December 6, 2014


Inerrancy: A Cartesian Faux-Pas? (Russell W. Howell, Nov/Dec 2014, Books & Culture)

"If I were asked what was the most disastrous moment in the history of Europe I should be strongly tempted to answer that it was that period of leisure when René Descartes, having no claims to meet, remained for a whole day 'shut up alone in a stove.' " So wrote the normally diplomatic William Temple in chapter three of his Nature, Man, and God, originally given as a series of Gifford Lectures, and published in 1934.

Temple delivered his talks while serving as Archbishop of York, and chose for that chapter the less than diplomatic title "The Cartesian Faux-Pas." For Temple, this "faux-pas" was the belief that philosophical inquiry, to be successful, should proceed according to a geometric or axiomatic model: begin with indisputable truths or axioms ("I think, therefore I am"), and from there engage in airtight logical reasoning to establish further truths--which, prior to their establishment, may have been highly disputed--such as the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. Indeed, in the synopsis to his Meditations, Descartes states, "[I]t was my aim to write nothing of which I could not give exact demonstration, and that I therefore felt myself obliged to adopt an order similar to that in use among the geometers, viz., to premise all upon which the proposition in question depends, before coming to any conclusion respecting it."

Temple thought that Descartes' strategy ("Let's pretend I don't exist and see if I can prove that I do") was a violation of common sense, and dismissed the idea that the success of the axiomatic method in mathematics could be extended to philosophy. Furthermore, he claimed that the method produced disastrous results "not only in philosophy, but also in politics and economics, with all that this means for human happiness or misery."

THE POLITICAL CASE FOR AMERICA'S SUPERIORITY (Peter Lawler, 11 . 17 . 09, First Things)

The Americans, as our English friend Chesterton observed with some ambivalence, are the seeming oxymoron, a creedal nation. We are, he memorably said, "a nation with the soul of the church." America, he added, is all about "the romance of the citizen" and "a home for the homeless" everywhere. The American creed is that all human beings are created equal, because there's a personal center of significance in the universe that grants each of us significance. Everyone, in principle, can be a citizen of our country who accepts the "dogmatic lucidity" of that national faith.

That faith is about citizens, because it's the foundation of the way of life shared in our territorial home. But it's a faith that the foundation of citizenship is not a merely national construction; we're at home with the thought that the nation is not the real source of the significance of citizens. And so the true foundation of citizenship lies in the truth about the person and the relationship between being politically at home and our truest home. We've never shared the French view--or even the view of the ancient polis--that citizens are created out of nothing. Nor have we ever shared today's European view that the person must be detached from the citizen to display his true freedom.

The American view is that citizenship is only one part--but a real part--of whole human lives; the person experiences himself as both a political and transpolitical being. The romance of the citizen, for us, displays part of the truth about the equal significance we all share as unique and irreplaceable beings. (That means, as Chesterton learned, in part, from Lincoln, that our Declaration's faith is not merely or most deeply Lockean. There is a foundation for the significance of each particular person in nature itself, and that thought depends at least upon a distinctively Christian sort of Deism that was a product of the Declaration's legislative compromising of Lockean and Calvinist concerns.)

This view of America, which finds its home among conservative Americans today, is the best explanation of why America can be a nation without succumbing to nationalism, of why we are so comparatively adept in reconciling the particularity of the citizen with the universality of personal principle, of why History (with a capital H) never took firm, depersonalizing root here, of why the most Christian of Americans can be the best citizens, of why there are credible Christian and secular accounts of our founding principles that are in some respects in principle irreconciliable but nonetheless are readily compromisable, and of why we are so confident that the nation is the form by which democratic self-government can and should take root everywhere.

Is that we avoided Cartesianism and History altogether and never waivered from faith.

Posted by at December 6, 2014 7:28 AM

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