Commentary on Political Economy

Monday, 22 June 2020


We are fast approaching the question of the Beginning. This question is vital to our understanding of freedom as the ability to create – ex nihilo, if you like – the world that surrounds us out of our action. The resolution of this question involves, as we also intimated earlier, a consideration of the nature of Being (ontology) and existence (deontology or, broadly speaking, ethics).  As we saw at the inception of our exposition, there are two very different biblical accounts of the beginning of our life-world: one is in the Old Testament and the other in the New Testament. The first begins with the account in Genesis of how God created the universe – it is a cosmogony. The second, to be found in the Gospel according to St. John, is epistemological in that it cites the Logos, the Word, as being the beginning. To these two different accounts of or approaches to the beginning and freedom there correspond two distinctions which, if they are justifiable from a logico-conceptual viewpoint, do not correspond to their effectual existence in reality, in practico-empirical terms.

The first distinction we shall examine here concerns the epistemological beginning related by St. John in the New Testament and it relates to the apory between sense-data, of one part, and on our categorization of them by the intellect, of the other. The second distinction concerns the cosmogonic apory between Uncreated and Created Being and the consequent conundrum of the First Cause or First Mover and the subsequent effects. Again, although there may be a logico-conceptual reason behind this distinction, we shall show that in practico-empirical reality there is no basis for this apory to exist. We shall treat this second distinction later. To dig deeper in our exploration of these matters, then, let us first continue with the account of Duns Scotus’s thought which was to have a profound influence on modern Western philosophy, and particularly on Heidegger’s own philosophical anthropology.

The distinction between analytic or deductive formal logic and practical logic (logica practica) to be found first in the works by Duns Scotus is perhaps of fundamental importance to the development of modern European philosophy because it sets apart for clarification two aspects of human activity whose interpretation or comprehension is vital to the theorization of our life-world. On one side is the complex relationship between subjective human perception and the so-called objective world. This is the world of immanence that concerns what Scotus called “the natural intellect”, known otherwise as understanding or intellect or instrumental reason. On the other side, instead, is the ability of the human intellect to project itself onto, or to comprehend and transcend, the totality of our perception of this life-world – what is known as Reason or Mind or Spirit or Soul: this is the sphere of transcendence. The usual meaning assigned to logic is that of deductive logic whereby an unassailable, self-evident conclusion is drawn from given premises which cannot be contradicted if the premises are admitted to be true. But Scotus distinguishes between conclusions that are derived from purely theoretical premises and those that are garnered from empirical ones. By drawing this all-important distinction – similar in effect to Kant’s division of a priori statements into analytic and synthetic -, Scotus allows a focus to be aimed at the nature of human knowledge in the natural sciences, on one side, and metaphysical or transcendental speculation, on the other.

Scot, de même que saint Thomas, distingue la logique formelle et la logique pratique 2 (uno modo in quantum est docens, alio modo in quantum utimur ea) et pour tous les deux, la première seule est une science, la se- conde n'est qu'un art. La première est la théorie de la démonstration menant à une conclusion nécessaire 3 ; l'autre, l'art de la discussion qui se sert de raisons plausibles à défaut d'évidences qui s'imposent. Nous trouverions la première dans les Analytiques d'Aristote, la seconde dans les Topiques. (p.37)

But in the absence of unassailable deductions to establish the validity of empirical conclusions, how is it possible for human beings to draw any such practical conclusions from the mere exercise of their sense perceptions? Here epistemology is divided into two camps – that of skepticism, according to which no knowledge is possible because we can have no real perception of things in themselves, and that of empiricism which says that all our perceptions are true and need to be reconciled among themselves. Yet, both camps seem to rely on the ability of sense perception to draw inferences or inductions from mere sense data or representations. The problem is that human beings have, apart from the sense organs, also an innate ability to judge or to weigh and order the data that the senses procure. This ability was known to St. Thomas Aquinas as sensus communis but later became known as the understanding or intellect. The question still remained open, however, of whether this sensus communis was exercised solely on the data collected passively by the human senses from “external”, “real” objects, or whether indeed the sense perceptions and the intellect combine actively to assimilate these data at least in such a way that it is impossible or non-sensical to distinguish between “raw” or “pure” sense-data and filtered or schematized sensations.

