Capitalist Philosophy of Mind, Part 2: Descartes and the Class Struggle

In my last post I ran through the history of Western philosophy of mind. Now I want to look at how the philosophical developments mirror the social developments over the same period.

Now for each position there are positive arguments and there are negative arguments, and typically they have all been argued by someone. But what’s interesting is how some arguments, but not others, are able to win widespread support.

For example, there is a certain argument that goes something like this: “science in general, in particular physics, is bound to look for explanations of every event that happens, and we have no reason not to expect it to find them eventually. Thus for every event a physical explanation will be found, hence all the world is physical in nature, and no facts about it are irreducible to physical facts.”

This argument has been made in one form or another at many points in history. But the acceptance it’s won has varied. Prior to the scientific revolution, doctrines of this sort (like Ancient Greek atomism) were fairly minor phenomena. At the time of Early Modern philosophy, i.e. in the middle of the rise of science, the argument was strong enough to make full-on ‘materialism’ (in the metaphysical sense) a fashionable doctrine among many people. But it didn’t win majority assent until the 20th (maybe 19th) centuries.

And at this late stage, up to the present day, the argument does not even need to be made: it is now common-sense, the natural assumption. Almost all work is done within a ‘physicalist’ framework – either as an enthusiastic endorsement or a cautious criticism.

On the other hand, the argument that reducing the mind to physical matter would remove the possibility of God, free will, and the afterlife, and therefore should be avoided: this argument was a powerful one in the Early Modern period, with the result that the most famous and philosophers of that period (e.g. Descartes and Kant) were both people who struggled to reconcile these two arguments, to make room in philosophy both for science and for religion.

But nowadays that religious strand of philosophy is almost extinct. There are still Christian apologetics, and certainly there a heck of a lot of religious people, a great number of whom would probably reject physicalism (just as a great number reject evolution), but in academic, respectable philosophy of mind, they have little weight.

Both arguments are, in my view, quite weak and should be rejected. Neither has become more or less rational. But they have at different times been able to enter philosophy as ‘common sense’. The aggressive ‘science will conquer all!’ attitude is not dominant because it makes more sense, but because it feels natural.

Our feelings of ‘naturalness’, after all, are conspicuously artificial. An image of a rustic farmhouse with a thatched roof and a contentedly smoking chimney looks ‘natural’ to me, while a line of electricity pylons doesn’t. But that farmhouse is as much a creation of human technology as the pylons. ‘Nature’ is anything but natural.

So why do different things seem ‘natural’ to people at different times? The answer, which is hardly novel, is that they reflect different sorts of society. The requirement to retain belief in God and the afterlife is consonant with the outlook and demands of a hierarchical and superstitious society, where the average person accepts things as they are because that is how they are supposed to be, and obeys their natural superiors.

The faith that science will bring everything within its own narrowly-conceived laws is consonant with the outlook and demands of a rationalising and dynamic society, where the market and money strive constantly to bring all aspects of life within their narrowly-conceived laws.

In the Early Modern period, science/capitalism was a rising force confronting feudal society, and this was reflected in the philosophical conflict between mechanical materialists and religious orthodoxy.

The metaphysics that came out of complete endorsement of one side or the other was often not very good (Hobbes for example, is mainly remember for his political work, not his metaphysics), but, as I said, the most notable and successful philosophers were those who sought to incorporate both – i.e. to express a compromise between the two rival ruling classes.

But in the 20th century, the bourgeosie had decisively defeated the old society, and philosophy expressed its triumphalism in the form of ‘physicalism’ – and through an attack on the previous compromise, i.e. on Descartes and on dualism.

However, the attack was not just a re-affirmation of the ‘science will incorporate everything’ argument. There was also an attack (from such people as Ryle) on the privacy of the Cartesian mind, not as a metaphysics but as an attitude. Descartes’ compromise had been effected through a sort of individualism, a focus on the individual as the source of their own beliefs, willing and required to challenge and criticise all other ideas.The problems this posed for a shared language, and the implausibility of supposing perfect self-knowledge, had been valid arguments all along: but now they became decisive ones.

This can also be seen as reflecting the development of capitalism. In Descartes’ time, modern science, and with it capitalism, confronted a hostile society, and so it naturally expressed itself through individualism. The idea of the individual seeking knowledge for themselves was a natural and fitting one because it was easy for educated individuals to make themselves substantially righter than their surrounding society, simply by refusing to belief a sufficient number of religious stupidities.

But when that individualistic scientific capitalism became itself society, when it took over control, this rapidly stopped being true. Science is not an individualistic endeavour: it relies hugely on collective effort.

And so nowadays, the educated individual finds that society as a whole, in its scientific establishment and the ruling classes that control it, possesses vastly more knowledge than anyone could absorb in a lifetime.The role of the enlightened individual disappears: and with it, Cartesianism is supplanted by analyses which focus in on the social workings of language and the biological workings of the nervous system. Thesovereign individual no longer promotes capitalism: the well-functioning cog in the machine does.

What does this suggest about the future of philosophy? That will be the topic of the next post.

One Response to “Capitalist Philosophy of Mind, Part 2: Descartes and the Class Struggle”

  1. Solipsism and Capitalism, Part 2 of 2 « Directionless Bones Says:

    […] remarked in the past on the ‘fit’ between the mentality appropriate to science (rational, reductive, […]


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