Rene Descartes: The Diversity of the Sciences as Human Wisdom

Distinguishing the sciences by the differences in their objects, they think that each science should be studied separately, without regard to any of the others. But here they are surely mistaken. For the sciences as a whole are nothing other than human wisdom, which always remains one and the same, however different the subjects to which it is applied, it being no more altered by them than sunlight is by the variety of the things it shines on. Hence there is no need to impose any restrictions on our mental powers; for the knowledge of one truth does not, like skill in one art, hinder us from discovering another; on the contrary it helps us.

– René Descartes,  The Philosophical Writings of Descartes

This notion that the common thread that unites all the diverse sciences is the acquisition of human wisdom must be tempered by that further statement about the freeing of the mind from any intemperate restriction or regulation that would force it to down the path of specialization and expertise. What I mean by this is the fact that for Descartes like many in that era were discovering the sciences in all their diversity during a time when the tendency toward almost guild like enclosure and secrecy was taking effect rather than an open and interdependent,  pluralistic investigation; and, in that way they were becoming more and more isolated and closed off from one another in such a way that the truths of one field of study were no longer crossing the demarcated lines as knowledge in a universal sense of shared wisdom. Instead learning in one field of the sciences was becoming restrictive, segmented, and closed off from other fields in such a way that knowledge as a source of wisdom was becoming divided as well as divisive.

Even in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy we are told by experts that it was the rationalists Descartes and Leibniz that wanted to unify the science into a universal framework, a mathesis universalis:

Descartes and Leibniz gave this tradition a rationalist twist that was centered on the powers of human reason; it became the project of a universal framework of exact categories and ideas, a mathesis universalis (Garber 1992 and Gaukroger 2002). Like Llull’s, their conception of unity is determined by rules of analysis of ideas into elements, and their synthesis into combinations. According to Descartes the science of geometry, with its demonstrative reasoning from the simplest and clearest thoughts, constitutes the paradigm for the goal of unifying all knowledge. In adapting the scholastic image of knowledge, Descartes’s tree holds that metaphysics are the roots, physics the trunk, and that the branches are mechanics, medicine and morals. Leibniz proposed a general science in the form of a demonstrative encyclopedia. This would be based on a “catalogue of simple thoughts” and an algebraic language of symbols, characteristica universalis, which would render all knowledge demonstrative and allow disputes to be resolved by precise calculation. Both defended the program of founding much of physics on metaphysics and ideas from life science (Smith 2011) (Leibniz’s unifying ambitions with symbolic language and physics extended beyond science, to settle religious and political fractures in Europe). By contrast, while sharing a model of geometric axiomatic structure of knowledge, Newton’s project of natural philosophy was meant to be autonomous from a system of philosophy and, in the new context, still endorsed for its model of organization and its empirical reasoning values of formal synthesis and ontological simplicity (see the entry on  Newton and Janiak 2008).1

In our time we’ve seen a defense of disunity in the sciences. A picture of disunity comes from the members of the so-called Stanford School, e.g., John Dupré, Ian Hacking, Peter Galison, Patrick Suppes and Nancy Cartwright. Disunity is, in general terms, a rejection of universalism and uniformity both methodological and metaphysical. While the view can be constructed in terms of specific anti-reductionistic claims and positions, they share an emphasis on the rejection of restrictive accounts of unity. In this sense, the rubric of disunity has acquired a visibility parallel to the one once acquired by unity, as an inspiring philosophical rallying cry.1

This school of thought aligns with my previous post about the battles over reductionism and anti-reductionism, but on a much wider scale than just about the mind-body issue. John Dupré opposes a mechanistic paradigm of unity characterized by determinism, reductionism and essentialism. The paradigm spreads the values and methods of physics to other sciences that he thinks are scientifically and socially deleterious. Disunity is characterized by three pluralistic theses: against essentialism, there is always a plurality of classifications of reality into kinds; against reductionism, there exists equal reality and causal efficacy of systems at different levels of description, that is, the microlevel is not causally complete, leaving room for downward causation; and against epistemological monism, there is no single methodology that supports a single criterion of scientificity, nor a universal domain of its applicability, only a plurality of epistemic and non-epistemic virtues. The unitary concept of science should be understood, following the later Wittgenstein, as a family-resemblance concept. (ibid.)

The notion of pluralism originally was connected to a diverse group of philosophers in ancient Greece. The Pluralist School was a school of pre-Socratic philosophers who attempted to reconcile Parmenides’ rejection of change with the apparently changing world of sense experience. The school consisted of Anaxagoras, Archelaus, and Empedocles. It can also be said to have included the Atomists, Leucippus and Democritus. The Pluralists rejected the idea that the diversity of nature can be reduced to a single principle (monism). Anaxagoras posited that nature contained an innumerable number of principles, while Empedocles reduced nature to four elements (fire, air, earth, and water) which could not be reduced to one another and which would be sufficient to explain change and diversity. (see)

In our time pluralism has taken on many meanings and is contested and debated rigorously in many areas of knowledge from cosmology, legal thought, politics, religion, philosophy and the sciences.(see) In the 1990’s a series of debates between scientific realists and notable postmodern thinkers argued whether scientific knowledge was real or not. The battle between the sciences and the humanities has been with us for a long time, but for the sake of argument I start with C.P. Snow’s “Two Cultures”:

A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?

