…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’

tumblr_pu0zjjuptY1qzgpdoo1_1280

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.

…from myth to philosophy

Cij7Mk9F5PwqEk2e3pmZ4Xi6W4ofdJ

“From Myth to Philosophy: Examining the Transition by Way of Metaphysics and Epistemology”

When we look to the transition from myth to philosophy, we make use of philosophy as a guide into connections that are not readily apparent. Two primary philosophical modes of inquiry are metaphysics and epistemology. The two are defined in a number of ways and this short essay will only focus on metaphysics as the study of ultimate reality, and epistemology as an inquiry into how we rationally understand things—when connected, both disciplines disclose true knowledge. When we are doing philosophy we are not only asking questions, we work to answer the questions we ask: what is ultimate reality (as with metaphysics)? How do we know things rationally (as with epistemology)?

Once we apply these questions to the transition from myth to philosophy, we immediately are reminded of the long-lived mythologist Edith Hamilton who distinguished the ancient Greek myths as inherently rational. Hamilton also distinguishes the myths as distinctly human. The Greek myths are concerned with human problems—human reality. The Greek legends are answering the ancient need for answers about the natural and human realties that could not be explained any other way. This confrontation of nothingness reveals the myths metaphysically. Likewise the myths are answering causal problems, where does war come from?—Ares! If one cause (Ares) brings about the effect of something else (war), we are answering a way we know something, and this is rational and epistemological.

Friedrich Nietzsche hails the first Greek philosopher as Thales, a Presocratic who thought the origin of everything is water. This is an empirical claim, we can see, touch, taste, hear, and smell: water. This is another way of showing how we are perceiving the world, this is a way we gain knowledge of things using our rational faculties. Therefore Thales is, not only answering epistemological questions, where does everything come from?—he answers the question scientifically, with empirical evidence, something the myths did not do. Metaphysically, he’s offering us answers to where everything comes from, and to what (empirically) does reality consist of?—water.

Turning to Plato, Socrates and Aristotle, metaphysics and epistemology gain in philosophical complexity. With Socrates we have the famous dialectic, based in dialogue, and aimed at gaining true knowledge while exposing flaws in common and opinionated reasoning. Socrates is a champion of reason in favor of goodness and true knowledge. This is epistemology and it is curiously ethical. When considering metaphysics, we immediately recognize an answer to the question: what is ultimate reality for Plato and Socrates?—the acquisition of true knowledge.

Aristotle, another scientist philosopher, categorized the way we explain things into distinct categories and components. This tendency to organize knowledge is both scientific and metaphysical. To do philosophy is to look at the components of knowledge which constitute reality. This is metaphysical. As mentioned above, to consider causation is to examine how we come to know things and how to explain things. Aristotle’s causal tools give our knowledge explanatory power. This is epistemological.

To philosophically examine the transition from Greek myth to Greek philosophy by way of metaphysics and epistemology is to see a flowing line of inquiry into the ultimate realty and into the way we rationally know things. Such thinking is abstract and takes a readjustment of our everyday understanding, thus fulfilling a demand of Heraclitus the weeping Presocratic, to find connections in what is unapparent.

…notes on Igor Primoratz’s Ethics and Sex

primoratz books

Notes on Ethics and Sex, Igor Primoratz[1]

Between semesters it becomes important to field readings that I do not have the chance to read while in the thick of staying abreast of the readings for classes (notwithstanding the rigors of grading classwork & homework which demand a level of commitment. Additional readings are often a reach for the obvious possibility of adding extraneous philosophy above and beyond the requisite workload). I have yet to decide whether or not what I have read in the opening chapters of the 1999 book Ethics and Sex by Igor Primoratz are assignable as reading for upcoming classes.

“Introduction”

In Primoratz’s “Introduction” to Ethics and Sex, he immediately sets the stage for a discussion of the philosophy of sex that is indeed quite rare in the ascetic and arid confines of traditional philosophic discourse.[2] This sexual occlusion is noted by Schopenhauer in his influential book of 1819, The World as Will and Representation. The dearth of sexual content in the antecedent work of Classical and Enlightenment philosophy should have a clear connection to this type of intellectualized sexual constraint. Philosophy is usually understood as helping us attain an understanding of the life of the mind, the intellect, our reason. The life of philosophy is to know and have control over the passions. To be dominated by the passions, namely: sexual passion, is typically thought of as antithetical to an exploration of a quest for philosophical truth and a life of contemplation.

