Front Page Titles (by Subject) V.: The Guarantee of the Principle . - The Method, Meditations and Philosophy of Descartes
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V.: The Guarantee of the Principle . - Réné Descartes, The Method, Meditations and Philosophy of Descartes 
The Method, Meditations and Philosophy of Descartes, translated from the Original Texts, with a new introductory Essay, Historical and Critical by John Veitch and a Special Introduction by Frank Sewall (Washington: M. Walter Dunne, 1901).
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The Guaranteeof thePrinciple.
Now, the question arises, What precisely is the guarantee of this position,— the cogito ergo sum? It may be said simply individual reflection, individual test, trial, or experiment, on the processes of knowledge — analytic reflection carried to its utmost limit. But it may be urged this is wholly an individual experience, and it cannot ground a general rule or law for all human knowledge, far less for knowledge in general. It is true that this experiment of Descartes is an individual effort, and all true philosophy is such. This is essential to speculation in any form. The individual thinker must realize each truth as his own and by his own effort. But it is possible for the individual proceeding by single effort to find, and to unite himself with, universal truth. Thus only, indeed, can he so unite himself. It is the quickened intellect in living quest which makes the conquest. Doctrine held in any other way, even when it is truth, is a sapless verbalism. Now, what is the law or ground of the conviction that my being conscious is impossible unless as I am? Simply the principles of identity and non-contradiction, evidencing themselves in a definite form and application — asserting their strength, but as yet to Descartes only in a hidden way — implicitly, not explicitly. my being conscious is my being—my being for the moment. If I try to think my being conscious without also thinking my being, I cannot. And as these are thus in the moment of time identical, it would be a contradiction to suppose me being conscious without me being. Thus is my momentary existence secured or preserved for thought.
Whether I can go beyond this and predicate the identity of my being or of me as being all through successive moments, is of course not at once settled by this position. But it is not foreclosed by it, and it is open to adduce the proper proof of the continuous identity, if this can be found.
This, as seems to me, is what is implied as the guarantee of the first principle of Descartes. He has not himself, however, developed it in this way, for the reason chiefly that he did not recognize the principle of Non-Contradiction as regulating immediate inference. There is a little noticed but significant passage in which he touches on this law, in. a letter to Clerselier. Referring to that which we ought to take for the first principle, he says: “The word principle may be taken in diverse senses, and it is one thing to seek a common notion which is so clear and so general that it may serve as a principle to prove the existence of all beings, the entia which one will afterward know; and it is another thing to seek a being, the existence of which is more known to ns than that of any others, so that it may serve us as principle for knowing them. In the first sense it may be said that it is impossible for the same thing at once to be and not to be is a principle, and that it may serve generally, not properly to make known the existence of anything, but only to cause that when one knows it one confirms the truth of it by such a reasoning,—It is impossible that what is should not be; but i know that such a thing is; hence i knowthat it is impossible it should not be. This is of little importance, and does not make us wiser. In the other sense, the first principle is that our soul exists, because there is nothing the existence of which is more known to us. I add also that it is not a condition which we ought to require of the first principle, that of being such that all other propositions may be reduced to and proved by it; it is enough that it serve to discover several of them, and that there is no other upon which it depends, or which we can find before it. For it may be that there is not any principle in the world to which alone all things can be reduced; and the way in which people reduce other propositions to this, — impossibile est idem simul esse et non esse, —is superfluous and of no use; whereas it is with very great utility that one commences to be assured of the existence ofGod, and afterward of that of all creatures, by the consideration of his own proper existence.”
This shows, on the whole, that Descartes had not fully thought out his own position. He had most certainly well appreciated the true scope of the principle of noncontradiction, as incapable of yielding a single fact or new notion. In this he showed himself greatly in advance of many nineteenth-century philosophers. And he showed also his thorough apprehension of the fact that the true principle of a constructive philosophy lies not in mere identity, or in the preservation of the consistency of a thought with itself, but in its affording the ground of new truths. His view is, that ere the principle of non-contradiction can come into exercise at all, something must be known. And any one who really puts meaning into words cannot suppose for a moment anything else. All this should be fully and generously recognized as evidence of a thoroughly far-seeing philosophical vision. At the same time, he does not see the negative or preservative value of the principle — and the need of it as a guard for the fact of self-consciousness as being self-existence for the moment, which he finds in experience. It is this principle alone which, supervening on the intuition, makes it definite or limited — a positive — shut out from the very possibility of being identified with any opposite or negative, although this may be implied in its very conception.
