Christianity in a Culture of Narcissism: From Descartes to Kant

July 2, 2012 at 5:15 am 1 comment


René Descartes and Immanuel Kant

It began in the Garden.  When Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, they became history’s first narcissists.  Narcissism is defined as “a consuming self-absorption or self-love; a type of egotism. Narcissists constantly assess their appearance and desires.”[1]  Adam and Eve assessed their desires and decided that their desires trumped God’s command.  Theologically, then, narcissism is as old as history itself.  Philosophically, however, narcissism’s origin – or at least its willing sanction – is slightly more modern.

Narcissism finds its philosophical roots in the seventeenth century French philosopher René Descartes.  In 1637, he published his seminal work, Discourse on Method, in which he undertook to find something concrete on which to rest his life – a point of certainty in an illusory and shifting universe.  How would he discover such a point of certainty?  By doubting everything he possibly could.  He writes, “I ought to reject as absolutely false all opinions in regard to which I could suppose the least ground for doubt, in order to ascertain whether after that there remained aught in my belief that which was wholly indubitable.”[2]  Descartes trumpets methodological doubt as his mechanism to discover certainty.  For doubt and certainty are inimical to each other.  This means that if Descartes can find something which he cannot doubt, then this thing must, by antonymic reasoning, be certain.

So what does Descartes doubt?  Pretty much everything.  He doubts human intelligence and insight.  After all, Descartes says, there are a great “number of conflicting opinions touching a single matter that may be upheld by learned men.”[3]  Thus, how is one to know who holds the correct opinion?  We are left only with uncertainty.  And where there is doubt, we must throw it out.  Societal norms and traditions must also be doubted.  For different societies have different and conflicting opinions and customs:  “A person brought up in France or Germany exhibits [a very different character] from that which, with the same mind originally, this individual would have possessed had he always lived among the Chinese or the savages.”[4]  Not even one’s own senses can be totally trusted, for “our senses sometimes deceive us.”[5]

So are we left with anything which cannot be doubted?  Descartes says there is one indubitable thing:

Whilst I thus wished to think that all was false, it was absolutely necessary that I, who thus thought, should be somewhat; and I observed that this truth, I think, therefore I am, was so certain and of such evidence that no ground of doubt, however extravagant, could be alleged by the skeptics capable of shaking it.[6]

Here we have perhaps the most famous words spoken by any philosopher in any age:  “I think, therefore I am.”  This is what Descartes can know for certain:  He exists.  How does he know this?  He thinks.  Consciousness, in Descartes’ scheme, becomes the cause of one’s existence, for the very certainty of a person’s very existence is based on nothing else than that person’s very thinking!  Everything a person can know, experience, or be certain of is found in nothing other than the person who is knowing, experiencing, and being certain.  A person, then, is a completely self-contained and self-absorbed entity.  And this, by definition, is narcissism.

It is important to note that, no matter how egocentric Descartes’ dictum may be, the philosopher styled himself as a committed Catholic and finally, at the end of Discourse on Method, seeks to make an argument for the existence of God.  But consider how he fashions his argument: “I was led to inquire whence I had learned to think of something more perfect than myself; and I clearly recognized that I must hold this notion from some nature which in reality was more perfect.”[7]  Descartes argues that because he can think of a being more perfect than himself, there must indeed be such a being!  In other words, Descartes thinks of God, so there is God.  He thinks, therefore God is.

Though Descartes ultimately exercises a certain amount of restraint in Discourse on Method, trying to steer clear of the unabated egoism that his philosophical system inevitably brings, Descartes’ “I” was quickly marshaled by other less scrupulous philosophers to plunge into a pool of silly solipsism and self-regarding subjectivism.  The next century saw the rise of Immanuel Kant who championed the distinction between the noumenon and the phenomenon.  The noumenon is what Kant referred to in German as the ding an sich, “the thing in itself.”  That is, the noumenon is that which is outside of us.  The phenomenon, conversely, is our personal experience, roughly analogous to the Cartesian “I.”  Kant argued that a person has no access to the noumenon apart from the phenomenon.  In other words, it is impossible for us to get outside of our phenomenal selves to directly observe the noumenal world.  Kant asserts, “We cannot know these objects as things in themselves” (ding an sich).  Thus, we are stuck in our hopelessly subjective phenomenal perspectives.  Lest one believe that subjectivity is all there is, however, Kant quickly qualifies:  “Though we cannot know these objects as things in themselves, we must yet be in a position at least to think them as things in themselves; otherwise we should be landed in the absurd conclusion that there can be appearance without anything that appears.”[8]  Notice how closely Kant’s apology for the existence of the noumenon mirrors Descartes’ apology for the existence of God:  “I can think it, so it must exist!”

With such a rosy view of the human intellect, it is no wonder that subsequent generations have quickly left behind Kant’s noumenon – since it was ultimately inaccessible anyway – in favor of the egoistic phenomenon.  That is, what is “out there” noumenally no longer matters to many people.  Some have even gone so far as to deny the existence of the noumenon altogether.  It is only what is “in us” phenomenally that counts.  This, in turn, has led to obsessive and unyielding introspection – a tell tale sign of narcissism.

Christianity, of course, tells a different story.  We should not bow to what is “in us” as the ultimate grounds for our existence.  Indeed, what is “in us” is suspect at best and, more realistically, downright evil.  The prophet Jeremiah warns, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it” (Jeremiah 17:9)?  Our ability to understand even our own selves (not to mention the rest of the world) by ourselves is fatally flawed.  Understanding must start from outside of us;  not from inside of us.  This is why, according to Scripture, wisdom and insight are finally gifts from an external God and not functions of an internal human intellect (e.g., 1 Kings 4:29).

Perhaps Descartes’ dictum would be better reversed:  “I am, therefore I think.”  Or, even better, “I am created, therefore I think.”  In this dictum, creation – the mechanism by which we exist – precedes deliberation.  We can only think because we have been endowed with an intellect by a loving Creator.  He is the center and superlative of our being, for He is the source of our existence.  Our narcissistic “I” must yield to His perfect glory.


[1] “Narcissism,” The American Heritage Dictionary, dictionary.com.

[2] Rene Descartes, Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason, and Seeking Truth in the Sciences (Forgotten Books, 2008), 28.

[3] Discourse on Method, 7.

[4] Discourse on Method, 14.

[5] Discourse on Method, 28.

[6] Discourse on Method, 28-29.

[7] Discourse on Method, 30.

[8] Vincent G. Potter, Readings in Epistemology: From Aquinas, Bacon, Galileo, Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant (Fordham University Press, 1993), 198-199.

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Entry filed under: Theological Questions. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , .

Christianity in a Culture of Narcissism Christianity in a Culture of Narcissism: From Darwin to Dawkins

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Rev. Kevin Jennings  |  July 2, 2012 at 7:23 am

    Hi, Zach! Excellent post, though I’ll probably have to read it at least once more to grasp all that you’ve given. In reading this, you’ve described what many of this age call “postmodernism.” Your research confirms what I’ve suspected all along, and that is postmodernism is really nothing more than narcissism.

    A question I have: Would Descartes and Kant be able to stand against another, older philosophical tool: Occam’s razor? Or, would the razor slice away the fluff and leave not much else?

    God bless!

    Reply

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