Reading The Meditations


(by paragraph divisions)

1.) Descartes tells us he has wanted to make this argument for his whole adult life, but that he waited until he was at the height of his intellectual powers and had set aside the most favorable time for meditation in order to bring together all the considerations of his philosophical life.  He is not brainstorming or setting down hypotheses for further reflection (e.g. “So, uh, an evil deceiver…whutaya think?”). This is a reflective, structured, systematic account of problems that a very great mind has thought about for a very long time.

When reading the Mediations, it’s easy to get dazzled by singular ideas (methodological doubt, the evil deceiver, the cogito, piece of wax) and to lose sight of how systematic and structured the argument is.

2.) While the first sentence gets the more attention – i.e. that Descartes will doubt all that admits of some doubt – the end of the paragraph is just as important: Descartes is going to consider the foundations of what he believes.  One of the dominant themes in the first meditation is just how hard it is to keep ones consideration fixed on foundations.

3-5) The senses deceive at least sometimes, and when anything deceives us sometimes, we’re hesitant to trust them anytime. We certainly wouldn’t count on them in important matters, and what Descartes is discussing is such a case. Descartes  immediately raises his own objection to it, namely that it seems obvious that some sensations are more certain than others: the size of the sun might be doubtful, but the fact that I am moving my hand is not. His first response is to this is that an insane person would have just the same evidence he has for moving his hand. The theme is more developed in the following paragraph.

The dream argument: Descartes allows that we can often tell the difference between a dream and a waking state: what he denies is that there are any certain marks by which we can do so. There are differences in ambiance to the waking state and the dream state, but it is hard to catch a definitive, concrete criterion to tell the difference. We come up short when we try to explain how the dream state must differ from the waking one.

6-8) First responses to the dream argument: Even when we dream or imagine, it is not the case that everything is made up. We take some things for granted, and so it would seem that the reality of these things cannot be doubted. For example, a imagining satyrs involves taking human torsos for granted; and it seems to be impossible to imagine or dream anything without taking colors and shapes for granted. Descartes concedes that whether he wakes or sleeps, three and two make five. He has a response to this which strikes exactly the right note: namely that in mathematics we “scarcely inquire whether or not these things are existent”. The response is sharp and to my mind fatal: if anything is doubtful, it is whether mathematical things really exist, at any rate, a large part of the certitude of mathematics arises from the fact that “to exist” means “I can define its function” or “I can construct it whenever I want”, which is certainly not the sort of existence that one has in mind when he wonders whether the world exists.

(One could, however, reconstruct most of modern science if we stopped reading here. Mathematics is certain, and we can understand nature to the extent that “to exist” means the same thing as it means in mathematics. What we can make, or what can play a functional role in an algebraic expression exists. This is science.)

9-10) A general argument that is is possible to doubt absolutely anything. The argument in developed in two paragraphs:

Thesis: A human being must admit it is possible that he be deceived about absolutely anything

1.) Either man was created by an omnipotent being, or he was not.

2.) If by an omnipotent being, it is possible that this being deceives him about everything.

3.) If not, man comes to be from some other process (antecedent necessary causes, chance, a being of limited power)  But then it is also possible that he be deceived about everything, for there is no reason to think that these causes could have given rise to a being that could know the truth of things. Therefore he must also admit the possibility that he is deceived about everything.

11.) Descartes insists that it is more probable and more reasonable to follow common sense and take most sensations at face value. Illusions are relatively rare, frequently contrived, and usually of little significance in science. In the practical order, illusions are even less significant. Descartes is intentionally and forcibly twisting himself with this doctrine of doubt, and it is difficult for him to hold the position for too long. But he is doing it with an eye to seeing the foundation of thought.

