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

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“Still, it is at least necessary to admit that the things which are represented to us in sleep are like painted scenes and portraits which can only be formed in resemblance to something real and true [...] certainly, at the very least, the colors of which they are composed must be true.”

We were constrained last time to take an example from Kant to illustrate the “deceit” of the senses as ontological wandering [errance] (and not as an error of the senses.) Still, Descartes isn’t Kant. And if it is true that Descartes doesn't pay too much attention to the error of the senses, if it is true that doubt for him has an ontological significance, he does not distinguish the ontological (either a priori or original) form of appearance, from any content. But rather he unceasingly pursues being within contents, where the reality of the real always recedes, ever changing in appearance. The passage that we just read is thus a realist pursuit of substance which leads Descartes from sensible particularity to the generality of the object of perception in the same way that the following passage from this generality of the object of perception to the series of the most simple ideas that I cannot not have concerning the real: the categories (although Descartes does not call them thus.) The Evil Genius symbolizes the vanity of this ontological quest within experience; or again, it signifies that the opposition of certitude and truth holds, not only for “vulgar” consciousness, but also for rational or philosophical consciousness. Let us follow this road in all its detours: 1) "Still we must admit ..." that pure appearance, appearance as such, appearance that would be only appearance is untenable. A "something" that appears is necessary. This necessity of imputing appearance to a real thing is the motivation of the whole paragraph and of the following one.

The first step of this movement consists in distinguishing the sensible aspect of perceived things, which can vary and be "nothing" but itself, from the things themselves which conserve a certain solidity under these different aspects, and in relation to the particularities of these aspects, a certain “generality.” Thus, my hands under one light may appear another color than under another etc. One could not therefore say that they are of such and such a color; their color is only ever a way of being, or rather a way of showing itself; by itself it is nothing. Thus every sensory qualification is declared “subjective.” But under whatever lighting there may be, the hand is always the hand; the generality of the object of perception subsists under the contingent particularity of its aspects. It is noteworthy that this generality is still a generality of perception; that is to say that one recognizes oneself in it, that one well sees that they are hands. Thus one recognizes the form of the man and that of the horse in the centaur; such is also the sense of the examples given by Descartes: the siren, the satyr. But there is:

2) a new retreat of reality and a new gain for appearance in the last sentence of the paragraph. The comparison with a painting that no longer refers to anything known, that no longer represents anything with a familiar form, signifies that that substance, which previously was at the level of the perceived in opposition to simple sensory aspects now retreats to beneath the perceived, wholly delivered to appearance. This moment is the one that we will name the moment of the physical object’s transcendence in relation to perception. Do not retreat here before this vocabulary; the thing is simple. Earlier we were saying: the dress is not perhaps red, that is perhaps only its aspect in such and such condition, but in the end it is a dress. Now it will no longer even be a dress. For all that is, in what I perceive as a dress, is no more than the material from which it is composed: not even the thread which I can still recognize, but the fiber of the thread, the cells of the fiber, and finally, a whole physical organization which no longer has anything to do with a dress, nor even with a cloth, nor even with a thread. The familiar coherence at the level of the perceived has ceased to define “what is,” at whatever level it may be. “What is” is always what stands beneath (substance), that is to say now, beneath the level of the perceived as such; it is the object in the sense of physics. The same also goes for the red of this dress: to the extent that it shows itself red, it is only appearance; for the reality of red is a certain vibration defined by the length of its wave and its period, which is not red. After having led us from sensory particularities to the generality of the object of perception, the search for “what is” has led us from the generality of perception to the generality of the object of science. It is now going to lead us to the generality of the object of metaphysics, that is to say to the abstract universality of the categories. For this whole movement of doubt takes place “for the same reason”--that is to say, the pursuit of being in the content of experience.

“And for the same reason, even though these general things, that is, the eyes, head, hands, and the like, could be imaginary, it is always necessary to admit that there are things still more simple and more universal that are true and existing.”

Note this “true and existing” which we must understand as a pleonasm: true, that is to say, existing. In the tradition, truth and reality are reciprocal. Further on, the same: “true and real.” More anciently than as the quality of a judgment, or as the adequatio rei et intellectus, the truth is defined as being. And the derived significations are to be understood based on the most ancient. This remark will soon serve us to clarify the meaning of the Evil Genius.

“[...] that are true and existing, from the mixture of which, neither more nor less than that of some veritable colors [...] Of this kind of things is corporeal nature in general and its extension [...] their number [...] and time [...] and other similar things.”

