Descartes and the principle of egocentricity

May asked:

After reading the ‘Discourse on Method’ text, I had this one question in my head, Why did Descartes prefer self-observation or ‘learning by himself’, to studying/ travelling?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

We know that Descartes studied and travelled extensively. Why weren’t these enough? What did he hope to learn by self-observation?

This might seem a rather naive question, as we are so used to the idea of philosophers sitting alone in their studies (Descartes preferred the warm comfort of his bed) exploring the contents of their own minds, but Descartes wasn’t merely mulling over all the things he’d learned and experienced. By self-observation he hoped to discover new knowledge.

The idea of using the mind rather than the senses as a source of knowledge goes right back to the Ancient Greeks and the Presocratic philosopher Parmenides. The idea of examining ourselves and becoming self-aware was first given powerful expression by the Presocratic philosopher Heraclitus, who in a vision saw that the soul of a human being was one and the same as the principle that governs the universe, the fiery Logos. It was Heraclitus’ successor Socrates who proposed ‘Know thyself’ as the basis for all philosophical inquiry.

Descartes was fully aware of these precedents. Nor was he the first to write in the way he did. The confessional or self-observational style of thinking and philosophizing had been pioneered by Montaigne. Yet Descartes was also aware that he was doing something radically new. By looking inside his own mind and describing what he found there, he hoped to discover a new basis for metaphysics or ‘first philosophy’ (Aristotle’s term for the inquiry that subsequently came to be known as metaphysics).

Hence the title of Descartes’ major work: ‘Meditations on the First Philosophy in which the existence of God and the real distinction between the soul and the body of man are demonstrated.’

I happen to think that this was, possibly, the most important event in the history of philosophy.

I see the principle of egocentricity as central to metaphysical inquiry. This isn’t about Descartes’ claim, his theory of mind-body dualism and the notion of the mind as a ‘mental substance’, but rather the question that Descartes raised.

Of contemporary philosophers, Thomas Nagel comes closest to grappling with this in The View From Nowhere where he discusses the proposition ‘I am TN’.

My take would be this. What distinguishes metaphysics from science or empirical inquiry – or all the knowledge that you can get by studying or travelling or etc. – is that I am asking the question. Obviously, when I say ‘I’, I also mean you, or whoever happens to be reading this. You are the one asking the question. That is to say, You, your very existence, or the fact that you are asking a question is part of that question, not something that can be discounted or factored out in the way that we do with every other form of human knowledge.

To this day no philosopher has succeeded in completing the search that Descartes initiated. Sure, lots of ‘metaphysics’ has been done since the time of Descartes, but none of the theories put forward, and I include the great traditions of idealism and existentialism, has succeeded in capturing the evanescent intuition that I, my very existence – not just anyone or the ‘self’ in general – is an essential part of the puzzle of reality.


Does objectivity exist?

Christopher asked:

Does objectivity exist? I agreed with what I read in ‘A View from Nowhere,’ but isn’t math still objective? I mean how is 2+2=4 subjective? I guess the argument could be made that 2+2=4 is subjective because I didn’t write it II+II=IV, but that’s just using different symbols to represent the same thing. It still has the same objective value and meaning.

Answer by Craig Skinner

Yes, objectivity exists.

We can usefully distinguish 5 notions of objectivity:

* physical
* metaphysical
* mathematical
* dispositional
* evaluative

I shall briefly deal with each, then show how an example (moral objectivity) fares on each notion.

Physical: something is physically objective if it is part of the fabric and furniture of the physical world, such as a plant, planet, chair or table. And this existence is independent of our thought. If all life went extinct, Mars would still orbit the Sun, waves lap on Earth’s shores.

Metaphysical: paradigmatic example is Plato’s forms. But few now believe in a transcendental reality separate from the everyday, sensible, world. Some consider them abstract objects, although I think it is hard to rigorously distinguish abstract, fictional and non-existent objects.

