Descartes's World - Ideological Origins of Bourgeois Individualism and Formalism
Et si j'écris en français, qui est la langue de mon pays, plutôt qu'en latin, qui est celle de mes précepteurs, c'est à cause que j'espère que ceux qui ne se servent que de leur raison naturelle toute pure jugeront mieux de mes opinions que ceux qui ne croient qu'aux livres anciens; et, pour ceux qui joignent le bon sens avec l'étude, lesquels seuls je souhaite pour mes juges, ils ne seront point, je m'assure, si partiaux pour le latin qu'ils refusent d'entendre mes raisons pour ce que je les explique en langue vulgaire.
At the very end of the Discourse on Method, Descartes offers a stark choice to his readers, pitting “those who use nothing more than their entirely pure natural reason”, on one side, and “those who believe only in the ancient books [written in Latin]”. It is quite obvious that Descartes is addressing two different and conflicting social strata – one French-speaking and urban-industrial, and the other clerical and theocratic or royalist. This is as clear an intimation of the growing socio-political and economic divide and conflict between the rising capitalist bourgeoisie and the declining feudal aristocracy. A stark contrasting chiasm, then, between those readers who prefer “the vulgar language” (French) and who therefore are more likely to utilize their “purest natural reason” (earlier in the Discourse and further in this paragraph, Descartes calls it merely “bon sens” [good sense]), and, on the other side, those readers who prefer Latin and therefore are less likely to exercise their purest natural reason or good sense.
Here, in embryo, we can find encapsulated all the major themes of the Cartesian worldview – one that reflects the emergence of the Northern European bourgeoisie and simultaneously outlines its project for future world domination. Analysis on one side, and – at the same time – production. Knowledge – the passive comprehension of the world as it stands – turns immediately into power – the active reconstruction, production and domination of the world. On the other, opposing side, stands the political orthodoxy to be overcome – that of the ancient books, written in Latin. These are the basic elements of the Cartesian pro-ject: - not just “scientific”, but clearly and explicitly political, whether Descartes was aware of this political component or not. (The essential reference here is to A. Negri, The Political Descartes.)
Descartes here also draws attention, again without being aware of it, to the intimate link between the use of language and the picture that we form of reality: - to the way in which what we call “reality” is shaped entirely by the language we adopt to describe that “reality” – and therefore to the fact that “reality” is not a “thing”, an “out there”, but rather a way of being, a praxis. It is emphatically not the case that Descartes even remotely sees the dependence of all notions of “reality” on its social construction – through language, symbols, values (as did Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, for instance - cf. Wittgenstein’s likening of language to a pair of spectacles - not through which we “filter” an objective reality, but rather by means of which we shape our reality! ). The French philosopher is simply reasserting the fact that languages ether illuminate or distort the one and only “objective reality” to varying degrees. (The dramatic importance of this epochal change in language for the development of Renaissance science and humanism is valiantly stressed by E. Cassirer in Individual and Cosmos.)
For Descartes, then, (a) there exists only one true, objective Reality that is independent of human action; and (b) there exists ultimately only one true objective “language” (logico-mathematics) that offers a clavis universalis (a universal key) with which to access that Reality. (Cf. P. Rossi, Logic and the Art of Memory [original title: Clavis Universalis].) Here Descartes is entirely oblivious of the fact that what we call “reality” is indeed what we do: our view of what is real depends entirely on what we do – a view that will soon after be encapsulated in Vico’s verum ipsum factum. Reality is made up of two separate entities: - first, the material substratum that constitutes Reality itself, and second the “laws” that relate, that tie together to one another the material components of this substratum (its elements [Aristotle] or atoms [Democritus]) and that constitute this Reality. For Descartes, the ultimate scientific language is one that is entirely congruent with these “laws”. It is the search for the exact correspondence or adequation of these two entities – atoms and laws - that constitutes “science” for Descartes. The aim of science therefore is to discover the ultimate language, the universal key, that is immediately identifiable with its underlying reality such that there is an ordo et connexio rerum et idearum – that is, at once a clear order and a necessary connection between things and ideas.
