Lecture on descartes’ metaphysical meditations 1961- 1962 English translation by

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Things that one can cast into doubt:” such is the title of the first Meditation, and as order is essential for Descartes, we are forced to admit that doubt is not simply de facto the start, but that it is de jure the beginning of philosophy.

Why? This is what we don't understand right away. The understanding of the role of doubt (as beginning) depends on the understanding of the nature of Cartesian doubt.

“[...] I will apply myself seriously and liberally to the destruction of all my old opinions. Now, it will not be necessary in order to arrive at this design to prove that they are all false, something perhaps that I will never finish with [...] but because the ruining of the foundations necessarily entails the destruction of all the rest of the building, I will attack first the principles upon which all my old opinions were supported.”

The first trait by which Descartes' doubt reveals its nature is its non-psychological character. Doubt is an enterprise, it is deliberate, seriously pursued. It is not a matter, therefore, of a state of mind, of a sort of malaise that grabs hold of me. It is not a doubt in which I find myself, nor even a doubt in which I place myself (for it is "too painful and laborious," as the end of the Meditation will say, to ever become a natural disposition of consciousness): it is what I construct, except that this strange construction consists in destroying. It is a design, at last, in which we find Descartes occupied from the start.

Since we are put in the school of Descartes, and since at school one must obey if one wants to learn, let us therefore accept the lesson: it signifies that the beginning of philosophy is not the same thing as the doubt which produces itself as an event inside me. It is not the same thing as the deceptions, or the revolts, or the worries that experience in its complexity may engender. One can be quite tormented: he works. He works at constructing a demolition. What is the meaning of this work? The law of this undertaking?

Its form in any case is indicated from the start: doubt is a systematic enterprise. Not, here again, in the psychological sense where "deny systematically" means that every system consists in denying and denying in unsystematically saying no to everything. Descartes does not say no to everything he believed before beginning the work he is doing; he does not reject in bulk nor painstakingly one by one all his opinions, but he neglects them all, except those that are the "foundations" or "principles."

In what does the character of a foundation or principle consist? The text says nothing explicitly of this. But the first example it takes, and in a general fashion the successive steps of doubt, must indicate to us the nature of that which doubt pursues as foundation or principle, and through this at last the nature of doubt itself.

“All that I have received up to the present as the most true and assured I have learned from the senses or by means of the senses.”

This declaration is surprising. For we know (one always knows too many things) that Descartes above all "learned" mathematics. Why does he say that all he has received up to the present as the most true and assured he has learned from the senses or through the senses? What we risk having happen to us here is not being surprised by this start, not seeing any question here. For we also know that philosophy always has it in for the "senses," that it wants to elevate man from his animality to his rationality. But this is only an opinion we have about philosophy; for it remains to be known why access to reason demands this sort of breaking through of the sensible (metaphysics). Also, let us note that Descartes does not haphazardly blame the sensible but the sensible that gives itself as "true" and includes a certain "assurance." What this truth and this assurance are is something we will learn only in learning what the "trickery" [tromperie] is into which doubt transforms them. Before that, let us confirm in passing our first determination of doubt, that is to say its non-psychological character: for from the first step, one sees that doubt bears on a certitude, not on the "doubtful."

“[...] I have sometimes felt that these senses were deceitful [trompeurs], and it is prudent to never entirely trust those that have once deceived us.

But although the senses sometimes deceive us concerning barely sensible and far off things, we encounter perhaps many others which one cannot reasonably doubt: for example, that I am here sitting by the fire [...] unless I compare myself to those who have lost their senses [...] But what? Those are madmen, and I would be no less insane if I measured my self by their examples.”

Essential passage, and true start for us, based upon which we are going to be able to respond to our question about the nature of doubt. For it shows that the "deceptive" character of the sensory must not be confused with the absolutely secondary problem of "the errors of the senses." It is not at all a matter of troubling our minds based on ordinary experiences of the defectiveness of perception (mistaking a tree at night by the side of the road for a man; the blue skirt for the green skirt etc.); it is not a matter for philosophy of claiming to extend to all sensory content these moments of error. Descartes dismisses all this as "madness". Philosophy is not an enterprise for maddening simple and ordinary consciousness; it is not looking to frighten me by threatening me with a psychological invasion of my consciousness by erroneous content. The doubt about the sensory is not psychological. What is it then? It is ontological. This is, in fact, the meaning of the next hypothesis, which without this would be still more insane than the "mad" extension of the errors of the senses: the hypothesis of sleep.

