Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 31 August 2018

Descartes's World - Part 2

Descartes’s rational idealism inaugurates a long season of Western thought in which the separation (chorismos) of Subject and Object, of Reason and Nature, comes to occupy a quintessential role in the development of bourgeois industrial capitalist society. In their essence, the cogito and the ontological proof epitomize the philosophical and political “method” that sets the nascent bourgeoisie and its manufacturing industry off to domination over and ultimate destruction of the ecosphere. By hypostatizing its transcendental role in the lifeworld in antinomic opposition to Nature, Descartes elevates Reason to the instrumental mastery of a prostrate Nature likened to a maze of physical-mathematical “laws” destined to be manipulated and subjugated by the human mathesis universalis and its Scientia inveniendi.

In his exposition of the ontological argument and of the cogito, Descartes confuses two kinds of “existence”, one ideal and the other physical. Just like the idea of God, the notion of a triangle “exists” in thought as a universal; but it does not exist physically in the way a particular triangle or a depiction of God can (say, in a painting). What exists is the cerebral activity that enables the thought of a God and that of a triangle – and the particular triangular shapes and depictions of God that we encounter in the world which can never be equated with that cerebral activity. It is not that thought can be reduced to cerebral activity: but neither can cerebral activity be sublimated to ideal or divine existence! The two forms of existence simply cannot be homologated – they are heterogeneous – because no human activity or thought can com-prehend the entire world! Physical objects and our idea of them “exist” in two very different, yet equally “material” ways: Descartes wrongly deduces physical existence from the mere “idea” of God as perfect Being just as he had earlier wrongly deduced the existence of an Ego or self from the mere act of thinking because his metaphysics wrongly opposes thought and matter by wrongly defining them.

This metaphysical prejudice, this chorismos is by no means confined to Descartes because it dates from the dawn of philosophy in pre-Socratic Greece. Indeed, by categorically separating thought and matter and hypostatizing the purity and perfection of thought, Descartes turns his rationalism into an eschatology in that the entirety of human existence and the world is pre-destined. In such a world, of course, no freedom is possible, no creative activity is imaginable – which raises the question of how Descartes and all the theoreticians of the mathesis universalis, the readers of the “great book” of divine creation (Leonardo, Galileo, Descartes himself), could ever envisage that their own scientific activity was even possible! To be conscious of a reality, however binding, is already to pose the possibility of being free from that reality, of being able to act upon it not just by trans-forming it but rather by trans-crescing it – indeed, by trans-scending it not in a “spiritual” or “idealistic” sense, but rather by considering that all “reality” is always and everywhere a human convention, a human construction. Quite surprisingly, it will be Descartes’s great contemporary critic, Thomas Hobbes, who will inaugurate this line of thought – running through Schopenhauer and Nietzsche to Mach and Wittgenstein – which combines the conventionality of science with the hypothesis of possessive individualism to arrive at a uniquely pessimistic view of human existence. For Descartes and the earlier rationalists, instead, the future of humanity, already pre-destined in the great book of eternal divine laws, could not but be optimistic – indeed, as we have argued, eschatological even in an Augustinian if not Leibnizian sense.

For Descartes, however, the only options to escape the evident antinomy between the self and the world, between individual and cosmos, and the deadening determinism of his geometric science,  were either to hypothesize a mechanical correspondence between the two opposing dimensions of mind and matter, a’ la Leibniz (the windowless monads) – or else to exasperate the original idealism of the cogito so as to amplify and deepen its scope as a generator of productive knowledge and activity. This latter option is precisely what Descartes proceeded to expound in the Meditations and then most explicitly in the Principia Philosophiae. (On all this, Negri, op.cit., chpts.3 and 4.)

When thought closely reviews the different ideas and notions it has within itself, and it finds that of an omniscient, omnipotent and extremely perfect being, it easily judges, from what it perceives in this idea, that God, which is the extremely perfect being, is or exists. For, even if thought possesses distinct ideas of many other things, it does not observe in them anything that assures it as to the existence of their object; while in this one it perceives not only, as in others, a possible existence, but an absolutely necessary and eternal existence.

As in the Meditations, Descartes starts from the ability of the intellect to conceive of simple abstract notions from which logico-mathematical conclusions may be deduced. But here there is a subtle shift from the earlier work: here the priority and emphasis is no longer on the cogito, that is, on the deduction of the existence of the self from the act of thinking  – I think, therefore I am. Here, instead, it is the ability of the intellect to deduce God’s existence from the thought of divine perfection that marks the separation of human reason from the world. But whereas earlier, as we demonstrated above, this chorismos of the mind leaves it entirely “withdrawn” from the world – and therefore capable only of obtaining formal and passive knowledge of it through the mathesis - to understand but not to change or transform it -; this time Descartes introduces a new ability to human intuition and deduction by quite drastically allowing the possibility of error - and therefore also the ability to comprehend the world actively, scientifically, practically, productively! Thus, Descartes at once elevates Reason from the sphere of self-consciousness to that of divine participation (methexis), but then, simultaneously, he seeks to reduce the distance of the human intellect, its separation (chorismos) from the world, by highlighting its ability to fall into error!

