Mar 30, 2012

Happy Birthday, Rene Descartes

Today would be the 416th birthday of the great French philosopher, one of the veritable fathers of modern thought, Rene Descartes, author of the Meditations, Discourse On Method, and one of my personal favorites, The Passions of the Soul. As with his contemporary Thomas Hobbes, whose birthday I marked in a blog post nearly a year ago, I -- and I think many other philosophers -- have a complex, ambiguous attitude towards and appreciation of Descartes' works, assumptions, and impact upon the world -- an ambivalence bearing upon his philosophy as a systematic whole.  I lead undergraduates through the luminous passageways of his Meditations, through the spiraling hyperbole of deepening metaphysical doubt, and out the other side, back up the rabbit hole, through dreams, deceiving demons, idealism, natures and proofs, and like many other of my profession, I think for me that is an initiation, a rite of passage.  Personally, I make it a practice to reread the Meditations on my own each year, just as I do with several other works central to the history -- and even well-informed practice -- of western philosophy.

Thinking about what I might write about tonight, I recalled a piece I'd written, but never worked up for publication,exploring the cusp between the First and the Second Meditations.  It's a bit overlong for an entry here, so I've truncated or collapsed portions of it -- and I've left passages I originally cited from French or Latin in the original, supplemented by English translations -- but it could perhaps be of some interest, even to those already well-familiar with Descartes' writings.  It focuses on the extended analogy found at the end of the first Meditation, which hasn't been pain much attention.  I suspect most read it as a mere rhetorical embellishment, a facile comparison, simply reiterating what has been said before and providing a useful ending point for the first Meditation. But, for me, perhaps for others, it is a striking symbol of the very Cartesian project at its core.

It is a fair question to ask, what purpose it serves, particularly given its place directly after the malin génie passage. Let us examine it in detail.
Mais ce dessein est pénible et laborieux, et une certaine paresse m'entraine insensiblement dans le train de ma vie ordinaire. Et tout de même qu'un esclave qui jouissait dans le sommeil d'une liberté imaginaire, lorsqu'il commence à soupçonner que sa liberté n'est qu'un songe, craint d'être réveillé, et conspire avec ces illusions agréables pour en être plus longuement abusé, ainsi je retombe insensiblement de moi-même dans mes anciennes opinions, et j'appréhende de me réveiller de cette assoupissement, de peur que les veilles laborieuses qui succéderaient à la tranquilité de ce repos, au lieu de m'apporter quelque jour et quelque lumière dans le connaisance de la vérité, ne fussent pas suffisantes pour éclaircir toutes les ténèbres des difficultés qui viennent d'être agitées.
 [But this project is so arduous and tiresome, and a certain lassitude drags me back without my noting it into the course of my ordinary life.  And, just like a slave who, while dozing enjoys an imaginary freedom, once he begins to suspect that his freedom is merely a dream, fears to be awoken, and colludes with those agreeable illusions in order to be deceived by them a bit longer -- just like, that without realizing it, I fall again into my old opinions, and I hold back from waking myself from this slumber, for fear that these laborious rousings that follow the calm of this rest, instead of bringing to me the some daylight and illumination in knowledge of truth, will not be equal to bringing light to all the shadows of the difficulties that have just been brought up.]
There is more than one single metaphorical structure at work here. First of all, let us note that the passage itself contains a four-part analogy. The relationship of the slave to his sleep is analogous to Descartes and his rest. The contents of those two states, the agreeable illusions of the slave and Descartes' former opinions, are likewise analogous. Then, there is the analogy between the actual state of the slave and the laborious wakenings of Descartes. Finally, the states themselves are in a relation of analogy, the sleep of the slave to his wakefulness being compared to the rest of Descartes' former opinions and the laborious wakenings.

Second, there is also a metonymical relationship already in play, between Descartes and the reader, since the reader is supposed to be following along with the anonymous meditator. Third, and most important, there is a structural element in the passage which is not shared in common between Descartes and the slave. This is what we should concentrate upon from the beginning.

