Friday, January 20, 2006

The French Cartesian Logic

Amando Doronila, Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist, in one of his regular columns, this one entitled, Analysis: US Embassy calls De Castro 'illiterate’, had this to say:
To recall, Descartes is the father of famous French Cartesian logic that helps us understand the brilliant opposition by President Jacques Chirac's Prime Minister Dominque de Villepin at the UN Security Council to the US plan to invade Iraq as well as the dynamics of France's independent foreign policy.

Reading the entire column, the reader gets the sense that this is yet another not-too-subtle attempt at a comparison between France and the USA, with of course, the latter biting at the shorter end of the stick.

It argues, and I interpret and embellish a bit, that the US, particularly its foreign policy, is quite blind beyond what it sees on its nose and really, quite illiterate, while France with its pure Cartesian logic can only be brilliant.

One cannot help but agree that France with its steadfast dedication to Cartesian logic and resolute commitment to fixed principles and positions will most of the time be at loggerheads with the Anglo-American attitudes of pragmatism. After all, the French are quite determined to cling to Cartesian logic as their celebration of rational thinking processes, and this permeates in most of their public demeanor.

But what is Cartesian logic?

First, give credit to French philosopher, Rene Descartes, who in his Discourse on the Method summarizes his line of reasoning in the famous phrase, 'I think, therefore I am' (or in Latin, 'cogito ergo sum').

This was allegedly borrowed from the writings of an earlier religious leader, St. Augustine, who attempted to refute skepticism during his day. He wrote thus:
On none of these points do I fear the arguments of the skeptics of the Academy who say: what if you are deceived? For if I am deceived, I am. For he who does not exist cannot be deceived. And if I am deceived, by this same token I am' (City of God, 11:26)

No doubt because of his being French, the French mind has wholeheartedly soaked in and accepted Descartes logic and embedded it in its psyche, allowing it to serve much like I suppose the “reason” that most ordinary folks rely on.

Many who have visited and stayed in France attest to this addictive dedication by the French to this logic. And foreign diplomats have observed that the French enter into negotiations bringing this with them and arguing from this uniquely French standpoint, culled obviously from its long history and superb education. As a matter of fact some jokes revolve around this. And one goes this way:

One is reminded of the French diplomat who supposedly said that although NATO peacekeeping worked in practice, he wasn't sure it would work in theory.

Does consistent adherence to this obviously two-dimensional logic make for “brilliant” arguments or suppositions, iron-clad hypotheses? Or effective, responsive, and independent foreign policy?

That at times the French have been called arrogant does have some merits when examined closely, some would say.

Recall the recent brouhaha about the wearing of scarves by its Muslim population. This clearly was a case where its very secular leanings framed in Cartesian logic was brought into the fore, over what most normal people would agree was really quite petty. But look at how the entire country was thrown into almost chaos because of it.

In the words of others, the French have adopted and manipulated Cartesian thinking into some kind of exclusively French way of reasoning, rather than simply for rational thinking. A rather exclusive and closed system that has put the French at odds with many in the world today. Again, some would say this is arrogance, because this pervades in practically all strata of French society of many generations.

Still others would say that this logic has also been adapted to justify buck-passing, or laying the problem on somebody else’s doorstep. To illustrate, a typical French reply to terrorism has been that because they have made their peace or appeasement with terrorism, wherever else it may exist is the problem of that country, not theirs. Thus in that kind of logic, “when confronted with an intractable problem, one must not confront, but misdirect”. And this about explains the French way of looking at the rest of the world.

And not just the rest of the world, but even among themselves. One local expression translates to “the worst foreigners come from Paris”.

Thus, domestically also, France is quite in disarray. The French economy is quite anemic in growth, saddled with continuing and mounting deficits as it continues to disregard EU admonitions. And not helped by its chronic high unemployment. Deteriorating race relations have also gone more public, especially with the émigrés from the former colonies, again not helped by growing anti-Semitism. Even their renowned French cuisine has had to suffer as many Frenchmen are now into processed food as studies reveal. And of course, their nonchalance on the issue of terrorism, comforting themselves with the thought that that is somebody else’s problem.

Even in the issue of trying to maintain national sovereignty amidst its membership in the transnational EU and the scraping of the Franc for the Euro, the French have had to undergo a tortuous use of Cartesian logic to balance conflicting views and attitudes held by many of its citizens. It is a wonder they have acceded to certain EU arrangements they are currently under, though it should be noted French voters convincingly rejected the referendum on the proposed EU constitution.

Related Posts:
Get To Choose: France or USA
Revisited: Get To Choose: France or USA

Acknowledgment: Some data/facts extracted from Richard Chesnoff’s book, The Arrogance of the French; and other sources.