The first truth of Descartes — being conscious, I am — is thus not properly described as, in the first instance, a universal in knowledge. It is a definite particular or individual fact, guaranteed by its necessity, by the impossibility of transcending definite limits, and in this necessity, or through the consciousness of it, is the universality connected with the fact revealed. But for the conscious necessity, I could never either know the universality, or guarantee to myself this universality, for I have as yet but knowledge of one actual case, whatever extension my conception may assume in and through it; and but for the necessity, I could never assert the universality — being conscious, i am; being conscious, each is.
Descartes expressly anticipated this misapprehension, and strove to correct it. Nothing can be more explicit than his view that the necessity is first, and that this is, as it can only be, the guarantee of the universality. If a universal, it must be a mere abstract universal to begin with, in which case it can be applied neither to my existence nor to my existence at a given time. It must be a universal too, surreptitiously obtained, for it is a universal of thought and being which I have never known or consciously realized in any individual case. And if I have not done this, I cannot know it to be applicable to any case, far less to all cases. It is thus an empty and illegitimate abstraction, which can tell me nothing, because it wholly transcends any consciousness.
Further, the conviction which we get of the necessary connection between self-consciousness and self-existence is not due to the knowledge of the general formulæ of identity and non-contradiction—viz, A is A, and A = not-A = O. But, on the other hand, the necessity of those formulæ is realized by us in the definite instance itself. This is as true and certain to us as is the general formula or law which it exemplifies. Nay, we can only in the instance find for ourselves or test the necessity of the formula itself. We do not thus add to the certainty of our conviction of the truth in the particular instance by stating the general formula; we only draw out, as it were, of the particular case, and then describe that most general form on which reflection shows us this already perfect conviction rests. It is, therefore, idle to talk of evolving the particular truth from the universal formula; for the latter is nothing to us until it is found exemplified in the particular instance. Nor is it of any greater relevancy to say that self-consciousness is deduced from consciousness in general or the idea of consciousness; for, on exactly the same principle, we know nothing of such a general consciousness unless as exemplified in this primary self-consciousness. This is as early in thought and in time as the idea of consciousness in general, or of the Ego in general, or an infinite self-consciousness, whatever such an ambiguous phrase may, according to the requirements of an argument, be twisted to mean.
And this consideration should be fatal to the view or representation that there is here a “determination” by the thinker, or by “ thought” which, by the way, seems capable of dispensing with a thinker altogether. “To determine “ is a very definite logical phrase, which has and can have but one clear meaning. The mind determines an object when it classifies the materials of sense and inward experience; and when, descending from higher genera, it evolves species and individuals, through knowledge of differences extraneous to the genera themselves. Whatever be implied in these processes, it is clear at least that “determination” is a thoroughly conscious process; and it is further a secondary or reflective process. When we refer any given object to a class, and thus fix or determine it for what it is, we suppose the possession by us of a prior knowledge — knowledge of a class constituted and represented by objects — and knowledge too, of this or that object of thought, which we now refer to the class. In this sense it is quite clear that Descartes could not be supposed “ to determine” his experience, either as to the conscious act, or as to the limits under which it was conceivable by him, for his procedure was initiative, and he is not gratuitously to be supposed in conscious possession of knowledge before the single conscious act in which knowledge is for the first time realized. Besides, determination implies a consciousness of generality — in this case even universality — of law and limit of which he could not possibly be conscious, until he became aware of them in the very act of his experimental reflection. Even the most general form of determination—that of regarding an object as such — can arise into consciousness only reflectively through the first experience of this or that object in which the notion of object is at once revealed and emphasized. Nay, if, according to a possible but disputable interpretation of Kant, perception being “blind” and conception “empty,” the former is not a species of knowledge at all, and has no separate object: and if conception be equally void of object, and yet always needed to make even an object of knowledge, determination is an absurdity; for the understanding or mind as exercising this function must in this case be supposed able to determine or clothe in category that which is as yet not an object of consciousness at all. It must be able to act, though it is assumed as entirely empty and incapable of filling itself with content. There are but two alternatives here — either the so-called “manifold of sensation” is not matter of consciousness, or it is. If the