Cartesian Metaphysics

For Descartes, according to Gueroult, “metaphysics” is the universal science or the system of science, and also a kind of introduction to more concrete studies. Here we are far from Aristotle and much closer, I think, to Duns Scotus. Without knowledge of God and oneself, Descartes says, it would never be possible to discover the principles of physics. Gueroult says that Descartes insists on an “incomprehensibility” of God that is neither unknowability nor irrationality but the “formal reason of the infinite” (Descartes selon l’order des raisons, p. 17). This again has a somewhat Scotist sound to my ear.

The infinitude of God puts God absolutely first, as the first truth that founds all others. Gueroult quotes Descartes saying, “It is a ‘blasphemy’ to say that the truth of something precedes God’s knowledge of it…, because the existence of God is the first and the most eternal of all the truths that can be, and the truth from which all the others proceed” (ibid; my translation).

Descartes says that God “freely creates” eternal truths. I have no idea what creation of eternal truths could even possibly mean, though such a notion seems to be at least implicit in the teaching of Duns Scotus. To be eternal is to have no before and after. Therefore, it seems to me, all eternal things must be co-eternal. This point of view accommodates part of Descartes’ thesis, insofar as if all eternal things are co-eternal, then an eternal truth would not “precede” God’s knowledge of it. In broadly neoplatonic terms, eternal truths could plausibly be regarded as aspects of the “nature” of God. I can also grasp the idea of truths following logically from the “nature” of God, but I suspect Descartes would either follow Scotus in arguing that God’s infinite power is not a “nature”, or follow Aquinas in arguing that God is pure existence and has no other “nature”. I don’t see how anything more specific can directly follow from either infinite power or pure existence.

For Descartes, though, God’s omnipotence “excludes the possibility of error” and “alone founds the objective validity of my intellectual faculty” (ibid). Descartes aims at “a total system of certain knowledge, at the same time metaphysical and scientific, … entirely immanent to mathematical certitude enveloped in the clear and distinct intellect, … in its requirement of absolute rigor. This totality of the system is in no way that of an encyclopedia of material knowledge effectively acquired, but the fundamental unity of the first principles from which follow all possible certain knowledge” (p. 18). Descartes’ doctrine is for him “a single block of certainty” (p. 19) that would be falsified by adding or removing any detail. All this seems way too strong to me.

Gueroult points out that Descartes wants to contrast an “order of reasons” with an “order of material”, as being more principled. However, unlike geometry, the total system of metaphysical reasoning for Descartes has “psychological” as well as logical requirements. Gueroult says it is for this reason that the Meditations best represent Descartes’ paradigm of rigorous analytic demonstration.

Granted that there is a clear “psychological” aspect to the Meditations, at this point I’m unsure what it means to relate that to the claimed rigor of the system. Moreover, adding a “psychological” dimension to what was said before about mathematical reasoning affects the very meaning of the claim of rigor. I think I understand what mathematical rigor is. I do not understand what “psychological” rigor would be in this context, but I suspect it may be wrapped up with what I would call extraordinary presumptions of absolute self-transparency and immediate reflexivity.

Toward Self-Consciousness

The Force and Understanding chapter of Hegel’s Phenomenology concludes with two sections I find particularly difficult.

In the first, the supersensible in comparison with the world of appearances is treated as a sort of “inverted world” where negation and universality rather than concrete form play the main role in intelligibility as law. The subsequent return to the world of appearances that explains it as law-governed and takes us back to positive things again is then described as a “second inversion”.

According to Harris in his commentary, Hegel wants to establish that the formal necessity of mathematics is insufficient to account for the rationality of experience. The Understanding wants to explain everything in terms of force, including the Understanding itself. All the movement of explanation is in the Understanding. Hegel argues that the explanation of necessity in the world turns out to presuppose free activity in the Understanding. The fixing of distinctions Hegel meanwhile associates with sensuous representation as distinct from the supersensible.

In the second, what Hegel wants to call a kind of infinity emerges from Understanding’s looking at the world of appearances as a law-governed but constantly moving and restless whole that is unconditioned by anything other than itself.

Harris notes that this infinity is a result. Because infinity or the absolute is a result rather than a starting point, Hegel is able to say that the old neoplatonic problem of how the Many emerge from the One does not arise for him. Harris says Hegel is here making an Aristotelian response to Plotinus.

