…on descartes’ “cogito ergo sum”

Rätselhafter Patient/ Sinus Osteoma
FigureSix CT views of Descartes’ skull, showing the ethmoidal sinus osteoma (grey)

Question: I was reading about Descartes and I don’t really understand what he means by “I think, therefore I am.” Could you explain this to me?

Reply: René Descartes’ Latin grounding for rationalist certainty is “cogito ergo sum,” otherwise known as “I think, therefore I am.” This deceptively simple conclusion is identified as a distillation of rational truth away from the confines of perceptual experience. Descartes got going in philosophy by way of mathematics and science. He was particularly interested in the apodictic certainty of mathematics and by extension how this type of necessary truth certainty governs the laws of science. Descartes was inspired to this goal due to the previous lack of identifying a whole and reliable basis for certainty with Scholastic (Aristotelian empiricism). All of this is to point out that if one desires to ground mathematical-like certainty, we must ground such certainty within the conscious way in which we get going with mathematics and science. To be clear, when we seek the whole of rational certainty, we must work to locate certainty in our thinking that is often partially obscured by perception.

To get to this aim of certainty, Descartes developed a mode of skepticism that deployed doubt as a way to clear the path away from perceptual knowledge alone. If the senses cannot be trusted, then Descartes must make absent all perceptual doubt to achieve the goal of finding and locating pure rational certainty (the very core of how we presently constitute and identify certainty in our investigations of truth). To get to the basis of rational truth, we must locate the presence of our understanding of rational truth within the individual manner of conscious thought by which our understanding of rational and universal truth is absolutely grounded. This manner of conscious thought is his “cogito ergo sum.” This is the manner of conscious by which we can ground truth. “I think, therefore I am” is what is presently left over after all perceptual doubt is put aside and made absent. This was true for Descartes, as it is present to my consciousness as I write this. Likewise, we must consider this to be a grounding for our acquisition of certainty—rational certainty. If the whole of rational thought is identified from the certainty of the “cogito ergo sum” then this indicates an ego that is thinking. If I am the one who is doing the thinking, this has within it the rational necessity of a being who consciously alive (an ego) that is thinking. Existence must be present to me in order to think rationally. This makes rational sense given that we cannot identify certain thought outside of our existing consciousness (certain truth for Descartes cannot be identified in perception alone). Rationally, the ego also is a presently centered point not only for me, but it also must be presently centered for every other rational creature who seeks certainty.

Descartes’ “cogito ergo sum” locates rational certainty to be found when perception is eliminated as a candidate for the source of rational truth. Descartes’ skepticism has the aim of clearing the way for rational certainty to become a ground for philosophic inquiry inspired by the necessary certainty of mathematics. Let me know if this helps!

…what is intentionality?

What is intentionality in terms of Husserl’s phenomenology? To understand intentionality is to also understand phenomenology at its most fundamental level. Generally, intentionality is the way in which phenomena appear to consciousness. Yet, this is not clear enough because we might not know what it means for phenomena to appear to consciousness. One way to consider intentionality is to consider consciousness as a means of apprehending the world as it is given to consciousness. The word given and the word appear are meant to be combined and expanded into the realization that this is beyond a Cartesian/rationalist way of knowing the world. Now to examine how it can be the case that Cartesian rationalism is too much of a limitation on lived experience to be phenomenological, while comparing this to the importance of Husserl’s intentionality.

To review, a rationalist like Descartes prioritizes rational thought, above and beyond perceptual experience. Once we cut the importance of perceptual experience out of how we know the world, there is a ‘pure’ rational way in which come to know the world. It is with this pure distillation of experience away from the confines of perceptual experience, where we have a type of experience that is universally applicable. To be sure, we must not ignore the simple fact that Descartes still considered empirical perception as the manner in which we apprehend the world and experience, yet rational thought has an essential certainty (like that of math) that Descartes wanted to locate and thus prioritize. Given all this, we are left with a rational distillation of experience away from the confines of perception. This is a problem for the rationalist because it limits experience into rational priority. On the other hand, Husserl wanted phenomenology to be much more philosophically holistic. This indicates the crucial point of intentionality. Let us diagram the above consideration with regard to Cartesian rationality in comparison to Husserl’s intentionality.  

intentionality and descartes

The diagram then should make it clear that the aims between the two philosophers are slightly different, while not in total opposition. Husserl’s aim is getting to know the ‘life-world’ by way of phenomenological understanding is likewise, getting to know the way in which intentionality operates for conscious experience. This indicates that we need to get clear on the way in which conscious experience is intended. What is intended is how we are conscious of phenomena—getting to know how phenomena appear to consciousness is the primary is the goal of the phenomenologist. While taking this into consideration, we must also recognize that the three formal structures of phenomenology (parts and whole, identity in a manifold, and presence and absence) are the means by which phenomena appear to us consciously (i.e. how experience is intended as consciousness). The three formal structures are both empirically evident and rationally evident in the appearance of phenomena for consciousness. This rational component of intentional experience must not be ignored. Husserl’s phenomenology is an eidetic philosophy, it is a search for essences. To reveal the essence of phenomena is to know how phenomena appears to consciousness—to know how phenomena is intended. The search for essences is akin to finding what is a priori while at the same time going beyond the a priori to expose the lived experience of the life-world.

