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Anne Rowland

Poetic Knowledge Ch 4: DesCartes

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Dr. Taylor, I know you said skim this chapter, but this is the kind of stuff that's really helpful to me in figuring out how we got where we are now, and why people believe what they believe (and who is right). I'm pretty sure I won't have the book done by Wed. But I want to take my time esp. with understanding DesCartes.

I learned about him first in a theology class. The professor described his theological influence by saying that before DesCartes, reasoning began with "In the beginning God..." and DesCartes shifted it to "In the beginning man..." (Though, as a believer, that wasn't his intention.) The prof also had a back story that helped us understand how DesCartes came to his conclusions. DesCartes was a soldier in the 30 Years War, which decimated Europe in the name of Religion. The ultimate question behind the war (which was between Protestants and Catholics) was who has the authority to tell us what is true, what to believe, who to follow? The Pope, the king, the councils, the people, our consciences? Who? (8 million people died over this question. In some places in Germany, 20% to 50% of the population perished.) Since no one could agree anymore on the answer to this question of authority, and the conflict was wreaking such horrible destruction, DesCartes wanted to identify what people on both sides COULD agree on as a source of authority. One certainly can't blame him for trying, and it's only in hindsight that we can see the ultimate results of his shift in thinking.

On p. 96 you point out (through Thomas Gilby) that when some read Aquinas, they interpret him incorrectly because they are reading him through the lens of DesCartes. That is what so often used to happen to me as I would try to read older writers (like Aristotle). Partly it affects faith, too, (and esp. reading older theology) because a big deal was made about man being in the image of God. Man, according to Aristotle's definition, is a "rational animal." So I was originally taught that the main part of being in the image of God was being rational. Ok (that's partly it, though now I've come to see that it has more to do with love and the Trinity). But thanks to DesCartes, modern man doesn't mean the same thing as Aristotle did when he uses the word "rational." When moderns use the word rational, they/(we?) mean ONLY the use of reason, logical thinking. Working back toward the image of God, that makes Him look like some sort of Infinite Computer or Divine Traffic Cop, which is so wrong. It's not who God is or who humans are. For Aristotle reason was (I think) the intellect, emotions, and will, all together. As a modern that sounds so weird: reason is emotion! But that older definition is so much more complete, and it opens up whole new (and valid) ways of being human, and whole new aspects of God. On p. 101 you point out that DesCartes and Dewey "isolated one mode of knowledge and elevated it to rule all others." I guess I'm just recounting how I actually experienced that in my life (aside from my education). A lot of my maturing and healing has been about learning, accepting, and growing into that larger definition. And in a culture that prizes tolerance, it's so nice to be able to say, "Modernity, your view is too narrow and confining." ?

Again, this isn't pedagogy. I hope it's alright to use the forum as an outlet to simply reflect on the text and my thoughts. I don't often have the opportunity to interact with others who think or care about such things (Carlyn being a notable exception!). Thanks for providing that for a few weeks. ?


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