Cartesian Reflections on the Autonomy of the Mental



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Cartesian Reflections on the Autonomy of the Mental




Matthew Soteriou


In a recent paper Korsgaard (2009b) articulates and defends a claim that she notes is part of a venerable philosophical tradition: that “reason is what distinguishes us from other animals, and that reason is in some special way the active dimension of mind”. Under this view, “the human mind is active in some way that the minds of the other animals are not, and… this activity is the essence of rationality”. Korsgaard cites as examples of philosophers belonging to this tradition Kant, in his association of reason with the mind’s spontaneity, and Aristotle, in his doctrine of the active intellect, or nous. I think a case can also be made for regarding Descartes as belonging to this tradition.


Descartes is notorious for the way in which he downgrades the psychology of non-human animals, going so far as to deny them a mind in denying them a rational soul; and he also often places emphasis upon, and attaches significance to, active, agential aspects of the rational human mind. In the Meditations he alludes to the way in which the mind ‘uses its freedom’ when in engaged in the method of doubt. In the Principles of Philosophy Descartes is explicit that it is our free will that allows us to withhold our assent in doubtful matters.1 And the Fourth Meditation is largely devoted to arguing that the act of judgement involves not only the intellect but also the will.2
My principal concern in this paper, though, isn’t that of defending a particular interpretation of Descartes’ texts. The aim is simply to reflect on some remarks that Descartes makes in the Meditations as a springboard for a discussion of the role of agency in our conscious thinking – and in particular, the extent to which self-determination and self-governance may be involved in conscious reasoning and self-critical reflection. In fact the paper will largely be devoted to reflecting on two sentences that appear in the Synopsis of the Meditations, and discussing some issues that arise out them. These sentences introduce Descartes’ summary of the Second Meditation.
In the Second Meditation, the mind uses its own freedom and supposes the non-existence of all the things about whose existence it can have even the slightest doubt; and in so doing the mind notices that it is impossible that it should not exist during this time. This exercise is also of the greatest benefit, since it enables the mind to distinguish without difficulty what belongs to itself, i.e. to an intellectual nature, from what belongs to the body.

Descartes claims here that the mind “uses its own freedom” in supposing something. The first question I shall be considering (in Section I) is the following. In what respect, if any, does the mind “use its own freedom” when engaged in supposition? In particular, what is the role of agency in supposing something for the sake of argument?


The specific description that Descartes offers of the mind’s aim in the Second Meditation is that of supposing the non-existence of all the things “about whose existence it can have even the slightest doubt”. Identifying the propositions one believes whose veracity there can be slightest reason to doubt is an exercise in self-critical reflection. In Section II I shall be considering the extent to which agency is implicated in self-critical reflection. I shall be arguing that the capacity to engage in self-critical reflection involves the capacity to ‘bracket’ one’s beliefs, and that the capacity to bracket one’s beliefs is related to the capacity to engage in suppositional reasoning. When one brackets a belief, and when one supposes something for the sake of argument, one imposes a constraint on one’s own reasoning by reasoning in recognition of that self-imposed constraint. In both cases, I shall be suggesting, the conscious reasoning one engages in is both self-conscious and self-governed. I shall then briefly touch on the relevance of this view of supposition and self-critical reflection to Descartes’ further claim that “the mind notices that it is impossible that it should not exist during this time”.
Finally, in Section III, I shall be saying a bit more about how I think we should conceive of the role of agency in the reasoning one engages in when one engages in self-critical reflection. In particular, I shall do so by contrasting my proposal with a view according to which the role of agency in such reasoning, and indeed, all conscious reasoning, can at best be “merely catalytic” and “indirect”.3

I

In what respect, if any, does the mind “use its own freedom”, as Descartes suggests, when engaged in supposition? What is the role of agency in supposing? First we need to narrow down the notion of supposition that is our concern. The phrase ‘S supposes that p’ is sometimes used to attribute to S the belief or opinion that p, or an unacknowledged commitment to the truth of p; whereas the sort of supposition I want to focus on is more like an exercise of the imagination. However, we shouldn’t simply equate ‘supposing that p’ with ‘imagining that p’, for to do so might invite the following line of thought. A way of imagining that p is to imagine a situation in which p is true, and a way of imagining a situation in which p is true is by imagining (e.g. visualising) a scene in which p is true. Indeed, whenever one visualises a scene one thereby imagines a situation in which certain propositions are true. So whenever one visualises a scene one thereby imagines that such and such is the case; and since supposing that p is imagining that p, whenever one visualises a scene one thereby supposes that such and such is the case.