For the first time in Cartesian philosophy, we have the simultaneous ability of the mind to mount the heights of perfection and to plumb the depths of nothingness, - an ability that seals the positioning of human knowledge between perfection and imperfection, between knowledge and error. Not only: the possibility of error allows Descartes also to allow for the intromission of Evil in the world – evil understood not as diabolical action but rather as the existence of freedom, of free choice, and therefore of ethics and morality. (On this Schellingian conception of Evil, see Zizek.)

Two forms of existence, then: the divine existence which is “absolutely necessary and eternal”, on one side, and then that of “many other things”, which is only “possible”. The self-same intellect that can intuit the idea of God with certainty and then deduce His existence from this intuition – that very same intellect also “possesses distinct ideas of many other things” about which it can draw deductions that may be in error. But how can the intellect at once know and not know, be able to learn scientifically, and still be capable of error? Descartes attributes human fallibility to the faculty of the will – the conatus that urges the intellect to overleap the boundaries of knowledge – and therefore to err. But a will, a conatus, an appetitus, is a drive that exits the sphere of the intellect to enter that of the senses. Of course, none of this serves effectively to bridge the hiatus irrationalis between intellect and world: all that can be said is that at least Descartes has allowed for the possibility of the immersion of the intellect in the world.

Further to this, the above quotation renders explicit Descartes’s  second necessary ingredient for the development of a productive epistemology through the distinction between intuition and deduction (which Joachim had deemed “crude”). In the sequel to the pivotal paragraph quoted above lies the proof:

And just as, by seeing necessarily in its idea of the triangle that its three angles are equal to two right angles, it [thought] absolutely convinces itself [of this conclusion]…, so it is that simply by seeing that necessary and eternal existence is contained in the idea that it has of the extremely perfect Being, it must conclude that this extremely perfect Being is or exists.

Yes. As Joachim argues, the deduction of the equality or congruence of the internal juxtaposition of the three angles in all triangles is necessarily contained in the idea of a triangle. But the idea of a triangle is quite distinct as intuition from all the deductions that may follow (necessarily, as tautologies) from the idea!

I am taking the word ‘idea’ to refer to whatever is immediately (m.e.) perceived by the mind (Descartes, Third Meditation)

Thus, whereas intuition is “immediate”, deduction – as the word itself suggests, “to lead from” – is mediate. Joachim fails to see this crucial distinction. Crucial, because it leads us to the next extrinsication of Descartes’s “reasonable ideology”. It is only on the basis of this distinction between intuition and deduction that Descartes’s ontology can be turned from a pure “scientific knowledge” of the world as an inalterable, unchangeable, strictly determined reality into a productive epistemology, into a practical science through which the world becomes susceptible to transformation by the human will. The intuition of an idea can never be wrong or false – but a deduction from it can, if it is carried out incorrectly! To be sure, Descartes’s understanding of deduction – as “logical”, and therefore necessarily tautological – does not remove the antinomy of thought and world, of essence and existence. But here Descartes has deviated from his own epistemological schema and, following Bacon and anticipating Hume, is now allowing for empirical induction in scientific research as well as, anticipating Kant, for the drawing of synthetic a priori statements in the establishment of “scientific laws”.

Taken to extremes, in its detailed specification of the various faculties of the Ego (intuition, deduction, intellect, imagination and memory, then the senses), Descartes’s metaphysics which, from the outset, anticipates Kant’s critical idealism (whence the keen interest of neo-Kantians like Cassirer in Descartes) ends up being a pale replica of Berkeley’s subjective idealism in which all reality exists in the mind of God – esse est percipi. But Descartes never goes to such extreme lengths: his metaphysics always seeks to reconcile (antinomically) the ideal and the real. Regardless, this fresh schism between intellect and will proposed in the Principia, this further splitting of the faculties of the Ego, cannot assist Descartes in determining the extent to which the will is operative in its pursuit of worldly objects; nor does the will, a mental faculty, resolve the fundamental antinomy between the Subject and the Object. Cartesian idealism is unable to set out the boundaries of human knowledge (in epistemology) and the content of the entities involved (in ontology), the intellectus and the voluntas or conatus. Yet clearly here we have a definite shift from the metaphysical-deductive method of the earlier writings to a physical-inductive one, much closer to the mechanicist materialism of Hobbes. (The all-important differentiation between Cartesian idealism and Hobbesian materialism will be canvassed in our next study.)