The condition of the slave and Descartes are to be comparable, very much so, to the extent that the complex of the condition of the slave can cast some light on Descartes' own position at the end of the First Meditation. But Descartes is not in bondage, though he fears he may be, because, and this is the surplus structural element in the metaphor; he has the possibility of liberation through the avoidance of the state which dissimulates that it is not in bondage.

 For Descartes, then, the state corresponding to awakening has two values, slavery and freedom. It may be, he concedes that in waking, and indeed in taking on the labors of philosophical introspection, instead of bringing him a light which will allow him the knowledge of truth, he will encounter only the shadows of difficulties. Still, these will not be the same as those of his quotidian existence. Rather, one must surmise, they must be those of a false and now unsatisfactory philosophy, a philosophy which can only give probable truth which then can give rise to more troubling doubts.

This surplus structural element, however, revalues the entire structure of the analogy. Let us turn to the analogy proper. On both sides, we have a subject who suffers certain states, but who, at the same time, has a certain amount of control over which state he will be in. Presumably, however, the sleep and its pleasant illusions, the habits of everyday life and Descartes' former opinions, is itself not independent from the other state, the difficulties either of slavery, on the one hand, or on the other, of a philosophy which cannot yield one the certainty craved. The dependence is not only an ontological matter, however. It is also one of the order of knowledge.

In both the slave's sleep and Descartes' daily routine, there is a double relation of knowledge. On the one hand, they both know that this state is not real, that it remains a comfortable illusion. This, however, can only be conceived in relation to the other state, that of servitude or that of doubts which are resolved only hydra-like to raise further doubts. At the same time, this knowledge is, through the power of illusion or routine, kept from the dreaming slave or the benumbed Descartes.

We might not be wrong to glimpse a structure like that of repression here, provided that we make the distinction that what is repressed, that which the subject knows well enough to not know, is not some absolute and final level of reality, but the very lack of such -- or, better, the irresolvability of that reality which is being concealed. The state which is being avoided, for both Descartes and the slave, is not a level consisting in a system of facts which would all make sense as an ensemble, a totality, a world. It is rather, there is a certain sense to be made about them -- but the sense is not one which ultimately makes sense,  not one of the order of full knowledge, but rather one permeated by unresolved and contradictory affectivities, a sense something is wrong, a fear of never reaching stable ground, hopes possibly conspiring with falsehood.

The analogy undergoes a certain disequilibrium, however, for Descartes is conscious of his freedom, while the slave is conscious precisely of his unfreedom. Descartes can pose, can figure, can set out the problem that he faces, driving him to take refuge, after his succession of self-imposed doubts, in his everyday routine and former opinions -- the basic problem that he might not arrive at light in the knowledge of truth, but rather only the shadows of difficulties.  And, in being able to set out that problem the difference between those two is posited -- both of them are cast as possible outcomes, meaning that Descartes becomes, or remains, posed with the choice whether to adopt that difficult path or to instead lapse back into his former opinions.

The slave does not have this choice. Sooner or later, someone else will wake him up; he is after all a slave, the possession of another, trapped within a world and relations which he cannot alter by any effort on his part. Descartes has a radical choice posed to him, either think in a new and rigorous way or go back to opinions and routines, and both of these are possibilities for him -- he owns himself and the choice, if he can only recognize that.

