Front Page Titles (by Subject) VII.: The Ego and the Material World . - The Method, Meditations and Philosophy of Descartes
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VII.: The Ego and the Material World . - 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 Egoand theMaterial World.
Onthis point the doctrine of Descartes may be summarily stated.
We have, in the first place an assured world of consciousness with the Ego as its centre,—the centre of thoughts and ideas. But Descartes recognizes, as he must, the knowledge of extension or an extended object,— of a thing filling space. This knowledge is in the consciousness. How is it got? From the senses somehow. But what precisely is the knowledge the senses give us of the material non-Ego? Have we as direct a knowledge of it as we have of consciousness and its modes? In the view of Decartes certainly not. The extended does not guarantee its own existence, as the consciousness does. We are not at once involved in self-contradiction, in denying its reality, as we are in the case of our consciousness. The extended is known through idea or representation; and it is the problem of Cartesianism to vindicate the reality on the ground of the idea, to show that outside of consciousness, as it were, there is an object corresponding to idea in the circle of consciousness itself.
Herein lies the so-called dualism of Descartes; but, in point of fact, it is but one form of his dualism, for there is with him the contrast between the finite Ego and God, and this is as much a dualism as the contrast between consciousness and extension. But the position of Descartes in relation to mind and matter is that, on the one hand, there is consciousness; on the other, there is extension, implying or rendering possible figure and motion. Accepting these as the only possible qualities of matter, Descartes sought to show how all the phenomena of the material universe might be produced, and according to the notional method of his philosophy at once inferred that they actually were so produced. This of course resulted in a mere ignoring alike of facts and laws, especially of the great Newtonian principle of gravitation, which could have no place in such a physical philosophy as that of Descartes.
But consciousness being set on one side, and extension or body on the other, the question arose in the mind of Descartes as to whether, or rather how, there could possibly be between these the relation of knowledge. If he had simply asked whether there was such a relation, the problem was not of difficult solution; but when he asked how such a relation was possible, he raised a totally different and probably illegitimate question. But be this as it may, Descartes held that there could be no immediate consciousness of extension or an extended object on the part of the mind. The process of Perception, according to Descartes, may be stated as follows: There is the occurrence of organic impressions on organ, nerve, and brain. The last of these reaches the central point of the nervous organization, — by him regarded as the pineal gland, — these organic movements are not in consciousness at all; even the last of them is not apprehended or known in the process of our sensitive consciousness. Yet the apprehension of the extra-organic object is impossible without these as conditions of our knowledge. On occasion of the last of the organic movements an idea of the extra-organic object is generated in the consciousness. This is the single object of consciousness. It is representative of the outward object, — of the external or extra-organic object. Through and on the ground of this representative idea we know and believe in a world of outward objects. Descartes uses idea both for those organic movements, — the traces on the brain, and for the conscious representation; but nothing can be clearer than that he held the former to lie wholly beyond consciousness during the time of their occurrence, and to be merely the occasions on which the mental idea rose into consciousness. Here he virtually supposes supernatural action to excite the idea; and he makes an appeal to the veracity of Deity to guarantee the inference of outward reality from it.
Descartes's treatment of this point cannot be said to be satisfactory. Indeed no satisfactory dealing with the problem is possible, as its terms were put by Descartes. His position in substance is, that as God is veracious, we may trust that the idea really and adequately represents the material non-Ego. But of course there is the prior question as to how the idea came into the conciousness, and then as to the right we have to suppose it representative. The veracity of Deity, even if adequately and logically vindicated for the system, would guarantee nothing to us beyond what our consciousness or idea might actually testify. And if the idea be not properly got, be not a real idea, and if the conditions under which it is supposed to be got render its representative character logically impossible, the veracity of Deity could not help us to give an untrue reality or character to the idea. We should then be merely calling in the veracity of Deity to enable us to assert as real and true what was simply a matter of our own fancy and fiction; to give to a thing, a reality and character which it had not, and not merely to obviate objections or satisfy doubt regarding the reality and the character which it proclaimed itself to have. God's veracity can never be pledged for anything more than the facts of consciousness are, or the deliverance of consciousness declares. And to ascertain this in the first place is the task of philosophical method and reflective analysis.
