Friday, September 16, 2011

Good Advice from Descartes

    I'm still reading Descartes "Rules for Direction", found in volume 1 of "The Philosophical Works of Descartes", and came across this interesting quote. It struck me that this is great advice, not just for the philosopher, but for any person who wishes to learn anything: from how to repair a car to the most sublime and profound theological truth.
"We must principally beware of wasting our time in such cases by proceeding at random and unmethodically; for even though the solution can often be found without method, and by lucky people sometimes quicker, yet such procedure is likely to enfeeble the faculties and to make people accustomed to the trifling and the childish, so that for the future their minds will stick on the surface of things, incapable of penetrating beyond it."[1]
    I find that we are so often accustomed to seek knowledge in a random way that we never actually arrive at knowledge. This is most evident in the areas of Philosophy and Theology. People who advance without a method, and without any formal training, in these areas quite frequently end up with grains of truth amidst a forest of half truths, misinterpretations, and outright lies. They often make contradictory claims without realizing it, and look down upon anyone with a different thought (without having taken the time to truly examine this foreign idea). People who advance in this way hear something that they like, and uncritically accept it. They hear something that goes against what they have accepted, and uncritically reject it. They read a couple of books and are sure that they are now in possession of the unadulterated truth, when the reality is that they are only in possession of one side of the story. They do not think that it is important to receive formal training in these areas and often claim to be self-taught. The tendency of those who use such an approach is to think that they are bright lights of truth in a world of unenlightened people.
   
    In reality, having never taken the time to pursue the history of philosophy or the history of theology, they enter into the debate without having take the time to see what has already been said. It is as if, being at a diner party, one jumps into the middle of a conversation (often triggered by hearing a certain word), without having paid attention to what was already said. To do such a thing is normally seen as rude and inappropriate. It is the same with philosophy and theology. Much has already been said, and to truly join the discussion, one must take the time to catch up on what has already been said, who said it, and why. To do so is important so that one does not misinterpret anyone or go about making illicit claims.

    In both philosophy, and theology,. there are many systems of thought (or we could call them camps, or schools of thought). Though one need not, necessarily, be a part of any one school of thought (be it theological or philosophical), one should at least be aware of what a particular system teaches, and why it teaches it, before one begins criticizing it. Better than the joining any one camp, is the adoption of a certain method. In both theology and philosophy there have been many methods that have been advanced and used (Descartes method is one well-known method) throughout the ages. Different methods will give different results, and not all methods are equally valuable. Methods should not be determined prior to knowing what is being done; rather, the method will be determined by the subject in question. For example, you do not use a sword to go fishing, nor do you use a hammer to clean dishes. Our experience of the nature of the subject will determine the method that we use for advancing our knowledge of it (or our capacity to accomplish the desired end  - for example, clean dishes). This holds true for biblical interpretation, philosophical explorations, scientific experiments, historical research, archaeology, etc.




    [1]Rene Descartes, "Rules for the Direction of the Mind," in The Philosophical Works of Descartes, trans. by Elizabeth S. Haldane and G. R. T. Ross (1911; repr., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 1:31.