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

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Of the nature of the human mind, and that it is easier to know than the body.”

The title of the second meditation surprises insofar as it would have us believe that the human mind is a certain domain (the domain of interiority) that would have its own knowledge (proper to it) that it would be necessary to inventory, that would contain riches of a particular type: which would have the effect of giving philosophy an object, one which would simply have the particularity of being a subject, ensuring that philosophy becomes a knowing.

But philosopher is not a specialist of the interior for the reason that thought is not a new domain superadded to the objective domains already existing. Certainly there is no other place for philosophy than the analysis of thought; but this place is precisely not a new domain of knowledge. Philosophy does not take a place among various knowledges: it is thought, it is not knowledge. This is because its proper place is not an object, an objective region, nor consequently a subjective region. It is in fact to take the subject as an object, to take it as interiority, as subjectivity. It is to believe that there would be some way there of “returning to oneself;” but the expression only has sense as a moral metaphor.

Thus before approaching the banks of philosophical certitude, before gaining a foothold in the Cogito, we must remind ourselves of a certain sobriety of thought to which Kant has already brought us and renounce the belief that we have intimate profuseness. However, this representation of the intimate is naively found everywhere, for example, in Bergson: The Immediate Data of Consciousness. Who does not imagine that philosophers are explorers of subjectivity, that they dive into that other “world of silence” which would have other dimensions: consciousness. Now Descartes’ title seems to push us in the same direction: “The human mind [...] is easier to know than the body.” We must understand that we only ever know the body, the object, the world, but that thought can make certain of itself precisely by making certain of the possibility of the object (which is not already a knowledge in the sense of the determination of contents), of its own possibility in itself, of its taking root in the origin, in the truth in the transcendental sense. But thought’s proper place is not a domain to know. But enough on the title; we’ll find all these problems quite soon enough again in the text.

“The meditation I performed yesterday filled my mind with so many doubts that it is no longer in my power from this point on to forget them.”

A warning that has nothing of the literary about it, and which is addressed, for example, to each one among you; that is, once one is engaged on the road of philosophy, one cannot pull back so easily. This adventure of the mind, which was born in Greece, and which continues to drive us even today, is not among those that one can avoid, is not at least among those one can escape from once one has got mixed up in it. It is true that the strange character of Cartesian doubt can ceaselessly renew in us a sort of irritation regarding philosophy: there is something forced about it; it is a “feint” as Descartes doesn’t stop saying. But at the same time – and this is what we have tried to show by always placing the text back under the meaning of the title: “Meditations of First Philosophy”– it corresponds to a questioning such that once it has arisen in man it never quits him and no longer leaves him in peace. There is always culturally a way to shrug off philosophy, but if the questions that it poses really touches us, then it is no longer in our power to forget them.

“And however, I do not see in what way I will be able to resolve them [...] nor swim to keep myself above.”

Here is Descartes drowned, drowned in doubt. Which means that the rigor with which doubt is pursued has nothing to do with any sort of logical clarity that would satisfy the mind by ceaselessly divulging its why and how. Philosophy is not necessarily, and never even primarily, transparent to itself. We are first taken up in its movement because it itself is first taken up in its own movement. As with all real things, it begins first and understands after. It is not now that Descartes understands what call he obeys when he undertakes this astonishing revocation of everything into doubt. And for ourselves this road only appears practicable and as having a sense if we ceaselessly put it in the perspective of the title where it gets revealed as negative ontology.

It is true that a certain courage is required to bear what is in fact philosophy at literary heights. But one cannot have this courage as a “determination” that itself is undetermined; one can only have it if that which is beyond the formulations of such and such philosopher has directly reached us; if the face that is outlined through them has been, at least at times, completely shown.

“I will try nevertheless [...] and I will continue always down this road [...] that there is nothing certain in this world.”