With respect to the first question, as to how we know the extended reality in which we believe, whether by intuition or indirectly, there are passages in Descartes which point to the acknowledgment of direct or intuitive knowledge. But he gives this up, and, through force of old presumption, restricts perception to ideas or states of consciousness.
Obviously, if intuition cannot be made out in some form or other, a material non-Ego, must be given up; and certainly the hypothesis of the representative idea, as is now well acknowledged, will not help us. To think out the notion of a material non-Ego, from the requisites of mere self-consciousness, is impossible. Nothing can be weaker than Kant's vacillating attempts at the proof of a world in space and time from self-consciousness. This could be done only as the requisite of the difference of the self from the not-self; but this is satisfied by the mere modes of consciousness themselves varying in time. Self, apart from these, is unknowable and unthinkable, but not apart from a material non-Ego. Again, a representative idea is impossible apart from repeated intuitive acts. The points and details must be successively apprehended ere they can be cognized in representation. And we must apprehend these as the condition of our recognition of the correct representation.
But Descartes seems to have had difficulties, as is usual, as to the possibility of direct knowledge by consciousness of extension. These were part of the general alleged difficulties as to how two things so different in nature as consciousness and extension could have communion or intercourse — how mind could know matter, or influence it in anything—how matter could act upon or affect mind. As to the general fact of the intuition of extension, or any material quality, he did not see that in so dealing with the question he was illogically putting the question of possibility before the question of fact. This order could only be fairly followed on a system which professed to demonstrate a priori, or by pure thought, the possibility of knowledge, and through this possibility to determine the facts, or at least to make the conception of the facts square with the ideal possibility. This need not at present be discussed; for although Descartes was in a sense demonstrative, this was not the kind of demonstration he contemplated; and it is one which, as might be anticipated, is exceedingly likely to mutilate the integrity alike of truth and philosophy. But Descartes had no idea of demonstrating either the possibility of knowledge or the contents of knowledge. His demonstration was so far a legitimate one. He sought or assumed facts of experience or consciousness, and endeavored to show their logical connections and relations. The method when carried out in its integrity, is primarily one of observation and reflective analysis. And in order to the faithful application of it, we must scrutinize carefully and fully every form of our conscious life, and every, even apparent, deliverance of our intelligence. This at least is the first thing to be done, whatever theory we may afterward form of the origin or genesis of those forms of our conscious life, or even, if that be possible, of our consciousness itself. Of all things the most unwarrantable, is to adopt, whether on so-catted grounds of reason or on tradition, which comes to very much the same thing, certain general assumptions regarding what is possible or impossible in knowledge, and by means of these assumptions to override, mutilate, or reject the positive deliverances of our intelligence — especially on the side of intuition. But this is precisely what Descartes seems to have done; it is what has been done repeatedly since his time; it is done now; and until philosophical method is freed from this unfaithfulness, philosophy can make no real progress, and will continue to fall short of the breadth of experience and reality.
So far as the knowledge of a material non-Ego is concerned, the question is simply one of analysis of our consciousness. We cannot beforehand say, it is impossible I can know aught of extension or resistance, or any other form of reality, because I can know only my own states of consciousness, or because I cannot know anything distinct from myself. This is to suppose that you have a philosophy ere you set about seeking it. Where has this superior philosophy been got, and what is its guarantee? Only in that consciousness the fullness of whose deliverances it is adduced to discredit. For a consciousness to me above my consciousness is an absurdity and contradiction in terms.
If we look for a moment at some of the supposed difficulties alleged against the intuition of a material non-Ego, we shall see both how assumptive and how trifling they are.
