Friday, April 24, 2009

The Mathematician under the (False?) God

Thanks to Yusef for making me re-read MEDITATION and marvel at the creative reductionism of Descartes. He was in a way the pre-Enlightenment thinker a hundred years before The Enlightenment proper.

There is this crucial passage in MEDITATION II, section 3 (1641) that inspires closer reading

Is there not a God, or some being, by whatever name I may designate him, who causes these thoughts to arise in my mind ? But why suppose such a being, for it may be I myself am capable of producing them? Am I, then, at least not something? But I before denied that I possessed senses or a body; I hesitate, however, for what follows from that? Am I so dependent on the body and the senses that without these I cannot exist? But I had the persuasion that there was absolutely nothing in the world, that there was no sky and no earth, neither minds nor bodies; was I not, therefore, at the same time, persuaded that I did not exist? Far from it; I assuredly existed, since I was persuaded. But there is I know not what being, who is possessed at once of the highest power and the deepest cunning, who is constantly employing all his ingenuity in deceiving me. Doubtless, then, I exist, since I am deceived; and, let him deceive me as he may, he can never bring it about that I am nothing, so long as I shall be conscious that I am something. So that it must, in fine, be maintained, all things being maturely and carefully considered, that this proposition (pronunciatum ) I am, I exist, is necessarily true each time it is expressed by me, or conceived in my mind.

First off, it is remarkable that he even questions the concept of “God” ( by whatever name I may designate him) at a time when even deists hadn’t dared to come forward. Not even that, he actually proposes that God is a projection (Feuerbach would later gain notoriety for precisely the same idea exactly two hundred years later in "Das Wesen des Christentum").

Then the startling admission that the “I” exists “because it was PERSUADED” by the objectivity of being proven wrong: the supremacy of rational discourse. The mathematician had been convinced by “scientific” proof! And the humble statement (in true Karl Popper fashion) that “I exist, since I am deceived” followed by the chest-pounding (almost Nietzschean) defiance “let him deceive me as he may, he can never bring it about that I am nothing!”

Indeed not.

And finally, going for the kill: this proposition (pronunciatum) I am, I exist, is necessarily true each time it is expressed by me, or conceived in my mind.

Now take this – God! – and the rest of mankind: I am.

Descartes was primarily a mathematician who had to labor under the metaphysics of his time, but he tried, as best he could, to stick to his guns (even though this martial imagery is hardly appropriate for this frail and sickly man who had abdicated from his decrepit body to live in his mind!)

When it is suggested that Descartes represents “the subject taking its own subjectivity as an object” there is an almost scholastic smell to it. Reductionism is ultimately about the dogma of definitions – and logic – and positivism. Is there really a problem with "the concept of objectivity”? Be it the subject or – the object?

In Descartes’s arithmetic there exists objectivity (UNDER God), however suspicious it may sound today 368 years later, but maybe he wasn’t that contingent in his time, instead rather ahead of it.

Today, debate is still raging about what THE OBJECT of philosophy is. Does it even have one?

Mathematics is out, truth is out, givenness is out, realism barely survives. What’s left?


Blogger Christoffer said...

That was a textbook example of misreading Descartes.

Descartes is not trying to prove that he exist, or that the world is real, or whats parts of it. But how and in what sense, that we can know it.

The idea that you propose that Descartes is a "pre-Enlightenment" thinker, is absurd. On the contrary, Descartes thinking is inceptive for the whole of the Enlightenment. Kants is culminative.

2:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree the passage inspires closer reading, but it is important to point out I am not concerned with a closer reading of Descartes. I am concerned with the bowdlerized or vulgarized Descartes and its use and vitality for our concept creation. Why else would I propose anyone take seriously a statement which I cough up in the manner of a furball? If I wanted accuracy and scholarship, I do have the capability of going to the Descartes and excerpting from it.

I did look at this very passage you quote AFTER I coughed up the furball. I did note my furball had very little if any relationship to Descartes, and the strangeness of even naming Descartes in association with the furball.

I haven't wanted to emphasize Descartes' relationship to God because I think such an emphasis only serves to obscure Descartes' concept creation, which is what I want to get at.


11:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Yusef,

Yeah, I get it. Furballs are larval concepts (not subjects!) in a process of bec

oming or development that have not yet actualized themselves in a specific form. In this sense all our posts qualify. A vulgarized "Descartes" is as good as any other "Descartes" or shouldn't that be "DescartesES"?

Keep coughing.


3:20 PM  

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