I recently read an article in First Things about Heidegger by David Bentley Hart. It was a real good piece. Hart does what every good writer on Heidegger should do: make Heidegger comprehensible without losing his opaque and poetic incomprehensiveness.
The article touches lightly on Descartes. Heidegger, like Nietzsche, saw Descartes as the beginning of, or at least a major development in, the decline of Western thought – specifically, for Heidegger, Western thought’s discussion of Being/being. To be fair, Heidegger saw the foundational problem in Plato, in the Greek tendency to solidify and eternalize things not solid or eternal, and to create and sustain categories for things that are un-categorize-able.
But this whole conversation about Descartes got me re-thinking about the crazy, Catholic Frenchie. Descartes holds a significant place in my heart. Reading his Meditations on First Philosophy in my Introduction to Philosophy class was incredibly powerful and memorable. The initial framework for the text is narrative and easy to follow, and this made the ideas embedded within the narrative easy to follow. As a college freshman, Descartes’ hyperbolic doubt was both freeing and melancholic – and I don’t think you can ask for much more for a college freshman.
In more recent history, I still return to Descartes. As much as I reject the basic conclusion in Meditations, this is mainly because Descartes cannot rebuild what he destroys: his hyperbolic doubt is too powerful for his reworking of Anselm’s deontological argument for God. However, I often return to his initial premise – i.e. What is it that we can really know for sure? – and, although I reject Descartes’ path to surety, it is because of his failure to provide this surety that I am left with initial question: Can we know anything for sure?
Now, I know ways of answering this, and I’m satisfied with these sorts of arguments. The major issue is Descartes and others’ use of “knowledge” and how we “know” things. Still, it remains obvious to me that, according to a painstakingly strict empirical mode of epistemology, I can’t really prove anything but my existence. I can’t reason my way, empirically, outside of my own brain. But I’m not concerned with this problem or my own reasons why it isn’t really a problem. Instead, I’m concerned with the improper logical leap people make after accepting a certain set of his principles.
Philosophical historians, rightfully so, point to Descartes as pivotal in the development of subjective thought. Quite simply, he begins by saying we can only prove our own individual existence, and only from this point can we prove anything else. Whether or not you accept this premise is unimportant to my commentary. Let’s say, for the sake of the argument, that you do accept it. Let’s hypothetically agree that the only thing we can prove is our existence via our thought, our doubt – or, more appropriately, everything additional we can prove comes after and hinges upon our proof that we in fact exist.
What I’ve recently come to take issue with is where people go from this point. Even if we assume our proof of everything else in the world begins with proof of our own subjective existence – and even if this makes all other proof in some way subjective – this does not mean that all of reality is somehow defined through human existence. Our lens might be chosen for us and relative (our lens = our individual perception), but this doesn’t mean that the world we see through the lens is in anyway affected by the subjectivity of the lens.
Let’s get specific. Why is reality or morality subjective simply because our perceptions of these things may be subjective? This isn’t good logic. Perhaps, on account of our subjectivity, we can’t get to the objectivity; but this in no way means it doesn’t exist; plus, who’s to say one can’t use subjectivity to arrive at objectivity? That’s for another post…
Let’s get specific again. Why is truth or un-truth based on what we can prove through our subjective reality? Take God, for example. Either God exists or He doesn’t, and His existence or non-existence has nothing at all to do with our own existence. Somehow we can come to the conclusion that if we can’t prove His existence, then He mustn’t exist. But why is the world outside in anyway contingent upon our own modes of experience and knowledge. If Descartes proved anything, he proved the supreme limits of empirical knowledge – so why then would we assume that anything we can’t prove empirically can’t exist? Isn’t this simply a silly, naïve view of reality? Isn’t this like the toddler who puts his hands over his eyes and then assumes no one can see him?
More and more, I see those who point to the subjectivity of our existence as the basic for believing all is subjective as either blind and naïve – like our college freshman – or simply egotistical. How egoistical? By reversing the logic. Perhaps our perceptions of reality come to us only through our own subjective existence; but this in no way implies that reality is in any way shaped like or by those perceptions. This is the egoism of modernism.