Discourses on Method

09 Feb 2003 16:18

These are books which do not so much describe how we actually think and believe, and acquire what passes for knowledge --- though they may present themselves that way, either deliberately or through self-misunderstanding --- but rather prescribe a way of thinking, believing, inquiring and speaking. They change the way their readers think, the way they look at the world and the way they approach it. They get their strongest effect by being short, concentrated, simple enough for anyone to understand, programmatic, half demolition with high explosives and half massive construction.

Their great age, of course, was the 17th century. Descartes's Discourse on Method is, as a work of literature and mind-bending, the greatest of them all, but that age also boasts Spinoza's Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, Bacon's Novum Organum, Newton's maxims for physics; parts of Hobbes, Leibniz and Locke, taken in isolation, have the right qualities. In the next century: Condillac, Hume's Enquiry. The nineteenth century was not a good one for the genre, being too devoted to system-building and sheer mass: Claude Bernard is the closest approach I can think of. Nietzsche, say from The Dawn onwards, has much the same ability to turn the world inside out, but lacks the combination of brevity with focus and explicit programmatic force. The twentieth century marks a minor renaissance --- Ayer's Language, Truth and Logic, James's Pragmatism; much later, what seems to have been their last gasp, The Sciences of the Artificial. (Gellner's Legitimation of Belief, to which I am obviously indebted, is perhaps a borderline case.)

It's not so hard, I think, to understand why the genre has died out --- we've learned how to learn, and there's little point in telling physicists or molecular biologists or historians how to suck eggs. (Comparing even a mediocre modern historian with, say, Tacitus shows the immense improvement attention to methods has wrought. Genius makes straight in the desert a highway for plodders.) Only the social sciences retain the need, and so produce occasional examples.

But at the other end, at their beginning, things are more mysterious. Then knowledge was rare, and what passed for it was for the most part ``the vain babblings and oppositions of science falsely so called''; in a real sense a bell-founder knew much more than an abbot. Something inspired the writers of the discourses to reject the abbot's learning --- rightly --- but they didn't turn to the artisanal craft know-how of the bell-founder, clock-maker, wainwright, gunsmith, etc. (except, perhaps, and only to a degree, for Bacon). So: what made them look for another sort of discursive knowledge? (This may be tantamount to asking about the origins of modern science and rationalism.) --- A related, but perhaps more managable query is, where did the manner come from? The discourses are suggestive of some set of hyper-Protestant guides to cognitive salvation outside the bounds of any church --- though that doesn't tally at all well with their authors actual religious convictions. Were there religious books of a similar manner contemporary with the discourses, or perhaps some philosophical or belle-lettristic tradition they draw on? (I know that Nicholas of Cusa wrote a book On Learned Ignorance, for instance, but I know nothing of its contents, which seems terribly fitting.)

Some books with a lot more substantive, rather than just procedural, content clearly have similar effects --- The German Ideology, The Selfish Gene. Is there really a valid distinction between the two sorts?