The following is the abstract of the paper I will be submitting at the “On the Soul” Conference this summer at Oxford.
Mathesis Newly Imagined:
Descartes’ Univocal Construal of Nature
In Plato’s Republic Socrates cannot speak of city without, virtually in the same breath, speaking of soul. In his ethical works Aristotle takes the same approach by weaving culture and nature together: “The human being is by nature a political animal;” “Every city exists by nature;” and so on. So it is that the mainstream of the premodern tradition saw nature as culturally construed, but in a way in that is symbiotically related to culture in a mutually dependent way.
This classical approach to physico-politics is not only metaxological in this way: it is also highly imaginative. Thinkers from Aristotle to Coleridge not only constitute nature with explicitly imaginative features, but they freely admit to doing this. For Aristotle nature emerges with the intuitive recognition of a certain proportion between self and creature, of soul in the animals familiar to his everyday experience. Hence the self is like, for example, a bird, and nature is always already soulishly imagined. For Coleridge, nature is God’s creation, or the imaginatively invested analogue of the techne of the imago dei.
Then we have Descartes, arriving on the scene in the 17th century. In his Le Monde Descartes reimagines nature in two innovative ways: he imposes the requirement of a priori systematizability, and he reduces matter to the mathematically amenable corpuscular.
In this paper I demonstrate how, in these two moves and in the flattened out mathematical schema they support, Descartes collapses nature and culture in his newly minted mechanistic construal of the world, in a move which is the equal opposite of that of the sophistic separation of the two, as described in a recent article by John Milbank (“The Politics of the Soul”). When the mutual coinherence of nature and culture is denied, the result is a vicious oscillation between identity and separation.
I will also establish that Descartes’ final articulation of nature, unlike that of Aristotle and Coleridge, univocally and reductively lacks any appeal to the imaginative faculty of the soul. For Descartes we don’t need imagination to conceive of the world, though this does not imply that imagination is not a means to Descartes’ end, whether acknowledged or not.
Finally I show, with the help of Jean-Luc Marion and Pierre Hadot, how this reductive collapse, together with the novel doctrine of the potentia absoluta dei which enables it, issues in a cosmology which is wholly and merely theoretical, in which there is no reason to think that it describes the world which actually exists. Do we want to talk about a world that actually exists? If so, I will argue, then as a first step we must admit and embrace the constitutive necessity of the imagination in any construal of physics or cosmology.