French Institute pays tribute to the father of modern philosophy

Rene Descartes ranks high in the pantheon of Western philosophers not only because he laid the foundations of modern philosophy but also because his attempt to restart philosophy in a new direction actually brought about a whole new way of thinking and perceiving the world, the attendees of a round-table discussion in Athens heard yesterday. Interestingly, however, while not denying Descartes’s role in laying the foundations of modern philosophy, one speaker appeared to question the fundamental significance that is often attributed to philosophy per se. The discussion on «The Importance of Descartes’s Thought in Founding Modern Philosophy» took place at the French Institute in Athens (IFA) on Tuesday evening. The well-attended event was organized by IFA, the European Translation Center (EKEMEL) and Ekremes Publishers, who have just released a Greek translation of Descartes’s «Meditations on First Philosophy.» «Descartes is the father of modern philosophy,» Aris Stylianou, an assistant professor at the Aristotle University in Thessaloniki (AUT), said of the French philosopher who earned equal fame as an original scientist and mathematician. Descartes’s contribution to Western philosophy, Stylianou said, is twofold because the French thinker «caused a radical revival of philosophy, as well as a paradigm shift.» «Paradigm» – a term usually associated with the thinking of Thomas Kuhn – is used to refer to a pattern of thinking, a way of viewing the world that is taken for granted. It follows that a «paradigm shift» refers to a situation whereby one world view is replaced by another. Descartes set out to destroy scholasticism, that is, the philosophy and theology of Western Christendom as it was taught in the Middle Ages. The teachings of scholastic theorists tried to reconcile the philosophy of ancient classical philosophers like Plato and Aristotle with medieval theology, and were based on the conviction that religious doctrines could be grounded on reason. Descartes did away with the shaky foundations of scholasticism and with them the entire set of ideas that was prevalent during his day. Starting from scratch, he attempted to introduce the certainty of mathematics into answering the deep questions of life. In the process, he questioned public opinion as well as his own perceptions and beliefs. Only what remained from this epistemological cleansing could be the solid ground on which to safely build the foundations of his new construction. Descartes’s attempt to demonstrate the existence of God by proving the existence of man, the thinking subject, in his «Meditations on First Philosophy» (where he proposes his famous dictum «Cogito ergo sum» – «I think, therefore I am»), Stylianou said, shook the religious establishment and was seen as hubris for the theologians of the time. Descartes has no fewer enemies in contemporary times. Postmodernist ideas, now quite in vogue, have not been very kind to Descartes’s critical reasoning, which is often treated as a prelude to the modernist Enlightenment project. «Descartes is seen as the source of much of the evil of modernism against which postmodernism purports to protect us,» Stelios Virvidakis, deputy professor of philosophy at the University of Athens, said. Postmodernism grew as a reaction to the rationalistic outlook of modernity and especially to the idea that truth can be traced by rationalistic induction. Postmodernists have sought to make cracks in the prevalent modernist landscape and to pull the rug out from under the feet of modernist thinkers, usually by attacking their quest for rational foundations as no more than a metaphysical pipe dream. However, Virvidakis asserted, many modern and, surprisingly, postmodern philosophical currents owe more to Cartesian ideas than their advocates would be willing to admit. «Hence, we must maintain and renew Cartesian thought,» Vrividakis said, adding that «we must resist the diluting effect of postmodernist approaches.» Descartes was born in La Haye (which now bears his name), in Touraine. He attended the Jesuit Academy of La Fleche where he was taught the traditional Aristotelian philosophy that he was later to challenge. After receiving a law degree at the university of Poitiers, Descartes served in the Dutch and other armies. From his early 20s, he was attracted to problems of mathematics and philosophy to which he devoted the rest of his life. In 1628, he settled in the Netherlands where he wrote many of his major works. Following an invitation by Queen Christina of Sweden, Descartes moved to Stockholm. Only a few months later in 1650, he caught pneumonia and died. Descartes’s «Meditations on First Philosophy» was written in Latin and first published in Paris in 1941. It is the major thrust of his metaphysical work and contains Descartes’s famous demonstration of the existence of God. The Latin original has been translated by Evangelos Vandarakis while, for practical reasons, the Greek edition contains only the main body of work, which are the six «Meditations» without the seven sets of «Objections and Replies» which appeared in later editions. Unanimous as the erudite, though at times incomprehensible, speakers were about Descartes’s contribution to modern philosophy, they expressed less agreement on what we can expect from philosophy – a very essential question at times of enormous moral crisis like the present. Stylianos stressed that in the light of the ongoing US-led war in Iraq, Europeans have to show a tenacious commitment to their legal and political values. «At times like these, we have to seek shelter and comfort in European literature,» he added. Gerasimos Vokos, a history professor at AUT, sounded less sanguine. «Philosophy cannot protect anyone against anything,» he said.