Gottlieb: "Think Again"

Anthony Gottlieb, author of Dream of Reason, describes the life and thought of René Descartes in his New Yorker piece, Think Again.

He argues that Descartes' naturalism - what he was actually more known for during his lifetime - is no threat to faith and that rationalism and empiricism are complementary. Of course we do not get to choose how we are remembered and the philosopher's dualism, expressed in the famous line "I think, therefore I am" is a touchstone for much modern thought. Very roughly, Analytical and phenomenological philosophy, the two great strands of rationalism, diverge from Descartes.

Current philosophy of the mind is also indebted. Physical monism is a reaction, grounded in naturalism, to Descartes' separation of mind and body. Dualism has made a comeback in the work of David Chalmers, who reframes the issues as "the hard problem," the gulf between the first person experience of daily life and scientific, or causalist, explanations of the physical world. This divide is sometimes referred to as the "explanatory gap." Others, particularly in some philosophy of science, argue for a cognitive pluralism. I'm still wrapping my brain around the idea and hope to say something about this in the future. But in general: the mind explains science method, but scientific method can't fully explain the mind.

In his criticism of cognitivism, The Mind's Provisions, Vincent Descombes argues that Descartes' mind-body formulation and naturalistic explanation of the mind are wrong, that mental activity above all features intentionality bound up in the physical, with meaning as its goal. He suggests that a science of the mind can be found in the rhetorical arts used by judges, storytellers and historians.

Like Gottlieb, reading Descombes is enjoyable as much for his grasp of intellectual history as it is for its philosophy proper.

Gottlieb's Think Again is short and delightful to read. He is soon to publish, I believe, another book, bringing the history of philosophy started in Dream of Reason forward from the Renaissance through modernity. And like Ken Taylor, Anthony Gottlieb believes that as an exploratory form, rationalism is deeply engaged in the remaining intellectual landscape and has much yet to say.

If you've been following along here, you probably realize that I agree.