The problem with the conclusion of this line of thought is that visualising a scene isn’t in itself sufficient for engaging in the kind of supposition that is our concern. For the notion of supposition that I want to focus on is the kind of supposition that is involved in assuming something for the sake of argument; and intuitively, visualising something doesn’t in itself amount to assuming something for the sake of argument. So what is involved in assuming something for the sake of argument? Perhaps just putting forth, or introducing, p as a premise in one’s reasoning, or treating p as a premise in one’s reasoning? But these descriptions can also apply to judging that p (and also to asserting that p). So what is the difference between judging that p and supposing that p?
Judging that p involves representing p as true. Representing p as true isn’t simply equivalent to entertaining in thought the proposition that p is true, for one can entertain in thought the proposition that p is true without representing p as true, as when one judges that ‘either p is true or it isn’t’. But for the same reason, entertaining in thought the proposition that p is true isn’t sufficient for supposing that p, for entertaining in thought the proposition that p is true is something that one can do when one supposes for the sake of argument that ‘either p is true or q is true’.
If we hold that judging that p involves representing p as true, a temptation may be to think that supposing that p for the sake of argument is a matter of acting as if one is representing p as true – perhaps imagining or pretending to represent p as true. However, a problem with this proposal is that it suggests that supposing that p can be a stand-alone mental act – i.e. it suggests that it might be possible for one to suppose that p for the sake of argument, without doing anything else. Since judging (or asserting) that p can be a stand-alone act, it should be possible for pretending or imagining that one is judging (or asserting) that p to be a stand-alone act too. However, supposing that p for the sake of argument is not a stand-alone mental act – it is not something one can do without doing anything else. And this is relevant to why visualising something cannot in itself be sufficient for assuming something for the sake of argument.
The idea that supposing that p is not a stand-alone act is something that is touched upon by Dummett in his chapter on assertion in Frege: Philosophy of Language. There Dummett considers the question of whether there is a force that attaches to the proposition that p when one supposes that p, which is distinct from the force that attaches to the proposition that p when one asserts that p. At one point Dummett makes the following remark:
In supposition a thought is expressed but not asserted: ‘Suppose…’ must be taken as a sign of the force (in our sense) with which a sentence is uttered. (Certainly it is not logically an imperative: I could, having said, ‘Think of a number’, ask ‘Have you done so yet?’, but it would be a joke if I asked that question having said ‘Suppose the witness is telling the truth’.) (p. 309)
If ‘suppose the witness is telling the truth’ is understood as ‘suppose for the sake of argument that the witness is telling the truth’, then there is an oddity in the question, ‘Have you done so yet?’ As Dummett remarks, the oddity of the question wouldn’t apply if one had said ‘Think of number’. And we can add, neither would the oddity apply if one had said or ‘imagine a bowl of cherries’, or ‘imagine asserting that the witness is telling the truth’. This is connected, I suggest, with the idea that the latter can be, what I have been calling, stand-alone mental acts, whereas supposing that p for sake of argument cannot.
The idea that supposing that p for the sake of argument cannot be a stand-alone mental act is also connected, I think, with Frege’s stance on supposition.4 Frege denies that in the case of supposing that p a force that is distinct from that of assertion attaches to the proposition that p. He holds instead that the force of assertion attaches to a sentence that has p as a constituent.5 On Frege’s view, in the case of supposition that p, ‘p’ does not appear as a complete sentence at all, but only as a constituent in a more complex sentence – in particular, it features as the antecedent of a conditional that is asserted. So Frege does not make use of a distinct force of supposition in formalizing logic.
Gentzen later went on to do so.6 As Dummett notes,
[Gentzen] had the idea of formalizing inference so as to leave a place for the introduction of hypotheses in a manner analogous to that in which in everyday reasoning we say ‘suppose…’ We require no warrant for introducing any new hypothesis, and we reason from it with just the same rules as those governing inferences from premises which we assert outright: the point of the procedure being that from the fact that certain consequences follow from some hypothesis, we can draw a conclusion that no longer depends on that hypothesis. (p. 309)