Mathematical: such truths, as you say, are objective. They are a priori, necessary, same for all of us, independent of our wishes. Whether mathematical objects (such as numbers) exist (and whether best construed as physical, mental, abstract, fictional or nonexistent ?) is more controversial, but this doesn’t affect the objectivity of maths.

Dispositional: whereas primary qualities, such as size or shape, are physically objective, secondary qualities can be seen as dispositional. For example, redness in a postbox is an objective disposition to cause a normal human, viewing it in good light, to see redly and declare the box red. In this sense, then, grass is objectively green, the daytime, cloudless sky blue.

Evaluative: we draw up standards for everything from judging vegetables to playing bridge. And we make objective judgments (evaluations) according to these standards. So, to award the trophy to the golfer who went round in the least number of strokes is an objectively just evaluation based on publically agreed standards.

Let us see how moral objectivity fares.

Physical: we could account for descriptive ethics in terms of the evolved facts of human nature (innate, hard-wired moral sense, in turn reducible to physical brain states), but this, if successful, explains rather than justifies, and normative ethics is unaccounted for (‘no ought from is’).

Metaphysical: for the Platonist, moral objectivity is guaranteed by the Form of the Good. But most people, these days, would say such transcendental moral facts are ‘queer entities’ (as Mackie calls them), never mind how we could access them or be motivated by them.

Mathematical: nobody thinks moral facts are mathematical, but some moral philosophers (e.g. Kant, Ross) liken moral to mathematical truths (timeless, necessary etc). But, sadly, whereas everybody agrees as regards maths truths, the alleged moral intuition doesn’t yield agreement: what was self-evidently morally right to Moore was not so to Ross and vice versa.

Dispositional: more promising, and is work in progress. An objectively moral fact is seen as a disposition of a state of affairs to arouse approval/disapproval (approbation/disapprobation) in a normal human observer e.g. a cat’s being set alight for fun would be objectively wrong, disposing to arousal of intense disapproval in an onlooker. The account relies on the notion of an ethically normal observer, or ‘ideal’ observer, or, as you suggest, on the impartial view or ‘view from nowhere’, or on imaginary consensus reached behind a ‘veil of ignorance’.

Evaluative: normative ethics is clearly objective in the evaluative sense (an act is right if it fits the society’s agreed standards for rightness). But, as a sole account, it is unsatisfactory, because then the moral rules have no more standing than those of chess or etiquette, save that they deal with weightier matters.

So, in summary, normative ethical objectivity can’t plausibly be seen as physical, metaphysical or mathematical. Dispositional objectivity is more promising, whilst evaluative objectivity is trivially true but fails to give more than truth by convention.

I avoid the slippery terms ‘mind (in)dependence’ and ‘subjectivity’. Some physically objective things are clearly completely independent of any (non-divine) minds. But if the mental includes theories, concepts, sentences, abstract objects, and human conventions, it is hard to find a serious ethical stance that doesn’t include the mind in some way. For instances, in utilitarianism ‘happiness’ is clearly a mental phenomenon; ‘willing’ in Kantianism is a mental activity; reaching consensus in contractarianism is mental activity, and so on.


Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

As far as my understanding reaches, ‘objectivity’ is a word with a well-defined dictionary meaning. I have never come across an argument for its actual existence, so there is a first time for everything! But I can’t see objectivity existing. In which way? As a thing? As a law of nature or science? As a wave, a particle, residual energy, what? I think the ‘no’s’ have it. Objectivity plainly refers back to the human being and that creature’s intellectual understanding. So it is a concept; and concepts don’t exist as such, because they are ideas. As far as I can see they are all of human manufacture and 100% mental.