12.) The evil deceiver: for all of his evocative power, the evil deceiver is an afterthought – he is a metaphor to describe a course of action that is already decided upon. There is even a tension in calling him an evil deceiver: Descartes is far more critical of the sort of life one falls into when he forgets the evil deceiver. The inability to sustain a universal doubt is called “indolence” and is compared to a slave who is dreaming of his liberty. Taking the world at face value is an impediment to seeing its foundation or basis. That is a philosophical thesis that deserves a fuller hearing.

Descartes, Vatican I, and the Public square

It’s striking that Descartes makes the whole purpose of the Meditations that the arguments about God and the soul should be known rationally,  by everyone, and with the firmest sort of certitude.  As fate would have it, I read the Meditations on the same day we read  the documents of Vatican I, which insist that it is proper to revelation to make God known to everyone with firm certitude.  The tension acquires a special urgency and importance when we notice that to speak in the public square (i.e. politics) is to speak to everyone.

Knowing “clearly” vs. “with firm certitude” in Vat. I Session 3, Ch. 2 no. 1,3

Session III, c. 2 of Vatican I argues that by reason, God can be clearly known, but also that revelation was given so that God could be known by everyone with firm certitude (read the whole thing, I’m summarizing here). The students pounced on this as a contradiction: how can one add firm certitude to something already clearly known?

There are two options:

1.) Firm certitude adds nothing to what is clearly known. i.e. the two are synonymous and interchangeable. In this case we would have to read the certitude clause entirely in conjunction with the previous clause. Before revelation, some men could have certitude/ clear knowledge about God, and afterwards everybody could. Or perhaps the sense is this, though by reason God could be clearly known by some, revelation does not make God known to everybody by watering down the certitude that could be achieved. Revelation does not, say, dumb down natural reason into a popular doctrine that is easier to understand but less intrinsically compelling.

2.) Firm certitude adds something to what is clearly known. Perhaps the clarity of reason, at least about God, never rises to the level of a firm certitude. We see things clearly, but in a light that we know is only human; or perhaps we realize that the clarity we can reach by natural reason is a delicate thing, not an unshakable state that could stand up to any and every assault. “Firm” (like “solid”) is a state that is relative to the forces that are acting on a thing: the same rope-bridge that a walking man would consider very firm might be considered flimsy by a man who want to ride an elephant across it. Perhaps clearly is said relative to our own power of vision whereas with firm certitude is said relative to the calamities or assaults that might befall our knowledge.

Universals in non-human animals: a comment that turned into a post

“Curious About Thomism” left a one-sentence comment, the response to which ballooned into what follows.

Do you think non-human animals can apprehend universals?

First, some preliminary clarifications:

-“Non-human animal” has fuzzy edges, and on a question like this we have to draw some lines that leave out some animals. The question probably isn’t asking about animals that can’t move around: coral, barnacles, starfish, etc.. It also probably isn’t asking about insects, reptiles, or other animals that can’t learn new tricks or be trained. So the question about universals arises with respect to animals that can move around and learn new tricks.

-Ramon Ruyer, who has done as much to develop Aristotelian ideas of nature as any of the great thomist disciples, was also a panpsychist, and so put intelligence in anything that has self-motion. There are elements in this account of nature that I like, but normally when one asks about the presence of universals in non-human animals he wants something other than the sort of intelligence that a panpsychist puts in everything.  Still, what the Thomist tradition calls “the soul” has a real universal-quality about it: there is something in a living thing that is one in spite of the multitude of constantly changing material things that compose it. No cell or atom in your body was present in it a few years ago, and it will flush out and be replaced by another soon, and yet there is one you through all that. This is as remarkable as if a man was juggling lettered blocks in the air which, in spite of the juggling, showed a single, unchanging word across their arc. This is a “one over many” i.e. a universal idea of some sort. We can see this “soul” idea in more than just the living too: the same stability that we find in your body also exists in the atom – in fact, Bohr discovered the structure of the atom precisely by considering the sort of stability throughout change that it shared with the body. It is arguably the very definition of a natural substance to show this sort of stability throughout change – and so to have some idea in it that is one over the many: a universal.

