Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Re-Evaluating the 'Substance' of Descartes' Cogito

   A traditional reading of Descartes' Cogito is that the subject is a substance of the sort that is separate from, stands 'under' or 'alongside' cognitions (the 'seeming appearing', willing and unwilling, loving and hating, &c). A recent discussion with a friend provided an opportunity to question this traditional reading of Descartes in a novel way with relation to the 'Self' concept; it occurred to me to consider if the Cogito is better described by reference to the cognitions themselves, the very 'surface of things', to the 'seeming appearing', rather than something that stands 'under' or 'alongside' these cognitions.
   The consideration that led me to this reading involves a discussion of what I will refer to as the depth of the 'Self' concept. Different thinkers consider of the Self as having different depth, and so use the term (and some others) in different ways. I must give an account of what I mean by 'depth' here before I can continue on to the interpretation.
   I will assume for the discussion here that the term 'experience' will mean the broadest sense of experience, such that all possible contents are recognizable within it. For some thinkers' terminology, a perception is considered equal to an experience (or an experience is considered simply perception). In this way, all possible content of thought are treated as not necessarily relational external to the perception (relation would just be another thing within the perception). In this manner of speaking, the Self, thought as the perceiver, is given negatively as the container the perception. Here, the subject is given in advance (a priori), since it is the stage wherein the experience is given.
   Others, such as Kant, speak of experience as a synthesis of different perceptions, such that the subject really does not come about except through laws of the organization (synthesis) of perceptions into experience. In this case, the subject is not a ground of the perception, but a result of the synthesis of perceptions.
   When there is only one perception required for the Self, I say that there is less 'depth' (and this is not at all intended in a pejorative sense). Descartes is a thinker who seems to take the subject to be thought in a single moment, as it were, and not considered an entity synthesized in reference to cognitions. But, if there is nothing that stands outside cognitions to identify with the subject, the subject will be the cognitions themselves, related to a cognition of their relation (also in the same perception), and so here the subject is a mere thinking (thing), while still being matter (though of a cognitive, not material, sort). A 'thinking thing', then, does not need to imply an object that then thinks which is separate from cognitions, but apparently could be taken to be the cognitions themselves related by a cognition - put awkwardly, the Cogito is simply a 'thinking'.
   To clarify why I consider this reading of Descartes seriously, I will first clarify why I think that Descartes' subject/Self concept has the depth of a single perception.
   The reason that it occurs to me to say that the subject in Descartes has minimal depth is that Descartes treats the subject as requiring preservation moment to moment, where preservation is explicitly treated as equivalent to creation. If we were to be skeptics, the Self could have just been created -now- with all of its current cognitions. Descartes requires God as our creator and preserver, where God simply refers to the continuity of Descartes existences as a condition.
   Here we can already catch a glimpse of why it is incorrect to call the subject in Descartes a substance (something Descartes himself admits), since it is not self-caused, or unconditioned. Also, because the entirety of the self needs preservation we can see how the entirety of the Self must be in the momentary perception so far as it is cognizable at all.
   The argument for the necessity of the idea of God also gives some weight to reading Descartes as a 'thinking' rather than a 'thinking thing' (where thing is an underlying substance). The proof involves how all finite ideas are only possible with an infinite idea as their ground (from which the finite ideas came). Descartes is a finite idea, and he requires that ground for his origin. (I will pass over supposed problems in this argument, since the purpose here is to try to assess the character of the Self, as Descartes thinks it. I do think the difficulties here can be resolved.)
   These considerations leave me with much to consider. First of all, I am interested in how this division of terms forms a complete account, and how such a division of terms is comparable to those of other writers. Next, I consider the development of a 'moral proof' (like Kant's) to become more recognizable here. Insofar as we accept the unity and continuity of the subject we believe in God as a preserver, and, in the Fourth Meditation, insofar as we act in the world and accept the continuity in things there, we accept God as the preserver of those things as they are, and as they are given to us. Certainty, which is a condition for truth for Descartes, requires this transcendent relationship with the divine.
   The last thing that I continue to wonder about is the nature of the doubting that Descartes carries on in the start of his inquiry. Ultimately it seems that he is rejecting a world view where the objects and subject are conceived of substances that preserve themselves, rather than simply rejecting objects of experience (he explicitly maintains the certainty of the objects insofar as they are merely appearance). Descartes is not deceived by his experience, but by the world view he has inherited. Doing an exposition as he does on the real dependence of our cognitions on the transcendent, and comparing it to the messy way his contemporaries may have maintained it, can easily meet the task set in the letter to Sorbonne, where Descartes says that he will give a proof of God that atheists can accept.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Kant and Themes of Conflict in the Human Condition

