Rationalism and the object of intuition

Rationalists revived the Ontological Argument, but one interpretation of their thought always threatened to undermine it while another promised to put it on a new foundation. The first interpretation was that the object of the intellect was the possible.

Late German Rationalism defined the object of the intellect as the possible as possible since the object of the intellect is anything that falls under the principle of contradiction and so is anything not impossible, i.e. the possible. The possible thus became a first principle to account for the generation of the world from rational principles.

This was a possible interpretation of Rationalism even in Descartes, who starts by making the exterior world an object of doubt and therefore could be interpreted as saying that the objects of the intellect have to be taken first as things that may or may not exist: again, as possible.

But since describing something as existent isn’t a way of talking about it as possible, if the object of the intellect is the possible as possible, existence can’t belong to the concept of anything. Regardless of what role we see existence as playing in ontology, it can’t be seen as part of anything’s concept and so the Ontological Argument clearly fails.

But even that last conclusion is too narrow: if existence cannot be part of the concept of something then, to translate this Scholastically then nothing can be known to exist per se and first, nor per essentiam to which all else might exist per participationem. And so both Ontological Arguments and Cosmological arguments will be unsound. While one could express this by saying that the Cosmological argument depended on the Ontological one, it would be truer to say that if the object of the intellect is the possible as such then all arguments for the God of classical theism fall for the same reason.

In watching Descartes start this tradition, however, it’s clear that he had nothing like this in mind. We can read him as saying that the exterior world can only be initially given as possible, but he explicitly rejects the idea that the exterior world is what the human intellect is primarily ordered to knowing. This is the whole point of the piece of wax example, which is itself only a development of what is implicit in the cogito. The object of the intellect is just what the intellect is ordered to knowing, and this is not, Descartes argues, particular things like This piece of wax I might wave in your face and press with my fingers, but an invariant realities like “wax” as substance or my self as invariant object of thought. Things thus become objects of intellect qua invariant, meaning a maximally eternal and incomposite substance will be most of all what the intellect knows. While Descartes initially gets bogged down in Scholastic jargon in an attempts to prove there is a God, the better argument is the one he gives later: in thinking of God I see he is the eternal and simple reality, and so he must exist.

Assume you had a proof that the the object of the ears was what could cause pressure waves in fluids. It follows that if I am hearing what is most hearable, there is a pressure wave in a fluid. Descartes, however, is satisfied that he’s proven the object of the intellect is invariant substance. So it follows that if Descartes is intellecting an the most invariant substance that there must be such a thing. Again, assume that (a) eyes see color and (b) that X’s color is more evident than anything else. It would follow that in having X as an object of sight it would be impossible for there to be a clearer and more distinct experience of color. For the same reason, on Descartes’s assumptions it is impossible for there to be a clearer and more distinct awareness of an invariant substance than in having God as an object of the intellect.

In other words, Descartes agrees with the Late Franciscan scholastic tradition that intuition of a proper object is of something existent, but he denies that sense objects need to exist, and so he denies that they can be properly intuited objects. Rather, direct intellectual intuition, as with the cogito, is of invariant realities, and so the maximally invariant reality is maximally the object of intuition, and so is most of all known to exist.

Malebranche can be read as making this Cartesian line of reasoning more explicit, though it is structurally a part of Leibniz’s system too, who doesn’t seem to peg intellect to possibility but to perfection, since his ontology is essentially a development of the ways in which htings fall away from maximal perfection.

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