciousness in the modern period. So, I think we can say that Pirsig
    is post-postivistic in the sense that he's anti-Platonic or anti-Cartesian.

    To sum up with what I've been saying, I would want to take "modern
    philosophy" to mean the desire to do epistemology, the thought that the
    skeptic needs to be answered rather than bypassed. I would want to take
    "Cartesianism" in the wide sense to be synonymous with modern philosophy, or
    in a restricted sense to be some form of the thesis that certainty proceeds
    from the mind (this would extend "rationalism" to include Descartes to Kant
    to Chomsky). In these general terms, SOM in the wide, Greek-as-target sense
    is synonymous with modern philosophy, though I think its ambiguous as to
    whether Pirsig is modern or post-modern then (I think there is evidence for
    both). On the other hand, SOM in its more restricted,
    logical-positivist-as-target sense is not synonymous with the specific sense
    of Cartesianism because the logical positivist (and therefore SOM) is
    already post-Cartesian (though I wouldn't be surprised if there remained a
    few Cartesian remenants in Pirsig).


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