This looks like an improvement on Frege’s proposal. As Gentzen observed, it is closer to the modes of inference that occur in informal reasoning.7 For our purposes, a point that might be made against Frege’s view is that it fails to mark adequately the distinction between (a) a part, or constituent, of a thought one judges, and (b) a step taken in reasoning. However, Dummett suggests that there does seem to be something right in what Frege says, and here I agree with Dummett. He writes,
Although we may, contrary to Frege’s view, regard suppositions as complete sentences, still supposition is different from other linguistic acts in that it is possible only as a preparation for further acts of the same speaker: namely for a series of utterances not themselves assertions (but consequences of the supposition), which culminate in an assertion. I could not just say, ‘Suppose 2 has a rational square root’, and then stop… I must go on to discharge the original supposition. (p. 313).
The idea here, I take it, is that one can only genuinely be said to have introduced a supposition into one’s reasoning if one does things that count as discharging that supposition (or starting to discharge that supposition)8; and furthermore, one can only discharge the supposition if it has been introduced. Frege captures this idea by holding that when one supposes that p a single force (i.e. assertion) attaches to a complex hypothetical sentence that has p as a constituent. If we hold instead that when one supposes that p a distinct force attaches to the proposition that p, we should hold that the force that attaches to the proposition that p and the force that attaches to propositions one infers from p are, in a certain sense, interdependent. That is to say, the fact that the force of supposition attaches to a proposition that p depends upon the occurrence of acts that count as discharging that supposition. And furthermore, when one infers q from p, the force that attaches to one’s inference that q depends upon the fact that it is made under the scope of a supposition.
This is a reflection of the idea that we do not capture adequately the attitudinative aspect of a subject’s mental condition when he supposes that p if we allow that supposing that p can be a stand-alone mental act – i.e. if we allow that a subject can be said to be supposing that p for the sake of argument without doing anything else. The fact that a subject has adopted a suppositional attitude toward the content that p depends upon the occurrence of acts that count as discharging the supposition. This is why we fail to capture adequately the attitudinative aspect of a subject’s mental condition when he supposes that p if we say that the subject is merely pretending or imagining that he is representing p as true. When one supposes that p and infers q from p, one isn’t imagining or pretending that one is representing those propositions as true; and this is connected with the fact that when one is engaged in supposition, one is engaged in actual reasoning, not pretend or imagined reasoning.9
We can capture the idea that supposing that p for the sake of argument is not a stand-alone mental act if we say that the subject who supposes that p for the sake of argument represents p as true by reasoning on the assumption that p (where reasoning on the assumption that p is genuine reasoning, not pretend or imagined reasoning). Not just any old reasoning counts as reasoning on the assumption that p. When one reasons on the assumption that p one reasons with certain constraints in play – e.g. one reasons on the assumption that p by drawing inferences from p and / or by introducing other propositions as premises in one’s reasoning that are not inconsistent with p (unless entailed by p). Of course these constraints on one’s reasoning are also in play when introduces p as a premise in one’s reasoning by judging that p. So what is the difference between these cases?
When one reasons on the supposition that p, the relevant constraints on one’s reasoning are self-imposed. They are not simply constraints on one’s reasoning that are imposed by facts in the world whose obtaining one acknowledges. And furthermore, when one reasons on the supposition that p one treats the relevant constraints on one’s reasoning as self-imposed. When one reasons on the supposition that p one recognises that the constraint of treating p as true is a constraint on one’s reasoning that one has imposed on oneself. One manifests this recognition in the way in which one reasons – e.g. by discharging the supposition with an outright conditional judgement or assertion.