It seems that the mind or consciousness, in order to apprehend extension, or in apprehending extension, must become extended—that is, must cease to be mind. Or the mind being indivisible, if it apprehends extension, must become divisible—and so on. Why must this be? Simply from an abuse of words and a false analogy. Extension apprehended is said to be within consciousness; consciousness is therefore necessarily extended; it has parts beyond parts like extension. A sufficient answer to this would be—when I am conscious of extension, as a series of coexisting points, I do not cease to be conscious of mind — I do not become extended or divisible—nay, I should not know what extension or divisibility meant at all, if I had not in myself the co-apprehension of the non-extended and indivisible. I know or apprehend only through contrast and correlation; and if all in knowledge be one, say the extended, I do not know the extended at all. It is really nothing for me or my knowledge. Consciousness as I experience it, and as I can conceive it, is an antithesis — a varying contrast—through an identity, of acts or states and me, of objects of these acts and me, of the successive and the one, of the divisible and the indivisible, the extended and the non-extended: and because I am or am supposed to be percipient of an object made up of parts beyond parts, I no more become such, or cease to be the one indivisible knower, than I cease to be one because I am conscious in succession of various thoughts or feelings. The expression, within consciousness, indicates simply a false analogy based on the previous assumption that consciousness is an extended thing, which, like the object perceived, is capable of a within and a without — that is, it is a mere begging of the point at issue.
The truth is, that so far as this point is concerned, so far from knowledge implying an identity between the subject knowing and the object known, it rather postulates a difference; for we always and must always distinguish subject and object in the act. But it should be kept in mind that in order to constitute this difference we do not require an object such as extension or resistance; we require only a mode of consciousness whatever that may be, feeling or desire. This enables us to discriminate self and mode, or self and object, as well as extension or resistance. The extended, and to us insentient, is the true test, not of self and its modes, but of self and its modes on the one hand, and the material non-Ego on the other. Self might be realized in the fullness of its being through the moments of time; its conception of reality is amplified by the apprehension of the points of space; but this does not make it to be or to know more truly what it is. The living spirit knows itself to be in the very movements which reveal its life. If this be so, the material non-Ego is not the necessary diverse correlate of the Ego; the Ego is not subverted by its subversion, but the field is left open, apart from all a priori assumption as to its powers of apprehension and compass; and a basis is laid for the requirements of a faithful and sound psychology. The whole, too, of the speculation subsequent to Descartes regarding Occasional Causes, Vision in Deity, and Pre-established Harmony, originating in the groundless difficulty which he felt about the knowledge of the material non-Ego, is superseded as being devised merely to overcome an imaginary difficulty.
But the whole of the current doctrine of subjectivity is based on an assumption or an imperfect analysis of the matter of fact. The phrases, “state of consciousness,” and “our knowledge being confined to states of consciousness,” are about as ambiguous as can well be imagined. They confound the knowledge by the conscious self of its modes with the knowledge by the conscious self of qualities of a wholly different order. The first is a self-guaranteeing knowledge, as we have seen; the other is a knowledge, but it is not self-guaranteeing, at least on the principle of non-contradiction. I am conscious of purely subjective states; I am further conscious of a sentient extended organism, which I call my body, and at the same time I am conscious of an extension, which is no part of my sentient organism, corresponding to the surface of contact. This is as clear and distinct a deliverance of consciousness as can be found in experience. Even supposing it to be shown that we have no consciousness of external qualities until the sensorium is reached by the ordinary organic impressions, this by no means proves that the perceptive faculty, as conscious, does not reach the utmost bound of the bodily organism, the moment the stimulus is completed. None of these preceding organic impressions is an object of consciousness at all; and what we may perceive, though following upon these, is by no means limited by them. The scope of consciousness must, in a word, be tested by what consciousness actually declares. The sentiency we experience and feel is all through the bodily organism; for, as Mr. Lewes has shown, the brain is not exclusively the organ of sensation. But there is a limit to this sentiency—beyond