There is no Descartes’ Second Treatise.
(I’d have called this post Notae in Programma Quoddam, which is funnier, but only four people would have got it).
I must first confess that I thoroughly enjoy Alain de Botton’s works of popular philosophy. I love his writing, his way with words and ideas. Tragically however, he is a living philosopher that people have heard of. He is therefore being asked to comment on various contemporary matters, pretty much at random, without regard for whether he’s thought about them properly. Even worse, he’s being asked by Britain’s Sunday Times.
My own research is into collaborative technologies. I’m mostly interested in interaction design, and don’t know as much about the social side as some people, but I can spot a clanger when one is pointed out to me in a none-to-subtle yet hilarious and scathing parody.
My interest was particularly piqued by the claim attributed to Botton that people on Twitter “don’t say, ‘What do you think of Descartes’s second treatise?’ ”. Particularly as it happened to be Descartes’ birthday, and people were twittering about him at the rate of 15 times an hour. Meanwhile the Sunday Times considered the birthday worthy of four words in the “Anniversaries” column of the Times Online: “René Descartes, philosopher, 1596” – and only seven mentions all this year. To continue the comparison with the Sunday Times: their top story at that moment was “I had sex with my brother but I don’t feel guilty”, while the liveliest topic of discussion on Twitter at that moment was a public television programme on internet censorship in Australia.
Anyway. When it’s not Descartes’ birthday, he comes up in conversation on Twitter a little more than once an hour.
Now it’s not hard to find out that Twitter does indeed contain thoughtful discussion, and not solely people’s impressions of what they’re doing or looking at. Given a new mode of communication we will use it to convey our thoughts, some of which happen not to be entirely banal. Once again however I don’t expect Alain de Botton to have thought hard about this, or to have done a great deal of research on some random new technology that the Sunday Times asks him about. I’m a little sad to realise that like the rest of us he falls back on received ideas in a pinch, but if we didn’t I suppose we’d have a lot of trouble navigating the world.
I’m more puzzled by the quote itself. Because I’m quite sure that Alain de Botton has read a lot of philosophy, but as far as I can ascertain there is no such thing as “Descartes’ Second Treatise”.
Certainly, no-one is discussing it on Twitter. They twitter away about his Meditations (a lot of them are set it for homework), and they tend to wonder about the mind-body problem (Elisabeth of Bohemia even gets a look-in). Descartes wrote a number of works, quite a bit of it was unpublished or suppressed, and he didn’t number his treatises himself. There’s not really a canonical order that would make it easy to figure out what the second treatise might be.
So my point is not that Alain de Botton made a whoopsie. First I think it’s far more likely that the Sunday Times misquoted him; and if not he was speaking, not writing, and we all occasionally fluff our words. It’s not (as Alain de Botton purportedly said to the Sunday Times) precisely what he said that matters. The article actually gives me very little idea of what Alain de Botton thinks about Twitter. I can however tell precisely what the Sunday Times would like us to think that he thinks. And what therefore all right-thinking people ought properly to think.
My point is only that to denigrate a new method of communication on the grounds that it’s banal is a pathetically cheap shot, and that coming from a Murdoch newspaper it’s almost Dadaesque in its absurdity. Unfiltered human communication is a good thing, it conveys not only social signaling but also thought and meaning, and it’s increasing whether you like it or not, so bugger off.