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From Cognition to Being

Henry Davis McHenry

Part I. Epistemology

2. Cartesian doubt

Texte intégral

  • 1 Contingency, irony and solidarity, 152.
  • 2 Un autre Descartes: Le philosophe et son langage (Libraire philosophique J. VRIN, 1980), 159 (tr. (...)

What we call common sense—the body of widely accepted truths—is... a collection of dead metaphors. Truths are the skeletons which remain after the capacity to arouse the senses—to cause tingles—has been rubbed off by familiarity and long usage. After the scales are rubbed off a butterfly’s wing, you have transparency, but not beauty—formal structure without sensuous content. Once the freshness wears off the metaphor, you have plain, literal, transparent language—the sort of language which is ascribed not to any particular person but to “common sense” or “reason” or “intuition,” ideas so clear and distinct you can look right through them.
—Richard Rorty1
What Descartes wants is to acquire means of acting on the universe—in a word, means of giving orders to the world... [Descartes’ audacity is] to recognize that what is intuitively evident... is a projection into the physical world of the structure of the self... This projection enables the will, subduing the difference between Self and World, joining World and Self.
—Pierre-Alain Cahné2

1Saussure’s picture, as we sketched it in the last chapter, places social colloquy instead of rule-governed structure at the heart of language. If colloquy, sociality, are more powerful than the “setting” or “affective climate” in which teaching and learning occur, we teachers might benefit from inquiring into the colloquial wisdom of our times, as it informs our speaking and listening, our discourse in the area of education. If indeed we come to be in colloquy, as Bakhtin hints, contemporary educational discourse may work as much to shape as to comment on our practice. What skeletal truths are widely accepted in the common-sense colloquy that houses education?

  • 3 In section 129 of Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein notes:
    The aspects of things that are m (...)

2In his day, at the beginning of modern times, Descartes proposed an inquiry into the ground of knowing, an inquiry that began by doubting the accepted truths—the formal structure, the dead metaphors—of then current common sense. His purpose was to generate a new colloquy, a new language, almost to invent a new metaphor of knowledge, so as to enable human performance—to provide new forms for peoples’ life and work. The magnitude of his success may be measured in the distance between the medicine man and the nuclear magnetic resonance imager, and also in the speed with which rain forest is obliterated. Of course, Descartes had progenitors, and it is not a linear succession of mutually exclusive positions with which we are concerned. But, starting with Descartes, we can begin to get a picture of the colloquy which, as it has developed over four centuries, still envelopes us today. We are re-reading Descartes, and re-reading him in a particular way, so as to notice that colloquy, to bring it up out of the background where in its simplicity and familiarity it is transparent.3

3Let’s say that what we are often doing in our teaching practice is looking at ideas. We present the Causes of the Civil War, or the terms used in criticizing fiction, or an example of a geometric proof. We may write the ideas on the blackboard, so as to create for the students a visual handle. We expect them perhaps to copy, surely to digest these ideas, relating them into a growing structure of information and skill. What we seldom pay attention to is the context of ideas through which we ourselves are looking. Where does our own common sense or “reason” or “intuition” come from?

4Look first, then, at the title of Descartes’ first published work:

Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and Seeking for Truth in the Sciences

  • 4 Of course, Descartes’ thinking occurred (and his work was published) in French, but I will start w (...)

5Descartes’ first word, “discourse,” carries with it, by virtue of those semiological principles that Saussure propounded, a set of relationships between concepts. (“Concepts” is not quite the right word. For Saussure, like Wittgenstein after him, was speaking not about mental contents at all but about the interconnected uses of signs. He begins to let us hear the chorality of signification.) “Discourse” is a value in a cluster of values, a conventionally accepted constellation of meaning whose fullest exposition (in English at least) is to be found in the Oxford dictionary.4 Bahktin would protest: “Meaning is not found in a dictionary but made in dialogic encounter!” I reply, somewhat lamely: Agreed, but the dictionary does give us hints about those constellations among which we have been living, charts to aid our navigation.

6Used as a noun, then, “discourse” brings with it “reasoning, thought, ratiocination; the act of the understanding, by which it passes from premises to consequences”—this is Samuel Johnson’s definition. In addition, Johnson says, the word brings “communication of thought by speech; mutual intercourse of language”; it is a kind of talk, conversation. Discourse, then, is heard as rational communication: the word links thought with human intercourse. And it links them into a hierarchical relationship: first comes thought; then comes language, the vehicle of thought, to carry thought across to others. (Two questions we might ask ourselves in passing: To what extent are we teachers of discourse, our professional lives focused on just this: transmission of thought or understanding through language? To what actions and interactions does the possibility of such transmission lead us?)

  • 5 Oxford English Dictionary, 2668.

