In Part Two of his Discourse on Method (I am using this edition), Descartes makes an analogy that I am sure does not originate with him, but which nonetheless I find quite intriguing. Descartes compares knowledge to architecture, though he does not introduce the comparison in this way.
Thus one sees that buildings undertaken and completed by a single architect are usually more attractive and better ordered than those which many architects have tried to patch up by using old walls that had been built for other purposes. (7)
No mention is here made of knowledge, but it soon comes out that that is Descartes’ target. Descartes wishes to set his own knowledge on firm foundations, and sees that to do this he will have to reject most of the collective knowledge around him. Why? Because, as “one will well understand,” “it is difficult to make things that are very finely crafted by laboring only on the works of others.” (7) If Descartes is to have, within himself, firmly established, well-founded knowledge, and if it is to be well arranged, he must labor at it himself, without building on the work of others.
Descartes is quick to insist that he is not advocating that, collectively, we tear down our knowledge and start anew. Even though our knowledge is like a city that has grown up over time, gradually expanding, without any central, organizing plan, just as it would be disastrous to raze the city and start anew, so too with our knowledge. Yet Descartes, even earlier, makes it clear that he is not advocating a general strategy, but rather is telling a sort of autobiography.
Thus my purpose here is not to teach the method that everyone ought to follow in order to conduct his reason well, but merely to show how I have tried to conduct my own. (2)
And he reiterates this later, in the context of his architectural analogy:
That is why I could in no way approve of those troublemaking and restless personalities who, called neither by their birth nor by their fortune to manage public affairs, are forever coming up with an idea for some new reform in this matter. […] My plan has never gone beyond trying to reform my own thoughts and building upon a foundation which is completely my own. (9)
What this reveals is that Descartes’ skeptical project is fundamentally individualistic. And of course, of course, the extremity to which he takes his individualism—to the point where he could build his knowledge on foundations entirely independent of the work of others—is a myth. But I think it not a terribly interesting myth, any more than it is interesting to point out to the devotee of Emersonian self-reliance that the self on which one relies is indelibly molded by influences remembered and unremembered. Emerson knows this as well as anyone, and Descartes, surely, knows it too.
For a long time I have more or less written off Descartes, my mind poisoned by a too eager, too undiscerning acceptance of American pragmatism—an encounter that has done me much good and equal ill, such that I cannot say on the whole whether it has been to my gain or my loss. I say poisoned because it created within me a caricature of Descartes as a ridiculous foundationalist whose project failed. Now I am sure his project does fail, at least in the form he put it forward, but in my recent re-encounter I have been struck by this individualistic tenor of his skepticism.
In a way, that may be the source of the pragmatists’ animosity to Descartes, for their philosophy, as I understand it, emphasizes the ineliminable sociality of knowledge, emphasizes inquiry as a social and not individual process. It is as if they read Descartes and took him to be recommending for society this skeptical method. At least, whatever the pragmatists themselves were doing, that is the imprint they left within me. But Descartes is doing nothing of the sort, quite self-consciously. He lets collective knowledge be and sets about work on himself. His skepticism is an individual project, and not a social one.
I have been digressing, but I think in a justified way, for the individualism of Cartesian skepticism is a sun supporting the orbit of many planets, and my thoughts have voyaged to each in turn. My central interest, however, is in the relevance of this Cartesian individualism today. Rereading the Discourse on Method these past few days is a case of good timing, for my thoughts had already been moving toward a consideration of the value of individual skepticism—prompted in part by my reading of Montaigne. Descartes has helped to crystallize them.
Individual knowledge and collective knowledge are distinct, more so today than in the time of Descartes. The total sum of human knowledge vastly outstrips what is to be found in any individual’s head—much of it, I suspect, resides only in books or journal articles, to be cited when needed, but otherwise out of mind. What does reside in a single individual’s head is a sliver, utterly insignificant, even if we consider the most knowledgeable people in the world. In terms of major effects in society, collective knowledge matters; individual knowledge more or less does not.
In the face of explosion of collective knowledge—which I admit I at times find quite alienating—what room is there for individual skepticism, of any sort? I think, in fact, that there is quite a bit. If one wishes to know a great deal, to keep up with new discoveries, and so forth, there is no end the resources by which one can do so, but the degree of specialization in the actual reports of experiments means that while one will be able to make true claims about what is going on in certain situations, one will not really know how those claims are evidentially supported, except in a cheap, toy way. Some have called the desire for such knowledge “low curiosity”—I do not wish to follow in this. But it is not for me.
It is for this reason that I think that there is a great deal of room for individual skepticism. If I hold myself to high standards as to what is to count as knowledge—even if my standards are not as high as Descartes’—then I must admit that what I know is negligible, a point in the face of all human knowledge. What standards? I would count myself as knowing only that for which I do not take on trust, that for which I clearly and deeply understand the reasoning that leads to it. I know what I have experienced, and I know a bit about William Sharp MacLeay—a 19th century entomologist on whom I am doing some research right now—but beyond that, I really know quite little.
What, then, of what I know on trust? For if I trust experts in particular fields, i.e. believe what they say, and if what they say is reliably true, do I not have justification for my beliefs? Yes, in a way, and whoever would have a great deal of knowledge must take solace in this line of argument. But I do not wish to relax my standards here. Rather, I would prefer to say that I know—because I have seen it firsthand—that this is what the experts say, without saying that I know not just what they say, but that what they say is so. This is a more or less “instrumentalist” way of taking expert testimony, and I cannot see that it does any harm.
Are there any advantages to this individual skepticism of mine—or, if ‘skepticism’ is the wrong word, this austerity of belief? Is it just a perverse exercise? I do not think so. For in fact I was somewhat misleading when I said that what is called “low curiosity” is not for me. In fact, I think it is my greatest vice, or one of them. I value knowing (with low standards) over discovering and understanding, and this stifles my thought. My individualistic project in regulating my own knowledge is an attempt to throw off these self-imposed shackles. It is my own method purely; I do not recommend it to anyone who does not belief she might find it useful.