The Flatland Map of Scientific Materialism: The Dubious Legacy of Rene Descartes (Part 1)


  1. Introduction
  2. The Birth of Modern World of Scientific Materialism
    1. The Age of Renaissance
    2. Descartes and The Age of Reason/Enlightenment
  3. Descartes and the Rise of the Individual: Clean Break from Tradition
  4. Conclusion


This article takes off from where I left in my previous article series Have We Got A Complete Map of Life? and How Maps Condition Us to Live and Act. The gist of these two articles was that the majority of us are unaware that we are born into a given world of ideas: ideas which form our mental maps for viewing the world. We are under an illusion that we are making free and independent choices, where in fact, we are acting through this map of ideas. These ideas shape our organizations and institutions like school, markets, governments and modes of production. Institutions and organizations can be seen by our senses but it is much more difficult to see the ideas which run these institutions and organizations. Our senses are instinctually trained to look outside, rather than inside. So, very few are aware of the existence of the ideas which get buried deep into our unconscious. Superficial ideas like prejudices and judgements are easier to see through; thinking people can investigate them and see through them. But the deeper ideas are quite difficult to recognize and penetrate because these ideas are our eyes through which we see, live and act in the world.

In this article, I am going to talk about one universal idea that most people in the modern world are acting from unawares: scientific materialism, and how it was born.

The Birth of Modern World of Scientific Materialism

People fling in the word modern with utmost casualness in their conversations, but I am sure almost none can explain what they exactly mean by it. Most, I suspect, would relate it with technological advances. But that is just part of the matter, not the important part, and rather poorly informed. It is not that science and technology did not exist in the ancient world. There are many technological marvels of the ancient world, which remain a mystery to modern science: for example the construction of the pyramids. We still don’t know how something of that scale could be constructed with such finesse and precision. Like the pyramids, there are many such unexplained ancient technologies around the world. However, we may confidently assert that there are certain discoveries like electricity and electromagnetism which the ancients did not know. So can we say that we are modern because we have electricity?

Something is us instinctively feels something is amiss in claiming modernity for humankind merely on the presence of some technology. Technology does not exist in a vacuum. It presupposes something prior to it – thought, culture, organization. So modernity is an ensemble of particular socio-cultural norms, attitudes and practices. But even in this ensemble, there must be a germ. Effects cannot exist without a cause. Now, all norms and practices associated with modernity are acts; all objects of modernity are products of acts.

The Age of Renaissance

As I have shown in my previous articles (links provided above), all action proceeds from ideas; or as the eighteenth-century German word encapsulates aptly in the word – zeitgeist (spirit/ghost of the age). So modernism first began as an idea. Scholastics dither about what can be called the exact period for the start of modernity; I would say that the ghost of modernity, this zeitgeist, was born about two to three centuries earlier than the word zeitgeist, in what historians today call the Age of Renaissance. The intellectual basis of the Renaissance was its version of humanism, derived from the concept of Roman Humanitas (loving what makes us human) and the rediscovery of classical Greek philosophy, such as that of Protagoras, who said that:

“Man is the measure of all things.”

This was a shift from faith in God to the Reason of Man. Paradoxically, this modern current was not a discovery but as we can see: a re-discovery of the high culture of the classical world after the dark Middle Age of Europe where reason was always subservient to the Church.

Not surprisingly, thought being the germ of all action, modernity expressed itself in Renaissance through art, architecture, politics, science and literature. The one great technology of the Renaissance was the metal moving type printing press that democratized knowledge distribution:

“The arrival of mechanical movable type printing introduced the era of mass communication, which permanently altered the structure of society. The relatively unrestricted circulation of information and (revolutionary) ideas transcended borders, captured the masses in the Reformation, and threatened the power of political and religious authorities; the sharp increase in literacy broke the monopoly of the literate elite on education and learning and bolstered the emerging middle class. Across Europe, the increasing cultural self-awareness of its peoples led to the rise of proto-nationalism.

The printing press was also a factor in the establishment of a community of scientists who could easily communicate their discoveries through widely disseminated scholarly journals, helping to bring on the scientific revolution. Because of the printing press, authorship became more meaningful and profitable. It was suddenly important who had said or written what, and what the precise formulation and time of composition was. This allowed the exact citing of references, producing the rule, “one author, one work (title), one piece of information.” Before, the author was less important, since a copy of Aristotle made in Paris would not be exactly identical to one made in Bologna. For many works prior to the printing press, the name of the author has been entirely lost.

Because the printing process ensured that the same information fell on the same pages, page numbering, tables of contents, and indices became common, though they previously had not been unknown. The process of reading also changed, gradually moving over several centuries from oral readings to silent, private reading. The wider availability of printed materials also led to a drastic rise in the adult literacy rate throughout Europe.”

All these developments ploughed the field of history for the next wave of human evolution about a century later, which historians call, “The Age of Reason or The Age of Enlightenment”. As an Indian, the word enlightenment always had a spiritual meaning for me. I had encountered this word for the first time in my fifth-grade history textbook. I still can’t forget the black and white image of Buddha seated calmly under the peepal tree. A mysterious word was written in italicized Roman letters in the paragraph underneath the photo: Nirvana. In brackets, the meaning of it was given as Enlightenment.

So, when I grew up, it came as a surprise to me that there was something called “The Age of Enlightenment” in Europe. I was even more surprised and perhaps a little amused that this Age of Enlightenment was simply the age of reason. But for the first time, I got vague glimmerings of the fact that I was a product of this age. When I first got acquainted with the idea, even though I beheld it as the progress of humankind, I did not, or, rather could not conflate reason with enlightenment. For my Indian mind, they remained two distinct spheres.