former, then the empty and uninformed understanding can make an object of what is not in any way supplied to it—it can combine into unity what is beyond consciousness itself; or if this “manifold” be in consciousness by itself, it can be so without being known, — consciousness of the manifold may exist without knowledge of the manifold — that is, without knowledge of its object. We have thus a complexus of absurdity. The understanding can make a synthesis of a “manifold” which is never within its ken; and it can be conscious of a universal which, as the cofactor of the unconstituted object, is not yet in knowledge. Nothing need be said of the absurdity of describing “ the manifold” of perception when perception has no distinctive object at all, but receives its object from conception. And the “manifold” of perception, while it supposes always a unity and a series of points at least, is about the most inapplicable expression which it is possible to apply to the sensations of taste, odor, sound, and tactual feeling. In these, as sensations, there is no manifold; each is an indivisible attribute or unity. These may, no doubt, constitute a manifold through time and succession; but they can do so only on condition of being separately apprehended in time as objects or points. The manifold of sense even cannot be a manifold of non-entities or unconscious elements. But the problem of analyzing object or thing is an impossible one from the first. Of what is ultimately an object for consciousness, we cannot state the elements, without being conscious of each element as an object. If we are not conscious of each element as an object by itself, as distinguished from each other element which enters into the object, we cannot know what the elements are which make up any object of consciousness. We have not even consciousness or knowledge at all. We cannot specify either the mutual relations or the mutual functions of the elements. If we are conscious of each element by itself and of its functions, we have an object of knowledge, prior to the constitution of the object of knowledge — the only object supposed possible. “Thing” or “object” or “being” is ultimately unanalyzable by us, seeing that our instrument of analysis is itself only possible by cognizing thing or being in some form, — by bringing it to the analysis. what things are we can tell, — what sorts of things as they stand in different relations to each other, and to us; but the ground of the possibility of this is thing or object itself, given in inseparable correlation with the act of consciousness.
The truth is that this theory of determination proceeds on the confusion of two kinds of judgments which are wholly distinct in character, the logical and psychological. The logical judgment always supposes two ideas of objects known by us. It comes into play only after apprehension of qualities, and is simply an application of classification or attribution. The subject of the judgment is thus determined as belonging to a class, or as possessing an attribute; but subject, class, and attribute are already in the mind or consciousness; only they are as yet neither joined nor disjoined. This kind of judgment is a secondary and derivative process, and has nothing to do with the primitive acts of knowledge. The psychological or metaphysical judgment, if the name be retained, with which knowledge begins, and without which the logical judgment is impossible — does not suppose a previous knowledge of the terms to be united. It is manifested in self-consciousness and in perception. In it knowledge and affirmation of the present and momentary reality are identical. As I am conscious of feeling, so I am affirming the reality of my consciousness or existence. As I touch extension, so I affirm the reality of the object touched. In no other way can I reach the reality either of self or not-self. To suppose that I reach it by comparing the notions of self and existence, or of extension and existence — is to suppose an absolutely abstract or general knowledge of me and being, in the first instance, that I may know, in the second instance, whether I can join them together, and they therefore exist. But this supposes that I can have this abstract knowledge by itself, apart from individual realization. It supposes also that I can have this before I know its embodiment in the concrete at all, and finally it fails to give me the knowledge I seek—for it only, at the utmost, could tell me that the ideas of me and existence are not incongruous or contradictory — whereas what I wish to know is whether I actually am. On such a doctrine my existing must mean merely an ideal compatibility.
In a word, determination of things by thought, as it is called, supposes a system of thought or consciousness. It supposes the thinker to be in possession of notions and principles, and to be consciously in possession of them. Otherwise it is a blind and unconscious determination done for the thinker, and not by him, and the thinker does not know at all. But if the thinker is already in possession of such a knowledge, we have not explained the origin of knowledge or experience; we have only referred it to a pre-existing system of knowledge in consciousness. If, therefore, we are to show how knowledge rises up for the first time, we must look to what is before even this system. But before the general or generalized — as an abstraction—we have only the concrete individual instance,—the act of consciousness in this or that case. Either, therefore, we beg a system of knowledge, or we do not know at all, or we know the individual as embodying the general or universal for the first time.