Your little game with numbers doesn’t change anything. Although it is true that any 2 items added to any two other items always come out at 4 items, and 2+2 in the abstract is always 4, this is an objective fact only to the extent that the underlying notion is of a perfectly law-abiding mechanism, i.e. a thoughtless, soulless, inanimate ‘object’. I hope you get the gist of this. Delete intellect from the world and ‘objectivity’ is deleted along with it. If computers survive us and keep ‘objectively’ performing their algorithms, what can be called ‘objective’ about it? Nothing. You need a consciousness capable of discerning that objectivity and distinguishing it from the ‘subjective’ aspects of the same rational (i.e. human) intelligence.


Descartes on imagination and intellect

Jackie asked:

I am reading the book ‘Meditations on First Philosophy’ by Renee Descartes. I have some questions about it.

Why and how does Descartes distinguish between imagination and intellection? Is it because imagination is sensory and deals with concrete ideas and intellection is knowing and deals with abstract ideas? Could you give me an example of an abstract idea and a concrete idea. Is it because Descartes wants to prove that only intellect is needed to exist because you can understand stuff you can’t imagine?

Does Descartes claim himself to be an intellect in the 6th Meditation? If so, what was the nature?

Last question, what special classes of ideas poses a problem that motivates the proof of dualism? To my understanding, Dualism is that only matter and thinking things and their ideas exist. Please correct me if I am wrong.

Thank you so much! Sorry for asking so many questions.

Answer by Craig Skinner

Don’t apologize for asking too many questions, asking too few is worse.

You touch on an aspect of Descartes’ thinking less often discussed than his scepticism and his dualism: his recognition that there are features of humans not referable to body or mind alone, but essentially involving both, such as sensation, emotions (passions) and, maybe, imagination.

Descartes thinks the world consists of two types of substance, thinking stuff or mind (res cogitans) and extended stuff or matter (res extensa). The physical world (including animals) consists of matter. God and angels consist of mind. Humans are essentially mind (‘I think therefore I am’) but also also have material bodies.

Matter has its properties, such as size, shape, weight.

Mind has its property namely thinking (doubting, understanding, affirming and denying, all part of reason or intellect; and willing).

But there is an immediate problem with this neat division.

For what about sensation and emotion? These are not features of matter alone or mind alone, but are hybrid faculties, involving body and mind in intimate union (‘intermingled’ as Descartes puts it). Thus, sensation requires sensory organs, which are material; emotion includes racing pulse, faster breathing and muscle trembling, all bodily features. Also imagination, regarded as having a mental image of something, is rather like sensation, except the image is not of something before our eyes but something we conjure up in our mind’s eye.

So emotion, sensation and imagination don’t fit into Descartes’ dualistic framework.

Sensation, emotion and imagining require body. So, God and the angels, being immaterial, can’t have these. They only have thinking (intellect and will).

Hence, for Descartes, intellection, understood as thinking without emotion, sensation or imagination, must be superior to imagination, to ensure God always has superior understanding to we humans.

So, we can, as you say, intellect or understand stuff we can’t imagine. Descartes’ example is a regular 1000-sided figure (chiliagon). I can form an image in my mind’s eye of, say, a pentagon, even an octagon, but it gets increasingly hard with more sides. Try to form an image of a chiliagon and I have a vague, almost circular image, but no way can I be sure that it has 1000, rather than say 994, or even 2000, sides. But I can easily intellect a chiliagon: it’s a regular polygon with 1000 sides, just as squares have 4 and hexagons have 6, right!

Descartes also recognized that animals have emotions and sensations. But he denied that they had minds or souls (they didn’t intellect). He realized that this cut across his mind/body dualism – if they had no res cogitans, only res extensa, how come they could feel? He struggled in his later years in Conversation with Burman, in Passions of the Soul, and in correspondence with his famous, very bright, distance student, Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia, to give an account of human feelings and sensations, of how body stuff and mind stuff could possibly interact, and of how soulless animals could feel, but never resolved the issues.

Yes, Descartes does claim to be an intellect (thinking thing). But he also realizes he is an embodied creature with some properties attributable to the mind/body union and not to mind or body alone.