   This is (yet another) attempt to broaden the thoughts one may have when considering Kant's work. The approach is to consider the work from a different perspective than simple exposition of arguments, or clarification of particulars of the system. Here I am more interested in looking at results that may have a more immediate transformational effect on how we think about ourselves. I want to lay out some tensions in the human condition that Kant's work recognizes, as well as some other tensions that are brought to the fore that aren't necessarily discussed.  These tensions are very important to me, since these are the places in Kant's work that point to where our own lives demand attention.
   If there is any wonder that Kant is interested in tension or conflict in human existence, we have only to recall the opening paragraph of the Critique of Pure Reason:
HUMAN reason has this peculiar fate that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer.

   On the tensions I will illustrate, an indefinite amount of time could be spent wrestling - even once we have a manner of speaking about them.  Just because Kant clarifies how to speak about some idea, does not mean that it no longer is to be counted among our deepest challenges.  Difficulties that are resolved by Kant discursively only let us see the challenge we face in a more personal way.  It seems that good philosophizing should help us to better confront the challenges of being who we are.

Seemingly Impossible Demands of Reason:
   This first conflict is the most noted that Kant works on, and is concerned with the limits of what Kant calls "theoretical reason".  The limits of this type of reason allow us to relieve ourself of certain approaches to questions that, while meaningful, have been burdened with an unquestioned method of pursuing their answer. Kant refers to the method that is to be avoided as 'Dogmatism'.
   When discussing theoretical reason, Kant restricts the discourse to cognitions so far as they of objects of (at least possible) experience - objects for which we have a possible (empirical) intuition.  The first Critique spends its greatest amount of time clarifying the elements of such objects of possible experience before advancing on to the limits. Once the critique clarifies the elements and limits of this experience, it presents the ideas which are problematic for reason and which make claim to the existence of certain objects - soul, World, and God - which Kant calls transcendental illusions.  These are illusions not in their being false, or fake, but only in their not being able to be given in a possible experience, yet being treated as objects of a possible experience.
   The resolution to these ideas is to clarify that we cannot know anything about them, through theoretical reason, without being able to attain an intuition that will give their object.  For theoretical reason we should not be concerned with the existence of the ideas, rather, they serve as ideas of the sum total of different minds of knowledge.  That these ideas are meaningful even without any possibility of their object being given theoretically should suggest that the scope of thought transcends merely the theoretical, however, in transcending the theoretical we cannot speak of objects as being understood in that theoretical domain, that is, as existing.

Insufficiency of Theoretical Reason
   Alongside the development of the limits of theoretical reason in the Critique of Pure Reason is also a sense of the insufficiency of this sort of reason to the concerns we have with the ideas. What the above resolved led to the realization that these ideas, while they do not have a right to, and are transcendent for, theoretical reason, they yet are of concern to us. This is exactly what the opening of the Preface to the Critique suggests.  When I am concerned with what 'I' should do, and therefore, with myself, I am not concerned with some object of possible experience, but rather with that very transcendental illusion that was denied with theoretical reason.  However, I am not concerned with it as an illusion, necessarily, and so my treatment of this object is not to be considered theoretical  - I am not asking if I can come to know my 'self' in a possible experience when I ask what ought I do.
   To raise this in a more contemporary domain: even if I were to locate, on a brain scan, my illusory idea of 'I', and were to exclaim that I had finally found the 'I', I would still directly show that I had not, for the 'I' that I identified with while doing my research was not material - is not a real thing - so I cannot find a real thing that corresponds to it without reifying the illusion and committing an error.  If we are to say that the 'I' found in the brain scan is the cause of the 'I' which I think myself to be, then it must mean the thought of it that I experience, for it certainly does not mean the idea, which we already know does not exist.  Yet we identify with the idea, and cannot avoid doing this. Maybe it is even better to say that the 'self', which is a mere idea identifies us.  While we can learn a lot from the project of discovering the 'I' in the brain, if it carried on without attending to the nature of the 'I' as an idea, is a continued project of reifying the soul that simply masquerades as a project that will show that it does not exist.  We already know that it does not 'exist', but this is precisely the problem that we mean to confront when we realize we also cannot help identifying as it. (I am confident that scientists are not so concerned with finding the 'I' in the sense of the idea, as they undoubtedly have a more sophisticated notion of the 'object' they are tracking down. Rather I am suspicious of poor journalism, and popular scientific works, which sensationalizes things in that direction.)
   With the clarification that Kant gives to theoretical reason, this problem of who we are becomes much more acute, and adds to the impulse to transition into what Kant calls "practical reason". It seems to me that this difficulty of self (which will relate to the problems with World, and God) will make it hard for us to accept the sort of beings we are, since we can't accumulate knowledge about ourselves the way we can about things. We can be in doubt about ourselves in a distinctly different way than we can with objects.

