Monday, October 27, 2008

The Cartesian School of Driving

Descartes, you know (or maybe you knew once, but it hasn't come up recently), is the philosopher who brought us deductive reasoning. Deductive reasoning goes from the theoretical and abstract (Do I exist? Am I the green car?) to the concrete (I think, so I must exist; I'm looking out the windshield at the green car, so I must not be the green car). Inductive reasoning, which the English came up with, goes the other way round, from concrete observation to theory. I'm looking at the green car; that I can see the green car suggests that I must not be the green car; therefore, there must be something funny about my translation.

Now, we in the New World proceed from the concrete to the theoretical. We are inductive thinkers; that's why our politicians keep talking about individuals that they meet on the campaign trail. We go from the specific to the general. Here in France, the land of Descartes, it's the other way round. Politicians have (what seem to us absurdly) lofty conversations about the idea of the Republic but almost never talk about the plombier they met in Nantes.

That's part of the reason, I think, that the driving test is as difficult as it is. It's not just the language (though God knows there's that too): it's the logic behind the questions. There are a set of governing principles (traffic entering from the right has priority; always drive in the right lane) applied, over and over again, to concrete instances. And the answer is always to stick to the principle.

For example: you are at the wheel of a car, driving in the left-most lane on a highway. There is no other traffic. The question: Are you bien placé, are you in the correct lane?

The first time I came to this question I looked at the photograph for a long time. There were no lane markers suggesting that my lane was about to end. I was not in anyone's way. I shrugged and said, Yes. There didn't seem to be anything wrong with being in that lane at that moment.

Non, Madame Marron, ça n'est pas ça! came the response. The left lane is always only for passing. You are never bien placé when not in the right-most lane. It is the guiding principle that holds sway, not the concrete instance. Even if everyone else in France were en vacances on the Côte d'Azur, sitting on the beach and eating fresh sea urchins, and there were no other voitures even turned on, you would still not be bien placé if you were in the left-most lane.

So now that's how I try to think about the questions: instead of looking at the situation specifically, I try to find the principle that could be applied to the situation. Most of the time it works. Who knew that studying the history of French philosophy would have such a practical application.