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

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How does Descartes verify himself? At first, in the absence of the world; not that it has abruptly disappeared for Descartes’ quotidian or ordinary consciousness, but “absence” in the sense that thought is going to take hold of itself in its sense of being (“I am”) without the original connection of thought and the real having been considered as necessary to this seizure of thought by itself. The Cogito is going to take hold of itself at the moment when the world is still placed in doubt; consequently, “this assured and fixed point” is found outside the world as the fulcrum of the lever is found outside the moving system. This is one of the senses of that rich comparison with Archimedes that opens the movement towards the Cogito in the second Meditation.

“Am I so dependent on the body and the senses that I cannot be without them? But I convinced myself that there was nothing at all in the world [...]”

The world is to such a point the form of all thought, that when he tries to think nothing [le rien], Descartes again says:

“nothing at all in the world” “[...] that there wasn’t any sky, any earth, any mind, nor any body; didn’t I also therefore convince myself that I was not?”

It seems that this sort of evacuation of beings towards nothingness, to which doubt does not cease to systematically proceed, must reach man in his turn and his place in the universe such as he is when one defines him as the rational animal. It seems then that he is carried off by the movement of negation, for nothing tells us, for the instant, that man may be thought otherwise than as one being among others, in his own place in the whole of reality. But doubt stumbles against the Cogito as against that which one can in no way move or lift by oneself.

“No certainly, I was without doubt, if I convinced myself [...] and taking for constant only this proposition: ‘I am, I exist’ is necessarily true every time I pronounce it [...]”

The question here is entirely in the weight of the verb “to be.” You will note, for the rest, that the first formulation of the Cogito we meet with is not exactly “Cogito,” it’s: “I am, I exist.” In what sense does Descartes attain in himself the being that he looks for from the beginning of the Méditations and that the world cannot give him?

In the first Meditation what obliges Descartes to throw the world into doubt is the fact that reality is unceasingly changing its appearance before the will of thought to attain the real in its reality, from the most immediate level, that of sensory evidence, through to simple natures and to the Evil Genius which signifies that the intelligible itself can be the place [lieu] of an appearance (metaphysical appearance.) How does it happen that the Cogito resists such a magnitude of doubt? We must admit that we are not quite convinced by the text whose formal character is difficult not to perceive: if “I” am mistaken, even in my fundamental (rational) logical certitudes and not only in my sensory certitudes, there remains anyways at least the subject of thought. If, therefore, doubt can attain all the contents of thought, it can (only) attain this latter one to the extent that, through doubt itself, precisely, it withdraws from that which it is itself as a simple certitude of content. But then, what remains? A sort of pure will of thought.

Can thought, willing itself to be itself in its deed and in its form, express itself with the weight of reality? Can it express itself as an “I am,” that is to say, in opposition to the dissolution of all reality in appearance (1st Meditation), constantly verifying itself as real, ceaselessly grasping itself in truth. Descartes invokes the moment when I pronounce the Cogito. This proposition: “I am, I exist,” is not abstractly true, that is to say, it is not the product of logical reasoning; to be mistaken there must be a subject that is mistaken [pour se tromper, il faut qu’il y ait un sujet qui se trompe]. Purely categorial reasoning could be worth as much for the world: so that all things appear as they are not, there must be something that may be. But that is the category of substance that falls with all the others from the blows of the Evil Genius.

It seems, then, that rather than a reasoning of a categorial type, in the Cogito it is a matter of an intuition such as it is defined in the Regulae, that is to say such that the object consists entirely of its representation, that it is born and produced by representation. It seems to be an intuition of the same type that we are dealing with here: “I am, I exist” is necessarily true every time I pronounce it. Thus, I “am” to the extent that I pronounce myself. This way of crying into the void an “I” that is reflected in itself (and, in fact, in this void left by doubt, the world is only any longer a great shell that resonates, the possibility of an echo, and all is ready so that the “I” pronouncing itself hears itself say that it is), does this situation suit us well?