The aim of “science” is for Descartes to discover that universal key with which to unlock Reality: - to discover a method and a language by means of which the human intellect can become adequate to and congruent, corresponding, co-extensive with, the “Thing”, with objective Reality. Other than the pursuit of “the Truth”, Descartes never asks himself what the purpose of this “science” – the union of intellect and thing – may be. He never asks himself what may be the deontological goal of such a science – and therefore he never questions the ultimate orientation and direction, scope and aim of “scientific” research.
What, then, is to be the method of such a science, of such “research”? Quite obviously, the method has to be absolutely in conformity with the language adopted to encapsulate the Truth.
Descartes was firmly convinced that knowledge, in the only proper sense (scientia) is certain, evident, indubitable and infallible in sharp contrast with conjecture and opinion, however probable, or thinking which is susceptible of doubt in however small degree….
On this view no science (except, perhaps, arithmetic example, Rule xi 1 merely repeats Rule vi2 in a compressed form; the long autobiographical passage at the end of the exposition of Rule iv3 seems to have been added as an afterthought and is ill-fitting in that place, and Rule viii combines, without reconciliation, a rough draft with a more finished but incompatible version. and geometry) will stand the test, and only mathematics will survive this definition of knowledge. All other sciences give conclusions which are doubtful, or even errors; mathematics alone contains truth and nothing but truth, free from falsity and doubt. How can this be ? Descartes early asked himself what gives absolute certainty to this science : why the power of knowing has only attained perfect realization here. And he concluded that it was due to the extreme purity and sim--plicity of the objects with which the geometer and the arithmetician are concerned. They presuppose nothing dependent on experience, nothing requiring confirmation by experiment or observation. The data are entirely simple, abstract and precise; and these sciences consist in logical expansion of such data, rationally deducing consequences from them. (H.H. Joachim, Descartes’s Rules for the Direction of the Mind.)
The method proposed by the French philosopher is one that pursues and establishes “the truth” with the greatest degree of certainty (his last methodological writing is titled “The Search for the Truth” [Recherche de la Verite’]). The ingredients of certainty are three: - (a) calculability; (b) reproducibility; and (c) equivalence. And the faculties needed for mathematics are (a) intuition and (b) deduction – which are both functions of the intellect. The requirement of truth is that it have the certainty and simplicity of mathematics. Simplex sygillum veri. Simplicity is the seal of truth. In other words, truth must have the precise characteristic that its apprehension is intuitive and that, therefore, it is both (a) certain and (b) deductively linked to all other conclusions to be drawn from that original intuition (Leibniz, intuitus). Exempli gratia, from the intuition of a triangle I can deduce that the sum of all angles within a triangle must be the same for all triangles. Yet, the intuition of triangles is not quite the same as this deduction. Now, the intuition tells us less than the deduction – the deduction tells us more than the intuition - if and only if the deduction relates to a matter of substance – only if the intuition has “content”. Because, if we consider the intuition of a triangle in its “purity”, abstracted from any material human faculty, then every truth is connected to every other truth in such a way that there can only ultimately be one Truth! But given that an intuition must have a substantive content, a materiality, all other truths would have to be deducible from the substantive content of that original intuition or truth. Yet that is impossible (!) for the simple reason that deduction can be formally valid (“truthful” as against “useful”) only to the extent that it does not contain any “quality” or content whatsoever! But a “truth” that is entirely formal simply cannot be a truth for the simple reason that it is entirely devoid of real, substantive content – and truth without content (formal or mathematical truth) is simply no truth at all – it is mere empty tautology! Differently put, deductions are not true if they have no content (are formally valid), and cannot be “pure” deductions (are not formally valid) if they have a content! To illustrate, if I imagine two pears added to one pear, I add up to three pears. But if I abstract from the substance of pears – from their material content – then this addition (1+2=3) tells me absolutely nothing: - it is an empty tautology. By contrast, if I think of two real pears and add another real pear, then I end up with a total of three real pears that cannot in any manner be equated to the pears taken separately or in combination – for the simple reason that the real status of each individual pear is entirely different from the real status of pears in any combination! (This, at bottom, is Marx’s argument against Hegelian idealism in The Holy Family. Nietzsche advances the same argument in On Truth and Lies.)