-The power of sensation is universal so far as the eye can see all blues, reds, and even all colors; touch can feel all tactile bodies and imagine feeling all degrees of heat, etc. Therefore the power of the organ is also a one-over-many. But this is not the universal we tend to be looking for – we want the one thing over many to be something also known in itself. If we say that the one over many is taken from the various individual things sensed, the Thomist says that it is “abstract”, that is “drawn out of” something. Now it is reasonable to say that if one has an abstract thing, it is universal, and so any time some known object is taken from various things sensed, it can be called abstract and universal. But this occurs any time something retains sense images: which occurs in any animal that can remember. But all sorts of animals have memory, and so have abstract and universal ideas.

-Anything that can remember can link past experience to present experience, and so can experience things felt in the past as though they were happening again. It can feel fear by anticipation of attack and not only by being attacked, can anticipate pleasure before it has it, etc. Again, the animal can anticipate not only by the experience of seeing an attacker, but also by experiencing how others respond to the attacker. A monkey can respond to a shriek as easily as a tiger. This means a shriek counts as a sort of symbol. These are also abstract and universal ideas, so far as they are taken from tings known and are themselves known (abstract), but are one-over-many (universal).

-Anything with imagination and memory associates things that are analogous, and so can create an image which prescinds from the various differences among a multitude and yet can serve as a principle to identify all future phenomena of the same sort. Here we approach an idea of universality that has actually been advanced by some as being what human thought is. Hume, for example, thought that this sort of Gestalt association was all there was to human thought (at least human thought on anything other than moral questions). So taken, what we call human thought is completely shared with non-human animals, even if we have a bit more processing speed. There is no sense of an abstract universal idea that human beings have to themselves.

Now, to the question:

So there are many universals (unities throughout changeable multitudes) and of these, many are abstract (things known beyond the sensible thing that is known here-and-now.) But how do we approach the question whether there is anything to mind beyond what Hume says there is?

1.) There is interesting research by Daniel Povinelli on the fact that chimps don’t ask why questions about phenomena. It is peculiarly human to ask about causes behind phenomena. Now a cause is very much abstract and universal: it is behind a multitude of changeable phenomena, and, for human beings, it is abstracted from the particulars by an abstraction that no other animal appears able to make. So if we want a uniquely human universal, we can look for it in the line of causes.

2.) Causes can themselves be caused, and the peculiar abstraction and universality of causality tends to the theoretical point of a cause of causes – a first cause from which all subsequent effects arise, and which therefore contains all possible perfections within its causal power. Such a being verifies a strong sense of omnipotence, is by definition self-existent, and must either equal or transcend all perfections we find in nature (like being a person, being intelligent, being loving etc.). The peculiarly human awareness of causes gives the human person an ontological orientation towards God. St. Thomas argues that the only natural orientation a creature can have to God is by way of causality, and since causality is uniquely human, human beings have a unique ontological orientation to God; namely, for us, this orientation is cognitive. Even the highest of non-human primates (though they have an impressive awareness of abstract universals in the senses spoken of above) are not attuned to the casual field of reality. Their consciousness cannot have a divine orientation by nature, since this can only happen by causality and the abstraction from causality.

3.) Causality is anything responsible for existence, but existence arises from both intrinsic and extrinsic factors. So far as human beings are attuned to intrinsic causes, they see things like forms or natures, which are known through species and genera. This might be what we most of all mean by “universal ideas” and, in this sense (namely so far as these things are causes or arise from knowing causal realities) then they are uniquely human, and not shared even with the highest non-human primates.

I could say other things about this and have said them before. Briefly, for the Thomists, intelligence is first of all speculative, that is, contemplative and scientific. Whatever intelligence non-human animals have, it is not speculative – they do not write journals, argue over theoretical constructs, form research communities, etc. But even this seems to be to be based on the fundamental fact that it is peculiar to human beings to be attuned to the casual orders of things.

