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Descartes & Stupidity

Trevor Pateman asks: stupidity – essence, or accident?

René Descartes opens his Discourse on the Method of Rightly Directing One’s Reason and of Seeking Truth in the Sciences (1637) with a breathtakingly other-worldly statement:

“Good sense is, of all things among men, the most equally distributed…”

No doubt many of the original readers back in 1637 were relieved when he immediately went on to undercut that wild claim with what appears to be some very this-worldly irony:

“…for everyone thinks himself so abundantly provided with it, that those even who are the most difficult to satisfy in everything else, do not usually desire a larger measure of this quality than they already possess.”

The reader now put into a good mood, Descartes promptly doubles down on his original claim:

“And in this it is not likely that all are mistaken; the conviction is rather to be held as testifying that the power of judging aright and of distinguishing truth from error, which is properly what is called good sense or reason, is by nature equal in all men.”

Can he really be serious? It seems so, for he immediately continues:

“The diversity of our opinions, consequently, does not arise from some being endowed with a larger share of reason than others, but solely from this, that we conduct our thoughts along different ways, and do not fix our attention on the same objects. For to be possessed of a vigorous mind is not enough; the prime requisite is rightly to apply it.”

After a diversion, to which I will return, he concludes his opening remarks by re-stating for the third time (this guy is nothing if not persistent) his initial claim:

“For as to the reason or sense, inasmuch as it is that alone which constitutes us men, and distinguishes us from the brutes, I am disposed to believe that it is to be found complete in each individual; and on this point to adopt the common opinion of philosophers, who say that the difference of greater and less holds only among the accidents, and not among the forms or natures of individuals of the same species.”

This, one might say, is an honourable claim, asserting a kind of human equality. But having shut the front door on discrimination by implying that all people have basically the same rational nature, does he let discrimination in through the backdoor of ‘accidents’? Here we must return to the argument:

“For myself, I have never fancied my mind to be in any respect more perfect than those of the generality; on the contrary, I have often wished that I were equal to some others in promptitude of thought, or in clearness and distinctness of imagination, or in fullness and readiness of memory. And besides these, I know of no other qualities that contribute to the perfection of the mind”

Well, this is either honest modesty or false modesty, but the main point is that Descartes allows that there are differences in human reasonableness after all – but only among the ‘accidents of mind’, of which he identifies three: quickness of thought, imagination conceived as a kind of clear-sightedness, and ability to remember. But the essential nature of mind remains the same for all of us. Let’s now consider whether all this is actually the case.

Call & Response

My guess is that the species to which we belong was into name-calling long before philosophers distinguished between essential natures and accidents. And I also guess that those who practice the habit understand perfectly well that the name-calling most likely to hurt and humiliate (for what else is name-calling for?) would try to find an essence in the individual which could be extracted and flung back at them as something which, ideally, they would despise but could do nothing about. Some of those supposed ‘essences’ have surely had very long lives – so much so that they come with an exclamation mark already attached. Stupid! and Ugly! are prominent among them. Others are probably very local (Ginger!), and some seem to be entirely modern inventions, like the -phobe!

In the very long and rather inglorious history of name-calling I further imagine that parents have a lot to answer for, for the way they’ve often named and shamed their own children. And after schools were invented, teachers sometimes took sadistic delight in inventing fresh names to hurl, along with the chalk, leaving their target pupils red-faced and tearful.

When irritated teachers or parents name-call children, one fairly predictable consequence is that children name-call each other. The playground has rarely shown humanity at its best, but it probably reached peak ‘Red in Tooth and Claw’ in nineteenth century Britain – an inference I draw from the fact that the saying ‘‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’’ originated in late nineteenth century Britain. But I doubt this little incantation was ever very successful in warding off hurt.

Many people do have inhibitions about name-calling, though probably not as a result of reading Descartes’ intellectual egalitarianism. Rather, it would seem to be part of common courtesy or decency, or even some moral obligation. Such people would never call a person stupid – though they might well say to them, ‘‘That was a stupid thing to do.’’ The latter points to an accident, not an essence, and so to something remediable – to such an extent that it may well be that the addressee will assent to the proposition by saying, ‘‘I know, I wasn’t really thinking.’’ This all sounds very much like one up for Descartes.

And yet… If someone keeps on doing stupid things, doesn’t that in the end add up to their actually being stupid? Could any scholastic talk of essences and accidents really put a block on that conclusion?

Perhaps not. But if stupidity is no more than a sum of stupid actions, the sting is less sharp than that aimed for by essentialism. It is more in sorrow than in anger that after repeated experiences of stupid behaviour we conclude, reluctantly, that someone just is rather stupid. At the same time, the way we are thinking about things acknowledges that there is no absolute reason why the person should not act differently next time – though that logical possibility opens only a small window of opportunity, for the future is indeed often like the past. Nonetheless, in conceding the existence of that window of hope for intelligent actions, we also create a space for hope in the person whom for the present has been judged and found wanting.

Descartes Surreal Ideas
Descartes’ Surreal Ideas by Paul Gregory, 2023

To focus on accidents rather than essences of stupidity – of assessing actions one by one, even if we do sometimes allow them to add up – is charitable in the way it interprets other people and their actions. It allows the slate to be periodically wiped clean, and each day treated as a new day, in which any one of us might present a different self to the one we presented yesterday, proving that we’re not so stupid after all. Hope is offered by such modest charity. But as for the belief that there are no essences which would fatally undermine all such hope – well, that may be a matter of faith… and as another French writer of the seventeenth century, Blaise Pascal observed, “il faut s’abêtir” (“it’s necessary to make ourselves like the brutes”).

I would prefer a less defeatist attitude, less liable to misuse by the other side. Yet for name-calling essentialists – who say you are this or that – it is a matter of faith, both before and after the trial, that all cases of stupidity are hopeless. To prevent a logjam, the trials start with the verdict, and victims despatched expeditiously to exile from the society of the elect, to the dunce’s corner; or, in our latest perfection of possible fates, to the pillories of Twitter, where incandescent faith essentialises across a billion screens. Such judges are simply not interested in hope and charity. And that’s what makes them so frightening.

“When I rail at my manservant I do so sincerely with all my mind: my curses are real not feigned. But once I cease to fume, if he needs help from me I am glad to help him: I turn over the page. When I call him a dolt or a calf I have no intention of stitching such labels on him forever: nor do I believe I am contradicting myself when I later call him an honest fellow. No one characteristic clasps us purely and universally in its embrace.”
Michel de Montaigne, How We Weep And Laugh At The Same Thing (M.A. Screech’s translation, 2015).

© Trevor Pateman 2023

Trevor Pateman studied with Richard Wollheim and Roland Barthes. Their influence can still be found in his books Materials and Medium: an Aesthetics (2016), and Nabokov’s Dream (2021).

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