It is for this reason that, whilst we agree with Joachim that Descartes saw intuition and deduction as two distinct powers, we cannot agree that this was “so crude a view” – for the very reasons that he unwittingly adduces! And that is, because “sometimes what we intuit is a material or corporeal thing, or a relation between such things”. Let us quote Joachim in full:
Descartes's account of the Intellect
Intuitus. Descartes speaks at times as if intuitus and deductio were two quite distinct powers, faculties, or activities of the mind. It is, however, unlikely that he ever held so crude a view, or, if he did, he soon abandoned it. Nevertheless, he begins by characterizing intuitus as a distinct act or function of mind directed upon a distinct and special kind of object. It is intellectual 'seeing' and has a certainty peculiar to itself, which3 must not be confused with the vividness of sense-perception or imagination.
As an act of mind intuitus is a function of the intellect expressing its own nature. Sometimes what we intuit is a material or corporeal thing, or a relation between such things. In this case, imagination will help, if we visualize the bodies; or sensation may  help, if imagination is directed upon the shapes in the sensus communis. Still, intellectual seeing must be clearly distinguished from sensation and imagination, and its certainty must be clearly distinguished from mere imaginative (or sensational) assurance. So Descartes begins by explaining what he does not mean by intuitus.
The intellectual certainty with which I see the mutual implication of self-consciousness and existence is immediate, like sense-perception; but, in the case of sense-perception, my assurance fluctuates. Sensation flickers and varies according to the illumination, or the state of my eyesight, or similar changing conditions. But the certainty of intellectual insight is steady, constant and absolute. To see a truth that x implies y is to see it absolutely and timelessly, once for all and unvaryingly.
What Joachim overlooks here is the fact that “what we intuit is [either] a material or corporeal thing, or [else] a relation between such things”. In fact, every intuition must be based on material or corporeal things. But the relations between such things, qua relations, obviously are not themselves material or corporeal things – which is why Descartes was entirely right to distinguish between the intuitus, which must be based on material things, and deductions, which are not. The difficulty for both Descartes and Joachim is that deductions that are mere relations are purely tautological, and therefore cannot be “true”; whereas those that represent material content are simply not “deductions” but practical assumptions or conclusions. – Which is why Joachim’s last paragraph is utterly meaningless because there can be no “truths” – either intuitions or deductions – that are true “absolutely and timelessly, once for all and unvaryingly”! Joachim’s insistence that intuition and deduction are inseparable (see pp.40 et ff.) completely elides and eludes the antinomy at the core of Descartes’s and all other idealisms – the abstrusion or avulsion or separation (the Platonic chorismos) of idea and thing which is intrinsic to the very concepts of intuition and of deduction!
As defined by Descartes, the intellect is the human faculty that is most removed from the human physical environment (the others are the senses, the imagination and memory). But because Descartes never poses himself the problem of the direction of scientific research as a uniquely human activity, he does not assess the potentially catastrophic impact of a “scientific search” that may well lead to extremely harmful and even deleterious effects for humanity itself! However “certain” a state of affairs may be, it may well not be true to the extent that it is against human interest (inter homines esse). (Nuclear fission or fusion may be a certainty in highly specific experimental and technical conditions, but mercifully it is not “true” in the sense that “we ought to pursue the truth”. Again, the distinction here between truth and certainty is masterfully drawn by Heidegger in “The End of Philosophy”, published separately as a book of Nietzsche. The distinction mirrors that between positive law by the sovereign [Dezisionismus], which is “certain”, and substantive or ethically-based law, which must also be “true”, drawn by F. Neumann in “The Change in the Function of Modern Law”, in his The Democratic and the Authoritarian State, p.27.)