Primoratz quotes the legendary Roman slave turned Stoic, Epictetus, whereby he demonstrates Stoical virtue as a refusal in the face of sexual hunger. Epictetus reminds us that it is best to not be controlled and dominated by such passions, as inspired by Socrates’ libidinal restraint. Even Nietzsche weighs in on the “rancor” of sexual interest on the part of the world’s philosophers with the example that Heraclitus, Plato, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Schopenhauer were all single, unmarried. In short, philosophy and sexual discourse are historically strange-bedfellows.

Then of course, there is the undeniable influence of Christianity on our attitude of the body, of which is strongly reliant on an ascetic-denying of the sexualized body, while at the same time advocating the institution of marriage. Christian marriage, a concept whereby human sexuality can be relegated and managed within natural-law—a.k.a. sex is to procreate and it needs to be within the context of a monogamous relationship with the opposite sex.

Primoratz’s foregoing carefully indicates that the turning point in the philosophical interest with sexuality is marked by Schopenhauer in the early 19th century (ironically we cannot ignore his own glaring misogyny, including the not-so-well-known radical advocacy of polygamy). Along with Nietzsche’s “naturalism” and his championing of the body, away from the strictures of Christianity and tradition, Primoratz reminds us that the importance Nietzsche places on the body as the locus of will is directly attributable to Nietzsche’s early reading of Schopenhauer.[3] Also, nevermind the now dubious legend that Nietzsche’s downfall into dementia was allegedly caused by syphilis contracted from a prostitute in Leipzig.[4]

We could challenge Primoratz’s idea that Schopenhauer demarcates a discussion of sex and philosophy, to do so is to evoke D.A.F. de Sade, the Marquis de Sade’s 1795 work Philosophy in the Bedroom, less a work of philosophy and more a scathing critique of social convention in the name of sexual libertinage. The 18th century sexual libertine feeds his hunger by way of reading de Sade (‘single-handed’), fueling a fantasy quest with an aggressive search for libidinal freedom from sexual convention. Perhaps this reference distracts from the fact that de Sade has been largely considered a pornographer and not taken seriously as a ‘philosopher of sex.’

Historically, Primoratz nods to the once cutting-edge philosophy of phenomenological existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre in Being and Nothingness from 1943, Simon de Beauvoir in her oft-cited feminist work The Second Sex from 1949, and then to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s eloquent placement of the experiential immanence of sexuality in his landmark Phenomenology of Perception from 1945. In the Anglo-analytic tradition we also have contribution of Bertrand Russell’s work from 1929 Marriage and Morals.

As we know, the 20th Century witnessed great advances in demystifying the stigma of sexual conduct. We don’t have to reach far to recall the psycho-sexual ‘pleasure principle of Sigmund Freud in his 1930 work Civilization and its Discontents, while also acknowledging the culturally destabilizing effects of Alfred Kinsey’s Kinsey Reports from 1948. The previously mentioned French phenomenologists were also becoming translated into English in the 1950s. The 1960s and 1970s as cultural decades were emblematic of realizing newfound sexual freedom and expression largely affected by Second-Wave feminism and other concomitant social issues, Gay rights et al.

Primoratz does narrow down the work form the 1960s and 1970s with three works: Thomas Nagel’s “Sexual Perversion” from 1968, Robert Solomon’s “Sexual Paradigms” from 1974, on to Alan Goldman’s “Plain Sex” from 1977. Now in the 21st Century, apart from Primoratz, we look to the plurality of gender issues philosophically anticipated with Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble from the 1990s (among countless others).

“Sex and Procreation”

This is usually where the conversation gets going in terms of a so-called conservative position concerning sexual conduct as captured within the sphere of accepted heterosexual marriage. St. Thomas Aquinas and St Augustine easily represent the two Christian Medieval views on the institution of marriage and religious life. Basically sexual intercourse is strictly aimed at bringing children into the world, and subsequently to raise and care for the children as a part of committing to the family.

We cannot forget the Biblical implications stemming from the so-called ‘Fall from Grace,’ known more simply as ‘The Fall.’ To account for sex in a Christian context is to do so negatively, it is a carnal compromise away from God’s perfection. Sexual pleasure outside of a procreative context is considered sinful, base, and selfish. As Primoratz notes for St. Augustine, perhaps the connection with human sexuality is bound to the irrational nature of sexual desire and impulse. The poignantly irrational nature of sexual desire could be an interesting point of departure for another study, given that the irrational aspects of sexual activity continue to cause problems even for those of us not immersed in a Medieval Christian view of traditional sex. Add this restrictive view on sex to the traditionally philosophic view that sex represents a preoccupation with the body, and it should go without saying that sexual activity outside of marriage and outside of the context of procreation is essentially thought of as baneful, immoral, and/or evil.