Descartes’ dualism is substance dualism. This view has few adherents these days (the interaction problem is still the killer). But property dualism has its fans. Here, something can have both physical and mental properties. Thus, a collection of brain cells has a particular activity pattern (physical property) and also a mental property (feels like something to the subject whose brain it is).

Finally, I don’t think concrete and abstract IDEAS exist, only concrete and (maybe) abstract THINGS or particulars. Thus, a chair is a concrete, physical thing; a thought is a concrete mental thing. Abstract things, if they exist, include numbers and propositions, do not exist in time or space or causally interact with us.

Descartes scholars can say a lot more about these matters (and they do), such as the influence of Aristotle and medieval philosophy, and the special meaning of some of the terms used, but I give my view as a non-expert reader, and admirer, of Descartes.


Fatalism and knowledge of the future

Christopher asked:

Can’t you have knowledge of the future? For example, I know that I am going to work at 8am tomorrow. In this way isn’t truth ‘made’ rather than existing a priori? Therefore, truth would be mutable and have a subjective quality to it. Or can knowledge not be attained through inductive reasoning? I’m thinking of knowledge as justified true belief. I also realize that there is the possibility that I will not go to work tomorrow at 8am, but isn’t there always a chance that you’re wrong.

Answer by Martin Jenkins

To state on Sunday that ‘I am going to work at 08:00 tomorrow’ is either true or false.

If at 08:00 on Monday I am at work then the earlier statement made on Sunday would be true. If it is true on Monday that I am at work and that what was said on Sunday was also true then it cannot be true that I would not be a work on Monday at 08:00. Therefore, out of necessity, I could not not have gone to work on Monday at 08:00. Necessarily, I will be at work at 08:00 on Monday. A version of determinism (fatalism) follows.

This could be denied by saying, ‘Well, neither ‘I will go to work nor ‘I will not go to work’ are true.’ As this denies the principle of bivalence – the ‘truth’ of ‘Either true or false’ regarding the statement – it becomes nonsensical. Nothing and everything can be known or predicted. Anything goes according to chance and caprice. Indeterminism follows and no statement could be made concerning work at 08:00 on Monday.

So, we sit on the horns of a dilemma. Either we adopt the scenario of Necessity – that I necessarily will be at work at 08:00 on Monday and everything that occurs, occurs by necessity: determinism or; adopt the scenario that nothing can be known or predicted and anything could happen – a reliance upon chance and contingency: indeterminism.

That the statement concerning 08:00 on Monday was made on the prior Sunday entails that the actuality of Monday at 08:00 is/was not yet known. There is a temporal gap between the time of the statement and the truth of what it states. It is not therefore, subject to the judgements of either true or false. For the statement that ‘I am going to work’ includes the word ‘going’: implying an intention, an action, not a conclusion affording an immediate a priori judgement, true or false. Its truth or falsity remains ‘up for grabs’.

Such a proposition as ‘I am going to work at 08:00 tomorrow’ is a future proposition. Future propositions are neither true or false at the time of utterance, they may at most be supported by inductive probability but they can only be verified at the time or subsequently. Only then do they become knowledge. Prior to this, they are neither true or false.

If I am at work 08:00 Monday, then I can conclude that necessarily, I am at work. It is true that I am at work and false that I am not at work. However, I cannot conclude that therefore of necessity, I had to be at work at 08:00 and yesterday’s statement was true; for at the time of Sunday’s statement, it was logically possible that I would not be at work at 08:00 on Monday morning.

I hope this is useful Christopher.


Knock-down refutation of skepticism

Ruth asked:

‘Nothing can be known.’ What is a powerful objection to this claim?

Answer by Helier Robinson

It is self-refuting. If it is true then you cannot know about it. Any self-refuting statement must be false.


Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

To expand on Helier’s answer.