These are the categories according to Descartes. The categories in Aristotle and in Kant are the most general traits that bring out the figure of the real, whatever may elsewhere be its other determinations, which one no longer worries about here and that have all become appearance [passées a l’apparence].

When one regresses within the the content of experience, one does not in fact stop at the generality of the object of science. For this latter, taken in its turn as an object of perception, ceases then to be the ultimate term and refers us to an objective subjacent system that will explain it as appearance. Sub-stance is an idea that does not hold to any level of the real, and traverses them all. It is in the nature of an idea to be a limit idea.

Descartes sees evidence of simplicity in the categories. Of what “simplicity” is it a question? Of the one of a reality which is in the end no longer subjected in itself to its splitting into appearance and reality. The game by which every determined content is divided into an appearance, which is the level of this content, but which is not, and a reality which persists beneath (quod substat: substance) and which as such does not appear, this game ceases. Simple natures according to Descartes, this is the moment of ontological unity: it is the primitive stock of “what there is,” which remains “what there is” and is no longer decomposed into appearance and substance. It is the idea of a final texture of the real that no longer includes what the chain of apparent determinations always includes, the complicated design determined in a thousand ways of the compound real, that is to say, its decomposition into appearance and reality. This relativity of any content in its claim to be such as it appears, an always thwarted claim, disappears. The categories therefore are identically the simple and the absolute. Has Descartes therefore found his beginning? We would believe it in reading, for example, the Regulae:

“I call absolute all that contains in itself the pure and simple nature of which it is a question: thus all that is considered as independent, cause, simple, universal, one, equal, similar, right or other things of this kind; and I call it the most simple and the easiest, so that we use it to resolve questions. (Rule VI)”

Thus doubt wouldn’t be the beginning itself as the ontological decomposition of any content in appearance and substance, that is to say, the debut: a negative ontology of content that would lead to a veritable beginning, to reality posited at last without decomposition, simple and absolute.

Only doubt is not finished. It only ends in the Cogito a first time in order to end a second time in God alone. We will try to explain later this strange formula of a doubt that “ends” a first time and a second time. For the instant, what we know of the Meditations prevents us from ending doubt in the simple natures which are the Cartesian categories. And to stay with our current text, the Evil Genius himself is nothing other than doubt’s persistence beyond simplicity and categorial absoluteness.

The reason is that Descartes pursues his negative ontology not only within the generality of the object of science, but even within metaphysical generality. He will pursue the search for “what is” up to the direct confrontation of the “I think” itself, without any other determination, and of Being itself, without any other determination. He will pursue it, consequently, beyond the “categories” where we are now, whether one takes them for categories or for pure forms of representation, without “taking pains” to know if they define what is, or only what is absolutely representable. Descartes willingly treats as only concerning knowledge, as only concerning epistemology, what the tradition treats in an ontological way. Thus the beginning of Rule VI:

“[...] things can be arranged in different series, not doubtlessly as they are related to some genre of being as the philosophers have divided them following the categories, but such that knowledge of some can follow from knowledge of the others in such a way that each time some difficulty is presented we may see right away [...]”

To this text from the Regulae precisely responds the following paragraph from the first Meditation.

“[...] This is perhaps why from there we will not conclude badly if we say [...] that arithmetic, geometry [...] which treat only of very simple and very general things, without taking a lot of pains to know if they are or if they are not in nature, contain something certain and indubitable.”

Thus all appears to become obscure for us. For up to this point we have followed a Descartes who busied himself, in conformance with the “metaphysical” nature of his Meditations, pursuing “what is such as it is.” Then, at the moment when we’re reaching the end by arriving at the simple and the absolute, that is to say, at the reality which no longer dissolves into appearance, here is Descartes not even consenting to “taking the pains” to know if this is or is not in nature.

What does “in nature” mean? Certainly, we understand that mathematics are not “in nature.” A chalk circle is not a circle. Mathematical definitions (and according to Kant, only mathematics has definitions) totally contain their object which is only an object as an object of thought. The mathematical object in no way exceeds the mathematical statement, that is to say, that which I represent of it. To the contrary, it is the representation that defines the object.