Now it becomes easier to isolate how Cartesian rationalism (the way in which we access the truth) is limited with regard to phenomenology. If we with Descartes, only cherish that which is rational, we must, under his guidelines extract perceptual experience from our findings of the world. Once this is done we are left with a purely rational experience—cogito ergo sum! Yet cogito ergo sum is bought at the expense of perception, otherwise known as the primary way in which phenomena appears to consciousness. Rational thought is simply not the only way phenomena is intended.

 

…note on socrates’ ‘negative wisdom’

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Michael Weißköppel, nichts, 2012, Acryl auf Leinwand

…& yes, we covered the ‘negative wisdom’ of Socrates when we read Plato’s Apology. Recall that Socrates’ ‘negative wisdom’ is considered in the abstract. His wisdom is one of becoming wise to that which we do not know. Keep in mind, it is not enough to simply state this without more specific qualification. Socrates never claimed to know anything, this is typically (within the context of common opinion) looked at as a lack of wisdom. However, upon rational inspection we conclude that his ‘negative wisdom’ is the result of acknowledging the limits of our knowledge, thus enabling us to expose the limitations of what we really know.

Traditionally and shortsightedly, we consider a person wise when they possess knowledge of many things, to be wise is to know as much as possible. Rationally, when we are in the position to claim knowledge of something, we had better be clear on what we claim to be true knowledge. For Plato and Socrates true knowledge is to be distinguished from mere opinion. Do not be fooled, philosophy and common opinion deal in abstract generality, the distinction is that common opinion often goes unquestioned. This unquestioned opinion becomes easily mistaken for the truth. Therefore, the use of negative wisdom accounts for what is not known—this is how we should examine our lives and our common opinions.

Once we recognize this as a way to living a virtuous life, we also recognize the ethical components of negative wisdom. Once we allow for the gaps in our own knowing, we likewise allow for the gaps is other’s thinking. The virtue of humility before our knowledge and the knowledge of other’s is worth more than a moment’s thought.

…note on parts & wholes with kant, & presence & absence with aristotle

eudaimonia

A. How does Kant’s categorical imperative connect to the whole? How is Kant’s categorical imperative a part of the whole?

…okay, let us give a provisional first look into Kant’s practical philosophy by way of a metaphysical account of parts and wholes. Immediately we need to ask: what is a ‘whole’ and what is a part of the whole in terms of Kant’s practical/moral philosophy? With a question of the whole, we have a number considerations, of chief importance is the whole of ethical life. In this sense Kant’s ethical philosophy is connected to the whole of ethical life in terms of the reasoning that the categorical imperative is universal (i.e. theoretically it is able to be applied rationally all the time and in all cases by all rational autonomous agents). Kant’s categorical imperative is a normative principle by which we aim to govern all our ethical life—the whole of ethical life.  

What is a something that is a ‘part’ within the above mentioned ‘whole’ of ethical life? If Kant’s practical/moral philosophy is aimed at encompassing the whole of ethical life, then we as autonomous agents are rationally taking part within the whole as a way to express our freedom whenever we deploy the categorical imperative. Likewise freedom can only be partial and never complete. This should not only be considered as a restriction of freedom, this should also be considered in the light of what is possible within the guidelines of rational thought & rational experience. Rational freedom in this sense is considered to be positive: we are free within the rules and standards of our reason and by extension our community. If we as autonomous agents are a part of the whole, this must be an aspect of how our free will is partly expressed.

