Jefferson’s Cartesian Rationality

Lynne Kiesling

Will Wilkinson has all sorts of good stuff going on right now, including an interesting post about free will and determinism. But I, like Tyler Cowen, will pick up on his mention of his increasing dislike of Thomas Jefferson.

I can totally sympathize with this. When I was in 5th grade or so I picked up a ravenous fetish over American Revolutionary history (of course, I was living in Pittsburgh, where several important battles occurred and where the remnants of a crucial fort still exist). This fetish included political philosophy, which naturally inclined me to read everything I could get my hands on about Jefferson. I, like Tyler, have always appreciated and shared his love of food, cooking, wine, architecture, empiricism in science, and lively intellect.

But I can remember the moment when the bloom left the rose. It wasn’t that long ago, 1997 I believe, and I was sitting in Midway Airport waiting to pick up my parents. I was reading Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty from beginning to end, instead of the snippets of paragraphs that I had read over the preceding years. I came on the section early on where he contrasts Cartesian rationality with what my colleague Vernon Smith calls ecological rationality. Hayek then went on to do two things that changed my mind: he extended that contrast into the contrast of the French Enlightenment and the Scottish Enlightenment, and he made a very compelling argument for Jefferson as a Cartesian rationalist who adhered more to the excessively rationalist “we can understand and coordinate the entire world through reason” approach of the French.

Since I read that chapter, I have never looked at questions involving rationality the same way.

However, if it weren’t for my youthful Jefferson fetish, I would never have read John Locke or Algernon Sidney at the impressionable age that I did.