“Our approach to this problem has shown that Unity and Multiplicity are logically internal to one another, that the real Infinite must embrace the finite because the Infinite is precisely the raising of finitude to Infinity. This is how we can express the significance of the ‘second inversion’ in the speculative-theological terminology of finite and Infinite” (Hegel’s Ladder I, p. 303).

Because the Understanding wants to explain everything and everything includes itself, its own momentum pushes it toward self-consciousness. At this stage, what Hegel will call the Concept with a capital “C” — which will become the new continuum, folded upon itself, between subject and object, that displaces the substantiality of both in their separate forms — has yet to emerge. Hegel says that for the Understanding, what plays the role of the Concept is the Understanding itself.

Harris says “The human desire to know — to understand the situation we are in — is the most primitive way in which the Absolute is with us from the start…. The world of which the true Infinite really is the ‘soul’ is the world of our quest for the absolute truth. Our quest itself is the ‘spirit’ — the self-consciousness — of that living soul…. The understanding intelligence is the self-consciousness of the unconditioned universal that it contemplates.”

“The Understanding remains naive in its self-enjoyment; it keeps positive and negative, attraction and repulsion, all separate from one another, and from itself. It knows nothing of the ‘second inversion’. But the comprehension of the necessary relation a priori of the opposite moments of all its concepts is what the Understanding is, because it moves continually from the organized appearance to its concepts, and back again” (pp. 303-304).

“The theoretical Understanding has the whole world before it as an object. In the ‘second inversion’ it becomes aware of itself as the positing activity for the whole cycle that moves from perception (the ‘play of forces’) to the natural order as ‘Law’. But now that ‘free self’ (the ‘distinguishing of the undistinguished’) actually distinguishes itself and asserts its independence, without having any consciousness of the cycle from which it has logically emerged. It will discover by experience what the Fichtean philosophical Ego cannot help knowing from the first: ‘that this distinct [self] is not distinct’. It will make this discovery many times, in different ‘shapes’, before it returns finally to the practical comprehension of its identity with the ‘Infinite'” (pp. 305-306; brackets and italics in original).

“The truth for us… is that the universal concept of Force (or Necessity) has become the universal concept of Life (or the ‘true Infinite’ as living Freedom). But if we look at what has happened from the point of view of Understanding itself, two worlds have come into being. There is the world of Necessity which the Understanding wants to construct, but can never be sure that it has successfully duplicated; and the world of its own intellectual activity. In this second world it experiences itself as a free motion. It does not know that these two worlds are moments of one Concept, which is equally the objective world and itself as intelligence. But it does know, necessarily, that it is alive and free in the world of necessity that appears to it. It still has to discover that it is identically what appears. But it knows that it is what is appeared to” (p. 307).

“[F]rom the conscious certainty that the Understanding has of its eternal truth, we have thus come back to the certainty of the peasant-wife that this farmyard and these cows are hers. We know now, why she would not come with us on our theoretical odyssey. She was the self at home in its world; and that meant that she already knew something that we were ignoring. Truth, we thought, is an absolute object. It cannot belong to anyone. Frau Bauer, on the other hand, realized that in order to know anything one must be alive” (p. 318). (Later, it will also turn out that we were right that truth cannot belong to anyone.)

“As the implications of my identification with another self-consciousness which exemplifies what I want to be are unpacked, we shall discover that the supposedly ‘supersensible’ world is the real present world that we live in; or that ‘the spirit’ is the real substantiality of our sense-experience” (p. 335).

Infinity, Finitude

Here is another area where I find myself with mixed sympathies.

Plato seems to have regarded infinity — or what he called the Unlimited — as something bad. Aristotle argued that infinity exists only in potentiality and not in actuality, a view I find highly attractive. I think I encounter a world of seemingly infinite structure but only finite actualization.

Some time in the later Hellenistic period, notions of a radical spiritual infinity seem to have appeared in the West for the first time, associated with the rise of monotheism and the various trends now commonly called Gnostic. This kind of intensive rather than extensive infinity sometimes seems to be folded back on itself, evoking infinities of infinities and more. The most sophisticated development of a positive theological infinite in later Western antiquity occurred in the more religious rethinking of Greek philosophy by neoplatonists like Plotinus, Proclus, and Damascius.