B. How does Aristotle’s virtue ethics connect to presence? How does Aristotle’s virtue ethics connect to absence?

…okay, now let us also give a provisional first look into Aristotle’s virtue ethics connection to a metaphysical account of presence and absence? Immediately we ask: what is present and what is absent within Aristotle’s virtue ethics? To consider what is present would obviously have to be rational thought. Yet, how is rational thought present in Aristotle’s virtue ethics? Rational thought is intrinsically present within every rational agent. Rational thought is present within the recognition that we are rational agents that aim for the goodness and Eudaimonia (εὐδαιμονία = the good life). To have this present in our lives is to be virtuous of character. To be virtuous is to strike the ‘golden mean’ between the extremes of privation or excess. Virtue is what is made present in the character of the good person who is aiming for happiness and the good life. For virtue to become present, one has to rationally make such behavior into a habit of virtue. To have such virtuous habits requires wisdom, to recognize this is to consider the ‘golden mean’ as a clear and rational distinction, each situation will require a rational evaluation of the ‘golden mean’ enough to know where to place any of our specific moral actions as virtuous behavior.

The question of absence surely must account for vice. This signifies a distortion and deviation from the virtuous life. Going to the extremes of ethical life is an absence of virtue. If immoral actions are departures from virtue, then we must also conclude that immorality is often lacking in rationality (i.e. rationality is absent). A rational accounting of our conscientious behavior must take into account all that it stands in contrast with it—virtue. All the things that pull us away from virtuous action are privations of reason, as they are privations of virtue. The lack of virtue must then be accounted for within the presence of virtue. To know what is virtuous is also to know what it is not.

…nietzshean metaphysics

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Written sometime in the 1870s, after meeting the composer Richard Wagner, and before the end of his professorship of philology in Basal in 1876, Friedrich Nietzsche’s Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks discloses the heritage of ancient Greek philosophy with the Presocratics: Thales, Anaximander, Heraclitus, Parmenides, then abruptly leaving the book unfinished with Anaxagoras.[1] Posthumously published (in 1962?) this book offers insight into Nietzsche’s thought and the beginning of Greek philosophy—the birth of Western philosophy. This post will only cover the opening segments of the book, alongside points highlighted in Marianne Cowen’s “Introduction,” followed by the metaphysical implications of Nietzsche’s reading of the Presocratic Thales of Miletus.

If we know anything, Nietzsche was a philologist, and the discipline of philology is one of interpretation and clarification of ancient texts and languages. The philologist has the responsibility of helping living generations understand ancient texts from generations long since gone. We cannot avoid seeing this activity reflected in Nietzsche’s philosophical context. The transition from tradition to rebellion is central to Nietzsche’s iconoclasm. The philosopher fixes the ancients to the present. If the Presocratics stood in stark contrast to the myth-bound culture of ancient Greece, than a philosopher for Nietzsche, is someone who breaks with tradition while remaining “timely.” Cowen emphasizes how Nietzsche recognized the bridging from the semi-worldly boundlessness of mythology to the bounded restraint of reason by the creativity of philosophy as it is blended with philology. The world of the Greek myths is challenged, and at the same time echoed by the earthly and elemental empiricism of the first philosopher Thales. Thales held that ‘water is the origin of all things.’ Nietzsche writes, “…Thales is a creative master who began to see into the depths of nature without the help of fantastic fable.” Here we have Nietzschean philosophical creativity, willful, radical and rooted in life whilst making untimely observations that serve to challenge the ordinary, the traditional.

After Nietzsche introduces Thales’ laconic proposition that the ‘origin of everything is water,’ Nietzsche qualifies three distinctions:

  1. “First, because it [Thales’ assertion that the origin of all things is water] tells something about the primal origin of all things;”
  2. “…second, because it does so in language devoid of image or fable,”
  3. “…and finally, because contained in it, if only embryonically, is the thought, ‘all things are one.’”[2]

With this tripartite qualification, we have a ready-made metaphysical lesson. Nietzsche’s first assertion has the metaphysical characteristic of looking into the origin of things, of all things. For Aristotle, who postdates Thales by approximately 165 years, considers this to be fundamental to the study of metaphysics—otherwise known as the science of first principles, the origin of things. To seek and study the origin of something is to determine what something is. To determine what something is, is ontological and originary. Thus, to claim that everything originates with water is plainly metaphysical.

On Nietzsche’s second assertion we have the distinction that Thales is using “language devoid of image or fable,” this has the metaphysical component of looking to the nature of ultimate reality (beyond the confines of mythic tradition). At the same time, the mythic tradition begins with the same metaphysical impulse to answer what is at the heart of reality?—what does reality consist of? In the case of myths, such metaphysical questions are answered by way of Zeus, et al. In the case of Thales the metaphysical question is answered with the first hypothesis of natural science: everything originates from water.

