René Magritte on Descartes, Berkeley, & confusion

Battle of Wits


Descartes’s work, exciting as it was when it first appeared, is now merely used as an antiquated reference system for academic philosophers, when it is hardly more than an elegant example of the art of writing. But Descartes did have the audacity to try to rid the human mind of mistaken ideas that were preventing man from using his brains. Descartes made use of the “material” of his times – i.e. God and the existence of the real physical world – as subjects for intelligent meditations. While on the one hand exercising the intelligence was valuable, on the other, the unsatisfactory “material” at his disposal could only produce a miserable result, such as logical proof of the real existence of the physical world.

Another mind, Bishop Berkeley, in proving the opposite, ended up demonstrating in spite of himself that the world in which men are forced to live is indifferent to anything we may believe about its reality, since imaginary or real physical reality are virtually the same things.

In the twentieth century, the old material has been replaced by a considerable body of useless ideas. But this new material still plays a repressive role as regards understanding. And so, for life to go on or reach a certain level, positive life forces have to fight a ceaseless battle against the negative forces of confusion.

And if history is to be believed, the positive, life-giving forces will always triumph in the end.

SOURCE: Magritte, René. “Battle of Wits,” in René Magritte: Selected Writings, edited by Kathleen Rooney and Eric Plattner, translated by Jo Levy with six pieces translated by Adam Elgar, preface by Sandra Zalman (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), essay, pp. 128-132, this quote, p. 128. Original publication: Le Fait accompli, nos. 51–53, June-August 1971.

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