Everything in Descartes is freedom and will. It’s what one generally admires and sometimes, at the height of obfuscation, what one makes into a principle of explanation: Descartes the voluntarist, the truth must be willed, etc. But we do not see at all why everything should begin with the will. Why wouldn’t this also really be an obstinacy without object? It would be better to understand why “the order of the reasons” not only is not the same as the “order of the matters” but is the inverse of the order of the matters. The sort of void that doubt deliberately produces in order to have a place to move, a place to follow its own road would be better explained in this way than by a wholly undetermined “will.” We will try to produce this explanation. But for the instant it remains certain that doubt is the contrary of an education. Descartes follows the straight road (as in the famous example of the forest), that is to say, the shortest road. Doubt cuts short: there where it finds the doubtful, it puts the false. It doesn’t expect (it’s the opposite of a wisdom) it does not expect from the maturing of experience that the true and the false should end up changing into one another, and that they are no longer differentiated except in the judgment of an informed consciousness that, disappointed by all concepts and all principles, would believe in recuperating their truth beyond their theoretical collapse, in the ineffable unity of a wisdom. Descartes does not believe that truth is acquired but rather that it is conquered. Caesar maximis itineribus Galliam petiit: same movement in Descartes. But if this movement is imperious, it is not through any trait of Descartes’ nature; or rather this trait, if it exists, would be totally without interest if it weren’t justified by the very nature of what calls for doubt. It is because the question of “what is such as it is,” and of what thought is in itself, this unique question is exclusive of a pure and simple ripening, of a pure and simple meditation on experience. It is not a matter of becoming a good man. There is no optimates, and there is no education in philosophy. Why? To what does this rhythm of Descartes hold: “and I will always continue down this road”? This is incomprehensible for us if we have not understood, at least through anticipation, that there is no consolation for thought at the level of the certitudes of content. The question of truth itself is not abstract, that is to say, is not withdrawn from any content, from any experience. There is no philosophical experience. This difference of Truth as regards all truths (improperly named, consequently): moral, political, scientific, philosophical, too (and that is not the least troubling), this difference remains to be understood. It remains to be understood why the true is not something gleaned from the universe, nor from consciousness. For the moment, the true shows itself to Descartes in such a way that it recoils before him. This is not Descartes’ decision: Descartes follows the road. He persists because there only is one road. But the result is soon going to astonish us: if we must exit the set of contents we must exit the World. Such is the sense of the comparison with Archimedes:

“Archimedes, in order to pull the terrestrial globe from its place and transport it to another, asked for nothing more than a point that was fixed and secure.”

Through doubt, and through the truth that will have enough weight to counterbalance doubt (it will be the Cogito), it is a matter of pulling each one of our attitudes from the place where it is lived by simple consciousness, which in a certain way cannot help it, in order to situate them in a place where they are not in themselves, in any case where they are not for themselves: to situate them in truth. It is always the same pattern: it is not a matter of changing the content but of ceasing to be a man whose certitudes are adjacent to one another (those of perception, those of objective knowledge, those of affectivity, of moral will, of sentiment etc.), but are not conscious of each other, always scattering, and whose incertitudes perhaps do not have more sense than his certitudes. It is a matter of transporting (intact in some way, consequently) all of this world in which I have ideas, I have doubts, highs and lows, beliefs and non-beliefs into a place where the true, the false, and their mixture cease to happen to me. But this necessity [“il faut”] is itself for the instant, and perhaps for a long time, belief for us. It is the need for the one, systematic form, the fundamental need of the mind. For us it is only an idea.

What will be the Archemedian point on which I can support myself?

“Thus I will have the right to conceive of some just hopes if I am happy enough to find only one thing which is certain and indubitable.”

Again, it is necessary that this “thing” (Cogito) be the principle for all the rest. As an isolated truth it would be of no importance. Doubt does not consist in sifting through the universe in order to find thought in it like a nugget. But the content of doubt must become the field of truth.

“I suppose, therefore, that all the things I see are false [...] that my memory filled with lies represents to me.”

What does “lie” mean? It means that the verb “to be” (“I am persuaded that nothing ever was [...]”) is much more hidden than I believe on the faith of simple consciousness that lives within the real. It is not a matter of pretending I wasn’t there when I remember that I was there and doubting my memory [memoire] through the details of remembering [souvenir]. But it is a matter of understanding that to be present in the world, whether it be through present perception or through memory is perhaps something other than a fortuitous circumstance. Something other than an obvious fact that one would only have to dig into.

“I think I have no sense [...]” But what about sight? hearing? smell? taste? touch? And perhaps some others: a specific sense for cold and hot etc. It is not a matter for Descartes, and in philosophy it is never a matter, of denying the body, but of denying that which we substitute for the evidence of the body, and that is a metaphysical language, not the naive language it appears to be, namely: the senses conceived as a certain faculty of apprehension that would put me in the real, as if I were in the real by representation, as if the subject inhabited a body and groped about in the real in order to make a place for itself. But the given does not relate to a subjectivity, and for this reason neither does it relate to the senses. Rather it is necessary to find out how the universe itself, as the a priori form of the sensory according to Kant, makes the body possible and through this is opposed to a “representation.” The idea of a relation to the world; this is what is false. The senses are not the subjective’s supply lines.

Descartes’ doubt is a constant critique of the obvious; that is why Descartes seems absurd: “I think I have no senses.” Translation: I realize that I think nothing when I say: “I have senses,” and that the problem of the nature of the sensory, and of the ontological status of the body completely escapes me, and that there is a lot of falsity in the evidence that leads me into a representational schema, and notably in those false problems that one finds in the manuals: “the psycho-physiological parallelism,” etc. False problems and exceedingly dull ones, moreover. One must take up thought in thinkers and not in manuals.

“I believe that body, figure, extension, movement and place are only fictions of my mind.”

