What about Descartes?

It's time to move past Descartes and his 17th century thinking. To further explain my point, I site a pages 4-6 of Michael Ott's doctoral dissertation, with his permission, "Max Horkheimer's Critical Theory of Religion: The Meaning of Religion in the Struggle for Human Emancipation," that concerns Descartes.

Descartes and the Development of Instrumental Rationality

This division of human knowledge and experience of the natural and social worlds into two increasingly antagonistic realms received its formal expression in the 17th century through the philosophy of Rene Descartes, the so-called originator of modern philosophy. Descartes gave expression and philosophical legitimation to the burgeoning instrumental rationality and its success in the field of the natural sciences as exemplified by what is known as the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century which had the effect and further purpose of setting humanity free from their ignorance, fear, unnecessary suffering and death which was all too frequently condoned and legitimized by the myths and superstitions fostered by the religious authorities of the time. This new concept of reason is based on a subject - object dichotomy, in which the human subject is understood to be completely independent of all objects that it encounters, both natural and human. The notion of an instrumental, subjective rationality allows the independent subject to analyze, categorize, and understand all objects for the purpose of controlling and manipulating them according to the interest of the subject. The isolated, monadic individual set over and against objects in nature and society became the paradigmatic standard of the Modern age of the bourgeoisie.

Descartes (1958) gave expression to this one-sided emphasis on subjective reason in his well known "first principle" of modern philosophy: "Cogito, ergo sum" -- "I think, therefore I am" (p.119). One's being was no longer seen to be an expression of or dependent on the "other," be it divine or human. Humanity was now understood to be almost self-originating and self-sufficient by one's own thought and experience of the objectified world. The isolated, compartmentalized "ego" over and against the rest of the natural and socio-political world seen as object became the corner stone for the creation of the modern world, in both its liberating, progressive aspects -- as in the realization that the life of each individual is of the utmost value and importance as expressed in the bourgeoisie's formal laws and rights of independence: life, liberty, and happiness -- as well as its colonialism and imperialism that has produced the most terrible horror the history of the world has ever experienced.

Such a one-sided, positivistic emphasis on the subject-object paradigm of instrumental rationality has produced an instrumental praxis that objectifies, compartmentalizes, and functionalizes not only nature for the purpose of control and manipulation but also other human beings. People are no longer seen as subjects themselves but only objects or human resources to be used for the realization of an other's purpose. Through the development of this modern conception of reason, people are understood to no longer have meaning in and for themselves but only in how they can be used to realize the goals or interests of a dominant other. There is then no longer any sense of community, e.g., the finding one's autonomy in solidarity or covenant with others, but only a sense of proximity to the other conditioned by space and time and strategic purpose. With the elimination of dialectical thought by this modern dualistic concept of reason for which there is no objective meaning, truth, or reason, the subject itself becomes a mere functional coordinator and organizer of objects or facts that are to be dominated by society for its self-preservation. The once supposed autonomous subject becomes reduced to a natural object itself; one that seeks its own survival through the domination of the other, i.e., nature and humanity. In 1947, Horkheimer (1974a) gave expression to this development by saying,

"The total transformation of each and every realm of being into a field of means leads to the liquidation of the subject who is supposed to use them. This gives modern industrialist society its nihilistic aspect. Subjectivization, which exalts the subject, also dooms him. The human being, in the process of his emancipation, shares the fate of the rest of his world. Domination of nature involves domination of man" (p.93).

Such sacrifice of the subject in the name of subjective reason is beneficial for production based on a logic of means and ends. However, as Horkheimer (1974a) states, this rational process also creates an "irrationality with reference to human existence" (p. 94). The result is the alienation of humanity in society and culture; "Civilization as rationalized irrationality" (p.94).

The Descartian dualistic, subject-object paradigm of the division between God and world, mind and body, human spirit and nature, a res cogitans and a res extensa, an instrumental rationality and a communicative, mimetic rationality, the social system and the everyday life-world remains the dominant logic and techn'e of modernity. Enlightenment and the development of a postmetaphysical, scientific, technical rationality have become the source and means of knowledge for the purpose of securing human self-preservation and security through the domination of nature and society. Religion, on the other hand, has become antiquated and obsolete, as it has nothing to offer -- not even "consolation" (Habermas, 1993, pp. 133-l46) -- in addressing the problems of modernity. In place of the traditional society's understanding of God's unifying pres-ence and involvement in the natural and social worlds, modern science and its instrumental rationality have succeeded in creating a godless world while also positing a worldless God, if a God is acknowledged at all (Metz, 1973).