The metaphor is deceptive, though, because it lends one the impression that it remains within Descartes' province to either lapse back into his routine, dispel the doubts as his own creations, as not being insights into the untruth of that position, or to take on this difficult and laborious project.  Indeed, the first sentence of the Second Meditation shows that the peaceful rest of everyday life is no longer an option for him.
La Méditation que je fis hier m'a rempli l'esprit de tant de doutes, qu'il n'est plus désormais en ma puissance de les oublier. 
[the meditation that I engaged in yesterday filled my mind with such doubts that it no longer remains in my power to forget them]
He is now, like it or not, transfixed in the condition of painful awakening.
Et cependant je ne vois pas de quelle façon je les pourrai résoudre. 
[And yet, I do not see the manner by which I might resolve them]
He can no longer avoid the difficulties of doubts hidden behind doubts, and, with yet another metaphor, describes his position:
Et si comme tout à coup j'étais tombé dans une eau très profonde, je suis tellement surpris, que je ne puis ni assurer mes pieds dans le fond, ni nager pour me soutenir au-dessus.

[And, just as if I suddenly had fallen into deep waters, I am so shocked, that I can neither set my feet on the bottom, nor swim to hold myself on the surface.]
Certainly he cannot swim on the surface, live an untroubled, everyday, unquestioning life, since that has been ruled out by the doubts which now assail his former opinions. And, having no bottom to place his feet upon reflects precisely his fear expressed in the former Meditation, that he would be left with only shadows of difficulties. Shadows and the water he flails around in have much in common. First, they are intangible, at least in that there is nothing lest to push back upon, which is why he can no longer swim. Both of them surround Descartes as well. And, while for others, they could provide a veil of security, anonymity, irresponsibility, for Descartes, the lack of security they involve is frightening.

He does not express it, but one corollaries to his fall into the deep water is that, if Descartes does not come up with something substantive quickly, he will eventually drown. At this point, the only way out is through continuing this difficult path, to see where it ends up -- going "all in," epistemologically, metaphysically, existentially. The sleep of the slave has already and irrevocably been left behind. The question is no longer whether Descartes goes back to his former opinions, but whether he will be able to sustain the inquiry, and to finally arrive at certainty.

In my view, the goal of the extended analogy at the end of the First Meditation is not simply to embellish the passage, nor to bring it to closure with a complicated rhetorical flourish, but rather to reiterate and reimpress the profundity and reflexivity of the doubt that the narrative is intended both to express to the reader and to inculcate in them.

This doubt does not have an object as simple as any instance of merely psychological doubt, nor is it as summary and abbreviative as the hyperbolic or methodological doubt. It is supposed to bring into play a doubt which sustains and encompasses both of these, a doubt as to whether this process of voluntarily contravening one's established habitudes, received opinions, and childhood prejudices will actually lead to "daylight and illumination in the knowledge of truth," or whether this project will simply undermine what few certainties Descartes thought he could rely upon before entering into the Meditations, leaving him trapped in an unhappy skepticism. This would be structurally identical to the possibility of the deceptive and imperfect God of the First Meditation who creates a Descartes whose nature is such that he is constantly deceived, and to the famous malin genie introduced in the Second, who "employs all of his resources to deceive me."

We can arguably recognize three different "doubt"s raised within the First Meditation. One comprises a set of what can be called "psychological doubts" --  doubts which have an object to each of them, and which have to do with the actual state of belief or certitude with respect to the existence of their objects or the reliability, the adequacy of the objective reality to the formal reality of their objects.

Another can be called "methodological" or "metaphysical" doubt, which proceeds by an act of will, comprehensive as possible in scope, methdological -- but contrary to the Meditator's actual psychological comportment, which includes passages of psychological doubt, but very easily lapses into old habits of thought, accepting the testimony of the senses, or worse, hearsay or older metaphysical principles and doctrines.

Then there is a "doubt" which, at the time that Descartes writes, is one no longer in force, but is an attitude, an affect, a disquiet that we should suppose the Meditations aim to provoke in the reader -- a doubt which appears as well to have been something which actually plagued Descartes for some time. Here we have a much different type of doubt, with a quite different, even more complex structure, a doubt which we might call an "existential doubt," but which it might be more appropriate to call a "narrative" doubt, or even a "reflexive' doubt, a global perspective that carries within it its own principle of uncertainty.

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