This specific interpretation of “reality”, of science and its method – specifically the employment of the intellect - clearly distorts the Cartesian and – after Descartes – our entire interpretation and evaluation of human scientific activity since the advent of capitalist industry. From this perspective, several pernicious worldviews follow: the first is that human agency is avulsed from its natural physical environment. Descartes’s lack of awareness of the intrinsic connection between “science” or knowledge – which is a passive notion, - and “technology” – which is a very active productive human capability -that (a) induces and reinforces the myth that science” is a purely intellectual pursuit, and not a practical one with obvious origins in and repercussion on human social relations and the environment; and (b) induces and propagates the myth that there are specific pursuits called “Science” and “Technology” that have a specific methodology. Thus, science and technology are no longer seen as interdependent and inter-related human historical activities that reflect and affect both human social relations and the environment in which they occur, but instead are reified as universal absolutes, as inevitable outcomes of “human nature” or “the human condition” or indeed “human progress”. As Howard puts it,
[o]wing to Descartes’s conception of method he tends to confuse it with science and is led to speak of his new science of order and measure (Howard, Descartes’s Rules, p.62)
Except that Howard does not notice in his admirable study of Descartes’s Rules that for the Frenchman there can be no difference between method and science because for him (a) the method of science is science itself within the unified project of a mathesis universalis; and (b) in any case his entire idealist metaphysics with its chorismos (separation, incompatibility) of intellect and world made the method antinomical to scientific research. For Descartes to have kept method and science separate, he would have had to accept that method and scientific research are not the same thing and either to admit that his categorization of the two was antinomical, or else to develop an epistemology and an ontology that did not make them so.
The socio-political importance of the dramatic shift in the understanding of physical and social reality and praxis occasioned by the development of “science” as an approach to the world and developed by early thinkers of the bourgeoisie such as Bacon and Galileo and Descartes cannot be gainsaid and is hard to overestimate. It epitomizes the earlier humanistic elevation of human beings to the centre of the universe, to quasi-divine status, and not just in what was then called “natural philosophy”, but also in the social studies, from art to philosophy and politics. The obvious political impact of this elevation is, first, to challenge and demote the theocratic European absolutist states then in power in favour of – and this is the second impact – the promotion of the interests of the rising northern European commercial and industrial bourgeoisie.
As we have just seen, from the outset, the Cartesian theorization of science and technology is based on exclusively transcendental idealist and individualist ontogenetic lines (in this sense, it clearly presages the advent of Kant’s transcendental idealism). Not only does Descartes entirely fail to detect or even suspect the radically social and practical or deontological character of scientific research – and therefore to place it in a precise socio-historical context; but he also thoughtlessly extrudes what he thinks is the foundational methodology of “science” from all social and environmental contexts to the point that it verges on solipsism. As Joachim puts it,
We must attend to two matters in this exposition : (i) The severance of the power of knowing from all corporeal functions and (ii) its singleness [simplicity]. (op.cit., p.20)
The Cartesian cogito marks the egoistic terminus of Descartes’s methodical withdrawal from the world (in this it resembles the Askesis andWelt-flucht of Schopenhauer’s pessimism) even to the extent that he conjures up the existence of a demon as the prompter of his “Cartesian doubt”, intent on falsifying systematically his entire material existence, his every perception and thought – such is Descartes’s uncompromising diffidence of and alienation from human material existence! (The extremes to which the French philosopher went to isolate himself in pursuit of his “meditations” is legendary, of course.) As such, the cogito is a precursor and harbinger of a bourgeois society intent on reifying human social reality and on subjecting the environment (“nature”) to its unimpeded domination. By idealistically separating the Ego from its life-world, Descartes turns Ego-ity (Ich-heit, the search for personal identity) into Ego-ism. In this regard, it is possible that the French philosopher was aware of the ultimate futility of his “method”, not just because he titled his reflections on science “Discourse” (rather than “Treatise”, for instance), but also because the longer title refers to “a mode of employing Reason and for the search of Truth”. This elongated explication of “the Method” mirrors the long title of the Regulae ad Directionem Ingenii (“Rules on the Direction of the Mind or Intellect”) which again refers merely to the “direction of the mind” without ever specifying the substance and character, the metaphysical status of this “mind” or “intellect” (ingenium). (On the Rules, again see H.H. Joachim, Descartes’s Rules for the Direction of the Mind.)
