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Descartes and Spinoza: Craft and Reason and The Hand of De Beaune

Some Reflections on Letter 32

Descartes in 1640 reports to Constantijn Huygens, “You might think that I am saddened by this, but in fact I am proud that the hands of the best craftsman do not extend as far as my reasoning” (trans. Gaukroger). And as Graham Burnett translates, “Do you think I am sad? I swear to you that on the contrary, I discern, in the very failure of the hands of the best workers, just how far my reasoning has reached” (Descartes and the Hyperbolic Quest, 70).

The occasion is the wounding of the young, brilliant craftsman Florimond De Beaune on a sharp piece of glass, as he was working to accomplish the automated grinding of a lens in a hyperbolic shape on a machine approximating Descartes’ design from La Dioptrique. This at the behest of Descartes himself:

His wound to the hand was so severe that nearly a year later De Beaune could not continue with the project, a project he would not take up again. Descartes’ craftsmanless, all-turning machine could not be achieved. It is as if its “reason” had chewed up even the best of earth’s craftsman.

Compare this to Spinoza’s comment on Christiaan Huygen’s own semi-automated machine, in letter 32 to Oldenburg. (One wonders if he may even had had a now infamous injury to De Beaune in mind.) Descartes seems to write callously to Christiaan’s father in 1640 [following Gaukroger’s citation], 25 years later Spinoza writes soberly about the machine of the son:

…what tho’ thusly he will have accomplished I don’t know, nor, to admit a truth, strongly do I desire to know. For me, as is said, experience has taught that with spherical pans, being polished by a free hand is more sure [tutius] and better than any machine.

Issues of class play heavily into any attempt to synthesize the rationality of a mechanism with the physical hands [and technical expertise] of the required craftsman to build it. What comes to mind for me is the same Constantijn’s Huygens enthused reaction to the baseness of the youths Rembrandt and Lievens in 1629, when he discovered their genius. As Charles Mee relates and quotes:

Unable to have Rubens, Huygens evidently decided to make his own Rubens, and he saw the raw material in Leivens and Rembrandt. He loved the fact that this “noble pair of Leiden youths” came from such lowly parentage (a rich miller was still a miller after all): “no stronger argument can be given against nobility being a matter of blood” (Huygens himself had no noble blood). And the fact of their birth made the two young men all the more claylike, so much more likely to be shaped by a skilled hand. “When I look at the teachers these boys had, I discover that these men are barely above the good repute of common people. They were the sort that were available for a low fee; namely with the slender means of their parents” (Rembrandt’s Portrait ). 

The standing of the rising Regent riche had to position itself between any essentialist noble quality of blood, and the now stirring lower merchant and artisan classes, whose currencied freedoms in trade and mobility were testing ideological Calvinist limits. Leveraging itself as best it could on rational and natural philosophy, a philosopher-scientist-statesman was pursuing a stake in freedom and power, one that rested on the accuracy of his products. In this way it seems that Descartes’ – feigned? – glee over De Beaune’s injury, insofar as it embodied a superhuman outstripping of remedial others, manifests this political distancing to a sure degree. De Beaune was no ignorant worker, for his high knowledge of mathematics made him much more “technician” than craftsman, (in fact de Beaune had proposed the mathematical problem of inverse tangents which Descartes would not be clear on how to solve (letter, Feb 20 1639), and it was his Notes brièves and algebraic essays which would make Latin editions of Descartes Géométrie much more understandable to readers). Reason and rationality could in the abstract certainly in some sense free even the most economically and culturally base kinds (at least those with a disposition to genius), but in fact savants likely imagined that their lone feats of Reason actually distanced themselves from the “hands and limbs” on which they often relied.

Seen in this way, Spinoza’s sober view of Christiaan Huygens machine perhaps embodies something more than a pessimism of design, but rather more is a reading of the very process of liberation which technological development represented for a class of thinkers such as Leibniz or the Huygenses. The liberation of accuracy and clarity was indeed a cherished path, but perhaps because Spinoza was a Jewish merchant’s son, excommunicated, because Spinoza understood personally the position of an elite [his father had standing], within a community itself ostracized though growing with wealth, a double bind which he relinquished purposively, any clarity was necessarily a clarity which connected and liberated all that it touched. It was inconceivable to have dreamed a rationality so clear that it would distance itself from the the hands that were to manifest it. Perhaps Spinoza keeps in his mind the hand of De Beaune.

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One response to “Descartes and Spinoza: Craft and Reason and The Hand of De Beaune

  1. Juan Rizzo October 2, 2009 at 9:56 am

    This is probably besides the point, but I just wanted to let you know about some interesting relation I found between two of your posts.
    In reading your article “HAL 9000: The Intelligence of Innocence and What Makes Things Real” (https://kvond.wordpress.com/2008/06/05/a-ham-sandwich-and-hal-9000) I began to think about Tarkovski`s (and Lem`s) enigmatic “Solaris”. I know it`s aknowlwdeged as a somewhat nearsighted approach to draw such easy comparisons between the two films. But then again, I think the issue of the development of technology vs “human development” is quite evident in both cases. I`ve read somewhere (and can`t help to agree) that the movie depicts not only a mature, but an actually decaying form of technology –in both the spaceship itself and the moral stands of the characters–. Perhaps a sort of skepticism easily explained as a result of first-hand experience from within a totalitarian political system. But just maybe, there`s something more to it.
    It certainly reminded me of this post.
    I think it also goes a long way in showing the physical nature of imagination itself; as well as the whole point about how to make sense of the convergence/divergence dilemma, and its very concrete consequences.

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