So when one supposes that p for the sake of argument one imposes a constraint on one’s reasoning by reasoning in recognition of it. For the subject who supposes that p for the sake of argument represents p as true by reasoning on the assumption that p, where this involves reasoning in recognition of the self-imposed constraint of treating p as true. This is related to the respect in which the introduction of a supposition into one’s reasoning and the occurrence of acts that count as discharging that supposition are interdependent – i.e. the idea that one can only genuinely be said to have introduced a supposition into one’s reasoning if one does things that count as discharging that supposition, and one can only discharge the supposition if it has been introduced.
We are now in a position to turn to the question of the role of agency and self-determination in suppositional reasoning. When one acts in recognition of a self-imposed constraint, one treats oneself as a source of constraint over that activity. This is one way of thinking of what is going on in cases of self-determined, self-governed behaviour. Metaphorically speaking, there’s a sense in which the self-governing agent must simultaneously occupy the role of legislator and legislatee. That is, in order for an agent to be capable of governing himself, he must be capable of both imposing obligations on himself, as legislator, and he must be capable of recognising and acting on those obligations, as the one being legislated to. His authority as self-governing legislator depends upon his own recognition of that authority. In fact it is necessary and sufficient for it. If he doesn’t recognise the authority of his own legislations, then he cannot be self-governing, for he will have no authority over himself, but if he does recognise the authority of his own legislations, then he has that authority, and so is self-governing. So all an agent needs to do in order to impose on himself an obligation to do something is to recognize the authority of that self-imposed obligation. In particular, all he needs to do is act in a way that manifests his recognition of that self-imposed obligation.
The self-governing agent takes himself to have authority over himself, and he manifests this stance towards himself in the way that he acts. That is to say, the self-governing agent can impose constraints on himself by simply behaving in a way that manifests his recognition of constraints that he has imposed on himself. He imposes a constraint on himself by behaving as though he has. In this way he acts “under the idea of freedom”. Acting as if one has imposed a constraint on oneself, one thereby imposes the constraint on oneself. One treats oneself as a source of constraint on oneself, and thereby governs oneself.10
The suggestion that has been made is that when one supposes that p for the sake of argument one imposes on one’s reasoning the constraint of treating p as true by reasoning in recognition of that self-imposed constraint. There is, then, a sense in which “the mind uses its own freedom” when engaged in suppositional reasoning. For the mental activity involved is self-determined, in the following respect: one treats oneself as a source of constraint over one’s own thinking, and thereby makes oneself a source of constraint over one’s own thinking.
The suggestion here is that the mental activity one engages in when supposing that p is activity that manifests an attitude towards oneself – an attitude of treating oneself as the source of that activity. The mental activity one engages in is, in this respect, self-conscious mental activity. When this kind of activity occurs, something imposes a constraint on itself by acting in recognition of it. The source of the constraint on the activity is that which is acting in a constrained manner. In acting in this way, that which is acting is aware of itself as imposing a constraint on its activity in so acting. So that which is acting is presented to itself, in so acting, under a reflexive mode of presentation.11 The subject of the activity is presented, under reflexive guise, as that which is imposing constraints on the activity by acting in recognition of them – that which is governing the activity by performing it. In this respect, when such reasoning occurs the subject of that reasoning is presented, under reflexive guise, as locus of mental autonomy – as that which governs one’s thinking and reasoning when it is self-governed.
I have tried to identify a respect in which Descartes is right to claim that the “mind uses its own freedom” when engaged in supposition. Descartes’ more specific description of the mind’s aim in the Second Meditiation is that of supposing “the non-existence of all the things about whose existence it can have even the slightest doubt”.

Identifying the propositions one believes whose veracity there can be slightest reason to doubt is an exercise in self-critical reflection. To what extent is agency implicated in self-critical reflection? Is the kind of suppositional reasoning we have just been concerned with necessarily involved in self-critical reflection? I turn to these questions in the next section.






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