Seeing all forms as abstract and concrete (1)

St. Thomas is clear that we understand the concrete only through the concrete things composed of matter and form. Applied to God, this means we have to speak of him both by concrete and abstract names; but as far as I know, he is silent about how this doctrine applies to other simple things (though it’s hard to believe that this never comes up). St. Thomas does apply this doctrine to the angels so far as each angel is his own species: i.e. Gabriel is the same as Gabriality or Gabrielness. St. Thomas’s best reason for not applying this to the human soul is that subsistence has to make a substance, and the human soul, even though imperishable, is not a substance. Nevertheless, it’s unavoidable that in speaking of the subsistence of soul that we understand it in the mode of a substance, and so we will trap ourselves in aporia unless we realize that, so far as we are considering the soul as a substance, we have to speak of it using both concrete and abstract terms. For that matter, it’s hard to see how we can avoid doing the same thing when we talk about the form of anything.

All the world’s a stage for what?

To see the sciences as giving the best truths of their kind does not require seeing the world as a stage upon which scientific play is being performed. Even if all these scattered, irreducible accounts somehow added up to a description of the whole, it could all be a subplot in a fundamentally moral or personal or social or religious story. A man might be horrified or elated by the idea that it’s all just quarks and space-time and selection and testing and cataloging data, but by doing so he makes these things objects and plot-devices in a human drama.

Reach out an touch the wall. Ask yourself “what’s this?” or “is this all there is?” form an opinion one way or another, or just wonder about it. Now assume that all the right answers have terms like quarks or neurons or natural selection. Even if this is true, is the scene itself is not a scientific scene. It is a person questioning in the everyday world, in a concrete reality of particulars, one-off circumstances, unreapeatable experiences. In my own case, the scene is kids bouncing on the couch, and a baby in the carpet chewing on a plastic streamer, while I touch the wall and wonder.

Spell Check. Publish.

Nature and Hypostasis/ Person (II)

Our idea of nature oscillates between a source and a sort of thing, and it’s not clear what sort of bridge we should make between them. We figure out natures by looking at what things do, and in this way we are looking for a source of action; at the same time we are trying to classify the thing, and so we are looking for a sort of thing. Considered in the first way, the nature of something is the heart of something – its innermost core from which everything else flows; considered in the second way, nature is an element in a classification system. Nature in the first way is that which is prior to operation, nature in the second way is that which prescinds from the individual and is other than the generic. Briefly, the division is between nature as heart and nature as essence.

Now in considering everything other than uniquely human actions, the difference between these two aspects of nature is minimal. Whether one sees Fido as barking out of some inner font of activity or as an expression of a canine essence is a barely intelligible distinction; whether one accounts for the flowering of the cherry tree in my front yard by essential principles or by some individualized interior source doesn’t seem to vary the explanation much. We can recognize a difference between the heart (which is in the hypostasis) and the essence, but it is not a remarkable or useful enough distinction to bother naming. This is not the case with human beings: person has no corresponding term in other species, nor is one necessary to describe their actions. Person marks out something different, though it is remarkably difficult to articulate what sort of difference is being indicated.  Is “person” just an honorific term, which does not indicate that something makes a person different qua hypostasis? This seems too minimalist: for if person is just a term of dignity, wouldn’t heart (meaning the center of the person) be just a term of dignity? But heart seems to be more than this. Similar problems appear to arise if we try to say that the difference is only in degree. So this is the moment where we tend to shout out “ANALOGOUS!” to solve the problem. This may be fine and even necessary, but it shows us where the explanation should start – it is not itself the explanation.

The division between person and nature

Socrates continually returned to the question that if you wanted to make your horse a good horse, you would know where to send them, and if you wanted to make your son a good doctor (i.e. a skilled one), you would have a decent idea of where to send him; so where do you send your son to make him a good man? Where could you even send yourself to learn this?