La sensation elle-même est considérée par Duns Scot comme une sorte d'activité 1 ; selon lui, le sujet de la sensation subit sans doute une influence, mais son état n'est pas cette complète passivité qui est le contraire de la véritable activité causatrice. En effet l'antécédent de toute sensation est une modification d'un organe, une espèce imprimée sur l'organe : or, remarque Scot, cette modification peut avoir lieu sans que la sensation se produise, lorsque, l'organe étant intact, l'activité de l’àme est ou suspendue ou tournée d'un autre côté 2 : pour sentir, il faut donc que l'àme coopère avec la cause qui agit sur les organes. Saint Thomas, plus près d'Aristote, avait au contraire regardé les sens comme des puissances purement passives 3 (p.42)

This is a philosophical intuition on the part of Scotus of inestimable importance. The overriding position of all human reflection on the epistemological status of human experience had always been that the human senses merely per-ceive – that is to say, passively re-ceive – data that is emanated from “external” objects which are then, in a second and separate moment, interpreted by the intellect so as to establish relations of cause and effect between these perceptions that are objectively, scientifically and therefore “universally valid” or “true”. What Scotus is asserting here, instead, is that the human senses do not merely passively perceive sensations emanating from “external” objects that are entirely independent of the human senses or “real” (“thing-like”, from Lt. res, thing). On the contrary, for Scotus, the senses and the intellect are indistinguishable to the degree that they co-operate actively to shape or form the “object” that we presume they perceive. Sure enough, Scotus still distinguishes logically between the function of perception by separate human organs and the function of “apperception”, of “ordering” of these perceptions by the intellect or understanding (Verstand, as against Vernunft):

« L'intellect, dit Scot, a des opérations propres ', qui le distinguent de la puissance sensitive: ces opérations sont la conception de l'universel, l'analyse el la synthèse, le raisonnement. » C'est donc par lui que nous avons les notions des genres et des espèces, et que nous connaissons les principes nécessaires et l'enchaînement des vérités. (p.50)

But the fact remains that for Scotus the two “functions” – that of the sensory organs for one and that of the intellect for another – simply and resolutely cannot be separated or distinguished in practical reality!

Otez les sens, nous ne connaissons plus rien, si ce n'est peut-être notre seule existence 2 , connaissance stérile d'où aucune science ne sortira 3 . Otez l'intellect, nous sentons encore les objets corporels comme l'animal, mais nons n'en avons plus une véritable connaissance.(p.51)

In other words, the human senses, deprived of the intellect, could never allow us to develop scientific knowledge; and, on the other side, the intellect, without the aid of the senses, could never establish any experience except the fact that we think! Indeed, we shall argue presently that even the awareness of thinking – reflection – is itself a physical perception dependent on the materiality of thoughts and the ability of the intellect to think about thinking! In any case, and this is the epitome of Scotus’s sublime intuition, sensations and intellect are quite simply indistinguishable and in-scindible one from the other as a matter of practical reality!

C'est parce que nos sensations sont mêlées de jugement qu'il faut dire que notre intellect coopère avec notre faculté de sentir. « Savoir, dit Scot, c'est percevoir la vérité d'une chose; tel n'est pas le rôle du sens, mais seulement de la raison *. » Et si c'est le rôle de la raison ou de l'intellect de reconnaître la vérité en général, c'est encore par l'intellect et non par la sensation, que nous sommes certains des vérités les plus particulières, comme : cet objet est telle chose, cet homme n'est pas une pierre 2 .(p.52)

The distinction we make between the particular organ that perceives and the deciphering of the sense data that the organ transmits to the brain may be valid in a logical sense; but it is simply inadequate and misleading when we consider that there is no intellect without the data from sensual organs and there are no sensual data separate from the intellect. The act of perceiving and the act of deciphering what is perceived are one and the same transaction, one and the same activity! It is literally a non-sense to believe that sense data have any meaning for human beings without their simultaneous deciphering or interpretation by the intellect! The two “functions” quite simply cannot be separated in fact, except through an excess of ana-lytical reflection (that is, separation through hindsight).

Puisque l'intellect intervient dans les sensations pour décider ce qu'elles contiennent de certain, on doit donc dire qu'il connaît directement des choses particulières. « De grands hommes, » dit Scot, se sont trompés, en ne donnant à l'intellect pour objet direct de connaissance que l'universel dégagé de l'espèce sensible, et en se bornant à répéter, après Aristote, que le particulier est connu par les sens: déjà dans cette prise de possession du particulier, l'intellect mêle son opération à celle des sens, et l'àme y est tout entière.(p.53)

Put differently, it is not that the senses are seized upon by the external objects (the particular, the appearances) and the intellect grasps or extracts the universal from these particular appearances (Erscheinungen) or “representations” (Vorstellungen) as (instrumental) reason. Rather, the two functions quite simply cannot be distinguished except “logically” – that is, as a requirement of the intellect that may very well be a ruse of reason itself!

