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.

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