Happiness, Virtue and the Highest Good
   As the dialectical issue in Practical Reason, Kant cites the relationship between virtue and happiness and the attempts to reduce one to the other in order to bring ourselves to a state of peace concerning our conflicting demands.
   As humans, we want to be happy, but we also are called on to be good.  There is no guarantee that these two ends that we take up will contribute to each other, and often (as we see in tragedy) they are in deep conflict.  Kant criticizes the Stoics and Epicureans (in his interpretation of them) for dismissing the real character of either happiness or virtue in order to set this turmoil to rest.  I might say that these ancients are accused of saying ignorance is bliss, but each choosing a different thing to be ignorant of (there is a problem of choosing ignorance which should have us reflect once again on what the ancients really did say).
   Stoics say, for example, to remind yourself that nothing is of value itself except that we give value to it, and so we should not allow ourselves to be affected by that which is out of our control, and that this virtue of being stoic will lead to happiness.  Epicureans say the opposite, that the more we understand how to make ourselves happy we will find that being happy is the only virtue.  (There are ways of understanding these thoughts as not being in conflict, and as not necessarily conflicting with Kant, but I will pass over that here accepting Kant's interpretation for the purpose of discussing Kant's thought.)
   Kant notes that our demand to be good not guaranteeing our happiness seems an unfortunate state of affairs for mankind, but yet it may be the most fortunate, for it is in this tension that a virtuous person - one who seeks to do his duty - finds and rests in faith over the course of his pursuit for virtue and happiness.
   If we cannot truly deny either that we must do what is good, and that we will to be happy, then we are saddled with a faith that these can be brought into harmony with one another; this is what Kant calls the "Highest Good".  By accepting what we are as beings with a nature in inner conflict concerning ends (given the conditions of the world) we must despair or have faith in the suitability of our ends which we have even if we cannot guarantee that we can accomplish them.  If we despair or have faith does nothing to change our ends, and that we will seek them.

What Ought I do? and Understanding the determination of the Subject:
   Even though this goes against popular interpretation, it must be said that Kant does not decide the particulars of what we ought to do.  Kant is quite clear that he cannot decide matters for us, and neither can we decide as if it were a choice, yet this is in tension with this: that we do know what we ought to do.  There is no subtle sophistry to get around us doing what we ought to do,  and the burden is always on each individual to do what they ought to do.  This is the first tension, of actually living up to our duty and being virtuous - but there is a twist, for a tension that is opened up for me in studying Kant, which is not also treated by him directly (in my knowledge - and I am still looking).
   How we interpret a situation plays a tremendous role in what ought to be done. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that these interpretations do not neatly fall in the domain of either theoretical or practical cognition of objects.  In the Critique of (the Power of) Judgment, interpretations are due to the nature of the faculties of the subject ( see the Critique of the Teleological Judgment).  We might want to say that we encounter the objects and we tell a story about them. This is correct enough, but what allows us first to tell the story is how the objects determine us, how we are made who we are in the way in which we encounter the objects. (For a generic expression of this, see Kant's Refutation of Idealism in the first Critique, which seems to concern what Kant would call reflective judgment.) So, how is the subject determined?  In what ways is the subjects determined?  The third Critique deals with some of the beginning elements of this search.
   We already have experience that includes our interpretation, and this is a condition on us pursuing (loving) wisdom to begin with.  This concern with what I am loosely calling "the interpretation"  calls everything that was clarified before into question once again.  It does not upset, or "disprove", or reject anything, but it just demands that we look back at the whole understandingly, and with an interest in understanding better.
   Considering this question with reference to some later thinkers may be helpful as well. Heidegger spends a great deal of effort asking about questions of the determination of the subject, by language, by technology, &c. The question is not about what 'causes' the subject, as it were, but what first lets the subjects be what it is by means of what I was calling a reflective judgment (Kant's terminology). Looking back, as well, Plato's thought of forms and participation probably holds an important key for this as well. (Certainly much of the rest of the history of Philosophy can enlighten us as well, but I mention here only what I am most familiar with.)

*      *      *

   I have restricted myself to developing concerns that are found in the three Critiques, but there are many more dark places that have had light shown on them by Kant, and that call on us to shine our lamps on them ourselves.