The categories, following this mathematical model, would be a sort of pure axiomatics of “what is.” But then the moment of ontological unity is also that of absolute difference. For between “the simple and universal things true and existing,” on the one hand, and on the other hand, the things of nature, the things that one can actually see, which, however, would be a mixture of the first, there would be no conceivable relation. The whole order of appearing would therefore be composed in itself, but not for me, from a series of simple and absolute determinations, and from an “appearance” that would only be valid for me, and that, although it were only in itself a composition of the simple, would never be for me what it is in itself. So that by stopping there, Descartes would set man once and for all in radical falsehood; he would set him, like Pascal, within an absolute disproportion between being and nothingness. For we only ever deal with appearance.

And at the same time (and, however, apparently, conversely) this man who is blind to being to the extent that he is in the world, this blind man would determine what is by the pure form of its representation only. He would know as much as God about being, but he would be, as if for punishment, thrust into appearance as concerns his actual empirical reality. Here disappears, therefore, the hypothesis of sleep, in the sense that we have recognized it, and it is significant that it reappears here in order to disappear: for in any case, I am sleeping as regard the Being of the world. In which sense appearance for me is or is not the same thing as “what is” ? That “proportion” is not, nor will it ever be for me, only for God. On the other hand:

“[...] whether I wake or sleep, two and three joined together will always form the number five, and the square will never have more than four sides; and it does not seem that such apparent truths can be suspected of any falsity or incertitude.”

But in knowing as much as God about being itself, I throw God himself into the disproportion that is mine. For if being in no way goes beyond the representation that I have of it in simple natures, as mathematical objects in no way go beyond their definition, then God himself cannot think it insofar as it is in its very simplicity that from which (however) appearance is “composed.” For that is not given in simple natures. The difference of reality and appearance traverses in this way the very nature of being and it is superadded in a way incommensurable with their identity: it’s the absurd absolute ontological.

Based on this we can try to determine the meaning of the famous and so disconcerting initially (and even subsequently...) hypothesis of the Evil Genius.

The Evil Genius is the proper usage of the notion of God in the sense that it pulls God out of the ontological absurdity we had come to. It thus returns to one of Descartes’ most anchored convictions (cf. the correspondence with Marsenne), that God is the creator of eternal truths instead of being subject to them.

The Evil Genius is not there to slip doubt into the interior of the axiomatic certitudes themselves, whether they be mathematical or categorical, that is to say, logical. It is psychological doubt that slips itself in, that changes one’s state of mind; it is a question, to the contrary, of rendering the mind itself master of its states. The Evil Genius is not there to scare me but to show me, as the text says very clearly, that I can be mistaken in my certitudes, that is to say, that certitude is not truth. By “certitude” we must understand not any kind of intimate conviction whatsoever, but really (following the examples of mathematics and logic) the fact that the object rests entirely within and upon representation.

The Evil Genius therefore signifies that truth is not necessarily the same thing as absolute representability, and even that I am mistaken in believing it. In what sense, even, this mistaking is absolute falsity, the ontological absurd, is what we have tried to show. We must therefore leave it behind and return to sleep, and suppose that my thoughts of the reality of the real slumber still more at the heart of metaphysics than in perceiving consciousness. The Evil Genius contains in itself the radical critique of metaphysical proof. It is, in the form of a myth, that of which Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason will be the thematic development.

This deceiver God is the way of rendering to the idea of God its truth, that is to say, of refusing to force it to sanction the thoughts of being (simple natures) that, as necessary as they may be as the bent of my thought, as the subjective form of rationality, certain of itself from inside itself, are not for this any less the height of uncertainty and even the idea of the false since they would render useless all the trouble one could give oneself in order to know if “they are in nature” or if “they are not there.” As they suppose a thought of being traversed by the opposition of appearance and reality, they are and are not “in nature,” they are the ontological contradiction in its pure form. One must remove God, that is to say being itself, from this venture. The indifference to considering simple natures ontologically or epistemologically, this indifference does not mean the Meditations have ceased to be metaphysical in order to become epistemological; it signifies a new progression of doubt as ontological doubt.

This movement is also the last effort to separate appearance from “what is.” This separation takes place this time in the heart of metaphysics or first philosophy itself. The Evil Genius is the first suspicion (for the Moderns; we are not speaking here of the Greeks) that there is a realm of appearance for reason itself. Thus doubt, invading the intelligible after the sensory, has invaded everything. The demolition is built.

Why then must doubt be at the beginning? This role is explained by its nature. The nature of doubt is to be ontological. The nature of the on (ontos) is to draw back before the will to representation. It is this retreat of being which draws in thought as representation within doubt, that is to say within salutary negation.

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