The intuition of self and its modes no doubt involves a great many elements or notions, not obvious at first sight. It involves unity, individuality, substance, relation; it involves identity, and difference or discrimination of subject and object, of self and state. These notions or elements analytical reflection will explicitly evolve from the fact, as its essential factors. Some are disposed to call these presuppositions. I have no desire to quarrel with the word. They are presuppositions in the sense of logical concomitance, or correlation. The fact or reality embodies them; they are realized in the fact. The fact is, if you choose, reason realized. But they are not presuppositions, in the sense of grounds of evolution of the fact in which we find them. They are in it, and elements of it; but the fact is as necessary to their realization and known existence as they are to it. You cannot take these by themselves, abstract them, set them apart, and evolve this or that individuality out of them. You cannot deduce the reality or individuality of an Ego from them — the Ego I find in experience or consciousness—because this very reality is necessary to their realization or being in thought at all. There is no relation or subordination here. It is co-ordination, or better, the correlation of fact and form,—of being and law of being.
We can thus also detect how much, or rather how little, truth there is in current Hegelian representations of the first principle and position of Descartes in philosophy, when we are told that “ Descartes is the founder of a new epoch in philosophy because he enunciated the postulate of an entire removal of presupposition. This absolute protest maintained by Descartes against the acceptance of anything for true, because it is so given to us, or so found by us, and not something determined and established by thought, becomes thenceforward the fundamental principle of the moderns.” “An entire removal of presupposition,” if by that be meant of postulate, is not possible on any system of philosophy. No presuppositionless system can be stated in this sense, without glaring inconsistency. It is ab initio suicidal. I must be there to think, that is, I must be conscious where there is the possibility of either truth or error; and the intelligible system developed must have an undeduced basis in my consciousness, guaranteed by that consciousness. And in regard to the Hegelian or most pretentious attempt of this sort, it could readily be shown that the method or dialectic is in no way contained in the basis,— or is even the native law of the deduction. As such it is borrowed, not deduced. Definite thought is always necessarily postulated; otherwise there is neither affirmation nor negation. This Descartes accepted; and on this necessary assumption, in no way arbitrary, but self-guaranteeing, his philosophy was based.
As to the phrase, “something determined and established by thought,” this is as inappropriate an expression as could well be imagined. What is the “thought” which determines or establishes things for us? Is it “thought” divorced from any consciousness? Is it thought realized by me in and through my consciousness? It is apparently not what is found or given, but what determines or establishes. But is this a thing by itself, this thought,—is it a power in the universe working alone and by itself? Apparently so. If thought determines and establishes things it is a very definite and practical power. But then do I, or can I, know this thought which is obviously superior to me and the first act of self-consciousness? How can I speak of thought at all as a determining power for me, when as yet I am neither conscious nor existent? If there were a system of knowledge above knowledge, known to me — or a system of thought above my thought, thought by me — or a consciousness above my consciousness, of which, or in which, I was conscious before my consciousness,—then I could accept the determination by thought of all truth for me. But as it is, until I can reconcile to the ordinary conditions of intelligibility this fallacy of doubling thought or knowledge, I must give up the experiment as a violation of good sense and reason. Determination by thought either means that I am already in conscious possession of knowledge (in which case I presuppose knowledge to account for knowledge), or it means that something called thought, which is not yet either me or my consciousness, or even consciousness at all, determines me and my consciousness, in which case I cannot know anything of this process of determination, for ex hypothesi I neither am nor am conscious until I am determined to be so. To know or be consciously determined by this thought, I must be in it actually and consciously from the first, in which case I know before I know, and I am before I am, or I must be in it potentially from the first—that is, unconsciously, in which case I am able to keep up all through the process of determination a continuity of being between unconsciousness and consciousness, and to retain a memory of that which I never consciously knew. To connect myself and my consciousness in this way with such a determining thought, or something, is a simple impossibility.
