Ethics of Geometry and Genealogy of Modernity

Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 17 (1-2):315-324 (1994)
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The work of David R. Lachterman, The Ethics of Geometry, subtitled A Genealogy of Modernity, concerns essentially the status of geometry in Euclid’s Elements and in Descartes’s Geometry. It is a remarkable work, at once by the declared breadth of its ambitions and by the very great precision of its analyses, which are always supported by a prodigious philosophical culture. David Lachterman’s concern is to grasp, by way of an in-depth commentary of certain, particularly crucial passages of these two foundational works, the change in geometry’s status from the one to the other, and this, as a sort of symptom of what the Moderns, since Descartes, will always experience as a necessary, inaugural rupture with regard to tradition. This change is underlaid, according to the author, by a profound change in the philosophical ethos, and in particular, in the geometer’s ethos. One must understand ethos, Lachterman explains, in the manner of Aristotle: those characteristic means that human beings have by which to act in the world or to behave in relation to one another, or to themselves. There is thus an “ethics” of geometry, namely, in the manner and the style of doing geometry, of behaving as a mathematician both toward apprentices and toward the veritable nature of the “entities” which are to be taught or learnt, and which give their discipline its name. That there is a difference of ethos between Euclid and Descartes implies, according to Lachterman, that there is also a difference in the source of intelligibility of the “mathematical,” understood in the most general sense. This in turn implies a deeper difference in the mode of being in general: it suffices to note that, in the ancient case, the source of intelligibility of the geometric figure lies in the nature of the figure itself, and that in the modern case, the same source is found in the “strategies” and “tactics” suited to bringing the figure to its visibility or to its embodiment, 315 in order to notice that this change in the mode of access to intelligibility must have had profound repercussions upon philosophical thought. It is in this sense that the author’s design is also, at the same time, not genetic, but genealogical. The break between ancient and modern mathematics pleas in favor of a consideration of the rupture of modern thought relative to ancient thought; thus, implicitly—and it is one of the great merits of this book that it shows this—against all homogenizing levelling, in Heidegger’s fashion, of the history of thought down to the history of “the” discipline of metaphysics. If there is something Heideggerian, in the best sense of the term, in Lachterman’s way of considering ethos as coextensive with modes of being, there is, on the other hand, and we ought to be very glad of it, something anti-Heideggerian in his original manner of bringing out the effective novelty of modern thought. For, according to him, modern thought is no longer to be defined, explicitly or exclusively, by the so-called “metaphysics of subjectivity.” Instead, it is defined by a self-regulated, operative, and constructive productivity of thought—and this as much with regard to itself as to its objects. To put it briefly, whereas ancient thought is rather polarized by the logico-eidetic, modern thought is polarized by a sort of methodical constructivism, the status of which is, in reality, very complex. If Descartes speaks of “the construction of a problem,” while Leibniz speaks of the “construction of an equation,” and Kant of the “construction of a concept,” everything depends—as we might guess—upon the multiple meanings that the term ‘construction’ may take on. Is it to be taken in the sense of an absolute creation, a quasi ex nihilo creation, which would render mathematics divine? Is it the creation of artefacts, or again, is it the methodical exploration of problems posed to thought by the existence of objects or corresponding ideas, themselves supposed to be somewhere in the divine understanding? We already discern the breadth and the depth of the debate, and we sense that the essential will be played out in Lachterman’s commentaries on the famous Cartesian solution of the problem of Pappus—the birth certificate, as we know, of analytic geometry.



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