Rene Descartes' Curve-Drawing Devices:
Experiments in the Relations Between
Mechanical Motion and Symbolic Language

Re-Writing Descartes,
By Re-drawing the Axis....

Story Evolution

A reflection triggered by Grobstein's Writing Descartes ...

8 July 2004

And multiply-dimensional in the extensive kinds of teaching, learning, and turning that can occur when there is not a single axis of engagement.

So...yesterday a group of us got together to plan for next semester's version of Making Sense of Diversity: A Conversation at Bryn Mawr College. We traced the trajectory of last year's initiative, from the presumption in late August that "diversity" is a tired subject, that there is a PC approach to it and that everyone at (or coming to) BMC has already been fully indoctrinated with that approach and accepts the sudden sparking of interest that occurred at the end of October, when "African bush women were performed by Haverford men" at the Rhoads Halloween party.

We tried to think together how to jump over the initial disengagement, how to get 'em to invest straight off. "We need a hook, a problem..." suggested one planner. "We need to think of diversity not as a problem, but an opportunity," said another, "we need to show them how generative difference can be."

And as I sat there thinking through this binary, trying to decide whether diversity is a problem to be addressed or an opportunity to be embraced (and which of these options would most engage student interest....) Sandy Schram said, "It's not about problems vs. opportunities. It's about life. Where is there life?" And I thought: thank you, Sandy--for reminding me that an "insoluable" binary may well be a false one. And then I thought: oops, that's where Descartes got us on the wrong track, in posing "the" question as one of doubt vs. trust.

A more generative (=useful to me right now) posing of the question might indeed be, following Sandy, not "what can we not doubt, what can we trust?" but rather "where is the life?" A more generative (=useful to me right now) reading of Descartes' query might indeed be one that focuses not on doubt but on existence. Instead of asking what can we not doubt, let us ask wherein lies our most vital sense of life. Sometimes it lies in certainty, in the security of knowing that you are known, and held, whatever you may do or not do. Sometimes it lies in taking a risk, in knowing that you can not predict where you may fall, what new opportunity may lie ahead of you. Sometimes, as in Sharon Burgmayer's formulation, it lies in "seeing a structure solving" into a known form; sometimes, as in Mark Lord's, it lies in that which pulls us off-center, makes us long for what we cannot reach, what we can never know. Only on the doubt-security axis are these impulses oppositional; on the axis of life and death, they may exist in any location, including the same one.

In re-playing/re-chewing/re-masticating Descartes' infamous "he cannot doubt that he exists" perhaps we've been emphasizing the wrong verb--it's not the doubting that is the key issue here. It's the existing. Living. What feels most alive. Might we "trust" that sense to guide us?

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