“I think, therefore I am” is a thoroughly flawed syllogism in a logical sense and also in its fallacious identification of an “I”, a Subject or Ego that lurks behind the act of thinking! (This is the kernel of Nietzsche’s devastating critique of Descartes and of rationalism tout court. Because “thinking” is an action, Nietzsche correctly points out, the fallacious conclusion is instantly drawn that there must be someone who does the thinking! See Beyond good and Evil, pg.49. After all, David Hume’s skepticism had already exposed the empirical inadequacy of the self in A Treatise on Human Nature.)
The cogito is also deficient for its total failure to acknowledge the undeniably inter-subjective basis of all thought, as well as for the failure to perceive, let alone acknowledge, the clear materiality of thought – its immanence, and not just its transcendence – in the sense that all thinking - however abstract, however much based on Descartes’s “intuition and deduction” - must be grounded in the very material reality that we call “language”. Indeed, this is one sphere in which Descartes’s preference of vulgar French to Latin aided him formulate his worldview. Because Latin dispenses with personal pronouns, it mutes the deductive link that may otherwise be traced between thought and existence, whereas French emphasizes the continuity of the agency in the two statements: “Je pense, [donc] j’existe”. Here the separation of the pronoun “I” from the subsequent verbs helps conjoin them and establish, however feebly, the syllogistic link – again, inexistent in logic - that Descartes is keen to establish. The essential emphasis is on the “I”, on bourgeois individuality, that is, on the need of the bourgeoisie to establish an existence separate from any human intersubjectivity or societal and cultural bonds. Moreover, the systematic idealist severance of the individual from the world – and therefore from society as a community founded on more than just self-interest – dictates Descartes’s formalism epitomized by the mathesis. (Cf. F. Neumann’s discussion of legal liberalism as dependent both on economic or possessive individualism and on its entrenchment in legal formalism - in TDaTS.)
Descartes fails in both works – indeed, he does not even attempt! – to inquire as to the substantive content and nature of this entity variously called “reason” or “mind” or “intellect”. But above all it becomes evident from his disquisitions that neither “intuition” nor “deduction” will ever be able to supply the necessary nexus between scientific “laws”, the methodology that led to scientific “discoveries”, and the “objective reality” to which these laws and the methodology of science supposedly apply!
If the Ego, the “I” that “thinks”, can be certain of its existence only in the awareness of its own being – if, therefore, the Cartesian Ego is locked entirely within its interiority or consciousness of itself (I know that I think, therefore I must exist), the question arises, quite apart from the impossibility of establishing that this “thinking agency” is an Ego or a “self”, of how such an ideal, spiritual entity can ever be connected to the non-ideal or material world – to the “Thing”, the ob-ject that literally “stands against” the Ego or self (this is made evident in the German for “object”, Gegen-stand, standing against). Put another way, how can a Subject that is pure thought, pure idea, pure self, be connected to a physical body, first of all, and then be able to act upon the world? And how can the Subject even get to know the Object – in other words, how is scientific research and discovery of the world, let alone knowledge of “the Truth”, at all possible?
The only way for Descartes to escape the evident antinomy between the self and the world, between individual and cosmos, was either to hypothesize a mechanical correspondence between the two realities, a’ la Leibniz (the windowless monads) – or else to exasperate the original idealism of the cogito – which is what he proceeded to do in the Meditations. (On all this, Negri, op.cit., ch.3.)