“All the same, I have to consider that I am a man, and, consequently, that I am accustomed to sleep and to imagine in my dreams the same things, or sometimes things less probable, as these madmen when they are awake [...] It seems to me at present that it is not at all with sleeping eyes that I am looking at this paper [...] But in rethinking it carefully I remember having often been deceived while sleeping by similar illusions [...] there are no conclusive indications nor certain enough marks by which one can neatly distinguish waking from sleeping.”

The difference between waking and sleeping is nothing from the point of view of representation; but it is very real for every consciousness that is awake, and Descartes does not doubt this more than anyone else. If doubt, in a moment, is going to choose sleep ("Let us suppose therefore now that we are asleep [...]") it is a deliberate choice, a moment in the serious enterprise of doubt, not at all a conviction of consciousness itself (and Descartes, when he speaks of conviction, puts in an "almost:" "And my astonishment is such that it is almost capable of convincing me that I am sleeping.")

In what does the difference between waking and sleeping consist? Not in the content of the representation, nor in the certitude, inherent to this representation, of having to do with what it represents, but in an other certitude which is this: that the things I represent in my imagination when awake are, while in dreams they are only represented (and represented as things which are), but they are not. Thus the certainty of reality is what constitutes the "truth" and produces the "assurance" proper to the sensory, of which we were wondering earlier what the nature was. And if this doubt attacks here, it is because it is the road of a metaphysical enterprise, which is to say an investigation of what is such as it is.

What Descartes discovers with astonishment is that the certainty of reality which makes up the very stuff of perceiving consciousness, as soon as one pursues it through the contents of perception, escapes and is not absolutely graspable. It is not absolutely anything for representation: no index, no mark. It is, therefore, not at all thought.

Doubt, once again, changes nothing in simple consciousness: it is not a matter of making waking consciousness so foggy to the point where it can no longer distinguish itself from sleeping consciousness; it is a matter if realizing that I do not think the very thing of which I am most certain. Thus the assurance proper to perception, and that, for perception, is itself unperceived, becomes a question.

The hidden idea of the paragraph is that the real in its very reality is not a given, but that, to the contrary, for thought it is fleeing, and it will flee even in the Cogito, even in the piece of wax, even in God. But we are only at the beginning of it and must remain there. The sheet of paper that I see, therefore, flees for thought even there where it gives its assurance to simple perception: such as it is. One does not sense [ressent] existence. The real is not felt [s'éprouve] as a content. Or again, reality is not a level of experience. To the extent that it doesn't cease being the very form of perceiving consciousness, the very form of the first relation that man and every thing hold [entretiennent], to that extent it escapes from thought which wants to seize it, to represent it. It is thus that I learn that my thought sleeps. The more my consciousness as simple consciousness is awakened to a difference that is nothing for reflection (no index...) the more reflection sees that it sleeps.

"Therefore, let us now suppose we are asleep [...]" This supposition makes us laugh: it's not a bad reaction. What I want to make you sensitive to is the strange aspect of the philosophical move. In any case, in its Cartesian form. But it is no less strange in its Socratic form in Plato. In relation to the realm of good sense, the great philosophical texts are always surprising. So we must always consider them as a sort of Platonic myth and interpret. This situation itself would be quite worth pursuing in its necessity, that is to say, in its origin. But we must do things in order. Let us, therefore, go back to sleep.

The hypothesis of sleep is a sort of metaphor. Philosophers are not "madmen," as Descartes says, that is to say, people who don't really believe in the existence of the exterior world; these are rather people who say to themselves that it's not enough to believe, but who would like to really think what otherwise only palpitates in daily consciousness as a reassuring certitude – or rather not: not even reassuring, but as an assurance so fundamental that it isn't formulated. It is precisely because it follows the inclination of this assurance that thought believes and wants to grasp this beautiful solidity of things; but the reality of the real has just as soon fled from every thing, fled before the will to representation. It is in this sense that our thought sleeps as regards the reality of the real. It is in order to awaken it that Descartes leads us into these strange hypotheses: "Let us suppose ...":

“Let us suppose, therefore, that we are sleeping and that all these particularities [...] are only false illusions; and let us think that perhaps our hands, and our entire body are not such as we see them.”

What does it mean: "are not such as we see them"? Is it to pretend that the red dress is blue? "But what? They are madmen." Philosophy is not a series of extravagant propositions or an "as if.." However, it seems in Descartes' text , which in spite of its limpid language is, as you see, quite obscure, that philosophy begins with a series of aberrant propositions, as: "our hands, and all our body are not such as we see them."

"Such...as" is, if you will, a misstatement. If this means the objective determination of content, it's absurd: hands of glass? "They are madmen [...]" But it is not a question of the quality, of the "such ... as," except in a more original sense than the determination of contents.

