Rationalism is the study of reason in philosophy. In a close analysis, we are going to examine the rational views of two philosophers, namely, Rene Descartes and Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche.
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Their works reveal a great application of rationalism in similar and contrasting approaches. One of the greatest philosophical ideas that Descartes invented is the doubt theory. Nietzsche uses a similar approach in the introspection of his maxims. In his hyperbolical skepticism, Descartes arrives at the conclusion of the irrefutable existence of thought. Logically linked to the existence of thought, is therefore that of life.
Descartes says that the fact of his thinking is evidence that he is living. In his works, Nietzsche, on the other hand uses a similar degree of skepticism on the maxim of idleness and self-evaluation. An individual who doesn’t engage in physical tasks would easily be said to be lazy by the society. The mental task of self-examination taking place in his mind goes unnoticed.
Descartes and Nietzsche do not hold similar views on religion. They lay open a fundamental critique of the existence of God. Nietzsche in the seventh maxim asks whether man is a result of the erroneous work of God or God is the error of man. Descartes poses a rather hideous question on God in his Cartesian theory.
He asserts that God’s creation may not have been intended to deceive, which is an indication of imperfection therefore begging the question of what is possibly the origin of error. Descartes tries to negate that the human faculties can be the source of errors as they are God’s own creation.
This question is inadequately addressed by another renowned philosopher, Plato, who presupposes that errors are as a result of a given deprivation of knowledge and not necessarily a reversal of a certain virtue. Plato’s explanation does not however satisfy Descartes who finally derives a more rational theory. According to Descartes, the cause of errors is deeply entrenched in knowledge and will. In his theory, Descartes argues that the human intellect is limited unlike God’s which is infinite.
This means that the human mind is insufficient in terms of the ideas it can be able to contain. (Descartes Lecture 8A page 45). Choice or will on the other hand is not dependent on content like the human mind but the ability to accept, refuse, welcome or shun. He continues to say that error occurs when the will goes beyond the human intellect because it appeals to things beyond its comprehension.
It is worthwhile noting that the religious theories advanced by both Nietzsche and Descartes have received enormous criticisms within the field of academia and beyond. Descartes has been adversely branded an atheist.
The philosophical theory of Nietzsche on religion has to some extent even compromised his reputation. Similarly, the maxim that asks whether God is dead by Nietzsche is hugely considered atheist. Nietzsche argues that the continued secularization of Europe and the leap forward of science is largely to blame for the demise of the Christian God.
One of the most unmistakable aspects of Descartes and Nietzsche in their philosophical works is their fight for reason .Dualism in and outside philosophy implies a relationship between two entities. Descartes advances the theory that the human body is a constituent of two main parts namely, the mind and body. He argues that the body’s operation conforms to the laws of motion which are entirely governed by physics.
He continues to say that the mind remains motionless and cannot be extended meaning that it does not comply with the law of physics. In his conclusion, he draws that the body is controlled by the mind but the body can at certain instances control the mind as the case of passion. Nietzsche on his part is seen to use the concept of dualism to portray a different philosophical idea about the real and the world of imagination. (Nietzsche 13).
He postulates that there can be no separation between the real and the apparent world as this would demonstrate a sharp decadence of morality in the society. A closer examination of the two philosophers regarding the concept of dualism and how each uses it to rationally advance their theories reveals two things. Whereas Descartes uses the mind and soul to argue his case, Nietzsche employs the two worlds, the real and the imagined.
This is how they diverge but in terms of the moral dimension they give their theories on dualism, Descartes and Nietzsche converge at a point of agreement. Related to this, is the fact that Nietzsche is seemingly blaming Plato as the latter’s ideas are to blame for the decadence in morals of the world for the time leading up to Nietzsche’s time. Nietzsche says that the dualism is transformed into Christianity which is later secularized.
A closer look at the maxims by Nietzsche reveals a philosopher who adopted a radical approach to rationalism unlike Descartes who is evasive especially on the existence of God. Descartes says that the existence of God is not a subject of doubt. According to him, God is extremely powerful and his intelligence is unparalleled. He says that God’s presence in the world is eternal and that he is independent. Nietzsche makes his position clear on morality.
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His claim is that there is no measure that can evaluate or judge a human being and that the idea of God is a deterrent to existence. Only in disowning God, according to Nietzsche shall humankind free himself. Another significant drift between the two philosophers however comes to the fore in the concept of the senses. Descartes proofs using the wax demonstration that the senses pale into insignificance against the mind.