The effort is to envision all the other reasons people have sex that are not procreative—at least to call into question the notion that sex is wrong unless it is procreative. We can see that a restriction of pleasure in the name of religion is to follow an ascetic tradition that is no longer entirely practicable or sensibly realistic. Away from a few of Primoratz’s conclusions at the end of this chapter, people have sex for countless other reasons, and not all those reasons are nefarious, unethical or depraved.

I think where we struggle these days is finding a middle ground between total sexual lust (characterized and fueled by the omnipresence of online pornography) and a not-so-sexy life of moderation and restraint. It is naive to imagine that simply because one lets go of the praise and blame of religious law, does not automatically set up a life of sexual freedom and libidinal satisfaction. Nevermind Henry Sidgwick’s ‘hedonist’s paradox,’ or the ‘pleasure paradox.’ That is to say, pleasure as a goal is often (but not always) elusive. Simply seeking sexual pleasure does little to promise consistent pleasure. And the question is open as to what is experienced if the result is not pleasure—I’m tempted to surmise such sexualized pursuits can result in an increase of suffering and pain.

Meanwhile, Primortz’s books remain open.

–Aurelio Madrid

[1] Igor Primoratz, Ethics and Sex (New York, NY: Routledge, 1999).

[2] This book appears to be the result of the work responding to a much larger volume of essays on sexuality edited by Igor Primoratz from 1997, titled: Human Sexuality (Dartmouth Publishing Co., Ltd., 1997). His work Ethics and Sex seems to serve as an ethical reader’s guide to the two dozen or so essays included in Human Sexuality.

[3] See Richard Arthur Spinello’s 1981 dissertation: “Nietzsche’s Conception of the Body.”

[4] See Leonard Sax’s 2003 essay on this, “What was the Cause of Nietzsche’s Dementia?”

 

…locke, voltaire, hume, & reid on the self

dr_selfcenteredmirror_1_w
daniel rozen, self-centered mirror.

Locke gets the conversation going with the notion that the self is constituted with memory and consciousness. If we accept that memory is consciousness, this brings in the philosophical point that cognitive thinking is closely linked to memory. To be a conscious person is also to remember.

With Voltaire’s comments on identity, we mostly find a question of retributive punishment, and how we are held accountable for things we remember or forget. Surely his idea that the self is like an ever-changing river is something to consider given the changes we undergo in a lifetime are significant. As we mentioned, this is a problem of personal identity because if we cannot remember a crime, can you be punished for that crime (in this lifetime or the next)? Voltaire offers the slightly confusing example of a father who blames the Euphrates for drowning his son Xerxes. The river would reply that the waves responsible are far away and no longer to be blamed. Here we have the problem of responsibility that is similar to the problem we have today with people who commit crimes. People continue to pay the price for their past crimes long after the penalty has been met.

Yet once I write this down, I see the difference. With Voltaire, he’s seems to be critiquing Locke’s claim that personal identity is closely linked to memory, while simultaneously refuting the notion that a immaterial soul should be responsible for the sins of its body. With our example above, people have a hard time getting away from their past because they are required to ‘remember’ their past when filling out job applications and the like. Our problem is different than Voltaire’s in respect to memory. Voltaire wants to detach from this idea that we are our memories, and how does an immaterial soul hold responsibility for the sins of its former body? His two difficulties stay unresolved in this excerpt. It is implied that these notions are problematic and deserve adequate scrutiny. In light of our contemporary problem of responsibility, we do not want people to forget their past as an extension of their public identity.

Then going back to Hume, we must be clear to see that he was denying an identifiable self. For Hume the way we think is due to impressions of things as they appear to us via our perceptions—he is an empiricist. His empiricism is far more stringent than Locke’s with a heavy dose of skepticism. If the impressions we have of the world are looked at in any given moment, we cannot pull a self out of those impressions. For Hume there is not a self that coheres through each impression. This does not feel right for us though, we do have a sense of ourselves as cohering through all of the impressions we have from day to day. We, at the very least, have to account for the ‘bundle of impressions’ with have that persist through space and time are what constitute something we call a self.

Then we have to have some account of the body which is where Reid comes in indirectly. He doesn’t exactly state that the body is what constitutes the self—Reid places the self on existence. If it is not memory as Locke proposed, it must be based on a continued existence through time for Reid. Reid is also critical of Hume with regard to the self as not determinable from the ‘bundle of impressions’, whereby we can see that at the very least the self must be an accumulation of these impressions as moving somewhat beyond the impression themselves. There are other mechanisms of thought involved in the thinking of an individual person—namely reason, the appetites, space and time. No, we might not be a ‘bundle of impressions’ according to Hume, Reid expands the self to include more.

–aurelio madrid