It is possible to argue that, at least in some respects, Scotus’s position regarding epistemology improves on that of Kant in the First Critique from an immanentist standpoint. Kant himself obviously had profound doubts as to the proper exposition of the subject-object relationship. Indeed, the account he gives of the relationship between sensation and judgement in the first edition of the Critique is markedly different from, if not contradictory with, that he gave in the amended introduction to the second edition of his magnum opus. Let us start with the First Edition:

Experience is without doubt the first product [Produkt] that our intellect brings forward.

But then, in the Second Edition we find this:

That our knowledge begins with experience is a fact not to be doubted.

Given that these two very different versions are the very first sentence of the two editions of the Critique of Pure Reason, the importance of settling these divergent – again, possibly contradictory accounts – in what is the greatest work of philosophy since Plato cannot be overstated. Here is the crux of the question: in the first edition of 1781, Kant expressly states that experience, that is perception or sensation, is a “product” of our intellect. This position is very close to that of Scotus as we have summarized it above. Yet, the second edition of 1787 does not mention the intellect as “bringing forward” or pro-ducing experience: instead, it begins with experience and pro-duces knowledge [Er-kenntnis]. It is experience that produces knowledge as filtered or schematized by the intellect here, whereas in the first edition it was the intellect that produced, not knowledge, but experience, that is to say, sensation and perception themselves! Thus, whereas in the second edition our experience, which is necessarily a passive re-ception or per-ception of an external ob-ject – in German, Gegen-stand, something that literally stands against and “outside” our sensory organs – is prior to our schematized knowledge being gathered or filtered through this original inchoate “experience”, in the first edition it is the intellect that directly and actively produces - brings or calls forward, evokes - our experience! The difference between these two accounts could not be starker!

Of course, throughout his work, Kant had always stressed the concomitance or co-operation of the intellect and of sensation in the formation of human knowledge. As he put it, concepts are empty without intuition; and intuition is blind without concepts. Both emptiness and blindness imply materiality, perception, sense. But what Kant failed to see is that the logico-conceptual separation of intellectual and perceptive functions does not at all necessitate their separation in practical and empirical or experiential reality! Furthermore, and this is the essential point, the fact that it is the human intellect that produces experience does not mean at all that therefore our knowledge is “subjective”! To qualify human knowledge as “subjective” would entail the presence or possibility of “objective knowledge”, that is to say of a knowledge and indeed a “re-ality” – a world of things – external and separate from our own being and intellect – and this is precisely what our immanentism resolutely denies!

This is the basis of Heidegger’s critical reading of Kant’s transcendental idealism in his Kantbuch. In essence, the philosopher from Freiburg decries the failure of his august predecessor from Konigsberg to seize the existential implications of his critique of pure reason by opening to the ontological finitude of the transcendental imagination as the schematic ‘screen’ of sensibility. Kant’s aesthetic remains transcendental and falls short of its claimed status as critical idealism.  (A similar exegesis of Kant’s Aesthetic is in Cacciari, Dell’Inizio, ch.2.) This unity of apperception, which seemingly dissolves the Object (as Gegen-stand) in the very act of perception, is fatally disjointed by Kant, however, due to the rigid mechanicity of his Schematismus.  As Schopenhauer and Nietzsche established, it was Kant’s attempt to rescue the Divine or “faith”, as he called it, in extremis that led him to construct his critical idealist edifice! By limiting the scope of metaphysics to the realm beyond “mere appearances” (blosse Erscheinungen), the realm of “things-in-themselves” and noumena or qualitates occultae, as Schopenhauer later styled them, Kant preserved the reality of the noumenon and the Thing-in-Itself, by projecting their rational or intelligible necessity. Conversely, by limiting the scope of human scientific knowledge to the realm of experience and intellect (understood as instrumental reason, Verstand, not as Pure Reason, Vernunft), again Kant preserved the necessity of Pure Reason and of faith as the human intellectual, logical, conceptual requirement to project beyond the sphere or ambit of experience. Human Reason must project the existence of an Object that is otherwise beyond the reach of the human senses. And the consciousness of Reason, its perfection, presupposes the projection of the Deity. Kant had to deny or curtail revelation and metaphysics and knowledge in order to preserve faith.

Interestingly, Scotus agrees with Kant at least in this regard – that the “natural intellect” is confined to the realm of experience and necessitates the complementary sphere of Reason as something that from the experience of beings projects itself to at least the possibility – not the necessity, for Scotus – of Uncreated Being or First Cause or the Divinity. We shall deal with this second aspect of Beginning – the cosmological beginning of the Old Testament – in our next section.

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