Friday, May 20, 2011

Essay on Descartes

Essay on Descartes

Though Descartes adequately explains the functions of his practical philosophy in the control of the passions using reason, Elizabeth of Palantine more successfully shows the impractical use of reasons in relation to the passions in civil and family life. Descartes basis is reason. It can be used to control the passions and lead to truth. The passions need to be controlled because if they are, true happiness is found and pain can be avoided. Elizabeth argues with this in explaining that only a person with an infinite knowledge of these passions and reason can succeed in this mastery of the passions and it isn't useful in the everyday life of everyday people.

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Descartes argues that one should base their ideas of truth and what exists on reason and not experience. He claims that reason is the foundation for everything we should believe is real. When we base our beliefs on cause and effect we basically base them on experience because cause and effect are merely derived from experience. But there is no reason to believe that our experiences should be consistent with the past. Experience cannot give us truth to what will happen, only what is likely to happen, only an estimate of the future. He claims that it is not experience that should aide in your ideas of the world, but reason . We connect this to Descartes idea of the passions. He says that you must use reason to control your passions and in doing so you will be happier because you can control each aspect of the passions, both good and evil. Descartes argues that a person is an entangled web of passions that are the key to thought. Each passion has the ability to warp rational thought. He believes that each passion can be based on the body and its reaction, the way the heart beats, the blood pumps, and the muscles ache. He believes that if one truly understands these passions they can learn to control them which is the key to happiness and relief of the painful emotions. If a person can control the passions they will only allow the good to get through and avoid evil. This is the key to knowledge.

The main passions are wonder, love, hate, desire, joy and sadness. Descartes believes that each has a separate result from the body. Some cause your heart to beat faster, while some cause your muscles to tense and ache. To regulate these passions the first step is to use reason to understand each physical aspect of them. His whole basis is to keep rational thought even through experiencing passions. One of his most convincing descriptions of controlling the passions is keeping morality which pertains to the passion of desire. He says to control this desire you must only desire the things that are good for you and only desire what depends on your actions, your own free will. To truly believe this you must believe that everything outside of your free will is Gods will and you have no control. Another point he makes about the passions is based on generosity and its counterpart, pride. One who is generous is confident in themselves and willing to give to others because they are secure in what they have. On the other hand pride is not good for the persons soul. It is based on others being less than you and comparing yourself to them. Pity relates to this as well in that pity is only sadness for another because you are thankful that you aren't going through the same thing. Pity is based on believing you are better and not that you are happier. Descartes adds to these passion with sadness, especially when it comes to death. In a letter to a friend who's wife passed away he explains "a soul that is strong and generous, like yours, knows too well to what condition God has made us born into to wish by any ineffectual wishes to resist the necessity of his law... even those who go to their death for the good of persons they love seem happy at the last moment of their life" (Nye, p 92). He is saying that if one controls their sadness with reason and prevents all disagreeable emotions they will achieve clear rational thought and true happiness. If one can look ahead using reason to see the result of the passions, they can control the outcome.

Elizabeth makes good points against Descartes argument about the passions, which causes doubt in the minds of the reader She complains that one cannot truly know the reaction of the body to the passions because the body reacts to so many things at once how is one know which is which. If you can't understand the passions in their entirety how can you have good reason to believe them as true passions and therefore control them? She gives an example of her confusion, "love is always accompanied by desire and joy, or desire and sadness"... How is it then possible to tell the different beating of the pulse, the different digestions of meats, and other changes of the body, which serve to reveal the nature of these movements (Nye, p 93). She looks at herself to discuss the difference, she claims that sadness will cause excessive eating to one person, but lack of eating to another. To continue her argument she begins to tear apart Descartes idea of how to control these passions, and whether or not it is possible. She says that there are so many things in life, an infinite number, that one cannot even come close to anticipating every thing. Reason alone can't help to differentiate which actions will be useful. She also wonders "how (can) we prevent desiring with ardor things which tend necessarily to survival (like health, and the means to live) which nevertheless do not in fact depend on free will" (Nye, p 94). How do we really know good and evil if we can't anticipate all that will happen? Reason alone can't do this. She believes that although Descartes philosophy may relate to himself, an intellectual, it would be very little use to others in life with respect to family and politics.

Elizabeth makes an excellent point here. Descartes puts himself in a life outside of the real world, secluded from everyone around him. Although Elizabeth realizes that she is not the average person either, she isn't claiming that she is right, only that Descartes isn't. The knowledge of family and political life has aided Elizabeth in the realization that "to evaluate goods, it is necessary to be completely acquainted with them and to be acquainted with all those among which we must choose in an active life would require an infinite science" (Nye, p 58). Elizabeth has a broader view of life seeing how people act gives her an advantage over Descartes. Her point about infinite things gives good reason to doubt Descartes. If we are supposed to evaluate every possible outcome of our passions to control them it will be difficult when looking at all the possibilities. Elizabeth makes a good point in that it is difficult to differentiate between a passion and indigestion, and each person probably has a different reaction to each passion than the next person.

Descartes argument for using reason, the foundation to his practical philosophy, in the role he gives to the passions seems good from the initial standpoint but when Elizabeth analyzes his belief she does an excellent job of causing skepticism towards his arguments. In another letter to Descartes Elizabeth claims that under her own experience she has found sometimes using experience to understand life is more beneficial than using reason. For people who aren't very rational Descartes practical philosophy isn't very practical.

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