Monday, November 12, 2012

Cartesian Doubt as Doubt of the Subjective

   When Descartes exerts his capacity to doubt, we see him capable of doubting all manner of objects.  However, Descartes fails to doubt the subject (Ego), which saves his project from its death spiral.  I intend to explore Cartesian doubt as being better understood as doubting the subjective, rather than the objective; in order to do this I will first articulate what I mean by subjective and objective, and then show how Descartes' thought should be seen in light of this, and how our considerations of Descartes may benefit from a new kind of emphasis on the subjective.
   When I speak of the objective, I mean whatever is said of objects, while when I say subjective I mean whatever is said of the subject.  So, if I say, "that car is red", I am saying something objective, whereas if I say, "I am cold", or, "that car is Red, for me", I am saying something subjective.  Often we use 'subjective' exclusively in relation to a bias of a subject, so that if someone says, "that cake is tasty", we would realize it may not be tasty for everyone, and so we would say that the statement is subjective.  I want to say that this statement was objective, since it pertains to the cake, not the subject, however, it should have been said, "this cake is tasty, for me".
   We often express ourselves objectively when we mean it subjectively, as we saw with the cake.  I realize this is pedantic, but I want to be as clear as possible since I will be holding myself to this in discussing Descartes. Strictly speaking, all speaking in a subjective mode is rather an objective mode: the subjective cannot truly be communicated, for this would mean actually transmitting the state of the subject.  If this were possible, reporting, "I am cold", would make others cold.
   Now I ask, when Descartes doubts objects what does he accomplish? The passive cognitions of perceptions and understanding of the objects are unaffected; the cup is still experienced as a cup just as it was before the doubting.  What difference is made by doubting?
   Because doubt does not affect my passive cognitions, but instead my active ones, I should consider how my active cognitions relate to the cup.  As active, I am a willing or unwilling being.  This suggests that my doubt of the cup just pertains to my attitude towards possible activity with the cup.  We can see here a hint that my doubt of the cup is a doubt of my capacity to effect something, and not of some property the cup possesses.
   More general than our activity with the cup seems our doubt of its existence.  What does doubting the existence of the cup mean?  Something vague like, there appears to be a cup, but there is really no cup?  If we are considering if the cup is a mirage or dream, then we attribute to the appearance of a cup the status of something which is not a cup.  This sort of attribution to the cup is objective, since it pertains to an understanding of the cup.
   While there is a sense of 'doubting' in taking the cup to be a mirage, it should still be described not as a doubt of the thing, since we doubt how we first understood it, but this is still ultimately a doubt of the subject.  We are doubting how the cup which appears to us is understood by us, then changing our assessment of the object to a mirage or dream; in this new understanding of the object, which is positive, we once again just have our own abstinence from activity with the object, such that we see the difference between the non-mirage and mirage is set by actions (not passions).
   In brief: if we do not simply doubt the cup as understood by us, but are concerned that the appearance of the cup is an appearance of something, but not how that something really is, then we are not concerned with any passive element of our cognition, since these are exhausted entirely on the appearance, but instead are concerned about acting.
   There are some benefits afforded by this emphasis on the subjective in reading Descartes: first, it clarifies what doubt consists in; second, we can get a sense of the passive and active elements of cognition insofar as they have an impact on the discovery of certainty of Ego; third, we can clarify the discovery of certainty in the Ego by noting that all sorts of activities were able to be abstained from save for the activity of cognizing (doubt itself is active cognizing); fourth, we can clarify what existence means by clarifying what it means to be able to doubt or not doubt it (perhaps this will help us understand the proof of God in the third meditation).
   We also find ourselves with some new murky elements in Descartes ripe for exploring, such as, what is the relation between the active and passive elements of cognition, and how are they bound together as one Ego? This union of action and passion may also help clarify the more central role that the will develops in the fourth meditation which I have discussed before.  I hope to investigate this soon. 
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