Descartes starts from the ability of the Ego to conceive of divine perfection – which yields to the human intellect the ability to understand the world scientifically; and the simultaneous ability to imagine nothingness, which seals the positioning of human knowledge between perfection and imperfection, between knowledge and error. But how can the intellect at once know and not know, learn and be in 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.
At once, this hypothesis admits of the freedom of the human will, which mimics the omnipotent will of God. It follows therefore that for the Ego, for the human intellect, the world is necessarily “false” because its comprehension of it is imperfect and prone to error, deluded by the will into trusting the lure of mere appearances. Yet, this fresh schism between intellect and will, 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. 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, resembled more Kant’s critical idealism, ends up being a pale replica of Berkeley’s subjective idealism in which all reality exists in the mind of God – esse est percipi. The world for Descartes has really and truly become a “fable”: what is more, a fable that, in his requirement of mathematical perfection – the vera mathesis – is also nothing more than a lifeless mechanism! (again, contrast Nietzsche’s savage parody of Descartes’s reduction of the world to “a machine” in The Anti-Christ, par.14).
Not only: the other insuperable difficulty of Descartes’s idealism consists precisely in the fact that if the Ego in its quest for knowledge is restricted to finding out, re-searching, the Object or “nature” or “the physical world, then, given that this “nature” has physical laws that must be immutable by definition, the problem arises of how it is possible for anything to be created in the world. This problem goes back to St. Augustine’s intimation that human beings exist “ut initium esset” – so that there may be a beginning. By contrast, it is evident that in Descartes’s epistemology, which turns into an existential ontology (“What and how do I know?” becomes “I exist”), there is absolutely no room for free will once the notion of mathesis universalis, of a universal science or universal key (“clavis universalis”) is accepted. Conversely put, if we accept the notion of the world as a “grand livre” where every cause contains its effect and vice versa, then no free will or free human action is possible because (a) the ideal self cannot act upon the material world and (b) the material world already contains its entire unfolding in nuce or in embryo – as Aristotelian physis. The scientific notion of the conservation of energy – nothing is created, everything is conserved and transformed – essentially denies the possibility of creative actions by humans or any living things; it posits an extreme determinism that excludes free will. Even the notion of entropy is thereby rendered inexplicable. (This is essentially Schopenhauer’s argument in On the Freedom of the Will. For Schopenhauer, the Kantian Ding an Sich – the physical universe, is known or knowable to us and governed by scientific laws; whence it follows that the human intellect is also not “free”. It is the Will itself that is unknowable and opaque, and hence the true “thing-in-itself”. Thus, attributing “freedom” to the Will is a nonsense.)
Descartes and humanism, from which he obviously drew much of his learning, were too caught up in the rejection of theological and theocratic ideas to be able to overcome radically the hiatus between essence and existence, thought and matter. Without the aid and benefit of Darwin’s evolutionary findings, he had no insight into the historical development of human faculties and of language in particular. Had he been so aware, Descartes may well have found that the solution to his transcendental impasse lay in the very reason why he had opted for French rather than Latin to publish his studies: - the fact that language, as the unity of thought, action and world, provides the immanentist historical solution to his philosophical puzzle. It may well be said (with Negri) that Descartes’s radicalization of the cogito through the mediation of the ontological proof and of the omnipotence of the Divinity ends up turning his philosophical idealism into a blatant ideology, due in large part to his own recognition of the defeat of humanism after the condemnation of Galileo. The conclusion remains that Descartes cannot account for the world – and so he cannot account for human activity either – scientific, technological or productive.
His ex-aggeration of (literally, erecting a rampart around) the Divinity as the omnipotent enabler of human invention was a crumbling fable from the very outset: not the world, then, is a “fable” (cf. Nietzsche’s Twilight) but rather the Cartesian philosophical reduction of it to that sorry status – something that Nietzsche justly derided, seeking thereby to rescue precisely this life-world from its Cartesian extrusion (cf. The Anti-Christ, par.14).