In the recent reading I was most intrigued by the divide between Descartes and the other philosophers of his time. The idea of philosophical skepticism in particular intrigues me. I don’t understand how people could simply sit back and passively accept that they know nothing and will never truly know anything. This is absurd to me; to choose passivity in the face of overwhelming knowledge is a desecration of the value of knowledge itself. I much prefer Descartes’ attitude to step forward and explore and realize that he could actually learn and understand rather than accept his humanity. Granted, there is an extreme amount of knowledge in the world, but that doesn’t mean it’s a task too overwhelming to consider possible. That’s why I liked the method Descartes developed for a scientific approach to philosophy. To go from simple and lead up to complex ideas in order to find truths and answers follows the scientific method too and that makes philosophy seem a lot less abstract and overwhelming. I’m left wondering how the other philosophers and scientists of Descartes’ era responded to his structured methods of philosophy, because the book noted that he was significantly ahead of his time. Did this method serve as a turning point for their acceptance of him, or was his general weirdness too much for them to handle still? I just found it quite amazing that even those who are classed as odd or different from the majority aren’t always so when history looks back on them.
This concept reminded me of the story of John Snow, actually. In London in 1854 a cholera outbreak occurred and nobody knew what caused it. Everyone assumed it was an act of God or an unexplained scientific phenomenon. Effectively, much like Descartes’ contemporaries, they chose passivity and acceptance of their ignorance rather than acting to stop the illness from spreading. John Snow chose a different path that confused many around him and instead applied the scientific method that is actually very similar to Descartes’ approach to philosophy; that is, he started with the simple concept of finding what was causing the cholera outbreak and then let the process become more complex as he ran tests and eliminated causes that didn’t satisfy the results. This led to his massive breakthrough that the water supply in the town was tainted. He removed the handle from the pump where water was obtained so nobody could collect water from there and the spread of the cholera epidemic was cut off. This was the major breakthrough that others around him chose not to pursue. It wasn’t particularly easy, and going into the experiments he didn’t understand a lot or in fact anything at all about the cause of the disease, but he chose to act instead of accept his lack of understanding. This breakthrough saved the lives of his town and when nobody else stepped up, he did. Had either he or Descartes listened to their contemporaries instead of trusting their instincts, neither the development of many mathematical, scientific, and philosophical methods nor the discovery of the source of the cholera outbreak would have occurred, and as I was reading I was, if not encouraged, then certainly reminded that one’s contemporaries are not inevitably correct by definition.