Dostoevsky on Descartes
For this semester I’ll offer my reflections on an introductory, freshmen-level course on western core texts that I am teaching.   Earlier in the semester we had read René Descartes’ Discourses on Method as an introduction to rationalism to understand the world. Rationalist hold that innate ideas exist in our mind and these ideas correspond… The post Dostoevsky on Descartes appeared first on VoegelinView.

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For this semester I’ll offer my reflections on an introductory, freshmen-level course on western core texts that I am teaching.

 

Earlier in the semester we had read René Descartes’ Discourses on Method as an introduction to rationalism to understand the world. Rationalist hold that innate ideas exist in our mind and these ideas correspond to the external world outside of us, thereby making knowledge possible. Modern science and mathematics can trace their roots to Descartes’ rationalist method.
The rationalist’s approach is scrutinized in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment where Raskolnikov is portrayed as high-strung, delirious, and possibly half-mad. For example, in the beginning of the novel, Raskolnikov thoughts of murdering Alyona Ivanovna is described as follows:
“He’d known, he had a premotion, that it would ‘flash through’ his mind and he’s already been expecting it; and this thought was not from the day before at all. But the difference was that a month ago, even as recently as yesterday, it had been only a daydream, but now . . . now it suddenly appeared not as a daydream, but in some new, awe-inspiring, completely unfamiliar form, and all of a sudden he himself became aware of it . . .”
Another episode is Raskolnikov’s dream when he was seven years old and sees a drunken peasant trying to make an old horse pull a heavy wagon full of people. When the crowd laughs at the peasant, the peasant gets angry and begins beating the feeble horse so ferociously that others join in for fun, even using crowbars and iron shafts. The horse at first tries to resist but soon it falls down dead. Feeling compassion for the animal, Raskolnikov throws his arms around the horse and kisses it, while the peasant screams that the mare was his and he had a right to do whatever he wanted to with it.
In these and other scenes, it is not clear what if Raskolnikov possesses innate ideas. Rather than a constant fixture in his mind, the murder of Alyona Ivanova flashes before him and recedes into his subconscious. He dreams of cruelty and compassion about the horse. And he even when he visits his friend, Razumikhin, Raskolnikov is confused about his own reasons, offering multiple explanations why.
In other words, Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov undercuts Descartes’ claim that knowledge resides in the mind because the mind is not rational but mostly irrational, filled with premonitions, dreams, and other unexplained thoughts and feelings. In fact, human beings for Dostoevsky are not rational creatures so the rationalist’s belief that the mind is a database from which we can retrieve knowledge is patently false. Raskolnikov’s muddled thoughts and botched actions throughout the novel suggest that, contrary to what the rationalist tells us, we more often than not know not what we want or why we do what we do.
In some ways, Dostoevsky anticipates Freud and Nietzsche in his rejection of rationalism as a source of knowledge. However, as we will later see in the novel, Dostoevsky does not exclude rationalism as a source of knowledge per se but rejects rationalism as the only source of knowledge. Unlike Freud, Nietzsche, and subsequent postmodern thinkers, Dostoevsky wants to carve out room for Christian faith as a way to provide meaning and guidance in our lives that rationalism cannot deliver. In this sense, Dostoevsky is both a forerunner and a critic of postmodernity, predicting its arrival and terrified at its results.

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