Tuesday, May 18, 2004

William Sloane Coffin on Socrates and Descartes

William Sloane Coffin (Credo, Westminster John Knox Press, 2004, p. 5)thinks to correct Socrates and Descartes but makes a fool of himself in the process. Here is what he says:

Socrates had it wrong; it is not the unexamined but finally the uncommitted life that is not worth living. Descartes too was mistaken; "Cogito ergo sum" -- "I think therefore I am"? Nonsense. "Amo ergo sum" -- "I love therefore I am."

This is pseudo-intellectual tripe of the worst sort. It is an asinine form of cleverness in which one drops names without understanding the doctrines behind the names. It is the sort of thing that can impress only the half-educated, while eliciting scorn from the true intellectual who drinks deep from the Pierian spring.

Socrates' point is that self-examination is a necessary condition of a life well-lived. Coffin's point is that commitment is a necessary condition of a life well-lived. These two points are obviously consistent: they can both be true. (And I should think they are both true.) But by saying that Socrates had it wrong, Coffin implies that his view entails the negation of Socrates' view -- which is silly. Suppose A says that G. W. Bush was once governor of Texas, and B says, 'No you've got it wrong, he was once in the National Guard.' It is the same kind of silliness.

It should also be pointed out that even if commitment is a necessary condition of a life well-lived, it doesn't follow that it is a sufficient condition thereof. The committed but unexamined lives of a Nazi, Communist, or Islamo-fascist are not examples of lives well-lived.

As for Descartes, Coffin doesn't understand him at all. Else he would have realized that loving is a species of thinking in the broad Cartesian sense of the term. Thinking in this sense covers all mental acts, including remembering, anticipating, perceiving, imagining, wishing, willing, loving, hoping, and thinking in the narrow sense of conceiving. All mental states having the property Brentano called intentionality (object directedness) fall under the cogito. Thus Coffin commits an obvious ignoratio elenchi when he takes Descartes to be using cogito in the narrow sense that excludes amo.

I believe it was Alexander Pope who penned the following lines which I quote from memory. (Someone please correct me if I am wrong.)

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing
Drink deep or taste ye not of the Pierian spring
Where shallow draughts do intoxicate the brain
But drinking largely doth sober us again

I learned these lines in high school, and they have stood me in good stead ever since. 'Pierian' from Pieria, a region of ancient Macedonia where the Muses lived. Not to be confused with Peoria.