In 14th century CE Latin Europe, Duns Scotus developed an influential theology that made infinity the principal attribute of God, in contrast to the pure Being favored by Aquinas. Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake in 1600, was a bombastic early defender of Copernican astronomy and notorious critic of established religion who espoused a curious hybrid of Lucretian atomistic materialism, neoplatonism, and magic. He proclaimed the physical existence of an infinity of worlds like our Earth.

Mathematical applications of infinity are a later development, mainly associated with Newton and Leibniz. Leibniz in particular enthusiastically endorsed a speculative reversal of Aristotle’s negative verdict on “actual infinity”. Nineteenth century mathematicians were embarrassed by this, and developed more rigorous reformulations of the calculus based on limits rather than actual infinity. The limit-based formulation is what is generally taught today. Cantor seemingly went in the opposite direction, developing infinities of infinities in pure mathematics. I believe there has been another reformulation of analysis using category theory that claims to equal the rigor of 19th century analysis while recovering an approach closer to that of Leibniz, which might be taken to refute an argument against infinity based solely on lack of rigor according to the standards of contemporary professional mathematicians. One might accept this and still prefer an Aristotelian interpretation of infinity as not applicable to actual things, though it is important to recall that for Aristotle, the actual is not all there is.

The philosophy of Spinoza and even more so Leibniz is permeated with a positive view of the infinite — both mathematical and theological — that in a more measured way was later also taken up by Hegel, who distinguished between a “bad” infinite that seems to have been an “actual” mathematical infinite having the form of an infinite regress, and a “good” infinite that I would gloss as having to do with the interpretation of life and all within it. Nietzsche’s Eternal Return seems to involve an infinite folding back on itself of a world of finite beings. (See also Bounty of Nature; Reason, Nature; Echoes of the Deed; Poetry and Mathematics.)

On the side of the finite, I am tremendously impressed with Aristotle’s affirmative development of what also in a more Kantian style might be termed a multi-faceted “dignity” of finite beings. While infinity may be inspiring or even intoxicating, I think we should be wary of the possibility that immoderate embrace of infinity may lead — even if unwittingly — to a devaluation of finite being, and ultimately of life. I also believe notions of infinite or unconditional power (see Strong Omnipotence; Occasionalism; Arbitrariness, Inflation) are prone to abuse. In any case, ethics is mainly concerned with finite things.

Self, Infinity

Ricoeur’s idea of an ethical Self as an aim is an important new variant in the menagerie of nonequivalent concepts of self. Perhaps this one has been implicit for a while, but I had not clearly made this exact connection. I very much like Aristotelian ends and Brandom’s reading of Kantian unity of apperception as an ethical goal though, so it is a welcome addition. Now I suspect this is behind what Ricoeur later called ipse identity and narrative identity, which had been troubling me.

The same older work of Ricoeur’s also uses the term “infinite” for the relatively modest if still noteworthy kind of freedom that is indirectly apparent in ordinary language use and ordinary determination of concepts. I would probably still choose a different word to avoid other connotations, but have no objection to that meaning. Again though, a couple of later, less clear references to infinity that had troubled me could be explained by this.

Lévinas on the Other

Emmanuel Lévinas (1905-95) was an important religiously oriented philosopher within the existential-phenomenological tradition. He translated Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations to French. His most famous work Totality and Infinity (French edition 1961) — dedicated to Gabriel Marcel and Jean Wahl — argues at top level that philosophy has often been dominated by a drive for a vision of totality, and that we should abandon this in favor of the “infinity” of our experience of the Other, which for Lévinas leads from an ethical concern to a sort of eschatology. He puts ethics before ontology, which I like, but still takes a more metaphysical approach than Marcel, for instance.

I appreciate his stress on concern for others, but have trouble applying the notion of infinity in this context. I’m more comfortable talking about the essential incompleteness of our experience as finite beings. Lévinas is right that reaching for totality is overreaching, but I think Plato and Aristotle — and also Kant, and even especially Hegel (so different from the common stereotype) — already clearly recognized this. In my view, ordinary open-ended interpretation already implicitly poses a potentially infinite (i.e., indefinitely extensible, and therefore always incomplete) task that we cut short in order to act, but we never in experience encounter an actual or completed infinite. Ethical encounter with others highlights the incompleteness (i.e., non-totality, in Lévinas’ terms) of our understanding.