The fallacy in all this lies in the suggestion of the phrase “to determine.” This is ambiguous, or rather it has a connotation which is fallacious, or helps fallacious thought. To determine is ultimately to conceive, or limit by conception— i. e., to attach a predicate to a subject. But to determine may easily be taken to mean fixing as existent— not merely as a possible object of experience, but as a real or actual object. And in this sense it is constantly used — especially at a pinch when it is necessary to identify the ideal possibility of an object of thought with its reality. To assert existence of a subject, and to inclose it in a predicate, are totally different operations. As to object — we can ideally construct an object of knowledge with all the determinations and relations necessary. We can think it in time and space, and under category — as quality, or effect,—but this does not give us existence. This, considered in relation to the notion, is a synthetic attribute; and the so-called constitution of the object; all its necessary conditions being fulfilled in thought, gives us no more than a purely ideal object. Existence we get and can get only through intuition. The subject is some thing — some being—ere we determine it by predicates. If it is ever to be real, it is already real. No subsequent predication can make it so. The truth is, that being is not a proper predicate at all. It is but the subject—perceived or conceived — and is thus, as real or ideal, the prerequisite of all predication. The Schoolmen were right in making being transcendent — that is, something not included in the predicaments at all, but the condition of predication itself. This, too, is virtually the view of Kant, as shown in his dealing with the Ontological argument.
To say that I determine knowledge by means of forms of intuition,— as space and time,— and by category, or by both, is thus to reverse the order of knowledge. Besides, it is utterly impossible logically to defend this doctrine without maintaining that category, or the universal in thought, or thought per se, is truly knowledge,—a doctrine which in words is denied by the upholders of a priori determination, but in reality constantly proceeded upon by them. But the spontaneous and intuitive act of knowledge necessarily precedes the reflective and formulating. Direct apprehension is the ground of self-evidence; testing by reflection proves space, time, and category to be necessary; and, if necessary, universal in our knowledge.
Self-evidencing reality, guarded by the principles of identity and non-contradiction, is thus the ultimate result of the Cartesian method, and the starting-point of speculative philosophy. The basis proved a narrow one; and the deductive system of propositions which he grounded on it did not attain throughout even a logical consistency, far less a real truth. But this does not affect the value of his method, which is twofold—the intuition of the reality of self as given in consciousness, and the limit set to doubt by the principle of non-contradiction.
The most essential and perhaps the most valuable feature in the philosophy of Descartes is thus seen to be the affirmation involved in the cogito ergo sum of the spontaneity of the primary act of knowledge. I am conscious is to me the first — the beginning alike of knowledge and being; and I can go no higher, in the way of primary direct act. Whatever I may subsequently know depends on this—the world, other conscious beings, or God himself. This is to me the revelation of being, and the ground of knowledge. This was to found knowledge on its true basis—conscious experience, and conscious experience as in this or that definite form—of feeling, perceiving, imagining, willing. Even though Descartes had gone no further than this, he inaugurated a method, an organon of philosophy, which, if it be abandoned by the speculative thinker, must leave him open to the vagaries of abstraction, to the mythical creation of “pure thought,”—i, e., of reasoning divorced from experience. The least evil of this process is that it is a travesty of reasoning itself—that conclusions are attached to premises, and not drawn from them—and the whole process is an illegitimate personification of abstractions. Descartes properly laid down the principle that knowledge springs out of a definite act of a conscious being, self revealed in the conscious act. He did not stop to analyze the whole elements of this act, or to set forth the conditions of its possibility, or to analyze the conditions of the thing or “object” of which the self-conscious being takes cognizance, or to consider how the conscious act has arisen, — whether out of the indeterminate, or out of determinate conditions. He had neither full analysis nor hypothesis on these points; and as to the last, he was right, for he saw clearly that conscious experience in a given mode must be, ere any of these questions can even be conceived or determined. And had some of those who have since followed out these lines of inquiry, fully appreciated and truly kept in view the Cartesian position of a positive experiential act as the necessary basis of all knowledge by us, they would have kept their analysis of its conditions closer to the facts, and they would have seen also that no starting-point in a so-called “ universal,” or in thought above this conscious experience, is at all possible; that knowledge by “determination” is a mere dream and an illegitimate doubling of knowledge or consciousness; that at the utmost, in this respect, knowledge never can rise beyond mere correlation of particular and universal; and that, both in philosophy and in science, knowledge grows and is consolidated, not through “rethinking” or “reasoning out” of experience, but through a patient study of the conditions of experience itself, in succession and coexistence — a study in which the individuality of human life and effort matches itself in but a feeble, yet not unsuccessful way, against the infinity of time and space. This, too, would have prevented the mistake of supposing that the only critical, analytic, and reflective, in a word, philosophical, thought is that which accepts or finds a formula, within which our experience must be compressed or discarded as unreal, with the risk, actually incurred, of sacrificing what is most vital in that experience.