Posts Tagged ‘Descartes’

Descartes argument “the proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind,” often paraphrased “I think, therefore I am,” has room for two separate interpretations, both of them profoundly different. The standard narrative (at least with the post-structuralists I hang out with) is that this argument is definitive proof that Descartes “held that there is an isolated and unified ego that exists prior to interaction with the world” (to paraphrase myself in my more careless moments). But this doesn’t necessarily follow from the text:

“But I have convinced myself that there is absolutely nothing in the world, no sky, no earth, no minds, no bodies. Does it now follow that I too do not exist? No. If I convinced myself of something [or thought anything at all] then I certainly existed. But there is a deceiver of supreme power and cunning who is deliberately and constantly deceiving me. In that case I too undoubtedly exist, if he is deceiving me; and let him deceive me as much as he can, he will never bring it about that I am nothing so long as I think that I am something. So, after considering everything very thoroughly, I must finally conclude that the proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind.”

The argument “I think, therefore I am” can mean one of two things depending on what type of “therefore” you think is being used here. It is either a “therefore” of inference or causality. If it is a therefore of inference then we are led to adopt the standard narrative. It would read “I think, therefore I am” as a simplification of the larger statement “I have evidence that I think, therefore I can infer that I am, because being is a necessary precondition of thinking.” This assumes a metaphysics whereby thinking things exist prior to their thinking, and their thoughts are residual evidence by which we can prove that, independent of their thoughts, they exist. Since thoughts (broadly defined) are the way that we interact with the world, and this inferential reading assumes that the ego exists prior to its thoughts, it necessarily follows that the ego exists prior to its world. The being of subjectivity in this sense is of static existence. Hence the standard picture of Descartes.

There is a second reading of this argument, however, the “therefore” of causality. This reading has the cogito standing in for the longer statement “I think, therefore I am caused to be.” In other words, every act of thinking creates subjectivity itself. In this sense, activity is prior to identity (or, if you like, existence is prior to essence), and since thinking requires interacting with the stuff of the world (if we bracket, what is no small bracketing, Descartes claims about innate ideas of mathematics and theology), worldliness is prior to subjectivity. The being of subjectivity in this sense if an activity.  In this sense, Descartes is doing something very similar to what Heidegger is credited with doing (as a correction of Descartes!) many centuries later.

It seems to me that the text of the Meditations doesn’t give us sufficient evidence to choose between these two readings. Though there may perhaps be evidence in the rest of Descartes’ corpus let us suppose that there is not. How are we to choose between these two readings? It seems to me that the quest to get at what philosopher’s “really meant” is, after a certain stretch, misguided. We can treat philosohpy in one of two ways: either as the timeless set of arguments of isolated geniuses, or as the story of how we came to understand ourselves as we do today, represented by philosophers who both captured a particular way that we understood ourselves at a given time, and inspired a new way of understanding ourselves for a period of time. It is undeniable that, even if Descartes wasn’t a Cartesian in the pejorative sense, his role in the history of philosophy must be. It must be because the story we tell ourselves was built around that misunderstanding for so many years, because many of us believed this false reading, and because the arguments of philosophers that followed were structured around this coordinate. If Heidegger and Wittgenstein were responding to a claim Descartes never made, even one no philosopher ever defended, I honestly don’t care much, because it’s an idea we, as non-philosophers, took seriously for quite some time during Modernity, and one that had tangible cultural, political, and psychological consequences. To forget that is to forget that philosohpy is about real ideas operating in the real world. It’s about real conversations that non-philosophers are having all the time. It is to forget that philosophy takes place in the ivory tower, but in the agora.

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