There seems to be a way for the sceptic to have one’s cake and eat it, by stating, ‘Either nothing can be known, or just one thing can be known, that no other knowledge is possible.’

Now all the sceptic has to do is argue from the two alternatives:

Alternative 1. If nothing can be known then nothing can be known.

If nothing can be known then, a fortiori (from the stronger premiss) apart from the question whether anything can be known, nothing can be known. I.e. nothing else can be known.

Alternative 2. If it is possible to know that nothing else can be known then nothing else be known.

Conclusion (from or-elimination): Nothing else can be known.

Why go to all this palaver? The key, unstated, premiss in the knock-down argument against scepticism, is that the act of making an assertion implies knowledge. This might seem a rather strong claim when one looks at everyday idle talk, but even a statement like, ‘The weather is nice today,’ would be questioned if one learned that the person making the statement had not gone out of their centrally heated home or looked out of the window.

And yet, there does seem something very suspect about a self-professed sceptic, or global sceptic, making any assertions. You can’t say, ‘Nothing can be known’ if you don’t know this. It is irrelevant that a ‘case can be made’ for the truth of ‘Nothing else can be known’, because you don’t know that either.

However, there is another way to look at scepticism, not as a position or theory which one states, but rather as a performance. Whenever we want to state a belief, or a position or a theory, the sceptic steps in to silence us. Words aren’t needed for this. A wagging finger would suffice.


Latter day Latin

Christopher asked:

Why do philosophers use Latin? I can buy an English translation of a book, but there’s still Latin words in it. I am able to understand most of the Latin words, but it’s just sort of a pet peeve. Does the Latin word carry some additional connotation that the English translation doesn’t? Actually, it’s not only Latin that I’ve come across in an English translated book. I always see the French word for resentment in Nietzsche’s books as well. Is this just simply for aesthetic purposes? Just a preference of the author?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

All English literature is full of loan words from other languages. Somewhere in excess of 50% of all English words are Latin derivatives, generally through French: surely you must know that? Moreover, if you’ve ever come in contact with another language, then you would also understand that the connotations of even the same words in English and other languages rarely coincide exactly. So the Latin in philosophy fills the bill of this disparity, by giving you a Latin-derived or actual Latin word to ensure that the connotations are covered as best as possible.

It makes no difference with Nietzsche (despite the occasional irritation) that French words occur in translations, since they frequently cover his meanings more exactly than Anglo-Saxon equivalents. I hope this answers your question.


Answer by Craig Skinner

No, it doesnt usually carry additional connotation. But speaking for myself as one of the last generation to have routinely sat through Latin lessons at the local school, I intend to keep using Latin words ad nauseum, maybe ad infinitum, just to annoy those fortunate enough to have enjoyed computer studies lessons instead.

So, I will continue to update my curriculum vitae, examine viva voce, make a priori, a posteriori and reductio ad absurdum arguments and ad hominem objections, disagree with the tabula rasa view of the mind, and fertilize in vivo or in vitro as the mood takes me. Ceteris paribus of course.

Pull yourself together and think how much worse it was in days gone by when Latin was the language of Western scholarship.

Up to the 16th Century the Bible was only available in Latin (or Greek) and you could lose your life making an English translation for the masses to understand.

It was infra dig (if you’ll pardon the Greek) to write in the vernacular lest common people grasped it and got ideas above their station. Wanted to read Bacon’s new ideas? Sorry, in Latin (Novum Organum). Newton then? Same (Philosophiae Naturalis, Principia Mathematica). Even Descartes’ Meditations first appeared in Latin.

By the late 17th and 18th Century it was better. Only chunks of Latin verse in the texts but no translation (none being thought needed for the classically-educated reader).

By the 19th Century, any extended burst of Latin was translated in a footnote.

In the 20th Century, only the phrases which peeve you (and no doubt others).

By later this century it will all be over save for words which have become part of English.

Castigat ridendo mores.

I am

pro bono

Yours et cetera