Enlightenment Ideology

Note 5: Descartes, Human Language, and Social Hierarchy. 6/4/99

A virtual commonplace in Eurocentric discourse argues that (wo)man exists at a higher level of being than all other animals because she/he has been empowered by the Creator to communicate with other members of humankind with language, with verbal signs, with words. This idea is a commonplace because it has existed in Western thought from the beginning, from Genesis, in fact, when God took Adam out to look at other animals and give them names (2:19 "And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them. . . ."). An obvious consequence of this ideology, since God created Adam first and animals second, and gave Adam the power to name them, and not the other way around, is that God as Creator occupies the highest level of being, where (wo)man is second best, even if fatally flawed by original sin and not immortal, with animals necessarily filling up and occupying a third, if not final, level in the ontological scale of being. Furthermore, of course, since this concept is divinely revealed truth, there is no way to argue that it might not be true and certainly no way to suggest that the order might have been gotten wrong. This single statement from the Myth of Eden epitomizes what is meant by logocentric discourse, since every element of the structure is created by and contained in it.

While a statement like this one may seem to be perfectly benign in its simplicity, especially when found in isolation from its original Biblical context and, perhaps more significantly, in isolation from every social context in which it has ever been invoked and applied to accomplish this or that political agenda, the "truth" of the matter is that this statement, and the ideology it projects, is one of the most insidious ideas that has ever entered the mind of (wo)man. The idea that God put it there, as Descartes would argue on the strength of how he perceives the existence of truth in human intellect, is nothing more than a shield used to protect the architects of genocidal programs from having to accept the responsibility for the consequences of their own murderous activities. Look at the way Descartes begins his discussion of this conceptualization of human reality:

"there are no men so dull and stupid, not even idiots, as to be incapable of joining together different words, and thereby constructing a declaration by which to make their thoughts understood; and that on the other hand, there is no other animal, however perfect or happily circumstanced, which can do the like. Nor does this inability arise from want of organs: for we observe that magpies and parrots can utter words like ourselves, and are yet unable to speak as we do, that is, so as to show that they understand what they say." (Method, Part IV).

A first question I would put to Descartes is: where exactly is the "I" which thinks and therefore "is" in relations to the "men so dull and stupid . . . even idiots" who also have the ability to put words together and manage "to make their thoughts understood"? Is the "I" of the cogito equal to the idiot? Is he more or less than an idiot? Certainly it goes without saying that the "I" of the cogito is more than, is superior to, the idiot because the cogito ergo sum is the one who named the name of the other in the first place when he called him "idiot." My second question to Descartes is: what exactly do you intended to do with the idiots you find polluting your perfect world of pure thought after you have gone to the trouble of identifying precisely who they are? While it might be unfair to attribute this kind of bigotry to Descartes, since I have no personal knowledge or evidence to suggest that he is one, the fact that his ideas can be appropriated by people who surely are bigots, by people who would not hesitate to segregate "idiots" from the general population for the purpose of incarcerating or murdering them in order to purify Eden, makes him guilty of promoting and validating an ideology that both can be, and has been, used for that very purpose.

I might be inclined to see this differently were it not for the fact that Descartes labors so hard to inscribe his perceptions of the other into terms so immutably spoken that they leave no room for compromise or alteration:

"for we see that very little is required to enable a person to speak; and since a certain inequality of capacity is observable among animals of the same species, as well as among men, and since some are more capable of being instructed than others, it is incredible that the most perfect ape or parrot of its species, should not in this be equal to the most stupid infant of its kind or at least to one that was crack-brained, unless the soul of brutes were of a nature wholly different from ours." (Method, Part IV)

In this passage Descartes raises the stakes to include the notion that "a certain inequality of capacity" exists among animals and (wo)men that functions both on the level of intra-species and extra-species relations that forever and immutably separates the best (Descartes?) from the worst ("crack-brained") in a preeminently Christian hierarchical structure because the differentiation used here rests on the notion that the "soul of brutes" is constituted from "a nature wholly different" from that of ordinary, normal, non-idiotic human beings. It is one thing to say, after all, that people and animals have little or nothing in common but Descartes, like virtually all Eurocentric thinkers before and after him, is simply driven to make that difference a matter of religious necessity, a matter of moral judgment, in light of the fact that the "soul of brutes" does not, and cannot, rise to the level of human being. Considering the terms of this comparison, the fact that (wo)man is so sin-ridden that God was forced to commit suicide in order to redeem His creation from its own depravity, how much worse than that must (wo)man consider other animals to be if they are naturally and immutably less than, inferior to, the "I' of the cogito that thinks it is so. The only cracked-brain I can find around here is the one that concludes this line of "reasoning" with the assertion that

"nor must it be thought with certain of the ancients, that the brutes speak, although we do not understand their language. For if such were the case, since they are endowed with many organs analogous to ours, they could as easily communicate their thoughts to us as to their fellows." (Method, Part IV)

In the first place, the fact that animals do not "communicate their thought to us," whether they can if they would or not, is an expectation so unreasonable, since why would something considered to be no more than an inferior brute speak to the one holding that belief, especially in light of the fact that the human animal in the equation does not believe the other can speak at all, and I cannot help but wonder precisely what Descartes thinks an animal would say to him if he could hear what it had to say, if it did speak into an expectation so absurd, and so unreasonable, that this cogito cannot help but wonder what the other one has been thinking. Western (wo)man has been butchering animals for food, hunting them into extinction, since the day Genesis was written, and have been doing so without a single pang of conscience, without a backward glace, without a second thought.

Native Americans also hunt animals for food but we know they can speak and have always taken great care to preserve and remember all the jewels, all the wisdom, all the truth, we hear in their songs.

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