Descartes is at a loss as to how the power of sight is overshadowed by the power of judgment that rests in the mind. Nietzsche on the contrary is against philosophers who are not accommodative to change and who do not regard the senses. According to Nietzsche, a sense is not deceptive. He is against the use of reason which is full of falsification. Nietzsche uses the nose to demonstrate the effectiveness of the power of the senses.
Descartes formulated the theory of fallacies which in principle is very similar to the theory of errors that Nietzsche adopted in his philosophical works. In his theory, Descartes negates everything that happens and assumes it’s false or it’s a lie. (Descartes Lecture 9A page 27).
That meant that everything that happens is questionable and can be refuted. The same statement can also be right depending on the perspective in which it is looked at. This indicates that a statement could be true or false at the same time. On the other side, Nietzsche unveiled a theory that was developed on the basis of four errors. The first error revolves around the confusion between causes and effects. (Nietzsche 23).
Most people cannot differentiate between the causes of a certain phenomenon and its effects e.g. an accident or a disease. The human being believes in erroneous causality which is Nietzsche’s second error. In his explanation, Nietzsche cautions us against apportioning blame on God or the world of spirits yet we are to blame for our own wrongs or sins. (Nietzsche Lecture 1 page 39).
The third error that Nietzsche explores is on the belief that human beings have in imaginary causes. This, he explains, is an acquisition of knowledge from known phenomena to the unknown which gives one a feeling of consolation and strength because one acquires an explanation that he or she didn’t have.
Nietzsche further explains that religious and moral issues rely heavily on imaginary reasons other than the real ones. (Clarke 61). This, he says, results in an escape from rationality. The fourth error that Nietzsche discovers was deeply rooted in the concept of free will. Free will is wrought in systems that are charged with the dispensation of justice and punishment. This system has to be perpetually on a mission to assert its authority and has to bring wrongdoers to book thanks to already laid statutes of administration.
Nietzsche takes exception with the doctrine as it was established to purposefully find fault and hence justly deliver punitive action against the offenders. The origin of the whole doctrine of free will originated from heads of communities who wanted to bestow upon themselves the power to punish. According to Nietzsche, the concept of free will became a vicious tool of the ruling class.
To have an indefatigable spirit in the fight for reason is the ultimate goal of any rationalist philosopher. Nietzsche and Descartes have left the indelible mark of being true fighters of their course. According to Nietzsche, acquisition of knowledge is not good enough but to act upon knowledge is what differentiates rationalist philosophy from any other. (Nietzsche Lecture 2 page 12).
Knowledge only becomes relevant when it is guided by wisdom. Descartes sought to clarify that apart from God whose position in the philosophical pedestal is distinct; there exist other ideas that qualify as rational. We can therefore draw a degree of compromise between Descartes and Nietzsche concerning God and wisdom.
The two philosophers seem to agree that for reason to reach the peak, within which it becomes useful, there has to be a regulatory mechanism to guide the knowledge. As in the case of Nietzsche, wisdom falls into place, and for Descartes, God’s place becomes eternal.
The ideas that are compliant with rationalism apart from those about God, according to Descartes, border on mathematical inventions that he himself made. (Brown 46). Descartes pioneered great inventions in analytical geometry, in optics and in the laws of refraction. Nietzsche saw his works as challenging, same as Descartes.
Nietzsche in his eighth maxim on war developed a pursuit of reason guided by a war-like approach. Important in our analysis, is Nietzsche’s maxim on war in which he says that the experiences that do not destroy him, make him a better person. The maxim finds its match in Descartes’ firm belief in Catholicism and God, even though he sought to question the existence of God given his mission as a rationalist philosopher.
That Descartes and Nietzsche have made an identity for themselves as distinguished philosophers aligned to the rationalistic school of thought cannot be overstated. We can arrive at the conclusion that the two have independently made achievements that are highly qualified in reason.
While some of their views especially on the existence of God are sharply divergent, we have been able to draw similar theoretical standpoints on their application of reason as in the case of Descartes’ dualism of soul and mind and Nietzsche’s dualism of the real and the imagined world. It therefore becomes necessary for any scholar of philosophy to examine the works of Descartes and Nietzsche comparatively to understand the underlying rational perspectives.
Brown, Deborah. Descartes and the Passionate Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Clarke, Desmond. Descartes’s Theory of Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Nietzsche,Friedrich.Twilight of the Idols.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Nietzsche,Friedrich.Thus Spoke Zarathustra.Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.