I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question — such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read? — not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had.2

The point of Snow’s argument was that with the advent of modern society and education knowledge had become so compartmentalized that the sciences and humanities were now split into two cultures that were not only wary of each other, but were unable to speak intelligently across the great divide that separated them and that this had produced a form of elitism and snobbery among both sides of the divide. The same type of thing could be seen happening in the 1990’s in the so called Science Wars.

As Stephen J. Gould in his Deconstructing the “Science Wars” by Reconstructing an Old Mold said:

At the close of this millennium, the favored dichotomy features  a supposed battle called “the science wars.” The two sides in this hypothetical  struggle have been dubbed “realists” (including nearly all working scientists),  who uphold the objectivity and progressive nature of scientific knowledge, and  “relativists” (nearly all housed in faculties of the humanities and social  sciences within our universities), who recognize the culturally embedded status  of all claims for universal factuality and who regard science as just one system  of belief among many alternatives, all worthy of equal weight because the very  concept of “scientific truth” can only represent a social construction invented by  scientists (whether consciously or not) as a device to justify their hegemony over  the study of nature.

But all these dichotomies must be exposed as deeply and doubly  fallacious—wrong as an interpretation of the nature and history of science,  and wrong as a primary example of our deeper error in parsing the complexities of  human conflicts and natural continua into stark contrasts formulated as struggles  between opposing sides. When we reject this constraining mental model, we will  immediately understand why a science war can only exist in the minds of critics  not engaged in the actual enterprise supposedly under analysis. The exposure of  this particular naked emperor can only recall the wisdom embedded in a familiar  motto of recent social activism: “What if they gave a war and nobody came?” a  statement that may seem a bit limp in its irenic humor at first, but that  actually embodies a deep insight about the nature of categories falsely judged as  natural and permanent, while truly originating as contingent and socially  engendered.3

Bruno Latour whose own works along with other postmodern luminaries help spark the debates recently said  “Scientists always stomp around meetings talking about ‘bridging the two-culture gap’, but when scores of people from outside the sciences begin to build just that bridge, they recoil in horror and want to impose the strangest of all gags on free speech since Socrates: only scientists should speak about science!” He then went on to suggest a needed re-evaluation of sociology’s epistemology based on lessons learnt from the Science Wars: “… scientists made us realize that there was not the slightest chance that the type of social forces we use as a cause could have objective facts as their effects”.4

It was this need to somehow bridge the gap that informs much of the current debates in pluralism in both the sciences and the humanities. As a part of this was the problem of history. For most scientists the knowledge of their own theories and practices has for the most part been irrelevant to the task of current work even if it informs it. Yet, as Gould reminds us this is the point we need to reconsider:

The social and historical analysis of science poses no threat  to the institution’s core assumption about the existence of an accessible “real  world” that we have actually managed to understand with increasing efficacy,  thus validating the claim that science, in some meaningful sense, “progresses.”  Rather, scientists should cherish good historical analysis for two primary  reasons: (1) Real, gutsy, flawed, socially embedded history of science is so  immeasurably more interesting and accurate than the usual cardboard pap about  marches to truth fueled by universal and disembodied weapons of reason and  observation (“the scientific method”) against antiquated dogmas and social  constraints. (2) This more sophisticated social and historical analysis can aid  both the institution of science and the work of scientists—the institution,  by revealing science as an accessible form of human creativity, not as an arcane  enterprise hostile to ordinary thought and feeling, and open only to a trained  priesthood; the individual, by fracturing the objectivist myth that can only  generate indifference to self-examination, and by encouraging study and scrutiny  of the social contexts that channel our thinking and the attracted and innate  biases (Bacon’s idols) that frustrate our potential creativity.(ibid.)

As you can see this leads into an openness and the ability to accept a diversity of views. From this another factor in our times has come to the fore, the need for what some might term cultural diversity or cultural pluralism: “Cultural pluralism is a term used when smaller groups within a larger society maintain their unique cultural identities, and their values and practices are accepted by the wider culture provided they are consistent with the laws and values of the wider society.”(see) This pluralism informs much of our contemporary politics, religion, socio-cultural relations, gender, race, and many other areas of the cultural complex. This notion was summed up nicely by Isaiah Berlin: “Life can be seen through many windows, none of them necessarily clear or opaque, less or more distorting than any of the others.”6 Maybe in the end Descartes notion of universal wisdom has more to do with this bridge between the sciences and the humanities than some strange idea about the unity of Science, for Descartes never intended the sciences to become some overarching universal category defined by the term Science. No. If we listen to what he said one will understand differently:

It must be acknowledged that all the sciences are so closely interconnected that it is much easier to learn them all together than to separate one from the other. If, therefore , someone seriously wishes to investigate the truth of things, he ought not to select one science in particular, for they are all interconnected and interdependent. He should , rather, consider simply how to increase the natural light of his reason, not with a view to solving this or that scholastic problem, but in order that his intellect should show his will what decision it ought to make in each of life’s contingencies. He will soon be surprised to find that he has made far greater progress than those who devote themselves to particular studies, and that he has achieved not only everything that the specialists aim at but also goals far beyond any they can hope to reach.7

Most have implied that he wanted to do away with the pluralistic world of the sciences and replace it with a unified field theory of Science in which all the sciences could vanish into thin air and become organized according to the dictates of some imperial model or framework of universal knowledge. But the use of the terms interconnected and interdependent (translated) shows that he accepted the separation of the sciences as specialized fields of study, but that through the light of reason, and unlike the scholastics – who in fact did fix things in Aristotelian terms, we should acknowledge the contingent factors of the real and build certain decisionary practices to help us define how best to proceed. So that what he sought was in fact the ability to bridge the gap between the various disciplines and develop a rigorous method that would allow for a more open and pluralistic path toward knowledge than the singular and independent approach of the scholastics could afford. Somewhere along the way we lost sight of what he intended and the sciences during the nineteenth century under the auspices of positivism became unified into Science rather than the sciences.

In our time we are returning to the roots of these ideas and realizing we need to change. There is a great deal of difference between a scientific framework of knowledge and the concept of Science which in the positivist term is one unified science with one method and practice united in one consistent framework like an imperial army guide by a general. It was not until the early twentieth century the a conception of reducing the sciences to Science became a part of the debates. Logical empiricists in Vienna Circle adopted the Machian banner of “unity of science without metaphysics”, a container-model of unity based on demarcation between science and metaphysics: the unity of method and language that included all the sciences, natural and social.(1) It was this reductionary deployment of the sciences and the separation from the last cornerstone of philosophy that led to the two cultures notions in the middle of the century. From there academic and scientific circles grew farther and farther apart till they were basically unable to fathom each others thoughts, the one accusing the other of rational or irrational methods and procedures. We have yet to find a conclusion to these battles, and in our time they’ve moved onto other battles that seem to center on pluralism rather than specifically on the sciences.

When Descartes speaks of human wisdom he never mentions reducing the sciences to Science, but does mention the notions of interconnected and interdependent which still offers an awareness of reason as the relation between these divergent sciences as the unifying conceptual frame of reference rather than a supposed reductionary ploy to unify the all into one ideological banner. Reading Descartes today makes me realize just false we can sometimes be when reading the philosophers themselves. We come to accept what others say about philosophers rather than seeing what they in fact do say. Even our notions of universal seems to be up for grabs in our current debates. Is there such a thing as universal knowledge or is knowledge itself singular and plural? Isn’t this to misunderstand what we mean by truth? In reaction to the positivists the relativists turned truth into subjective appeal as a reaction against the objectivist or realist stance of the early part of the twentieth century. So where does that leave us.

We seem to be at a standstill regarding the idea that one can describe the truth of reality using normative and prepositional thought, as well as the notion that mathematics can ultimately describe the structure of reality. If we cannot come to some agreeable picture about truth, reality, etc. then as some would have it all the sciences are doomed to fall into a babel of tongues unable to reveal their findings in any viable form using natural language in the public sphere. So this disunity of the sciences and relativism doesn’t hold out much hope, either. Do we need a third way out? Is there some new framework on the horizon that might better help us define just what it is we’re missing in this picture. If a unified or disunified approach to reality is not the answer then what is? If both the reductionists and non-reductionists lead to opposing views that cannot be bridged then what can? Is reason or unreason to be opposed forever, or should we just do away with these categories as in themselves the problem that they were supposedly invented to solve? Should we go back to those rationalists and discover just where they went wrong in their hopes for the sciences? Or is it us that are wrong and have fallen into false dead ends of misapplied logic and forgotten just what these first rationalists were actually trying to formulate in there understanding of the sciences and knowledge? Where is human wisdom to be found in such matters?

1. Cat, Jordi, “The Unity of Science”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <;.
2. Across the Great Divide”. Nature Physics 5: 309. 2009.
3. Stephen Jay Gould. Deconstructing the “Science Wars” by Reconstructing an Old Mold
4. Latour, B. (1999). Pandora’s Hope. Essays on the Reality of Science Studies, Harvard University Press, USA.
5. Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the Social. An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, Oxford University Press, USA, p. 100.
6. Sir Isaiah Berlin, “Winston Churchill in 1940,” in Personal Impressions, p. 4.
7. Descartes, René (1985-05-20). The Philosophical Writings of Descartes: 1 (Kindle Locations 366-372). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

2 thoughts on “Rene Descartes: The Diversity of the Sciences as Human Wisdom

  1. Too often Descartes is vilified as though his philosophical solutions were somehow meant to apply to the existential problems of our own day.

    I appreciate your alternative reading of his project. Curious to know if you are/will be participating in Latour’s online course on “scientific humanities”?


    • Hey Matthew:

      Haha… might be interesting. But no I have so much going on at the moment that would be difficult. Let me know what you discover from it, though… he has interesting things to say.


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