One approach to the question is to say that we know how to make good horses, dogs and doctors because all these things are natures as opposed to persons. There is no name for an individual substance of a canine, equine or medically competent nature because there is no ontological reality that is separate from the individuated nature. A dog or a horse or a doctor all have personal names, but there is nothing that corresponds to what the word person is to human nature. A nature is common, undifferentiated, and universal, and so what has no ontological reality beyond its nature can be perfected by a system that deals with what is common, undifferentiated, and universal. An obedience school, equestrian center, or medical school can all bring a nature to completion, but the question of what makes for a good man adds an additional, separate ontological component to this: the person. A process making a good horse can, within limits, disregard what is unique and peculiar to any given horse, but the process of becoming a good man cannot disregard the concrete individual. The process of making a good man cannot be an impersonal and anonymous process. A no- nonsense medical school might well make doctors by simply conveying information and drilling in practice, and without ever treating any of the students as persons, but a school that sought to make its students mature moral persons but which never treated them as persons would be a pretty creepy joke. Information and drilling suffice only when addressed to the nature – the person needs something in addition to this.

Moral education must treat of the person in addition to the nature, and so new sorts of things become significant: the perfection of a man requires some perfection of his heart, that is, the dynamic center of an individual that is personally committed to things, and who cannot simply execute actions but must be engaged and involved with them.

It was Christianity that forced us to see the division between nature and person – unless person is an ontologically separate reality from nature (i.e. if a person is nothing but an non-universal human nature) the orthodox account of Christ becomes impossible. Nevertheless, we have yet to get much beyond seeing that this is so. Martin Buber seems to have been one of the first to begin to work out some of the initial implications of this division, and the critique of Naturalism seems to point towards making a sharper distinction between the person and nature though the division of the first person/subjective and the third person/ scientific.

Realism and morality in Machiavelli and George Washington, respectively

The Prince is a series of rules for princes, and it is very difficult to read Machiavelli’s presentation of them and not feel bound by their power.

1.) If you conquer another people, either treat them well or ruin them. Any mixed response will lead to their revenge upon you.

2.) Conquest is natural to human beings. Those who do it well are praised, those who try and do it poorly are blamed.

3.)  While wickedness can never be done well, still, if one conquers through wickedness it is better to have one complete outrage at the beginning. Get all the evil out at the beginning.

4.) If you conquer a people who are attached to their customs (conservatives, say) then either ruin them, or occupy them yourself, or set up a puppet government.

5.) Nobles want only to oppress the people, people want only not to be oppressed.

Though these are not the only themes, it’s impossible to miss Machiavelli’s central theme of hard-nosed, fact-based political realism. The Machiavellian prince is not a moral agent, seeking to know what is right and build up a polity with an eye to the common good, but a calculating realist who takes the antipathy between men and their lust for power as fundamental. The question is not what is good but what works. Machiavelli ultimately makes this view explicit in his famous fifteenth chapter, which asserts a fundamental opposition between ethics and realism:

 [I]t is my intention to write what shall be useful to him who apprehends it, and it appears to me more appropriate to follow up the real truth of the matter rather than the imagination of it. Many have dreamed up republics and principalities which have never in fact  been known to exist, because how one lives has little to do with how one ought to live, and so he who neglects what persons actually do for what ought to be done, ruins himself… for a man who wishes to act entirely up to his professions of virtue soon meets with what destroys him… [I]t is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity.

Therefore, putting on one side imaginary things concerning a prince, and discussing those which are real, I say that…

No one can doubt that this sort of political (ethical?) belief has an intuitive appeal. But it’s interesting to bring Machiavelli into dialogue with George Washington, if for no other reason than they set the limits to how far two beliefs can be in contradiction to one another:

 [T]here is no truth more thoroughly established than that there exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness; between duty and advantage; between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity; since we ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained.

