“Being Torn Apart–as a Method”

Portrait of Rene Descartes (1596-1650) c.1649  by Franz Hals

Portrait of Rene Descartes (1596-1650) c.1649 by Franz Hals

Being Torn Apart — as a Method

Rene Descartes, the reputed “founder of modern philosophy,” held that the most important thing in life and thought – the thing without which nothing of significance can happen – is to have a method. His was to start with the simplest building blocks of thought, whose truth was known intuitively and could not be doubted.   He called them the “clear and distinct ideas” and proposed to build up a system of knowledge from these beginnings, ascending from one level to the next by logical steps.

Despite the way this sounds, he was not a straightforward fellow who lived in the daylight. He kept his wide, seventeenth-century hat brim pulled down and his cloak pulled up. He would fail to greet acquaintances in the street. Judging by the Franz Hals portrait of Descartes, he had a corrugated mouth. You wouldn’t buy a used car from a man with a mouth like that. He changed his residence many times. After Galileo, his great contemporary, was condemned by the Church, he wrote,

  • “Henceforth I will conduct myself like an actor on stage: masked.”

What is the right philosophical method and what is the right life method? Do they — should they — stay wide apart or coincide?

Ever since I thought about it at all, I’ve thought that one’s philosophy and one’s life method should coincide. Unlike Descartes, I don’t espouse a method that starts with self-certifying beliefs, founding on them a rational system that encloses the truth and keeps out error.

I follow Socrates and consider him a friend of mine. He did not begin with simple certitudes but rather with his own deep understanding that he was an ignoramus.   Whereas Descartes hid himself from friend and foe, Socrates was sociable to a fault, engaging his countrymen in a search for truth, whether they asked for it, or felt surprised and undone by it.

Both were politicians of ideas, hoping to upend the thought-world of their time. Descartes addressed his work first of all to the Doctors of the Sorbonne, hoping thereby to persuade the powerful.

Socrates opened himself to the white water of public opinion as it swirled round him and finally brought him down. (He was condemned to death by a jury of his peers and executed.) He made one powerful friend, however: Plato, whose Dialogues (replays of Socratic conversations) made his mentor immortal.

Plato made one correction on the Socratic method of public conversation, however. He brought philosophy indoors, founding the Academy. If you wanted to engage in the search for truth, you had to enroll.

These reflections are brought on by a request that came in the mail last week. I’d been “invited,” the form letter said, to be included in a volume titled 2000 Outstanding Intellectuals of the 21st Century – 9th Edition and had to update a c.v. to send to them. I dunno how to evaluate such requests. Probably I should ask somebody who does know. I don’t follow these prestige things much, so not sure if it’s for real. When I get notices that I’ve won a million dollars in a lottery I’ve never entered, I tend to think that’s for real too, till wiser heads advise me otherwise.

Nor can a girl know, even if it should be for real, whether they are running low on skirts this year.

But what the heck, not to turn down an invitation, I fished out from the file cabinet my most recent c.v., to update it. Rather to my surprise, I saw that I’d been incessantly active in the profession of philosophy from the first shot fired at the starting gate. By “active,” I don’t mean finding an approved niche and cultivating the right companions in the Royal Order of the Niche, as it were. Instead, I’d ranged all over the discipline, the only constraint being that I would not write about anything I had not lived and, by living it to the point of being torn apart by it, paid for.

My goodness, it didn’t look at all bad. Several books and well as lead articles in well-regarded journals. Some of the latter had been anthologized. Several times I’d risked my job and/or professional standing in combats to which conscience had led me. I’d had fun as well as fights. I wasn’t proud of everything I’d done or omitted to do. I didn’t start with perfection but had done the best I could.

Had I achieved a coherent world view, a logos of the cosmos? No. By now, that ideal seems to me bit delusive – like thinking that Apollo and Athena are real beings. It smacks of philosophy’s pagan origins. We don’t get to know it all from Mt. Olympus. We get to try to know what most beckons our curiosity.

We get to test the little we know

in the fires of experience.

We get to be


and happier

 and wiser.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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2 Responses to “Being Torn Apart–as a Method”

  1. Judy says:

    Oh Girl! This is certainly provoking the necessity for an extended Bread Crumb discussion. If thought geared to getting at truth doesn’t transform into the realm of experience, then how could it be true in this wordly realm, which is alas where our minds and bodies are rooted. Plato was just being practical by coming up with Academies. It’s much safer to risk being fired, than executed.
    Am giggling with delight to know and love an outstanding intellectul who also rides Charley and has the heart to stand up to vigilantes.

    • Abigail says:

      Hey Judy. Excellent plan. “Being Torn Apart” is not my only method. When you meet a priceless friend, you get put back together!

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