This incompleteness — and the thickness and “overflowing” character of meant realities or informal “being” that is its complement — already seems to me sufficient to support an ethical, hospitable relation to the other. I want to say that an overflowing beyond objectifying schemas is characteristic not just of absolute transcendence and infinity, but of ordinary being and ordinary meaning. Routinely in everyday life, there is meaningful intelligibility and there is overflow, in the very same context. Even in the most ordinary moments, with sufficient openness we can find poetic reverie and ethical awe that takes us outside of ourselves.

Lévinas speaks of the “absolutely other” as “truth” in the sense of a religious transcendence, to which ethics is the “royal road” (p. 29). Transcendence, Lévinas says, should not be confused with ecstasy or magical communion. He has in mind a more sober kind of religion. He cites Marcel and Martin Buber on the irreducibility of the relationship to the Other to objective knowledge, and associates the driving of practice by theory with a failure to recognize this primacy of the other. With Kant, Hegel, and Brandom, I think we should recognize that theoretical reason actually depends on a practical reason that renounces Mastery; that theoretical reason is more of a tool, whereas practical reason is more of an agency; and that practical reason begins with recognition of the other.

I like when he speaks of a “generosity nourished by the Desired” (p. 34). He goes on to talk about a metaphysical Desire for the absolutely Other, “non-adequate to the idea” (ibid). Less metaphysically, I see forms overflowing their boundaries without thereby ceasing to be forms, and locate meaning in a foundationless but relatively stable difference in a relation of reciprocal co-grounding with moral commitment and practical judgment.

He talks about the reduction of the Other to the Same, and seems to think most philosophy does that. I have a more optimistic or charitable view that I think is also more historiographically valid. Aristotle and Hegel especially (contrary to common stereotypes) are very careful to avoid claiming overly strong Identity, so it is really not fair to say they reduce the Other to the Same.

Directly contrary to my view, he says that “The calling into question of things in a dialectic is not a modifying of the perception of them; it coincides with their objectification” (p. 69; emphasis in original). Disappointingly, he seems to prefer an authoritative teacher whom he calls an absolute Stranger. “The absolutely foreign alone can instruct us” (p. 73). It’s starting to sound like Kierkegaard here. I feel that hyperbolic expressions like this begin to denigrate ordinary life, and ultimately lead to a sort of absolute inflation. Lévinas’ Other is supposed to be a source of gentleness rather than arbitrariness, but to me what is gentle — much as it may exceed any objectification — cannot be absolutely foreign. I prefer to emphasize goodness rather than power, and I want to say that goodness speaks to us, so it cannot be absolutely foreign. (See also Immanence, Transcendence.)

Pure Negativity?

I’m still hoping to arrive at a more constructive engagement with the Žižek school of contemporary Hegel interpretation. Žižek’s reading is more “metaphysical” than the Aristotle-and-Brandom-inspired one I’ve been developing here, and I’m not fond of his penchant for showmanship, but there is a broad proximity of concerns. I’m looking now at Sbriglia and Žižek, Subject Lessons: Hegel, Lacan, and the Future of Materialism (2020). The unusual “materialism” at issue here is openly proclaimed to be a development of German idealism. The contributors seek to distinguish themselves from other recent currents of so-called “cultural materialism”, “new historicism”, “new materialism”, and “object-oriented ontology”. I’ve briefly reviewed one of the representative works from which the Žižekians want to distinguish themselves.

Common to all these trends, the Žižek school, and the work pursued here is a rejection of a classic Cartesian Subject. As against the others, the Žižek school and I both also want to nonetheless affirm the importance of subjectivity. While I am not a Lacanian, I also think Lacan deserves serious engagement, and the Žižek school is pursuing that.

Sbriglia and Žižek write that “the self-limitation of the phenomenal that renders matter un-whole, the fact that the phenomenal field is in itself never ‘all’, never a complete, consistent whole, is strictly correlative to subjectivity as such” (p. 10, emphasis in original). Mladen Dolar in his contribution writes, “Subject is rather the very impossibility of substance to be substance” (p. 38). Žižek in his contribution adds, “when Kant asserts the limitation of our knowledge, Hegel does not answer him by claiming he can overcome the Kantian gap…. the Kantian gap already is the solution: Being itself is incomplete…. This dimension gets lost in Fichte and Schelling, who both assert intellectual intuition” (pp. 107-108, emphasis in original). This seems exactly right.