What is, therefore, the sense of the verb “be” in “I am” ? Thought is attained as being, but without any determination and in the poorest way possible, it clings to its pure form; but all this takes place outside the world; the “fixed and sure point” is outside of the world since the world itself is denied. The question is one of knowing if the Cogito can be sure of itself [s’assurer de lui-meme] precisely outside of the profession of what constitutes its nature, its most profound definition, which is to be primitively in the real. The question is that of knowing if thought can be sure of itself as self-conciousness, reflecting its interiority in the void of a refused, unquestioned world, or if, on the contrary, no discourse, and not even that sort of cry of solitary thought – “I am” – can convince the mind of its primacy, of its reality, without the unity of this thought having been seized in relation to the position of the real itself. Can the point remain sure and fixed if it remains outside the world? If yes, that supposes that thought is a sort of domain set apart, an absolute instance that is not essentially linked to the real, and that consequently, the world is never for man (man fittingly being defined by thought) but a setting, a contingent place that could not in any way be the place of his definition, of his vocation. We must admit that in the Greek tradition, as in the Christian tradition, many memories compete in us in order to make us precipitately accept that thought is not of this world, and that this world is consequently a “lower world.” It is this idea, and it alone, that makes the second Meditation possible, and makes it so one doesn’t question Descartes too harshly about his “I am.” For the whole tradition wills that thought become sure of itself independently of the senses, and thereby of the world. Thus thought would be assured of itself as interiority, as subjectivity; and it would be posited without this position being by the same token [du même coup] what puts it into the world and what puts the world itself “in publication” (what makes it initially appear). But we will see in following Descartes that we must not transform the steps of thought into ontological affirmations, and we will see in following Kant that it is not possible that thought should take hold of itself and proclaim its being, hold itself up within being simply as interiority and self-consciousness in a total rupture from any connection regarding the real, such that these connections would only be contingent and secondary, but to the contrary, thought must be born in transcendent truth, and the analysis of what I always take for a subjectivity must show that the fundamental function of the subject is to not be subjective, and that it is borne by the same possibility as the object.

Let us see how Descartes, who does not now consider the connection of thought to the world and thus seems to have fallen upon the I think as an I am like a resistant part that one could not remove without that solidity of thought that permits it to proclaim itself as being needing to be understood as a function of the real, let us see how Descartes proceeds. Descartes is quite conscious of the fact that he has fallen upon the truth in the middle of the night, that he does not yet know this “I think” simply proclaimed as an “I am.” And so he continues, saying: “But I still don’t know clearly enough what I am, I that am certain that I am [...]” I know it with so little clarity that it isn’t only a question here of the determinations of what I am but even the sense according to which “I am.” There is such a leap between “I think” and “I am” that at the moment of the hypothesis of God (3rd Meditation), this leap will be recognized as such in a very short passage where God threatens even the Cogito. But, to return to our text: therefore “I do not know clearly enough what I am, I who am certain that I am.” I am not even certain what one must understand by “I am”; I am only formally certain, but there is nothing determined, no thought of thought is yet sketched out here,

“so that from now on I must carefully guard against impudently mistaking something else for me, and thus mistaking myself in this knowledge that I maintain to be more certain and more self-evident than all that I had before.”

A stunning passage, where one sees that the most self-evident and certain knowledge is that which one must mistrust the most: one must not “be mistaken” here. [il ne faut pas s’y méprendre] Which goes to show that Descartes is always surprising. We have already said that the nature of doubt is to attack certitudes and is not the doubtful in the psychological sense. Here one again sees the same relation between what is certain and doubt: what I am most certain of is the moment at which doubt attains its maximum. Thus doubt is not finished because one has encountered the Cogito, but in reality it continues as a questioning about the sense of this encounter: in what way can thought say of itself that it “is”? In what way is it the road of inquiry that characterizes first philosophy, the seeking of being such as it is? In what way is man, among all beings, the one who in “meeting” himself encounters his sense of being (“I am”), while all things were encountered in their apparent sense [sens d’apparence]? Not to be mistaken here, to raise doubt to the level of the certitude of the Cogito: this matters supremely, for here it concerns quite simply the possibility of first philosophy.

The Cogito, in one sense, simply signifies the necessity that the truth be possible, and in that case it is a sort of practical Cogito, a fundamental axiomatic decision. If thought must be possible, the unity of thought and being must be accessible. But this here is rather a faith than a discovery that one can describe. The Cogito is not an “adventure” that only happens to Descartes. He presents it in this way, for the whole presentation of the Méditations is crafted [artisinale]: as if in encountering himself man encounters what resists, and this in the form of thought, that is to say, as what of itself affirms being (starting with its own), is of itself access to being itself. But it cannot be a question of an adventure here, nor of a psychological moment of consciousness – this is why it is vain to want to convince oneself of the Cogito – but rather of the possibility of thought in the allegorical form of an encounter. Thus one understands that doubt grows at the same time as certitude.

What has one gained in all this? Is it not worrisome to see thought affirmed as the will to thought, metaphysics repeat its possibility by repeating its definition, and man repeat his fundamental claim. Aren’t we stuck turning in circles and floundering in beginnings? But doubt isn’t finished, nor are the Méditations. The circuit of doubt only concludes in God. For the instant it is like the trace of a truth, the Cogito, totally obscure: “not to be mistaken.” For: “I do not yet sufficiently know what I am [...].” In the end the Cogito is without any content. It has taken place, but it only understands itself as the allegory of the possibility of thought. In itself, it is already not at all true, already not at all a source of truth: one must begin again. Once more is the master word of the Méditations because at every instant Descartes strives to restart doubt and to lead it further along: “This is why I will once more consider what I believed to be [...]”

Thus, we are far from compiling results; this is because the road of thought is, to the contrary, one of posing questions.

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