With Nietzsche’s last assertion we find another startlingly rich metaphysical foundation, “all things are one.” Whether all things partake of the one or the many is a Presocratic theme extending from Thales and beyond. Philosophy operates in vast generality and this tendency is metaphysical. We want to know how the parts of our specific lives contribute to the whole of the rest of the world, humanity, and the universe. To arrive at the conclusion that everything arises from water, is somewhat unscientific and this is what Thales shares with the mythic answers offered before him while breaking with tradition—he has the radically mythic audacity to claim that everything is water, we still recognize a general truth: water is real and essential to life on earth. Nietzsche’s untimely lesson is metaphysical philosophy, if all things are one, then all reality ancient and contemporary is unified in a proto-scientific way, we are one with the earth enlivened by water. Philosophy bridges the gap between the mythic transitioning into the strictness of empirical science.

If philology interprets the past for us in the present moment, then Nietzsche’s words are taken to heart. Thales was radical in his proposition that ‘the origin of everything is water.’ This is a step away from answering the question, what is everything’s origin with a God, an immortal person. For our usage, metaphysics is rendered secular to become empirical. Nietzsche indicates that philosophy is creative in its endeavors beyond science. Philosophy has the task of finding new insights, new techniques of thinking borrowed from the ancients exposing the overlooked in the everyday.

Aurelio Madrid

 

[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, trans. Marianne Cowan (Washington, D.C., Regnery Publishing, Inc. 1998).

[2] Nietzsche, Philosophy…, 39.

…the philosophy of grief

cote mom

Hi Brandon,

I read Rachel Vorona Cote’s article before I replied with a few initial thoughts. She is a wonderful writer. I will use this in Ф of D&D class for its relevancy & accessibility.

…yes, this has a number of philosophical points to consider—namely the similarities & differences between an online ‘life’ vs the rest of life. The virtual space of social media is not to be mistaken for a face to face meeting. Yet, our presence online has aspects of it that are likewise real and expressive. In short, we experience things online and via social-media. Experience here is qualified with a thoughtful comparison between experiencing a loved-one’s death in person as different from learning of someone’s death on Twitter. Both instances are experiential. The grieving continues to be experienced in the rich metaphysical filters of memory, time, self, relation. Yet to be experienced online, the suffering of our physical bodies must be transcended by the virtual and keyboarded mediation of grief’s relentlessly unresolved expression. No grieving is complete or completely rational. This admission delimits a full adequacy of emotion, experience, and expression, virtually or non-virtually. Online life is still a life, grieving or not grieving. Life is always incomplete.

I like that Cote avoids condemning the practice of online mourning. She makes it clear that an online expression of grief is not the same as a person to person sharing of grief, nevertheless she recognizes advantages. Her grieving blurs the lines of virtual reality ambiguously interlocked with non-virtual reality. I see her grieving has important aesthetic components of a 21st century ars moriendi, showing that her mother led a good life with her loving daughter by way of JPEGs is an emotionally reflective experience for those who had emotional contact with Cole’s mother. They likewise are touched, 100s of miles away, and by those of us now who read of her mother’s death. We too share and experience mourning with her in front of our laptops. To recognize that grief that is digitally filtered is still grief is an expansion of experience. Even today, the ancient themes of death and experience continue to be the immanent ground of philosophical contemplation. If death is a limitation of life, then in life we ironically imbue death with experience, virtually, written and spoken. It is odd that this contemplation of death has the advantage of showing us the philosophical value of our online experiences.

Conatus,

Aurelio Madrid

…what is metaphysics?

 

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Six Grasses, colored etching by J. Pass, ca., 1807

What is Metaphysics?

Metaphysics is a philosophical term that denotes a number of varying perspectives. Metaphysics is the study of how we relate to the world and how ideas, concepts, facts and objects are related to one another. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, after his death sometime in the 4th century BC, left behind a great number of philosophical books on the nature of being, existence, causation, particularity, universals, potentiality, actuality, parts, wholes, identity, &c. Of profound significance is the topic of the categories which design the way in which we predicate things into subjects for consideration. Another way of thinking about this would be to focus on what qualifies and what quantifies something to be what it ‘is’. To consider what something ‘is’ provides us with relationships to us, and to things, and how all of these things are related—to us and to each other.

The ancient scholar (Andronicus of Rhodes) who categorized Aristotle’s works, placed these books ‘after’ Aristotle’s book on Physics. The term ‘meta’ (μετὰ) meaning: after, beyond, is simply after-physics, after that which is physical (φυσικά). This gives us insight into the content of the books on being, existence, causation, &c. as just that, beyond-the-physical. For you and I, this has do with what is relational, how ideas, concepts, facts and objects are related to one another. We should note that this is not a justification for relativism, given that metaphysics accounts for objectivity in relation to what is relative. To be clear, relativism is a metaphysical issue, yet it works within the larger structures of inter-subjectivity and objectivity.