I would add that for similar reasons having to do with criteria of identity, there is an impossibility like Dolar’s (developed by Aristotle himself in the central books of the Metaphysics) for Aristotelian “what it was to have been” a thing to just be the kind of quasi-grammatical substrate that came to be commonly understood by Latin substantia. The above-quoted formulations are a big advance over notions of mere epistemic incompleteness due to the inexhaustibility of a naively conceived in-itself. In my more Aristotelian language, not only do we rational animals never have a completely univocal perspective on the whole, but we should not be afraid to speak of equivocal determination in the real. Equivocal determination is still determination, but it is incomplete.

My only caveat to Sbriglia and Žižek’s formulation would be on the Schellingian sound of “self-limitation of the phenomenal”. It seems to me the Žižek school sometimes wants to put a Schellingian spin on Hegel’s famous “substance is also subject” claim, which would be an unfortunate regression. I think Hegel not only wanted to sharply distinguish his perspective from that of Schellingian identity philosophy, but succeeded in doing so.

Sbriglia and Žižek use the picturesque Lacanian language of a “hole in reality” as a defining characteristic of subjectivity, commenting that “the inaccessibility of the transcendent In-itself… is a result of the inscription of the perceiving subject into reality” (ibid). I prefer to minimize implicit identity claims, and thus to say (some) subjectivity rather than “the” subject. In some contexts, I think this is merely a terminological difference. Insofar as they just mean a decentered subjectivity with roots in the unconscious, the formulation seems fine, provided “perceiving” is taken as referring to something like Hegelian “Perception” and higher levels of the Phenomenology, not to something like his intended-to-be-discarded starting point of putative empirical “Sense Certainty”.

I get less comfortable with their talk about “the” subject as an abyss of pure negativity. Here I hear echoes of Sartre. While this is neither a substantial Cartesian-medieval intellectual soul nor even a Husserlian transcendental Ego, talk about “pure” negativity or an “abyss” seems to imply a kind of immanent infinity, albeit stripped of traditional theological associations. Sartre used this kind of metaphysics of negativity to bolster an extreme voluntarist anthropology, ironically transferring claims from old bad theology to the service of a strident atheism. Alain Badiou, who is a significant influence on the Žižek school, began as a Sartrean, and is perhaps the most outspoken extreme voluntarist today. I think it is a disservice to bring Sartre and Badiou into the reading of Hegel. Voluntarism is at root a naked expression of the attitude of one-sided Mastery, and should have no place in a discourse that aims at emancipation. Emancipation cannot come from an imposition of will. It comes rather from the increase of justice through processes furthering concrete realization of the autonomy of reason and mutual recognition. (See also Independence, Freedom; Freedom Without Sovereignty.)

Claims of immanent infinity may get a bit of added credibility these days, due to circulating complaints against Kantian “finitude”. It is easy to superficially enlist quotes from Hegel that appear to support such complaints. Here I want to explicitly defend the Kantian perspective of the essential finitude of human reality, relating it back to the happily rather than unhappily finite perspective of Aristotle, and supporting that by an Aristotelian-Brandomian reading of Hegel. A perspective of human finitude can also draw on charitable understandings of much traditional wisdom.

I do also think there is an inherently good but distinctly inhuman Hegelian “negative infinity” that can be anonymously intimate to our finite reality and the formation of our values, through the mediation of second nature, without actually being “us” or “ours” or immanent in us. Even if that negative infinity is to be identified with the “pure Self” Sbriglia and Žižek mention from Hegel’s 1805-06 lectures, it should not be identified with any empirical or existentialist or common-sense self. The Žižek school’s way of expressing this is to speak of a “split subject” or a split in the subject. Various strands of traditional wisdom can be seen in retrospect to have bearing on such a distinction as well. Members of the Žižek school would probably eschew any favorable reference to “traditional wisdom” of the kind I am making here as incompatible with academic-leftist credentials important to them, but Hegel himself often showed an irenic and even valorizing attitude on matters of this sort. (See also Acts in Brandom and Žižek; Self, Subject; Empirical-Transcendental Doublet.)