Descartes and The Age of Reason/Enlightenment

According to Wikipedia, there is little consensus on the precise beginning of the Age of Enlightenment, though several historians and philosophers argue that it was marked by Descartes’ 1637 philosophy of Cogito, ergo sum (“I think, therefore I Am”), which shifted the epistemological basis from external authority to internal certainty. Some also argue for Issac Newton. But my vote goes indubitably to Frenchman Rene Descartes (1596-1650)

Most, especially the public school educated Indians, may remember him as the inventor of co-ordinate geometry. This is not entirely out of place, given that the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says this about him: “During the course of his life, he was a mathematician first, a natural scientist or “natural philosopher” second, and a metaphysician third. ” ( However, what real philosophers and deep thinkers would realize about Descartes first, is the last and third part of description assigned to him by Stanford Encyclopedia. For, even though the Encyclopedia relegates his metaphysics to the last portion of his identity, this is the part that changed the world: in the more enlightened world of philosophers he is graced with the epithet, “The Father of Modern Philosophy”. This is not without a reason

The concept or rationalism and thus modernism is the foundation stone of today’s world affairs. The way our world is structured politico-strategically, economically and socially is based on rationalism and thus modernism, and even if reason as an end in itself is no longer an absolute paradigm today, it has shaped our world in a way no other philosophy recently has. The modernist project, the prioritizing of reason as a project for a whole culture, is the result of the prioritizing of reason by René Descartes (1596-1650), who prioritized reason for himself to a formerly unknown degree. Descartes never aimed at reforming the thought process of society, but merely planned to reform his thoughts without imposing on others to imitate the process.

Unwittingly, however, Descartes became a precursor to all that we hold as modern today. The word modern slowly got conflated with western so that today the word modern gets reflexively equated with the word western. As says Heidegger [1938] (2002), p. 76: Descartes… that which he himself founded… modern (and that means, at the same time, Western) metaphysics.

Descartes and the Rise of the Individual: Clean Break from Tradition

Being anti-authoritarian, I admire Rene Descartes for his breaking away from the traditions of the Church. Being a skeptic, I honour him further for introducing a new way of philosophy: inquiring without starting from any baggage of tradition. Until my college years, I grew up carrying in my mind a world of two stark contrasts. On one hand was Indian culture with its hoary myths, morality, meaningless rituals and world-denying asceticism. On the other was the youthful Western culture bursting and brimming with life, innovations, and a revolt against the authority of religion. Reason enshrined by science, as I understood the West to be, was the only authority I accepted. Indian religion to me then was bereft of reason: a tangled mass of fantastic myths, unbelievable fables and hideous superstitions.

All that I admired as the West, can be attributed to the genius of Descartes. Speaking about it Husserl, Edmund (1931) in “Cartesian Meditations: An Introduction to Phenomenology”, writes, “When, with the beginning of modern times, religious belief was becoming more and more externalized as a lifeless convention, men of intellect were lifted by a new belief: their great belief in an autonomous philosophy and science. In philosophy, the Meditations were epoch-making in a quite unique sense, and precisely because of their going back to the pure ego cogito. Descartes’ work has been used, in fact, to inaugurate an entirely new kind of philosophy. Changing its total style, philosophy takes a radical turn: from naïve objectivism to transcendental subjectivism.

Bertrand Russell, eminent mathematician, philosopher, and most importantly an agnostic introduces Rene Descartes, in glowing terms in his book “History of Western Philosophy” (1946) :

“René Descartes (1596–1650) is usually considered the founder of modern philosophy, and, I think, rightly. He is the first man of high philosophic capacity whose outlook is profoundly affected by the new physics and astronomy. While it is true that he retains much of scholasticism, he does not accept foundations laid by predecessors, but endeavours to construct a complete philosophic edifice de novo. This had not happened since Aristotle, and is a sign of the new self-confidence that resulted from the progress of science. There is a freshness about his work that is not to be found in any eminent previous philosopher since Plato. All the intermediate philosophers were teachers, with the professional superiority belonging to that avocation. Descartes writes, not as a teacher, but as a discoverer and explorer, anxious to communicate what he has found.

Even among the modern philosophers, Anthony Kenny (2006) in his book, “The Rise of Modern Philosophy”, writing more than half a century later, credits Descartes similarly:

“It is true that Descartes initiated a new, individualistic, style of philosophizing. Medieval philosophers had seen themselves as principally engaged in transmitting a corpus of knowledge; in the course of transmission they might offer improvements, but these must remain within the bounds set by tradition. Renaissance philosophers had seen themselves as rediscovering and republicizing the lost wisdom of ancient times. It was Descartes who was the first philosopher since Antiquity to offer himself as a total innovator; as the person who had the privilege of setting out the truth about man and his universe for the very first time. Where Descartes trod, others followed: Locke, Hume, and Kant each offered their philosophies as new creations, constructed for the first time on sound scientific principles. ‘Read my work, and discard my predecessors’ is a constant theme of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century thinkers and writers.”


As it always happens, I had planned a single blog article on this topic. However, I guess it is going to stretch to a total of four articles (hopefully not more). The topic is complex in terms of height, depth and width; it is taking immense effort and consummate scholastic skills from my side to condense all that I have to say in the span of four articles without losing any aspect of the complexity. Not only this, but the complexity is compounded by the fact that I have to present the dubious legacy of a philosopher whom I actually love: to portray him as the author of an impoverished world epoch, he never intended. On the contrary, he is the one who actually gets very close to my own path of Advaita. But I am going ahead of myself here.

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