For Aristotle, form and substance are related to each other given that a substance takes on a particular form to be what something ‘is’, i.e. what is something? Whether something is made of stone is different than if it is made of paper & a statue is a form of stone as much as a stone takes the form of a brick in a building. This is a metaphysical question and it is an ontological question–ontology is the study of being.

The limitation of physicality only serves to enhance our understanding of the metaphysical as beyond-the-physical. This summation of the beginnings of metaphysics as a fundamental feature of philosophical discourse would be missing something if we forget the significance of the negation of being, non-existence, what is not causal, what is not particular, non-identity, &c.

What else is Metaphysics?

A quick glance at a college text book will typically offer another way to study metaphysics as the relationship between free-will & determinism. Are we completely free? Are we completely predetermined? Is real life a composite of the two? What are the effects of biology and DNA combined with past events on our expressions freedom? Does our freedom derive from the physical world? Here we can see a series of relationships. If we are to consider freedom we must also consider what contradicts it. That is what freedom is not. To know what freedom is not, is to know what freedom ‘is’.

Metaphysics Faces the Question of Nothing

The controversial 20th century philosopher Martin Heidegger thought that metaphysics develops as a way for us to contend with the question: what is nothing? At first glance this appears to be a banality, yet when we stop to consider what ‘is’ is, as opposed to what ‘is not’ we get a sense of the profundity of such a question. This entails that we as living creatures have a tough time contemplating and conceptualizing nothingness. In fact, our fear of death encapsulates its philosophical weight into our basic consideration of the being we possess alongside the being that ‘is’ reality on the whole. A negation of being is nothingness—that which is not being. This elicits anxiety within us as well as our thoughts and actions. The fear of nothingness impels us to the action of living, of being alive, of authentically experiencing ourselves as a being that exists.

Metaphysics is the Study of Identity.

Another perspective of metaphysics is identity, personal and of concepts and objects, of who we are and what identifies the world around us. How does our identity uphold throughout the duration of time? How are things identified as unique or universal? Is our identity based in memory and/or the memory of others? We tend to think that immortality is only an issue for religious consideration, while overlooking the importance of the written words by which to either keep ideas alive or to ignore them, thus identifying ancient authors long since gone. This brings us back to issues of quality of life, ethical and otherwise. What is the identity of goodness? What is the identity of what is not good?

Religion is Metaphysical.

We are quickly reminded that all of religion is metaphysical. Religion is intertwined with what is physical, as much as a religious person looks beyond physical matters to take faith in what is real and practical in her life. If religious life serves its practitioners, it does so within the relationships between objectivity and subjectivity. Objectivity is all encompassing and religious life likewise has a similar scope and reach. The mistakes we make have to do with thinking that metaphysics is strictly limited to religious practice. I like to think of the reverse, that our metaphysical understanding of things gives rise to religious thought—yet I admit such conclusions cannot be strictly determined. Likewise, metaphysics leads our thought to the nature of evil as opposed to nature of goodness, and a way that pain, suffering and death can arise in the world.

We cannot leave this side of metaphysics without a sentence on a popular, common sense view of metaphysics as a way of predicting the future, and identifying character traits that accompany celestial activity, sheer chance, lucky destiny, superstition, fortune telling, &c. This is often an area of metaphysics that is not covered in philosophy textbooks. Given that such activities are not often called into question. This is unlike what we usually do in philosophy class, even if our concern is metaphysical, we still should be able to be skeptical and call into question its claims joined with the use of our critical thinking as these ideas are put into practical experience or not.

Metaphysics is Categorial.

Another area of metaphysical interest is the notion that we want to know what is the nature of ultimate reality is. What in our lives is real and what is not real? What do think of as something, and when do we think of something as not something? As mentioned earlier, In Aristotle’s Metaphysics we find the “categories” which are ways in which we predicate things. In the early 20th century, Heidegger’s teacher Edmund Husserl named this type of thinking ‘categorial intuition’. That is to indicate what something ‘is’. To predicate something, means to describe what a thing actually ‘is’. Essentially, when we predicate things we are also considering things as a subject of thought.

To name a quality of someone or something is a metaphysical activity. To count, measure, & weigh things is to quantify items to be understood metaphysically. To situate a relation of things in time and space is to think metaphysically. To determine if something can be of use or not is basically a metaphysical consideration. Indeed the need to categorize, give name to, to situate, to organize, to group, to isolate, to couple with, &c. all are metaphysical activities. Once we take these observations into consideration we suddenly recognize that metaphysics is not a useless artifact only handled within the confines of the written word. Put in the most basic terms: metaphysics is conscious thinking with, combined with, and without the physical world.

 

Aurelio Madrid