What is interesting in all this is that while Machiavelli is an incomparably greater philosopher, intellectual, and reasoner than Washington, Washington is, just as incomparably, a greater man. It would be laughable to try to compare Washington’s intellectual achievements to Machiavelli’s, since the latter are of world-historical significance while the former don’t exist; but it would be just as laughable to try to compare Washington’s moral greatness to anything Machiavelli ever achieved – Washington being one of the few political and military leaders in history who is equal to any myth formed about him. Both of these sorts of greatness can make a claim on what we should believe about politics, but they do not appeal to the same regions within us: which is to say we are not struck in the same way, or in the same part of ourselves,  by forceful arguments and the arrangement of historical facts (Machiavelli) as we are by the testimonies of great men (Washington).  Nevertheless,  these two parts of ourselves must be integrated: the Machiavellian has to see Washington as spouting pious, ceremonial flapdoodle, while Washington has to see Machiavelli as fundamentally blind to the facts of providence. There might be an empirical test to decide between the two, (both, after all, appeal to the experience of how things are) but this could never be decisive  If the moral way proved to give some benefits, Machiavellians would still only see this as a useful tactic, but to see morality as only valuable for its usefulness is to fundamentally misunderstand, and even to pervert, that which a good man sees in morality. Again, taking what Machiavelli understands as benefit, it would be impossible to show that the moral way was always and in every circumstance the most beneficial, and so it seems that the most an empirical study could force Machiavelli into admitting is that wickedness would have to be used on fewer occasions than he thought. But there is a contradiction between what Washington considers to be moral and the idea that we should allow for wicked acts on the (perhaps rare) occasions when they are useful.


A: So, how do you understand the principle of contradiction?

B:  That we cannot affirm and deny the same thing.

A: But we affirm and deny the same thing  whenever we change our mind.

B: But I meant that we cannot affirm and deny the same thing at the same time

A: But this doesn’t have anything to do with affirming or denying – we can’t do any two actions simultaneously (changed b/c/ of critique by Eli Horowitz). We can’t affirm something twice at the same time either. So by adding a necessary qualification you have made the statement have nothing in particular to do with the thing you wanted to talk about.

B: When I say “at the same time” I don’t mean that you say two things at once actually, but that when you say anything is true or false, you are necessarily committed to thinking something else. As long as you are committed to thinking something about SP, you are committed to thinking something about S not-P.

A: So it seems that, if this is right, the principle of contradiction is based on a deeper idea of claims being connected together, that is, we see that there are necessary consequences of committing ourselves to the truth or falsity of something. It’s as though our primary vision or awareness is that every claim or commitment can only be a part of a larger body of commitments.

B: I don’t know. I would guess that this is a consequence of the principle of contradiction and not something prior to it.

A: It might be logically, I don’t know, but it seems like there is an ontological basis from the principle: sc. that no one truth we know exhausts the mind completely, but always occurs in the context of a principle that says “this commits you to something else”.   Our mind has a sort of necessary motion.  If any mind held a truth that was completely adequate to it, it wouldn’t need the principle of contradiction to know.

B: And so a completely satisfied intelligence, even if would have to be aware of contradictions,  would not find its knowing falling under the principle of contradiction.

A: That seems right: I think the principle of contradiction follows upon a peculiar condition of an intellect – sc. when nothing it knows, and no multiplication of the things it knows is adequate to it.

B: But this raises the question whether the inadequacy of an object is necessary to being an intellect – doesn’t an intellect have to transcend the things it knows? If it did not, what sense would there be to saying that it can both affirm and deny?

A: Well, if it were simply true that intellect had to transcend its object, I don’t see what sense we could make of saying that an intellect can know itself.

B: So in this sense, self-Knowledge is the first hint we have of an object that would be perfectly adequate to intellect.

A: It can’t be more than a hint- on the one hand, it makes us aware that some known thing is a broad as the intellect that knows it; but on the other hand, the soul immediately sees itself as empty and receptive.

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