The passage could mean to say this: our hands, our bodies, and sensory objects seem, precisely, to be there as they are, quite simply given and encountered, without there being any question to be posed about their very existence, their being. And if philosophy always finds fault with the sensory [le sensible], it is precisely because the universe of the simple (perceiving) consciousness is a universe without question: the perceiving consciousness, the empirical, quotidian consciousness, does not contain for itself any of the questions of thought. Thus it does not seem that there may be a question of the reality of the real; the real appears in such a way that it doesn't seem to include such a question. Now, if it's true, as we have begun to understand it with Kant, that the real only appears because the sensible has an ontological sense, then one understands that appearance, which is at the origin, but which includes no allusion to this origin, is, from this point of view, "deceiving," or is not such as we see it.

So philosophy, defined primarily by the question of the on hè on, appears in its turn as it isn't, that is to say abstract. It is so true for simple consciousness that the real is, that it is not even a (thematic) proposition for it: being appears to us then as the most hollow concept, the most abstract. But it is the supreme concept of thought.

Thus it is quite necessary, in fact, to mistrust the sensory, as it is necessary to mistrust the non-thought character of obvious facts. Not so much their content: I do not cease, as much of a philosopher as I may be, and neither does Descartes, I do not cease to be in the world, even when I feign to not believe in it (the "feint" is in the verb "to believe," which makes as if philosophy became an adventure of natural consciousness; while it is necessary to understand that I continue always to “believe” in the world, but that I discover that the object of this natural certitude, namely the real such as it is, is not at all thought.) Philosophical questions are never therefore immediately natural questions in a sense. Although there may be a spontaneous, natural start of reflection, this start is always a reflexive start: that is to say, it flows out from simple consciousness.

Questions are always bizarre. Not only children's questions: the mind's questions are always bizarre. Even in the sciences, where the way of questioning appears nevertheless reassuring, where the general attitude is known; but it is only reassuring after the fact. All knowledge that really advances, advances within the strange.

We are at the height of the strange here: philosophy advances towards its own beginning by supposing we are sleeping. The sort of non-formulated certitude which makes up the very stuff of perception, namely that there is a world of numerous things; this certitude is so fundamental that it doesn’t emerge into consciousness; it is so original that I cannot delimit it in its content. For example, we have seen Descartes trying to seize upon the certitude that he is not in the process of dreaming and discover that this has no sense. For the proper domain of philosophy is not a proper domain: it is something that withdraws. The certitude of the reality of the real, which philosophy tries to express, cannot be held like paper, it cannot be crumpled like paper; it is rather absolute sand that I cannot take hold of because it has already poured through my fingers...

Now, in fact, the world does not show itself as its being is fleeting and so difficult to think. We conceive of it so much as a world of things that are, that we run headlong into the trap: we plunge in to seize it, but it reveals at that precise moment that it is empty, that it has nothing to do with things. And at the same time we believe too much as well that, as a consequence, there’s nothing to do but “throw the baby out with the bath water,” abandon the reality of the real as “abstract” and leave it to philosophy, which likes, bizarrely, to devour abstractions. And we forget that the question of being such as it is constitutes the unique question of philosophy, in any case, the fundamental question, the only one from out of which something like a hierarchy of thoughts can be constructed, a hierarchy which will deliver us from only having opinions on such and such a point and from living in cultural anarchy. For doubt, the accomplishment and even the resolution of doubting, is linked to the correct usage of the question of being.

When we read, therefore, “that perhaps our hands, and our whole body, are not as we see them,” we underline the verb to be, and understand that in fact they are originally although they don’t show themselves as such. When, for example, Kant tries to show that everything, to the extent that it is spatial, is not simply juxtaposed by chance with others but maintained by that form of being which is space, which precedes all its parts which are rather its limits; which is to say nothing is given in the world itself which is consequently not something abstract but is the original form of the way in which the real is concrete, that is to say concrescit, increases, grows, rises within appearance in unity with itself: this is, in fact, not given within the real. Space as Kant reveals it, as an a priori form of perceiving consciousness, which is really also to say of appearance itself, is not in fact given as it is: it is in it that all is given, it is the very form of the gift, it is the way, the origin from out of which all is delimited. All appearance is delimited based on its spatial form or on its objective form. But in fact this form, this a priori is nothing in things. These seem to be “such as they are,” to be without origin, and in fact they are not. There is therefore an authentic sense in saying that the sensory is deception, but this sense is entirely ontological.

Still, what follows is going to show us that it’s not enough to take doubt in a non-psychological way, but that on the contrary, we should take it in a metaphysical way so that it no longer sets difficulties before us, the apprentice readers.

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