which it cannot go, and which it does not transcend. This is found at the point of contact between the bodily surface and what we are thus entitled to call the external object. As this quality or object is not felt or known by us to be sentient or part of our sentiency as our bodily organism is, we regard it as a non-Ego, or as not identical with any mode of our consciousness. This is for us the material or truly external non-Ego. The outward material world is for us the insentient, extended, and resisting. Our test of this as an independent existence, as something more than a mere state of sentiency or consciousness is, that it is not necessary to the existence or to the fact of our consciousness. I am conscious does not imply an outward material non-Ego; it implies merely a distinction in the consciousness itself between the Ego and the mode, and between the Ego and the successive modes. Withdraw either of those, and my consciousness perishes. But it is not so with the qualities of extension and resistance correlative to my living and moving organism. Consciousness is not subverted by taking those away; and the conclusion, therefore, is irresistible that I am, whether they subsist or not— that they are not identical with my being — that, in a word, there is a mutual independence and correality between me, the conscious subject, and those qualities or objects of consciousness, at least during the act of perception. This, as appears to me, is the last point in the analysis of perception which we can reach. It is for us an ultimate and irreconcilable antithesis of being. It is given us, too, by that consciousness which, in its ultimate and fully analyzed primary data, is the supreme source of knowledge for us. That there is some transcendent ultimate unity, from which both the Ego and the non-Ego flow, is a plausible hypothesis: but it is only a hypothesis — one more or less probable, but incapable by us of absolute proof. Any process of the development of the Ego and non-Ego from an absolute, yet given by speculative philosophy, turns out, on examination, to be a mere piece of verbalism — a formula of abstraction which leaves out the differences, and thus eviscerates the problem to be solved, or which, confounding affirmation and negation, abolishes knowledge. And as for a scientific solution of the problem, we may say this at least with safety, that none has as yet been given.
Even the lower position of a mechanical equivalent of each state of consciousness is not likely to fare better, if we may judge from a recent attempt at a statement of the question made by a physicist of note.* It is, first of all, broadly laid down that all we can know of the universe is a state of consciousness. Applying this particularly to what we speak of as the material universe, the phenomena of nature are simply states of consciousness. At the same time, it is maintained that there is, and will ultimately be found, “a mechanical equivalent” of each state of consciousness. There is “a correlation of all the phenomena of the universe with matter and motion.” This language obviously points to a dualism. What precisely is “the mechanical equivalent of consciousness “ here referred to? It is something in correlation with the state of consciousness; it is its mechanical equivalent, as there is a mechanical equivalent of heat. But in the same breath we are told that our knowledge is entirely restricted to states of consciousness. Is this mechanical equivalent known to us? In that case, it can be but a state of consciousness. Indeed we are expressly told that “matter” and “force,” so far as known to us, and, in other words, so far as they are anything” to us, are simply states of consciousness. Then what sort of mechanical equivalent or correlation have we here? Not two things at all—not the mechanical force and the state of consciousness, but simply two states of consciousness, the one which we call, viz, feeling,— the other which we name its mechanical equivalent— perhaps a pound weight falling through a foot. We have not, therefore, explained the state of consciousness, or resolved it into anything different from itself. We have simply said that one state of consciousness, which we call a mechanical equivalent, is followed by another, which we call feeling or volition. This is not to explain the state of consciousness by anything in mere correlation with it; it is merely to say that there is a certain or regulated succession in the states of consciousness themselves. But each state is as far from being resolved into a correlative mechanical equivalent as ever it was; nay, more, we have given tip the whole hypothesis of dualism, while we retain its language, and think we have effected a reconciliation of materialism and spiritualism. In saying that all we know or can know is a state of consciousness, we preclude ourselves from asserting, anything that is not a state of consciousness—and any mere hypothetical matter or force or motion which we postulate as in correlation, is illegitimately assumed as a fact — nay, illegitimately even conceived as an idea.
[*]Professor Huxley, Lay Sermons.— ‘Descartes,’ p. 339