And in fact, extension, that is to say the primary qualities posited as reality subjacent to secondary qualities which would only be its appearance, supposes that appearance is not but would be, for a consciousness bogged down in the senses, the deceptive aspect that the real takes on. But appearance is – Kant’s lesson. Appearance cannot even be appearance if it doesn’t have an ontological scope [portee]. Therefore it is true that extension is a “fiction of my mind”--understand not a hallucination of psychological consciousness, but a dialectical notion of reason. Thus to criticize the Cartesian notion of extension in the name of the Kantian notion of space is to understand the Cartesian negation with which we are dealing here. Extension is the (abstract) representation (but that’s a pleonasm) of the spatial as such. But we must recognize that this explanation is not in Descartes. What is in Descartes, truly not “educational” enough, is that he never explains in what way “fictions” could really be “fictions.” So much so that if one does not have at one’s disposal a general principle of interpretation, which is that the sense of the word “to be” shrinks back in relation to the facts of simple consciousness, whether as sensible consciousness or as intelligible consciousness, then Descartes’ doubt becomes exorbitant.

It is important to note here that this principle of interpretation could not be just any one; and particularly, it is not enough to have an erudite knowledge of Descartes’ work in order to find it. Such a knowledge is even what can most induce us to error. For the first thing it notes is the predominance of the mathematical example in the Cartesian conception of the search for the true. It is tempting, therefore, to explain the approach of doubt, and all the “hyperbolic” or “methodical” characteristics we know it to have, based on the difference that there is through the relation to a world that is already that of science, between mathematics, science of the simple and the absolute, science of the representable as such, and all the other sciences whose object is more compound, or again is “in nature.” From this point of view ontology denies itself in the sense that it is reduced to the epistemological order: “what is” is such that it is absolutely representable; and as the epistemological has here the weight of the ontological, the object contained in geometry is posited as reality: it is extension.

To this object, which is the representable posited as reality, and as the only reality (as the reality of any other “real” of a more compound degree, that is therefore not real but appearance of extension, and “deceptive” in this sense that it passes itself off at its level for real, while it is only real at the level of extension) links up the chain, the order of reasons. One even believes then they understand that the order of reasons may itself be in the inverse order of the order of matters – in other words, that the order of what has being is in the inverse order of the order of what shows itself. The representable posited as reality is in fact at the same time posited as the absolute nonappearing. The nature of all that appears, in fact, is to contain a unity that is never exhausted by the aspects through which it shows itself and of which it is, however, the reason, to the extent that all are “its” aspects; any object that shows itself is thus the inexhaustible for representation. The thing, distinguished as a “that which” (shows itself) by all the ways it shows itself, makes of all this appearing an appearance of itself, but that is not itself, and that, absolutely speaking, is not; for all that is in that which shows itself is that which shows itself. As, if I now descend to this level of substance, I will find it again as a thing that shows itself, the same essentially deceitful structure is repeated at all levels of content. The order of matters is therefore an ontological appearance, that is to say, the absolute figure of the false, and this is why doubt must deny it. In briskly carrying out this negation, doubt would do no more than gain the point of departure for the order of reasons by turning back the order of matters.

But if such was in fact the reason for the movement of doubt, it would terminate with simple natures. It would not then need the Evil Genius, nor the Cogito (if not as a pure form of representation), nor God. These three major articulations of the Meditations must prohibit us from explaining Descartes through another text, the Regulae for example, based upon which they could no longer be understood.

Concerning the Evil Genius, perhaps we said enough the other day. Concerning the Cogito, we must show that it is not simply the pure form of representation at its reflexive summum, that it is not the heart of the act that the Regulae call “intuition.” Not only isn’t it a clear and distinct idea (even if after the fact it must be taken as the type for these by Descartes himself) in the sense of the category of substance (on this subject, see the critiques of Maine de Biran), but neither is it the present proof [evidence actuel] of representation announcing its object which does not exceed it in any way. For this pure, reflexive way of conceiving the Cogito completely neglects the enigma posed by the expression: “I am.”

But this question demands its own development.

What I wanted to sketch out is that doubt is not a method of exposition for an already existing ontology which would consist in “positing” the object of mathematics as reality, but purely intelligible and unapparent, while at the other end of the chain perceiving consciousness would deal with absolute appearance. Doubt, on the contrary, is really the beginning for Descartes and not the exposition of an existing ontological conception. And if it is developed as negation, it is not in the sense that the intelligible circle negates the circularity of “round things” I trace in chalk; it is not because the nature of being consists in absolute representability that negates what appears as ontological appearance. But doubt encompasses even the rational certitudes that this schema supposes. Its movement can therefore be explained only because being retreats even outside of simple natures, or outside of natural rationality. We must leave to doubt its form and its space. It is the beginning, the simple and the absolute.

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