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Russell W. Howell


Inerrancy: A Cartesian Faux-Pas?

"By good and necessary consequence."

"If I were asked what was the most disastrous moment in the history of Europe I should be strongly tempted to answer that it was that period of leisure when René Descartes, having no claims to meet, remained for a whole day 'shut up alone in a stove.' " So wrote the normally diplomatic William Temple in chapter three of his Nature, Man, and God, originally given as a series of Gifford Lectures, and published in 1934.

Temple delivered his talks while serving as Archbishop of York, and chose for that chapter the less than diplomatic title "The Cartesian Faux-Pas." For Temple, this "faux-pas" was the belief that philosophical inquiry, to be successful, should proceed according to a geometric or axiomatic model: begin with indisputable truths or axioms ("I think, therefore I am"), and from there engage in airtight logical reasoning to establish further truths—which, prior to their establishment, may have been highly disputed—such as the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. Indeed, in the synopsis to his Meditations, Descartes states, "[I]t was my aim to write nothing of which I could not give exact demonstration, and that I therefore felt myself obliged to adopt an order similar to that in use among the geometers, viz., to premise all upon which the proposition in question depends, before coming to any conclusion respecting it."

Temple thought that Descartes' strategy ("Let's pretend I don't exist and see if I can prove that I do") was a violation of common sense, and dismissed the idea that the success of the axiomatic method in mathematics could be extended to philosophy. Furthermore, he claimed that the method produced disastrous results "not only in philosophy, but also in politics and economics, with all that this means for human happiness or misery."

Carlos Bovell, in his By Good and Necessary Consequence: A Preliminary Genealogy of Biblicist ...

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