Descartes’s novel, if belated, hypothesis admits of the freedom of the human will, however inconsistently, by mimicking the omnipotent will of God. This “erring” of reason into the world (Latin, errare, means also “to roam”), spurred on by the will, is certainly a passive process of re-searching the world – what Descartes calls “knowledge” or scientia, or the vera mathesis. But it is also a process of recovery of the world through dis-covery, through invention (the Cartesian Scientia inveniendi) – it is the reconquest of Truth. Again, however contradictory this might be in view of Descartes’s antinomic idealism, there can be no doubting his belief in the ability of science to reconstruct the world, to lead humanity a defecto ad perfectionem (see Negri, op.cit., pp.296 ff.).

Even the ubiquitous mechanicism of Descartes’s earlier method regarding the ontological status of Nature vis-à-vis Reason and the Soul takes a different metaphorical turn in the Principia. Here, in the Preface Letter, Descartes outlines a view of the sciences that quite evidently seeks to bridge the earlier categorical schism between metaphysics and the natural sciences:

The first part of philosophy is metaphysics, which contains the principles of knowledge, including the explanation of the principal attributes of God, the non-material nature of our souls and all the clear and distinct notions which are in us. The second part is physics, where, after discovering the true principles of material things, we examine the general composition of the entire universe….Next we need to examine individually the nature of plants, of animals, and, above all, of man, so that we may be capable later on of discovering the other sciences which are beneficial to man. Thus the whole of philosophy is like a tree. The roots are metaphysics, the trunk is physics, and the branches emerging from the trunk are all the other sciences, which may be reduced to three principal ones, namely medicine, mechanics and morals.”

Unlike a mechanical metaphor – likening, for example, science to a house whose foundations are metaphysics, pillars are physics, and so on -, the adoption of a metaphorical tree to describe the various stages of human knowledge does a number of things that Descartes had not attempted or allowed earlier: (i) science is no longer relegated to the logico-mathematical faculties of humans, to the intellect; (ii) science has a physis, an organic structure that is biologically as well as historically connected; (iii) science has practical aspects – technologies - that can transform human reality and the world; (iv) therefore, science allows for freedom and free choice, free will. Yet again, Descartes’s confusion and ambivalence on these matters is evinced by his listing of “morals” amongst the sciences, implying thereby that moral action may itself be founded scientifically! Needless to say, the apories in this stylization of knowledge and scientific research are everywhere to be seen. Above all, it is “the non-material nature of the soul” and the dichotomy between “appearance” and “reality” that epitomizes those “antinomies of bourgeois thought” [Lukacs] that have been the universal bane of Western theory and practice since Descartes. Again, these will be canvassed in the next part of this study.

Of course, this “tree of knowledge” (arbor scientiarum) metaphor is still intimately tied with the universal mathesis scientific movement that dates back to Lull and Bruno and then continues to Descartes and Hobbes, as Rossi explains here: -

The term clavis universalis  [universal key]was used in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to designate a method or general science which would enable man to see beyond the veil of phenomenal appearances, or the 'shadows of ideas', and grasp the ideal and essential structure of reality. Deciphering the alphabet of the world; reading the signs imprinted by the divine mind in the book of nature; discovering the correspondence between the original forms of the universe and the structures of human thought; constructing a perfect language capable of eliminating all equivocations and putting us in direct contact with things and essences rather than signs; the construction of total encyclopaedias and ordered classifications which would be the true 'mirrors' of cosmic harmony — these were the objectives of the numerous defenders, apologists and expositors of Lullism and artificial memory between the fourteenth and seventeenth cen- turies….
An instrument designed with practical rhetorical puposes in mind becomes (after the encounter with the
xviii Logic and the Art of Memory
Lullist tradition) a search for a 'code' which would allow one to penetrate into the innermost secrets of reality, and to infinitely extend man's potential. Ramus, Bacon and Descartes also profoundly changed the meanings of traditional problems when they included the doctrines of artificial memory within the framework of a doctrine of ‘method' or logic, or made use of the idea of the 'chain' (catena) or 'tree of the sciences' (arbor scientiarum). The artificial memory of the ancients (driven by new imperatives and profoundly transfigured) entered into modern logic, bringing with it the themes of ‘universal language' and 'general' or 'primary' science. (P. Rossi, Logica e Memoria)
Once more, the inescapable apory of the mathesis universalis is that, if the universe is strictly determined, then any scientific effort to discover its “language” must be an intrinsic part of this deterministic mathesis – which renders scientific research strictly paradoxical in the sense that “science” is unable to understand itself as “science”, as “free” historical human activity! The difficulty is that science has a history: in other words, far from revealing “universal laws”, scientific research and conventions are products of human choices – contradicting the deterministic universalist claims of the mathesis! Furthermore, as a corollary, the very distinction between “reality” and “appearance” only serves to make untenable the assumption of an “ultimate reality” or a Kantian “thing-in-itself” that lies “behind” the appearances. Indeed, it was the dogmatic dismissal of scientific empirical induction as reliant on mere phenomena, on the sphere of “appearances, that first excited and incited the revolt against Scholasticism beginning with Bacon, Descartes and Hobbes.

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