7To continue: the word “method” brings with it a notion of orderly arrangement, of regular, systematic procedure organized according to a pre-established, stable, validated plan. A Method for Rightly Conducting the Reason is one that will lead and guide one of our distinct mental capacities so that it can be judged to be functioning in accordance with some standard, some criterion of lightness. It seeks for Truth, which, though it may be hidden, is to be arrived at by a rightly conducted reasoning process. This truth is then to be formulated in the Sciences: “A branch of study which is concerned either with a connected body of demonstrated truths or with observed facts systematically classified and more or less colligated by being brought under general laws, and which includes trustworthy methods for the discovery of new truth within its own domain.”5

  • 6 In The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor as Myth and as Religion (New York: Harper and Row Pe (...)
  • 7 Huston Smith, Beyond the Post-Modern Mind, 7.

8Notice in these interwoven strands of usage the desire to posit or develop a fixed, secure picture of the scene in which we humans live: to arrive at correct formulation. By the time Descartes was writing, a new formula was badly needed. The envelope around the human that had been sealed by Platonic metaphysics had been torn open. Astronomical observations had rent the heavens of medieval Christian theology. No longer could one base one’s life on the old verities of faith that had timed man and the cosmos alike to God. Speaking of “the sobering crisis in Occidental mentation” that attended Galileo’s invention of the telescope and the “moment” when mathematical analysis exposed “the mechanical laws governing the universe,” Joseph Campbell says: “At that moment, nature... became hard and fast and apart.”6 Aristotelian scholasticism, losing its linchpin of faith in a Prime Mover above the stars, faltered as there arose in the Renaissance a celebration of the powers of man, whose mind could discern and express in those laws the complex but apparently fixed structure of the natural world. Whether it was a moment or a trend that still gathers momentum, another contemporary thinker and humanist, Huston Smith, identifies this phenomenon of adherence to structure as one of the controlling features of the Modern Mind: “the path to human fulfillment,” as he describes it, “consists primarily in discovering these laws, utilizing them where this is possible and complying with them where it is not”7 The universe is intelligible, but intelligible in a different way than before. Now we are not looking for divine guidance to shelter us from the flicks of an inscrutable divine hand; we are capable of figuring the laws of nature to ourselves, and thus required to figure them out. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, then, people’s ways of seeing and being with the world they lived in had begun to alter, perhaps more radically than at any previous time in history.

9Now it has become commonplace that when everything around you is falling apart, you have to fall back on yourself, to go beyond the failing common sense to wrest into place a new system. This, Descartes boldly attempts for his age. We need a new basis for rationality, science, selfhood, even for faith, he intuits, and since manifestly the God in whom we have trusted would not deceive His own handiwork, I shall try standing alone here with my thoughts to see what I can discover of truth unsupported by these bulwarks of received opinion.

10The first principle of Descartes’ method of philosophical inquiry seems straightforward enough. His strategy commits him to subject his every idea to careful conscious scrutiny,

  • 8 All quotations in this paragraph come from the first two of Descartes’ Meditations on First Philos (...)

to receive nothing as true which I did not clearly recognize to be so: that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitation and prejudice in judgments, and to accept in them nothing more than what was presented to my mind so clearly and distinctly that I could have no occasion to put it in doubt.8

11Good innocuous fatherly advice, perhaps like something Polonius would say. Neither a borrower nor a lender nor a rash believer be. But what Descartes is doing here is proposing to flatten, in thought, the whole superstructure of rationality that Western culture had inherited, setting up a new standard for certifying belief. “I must once for all,” he says, “and by a deliberate effort, rid myself of all those opinions to which I have hitherto given credence, starting entirely anew and building from the foundations up.” Assuming the mantle of this pervasive doubt as his method of knowing surely, Descartes returns again and again to his questioning of the grounds of his own knowledge: “But what am I now to say that I am, now that I am supposing that there exists a very powerful, and if I may so speak, malignant being, who employs all his powers and skill in deceiving me?” (Though God would not deceive him, of course, the devil might.) From the platform of this rigorous supposition, he now casts about for several alternative answers, looking for one that fits the “I” whose essence he is trying to discover. Dispensing first with sense perception (perceptions, after all, can be deceptive or illusory) and with anything pertaining to his “bodily nature”—the body, too, might be an illusion produced by a demon—he moves on to consider “attributes of the soul,” and rejects these too, one by one, until he arrives at “thinking”:

Here I find what does belong to me: it alone cannot be separated from me. I am, I exist. This is certain. How often? As often as I think… I am therefore only a thinking thing, that is to say, a mind, an understanding or reason…

12Here at last is the famous—and for the modem Western world picture, seminal—statement; it is an argument known among philosophers as the cogito: I am thinking, therefore I am. Descartes’ line marks out “thinking” as the ground, the basis, of human being. In reading Descartes over again, then, we need to get a clearer picture of what he meant by thinking.

  • 9 In “The Nature of Language,” Heidegger speaks about this kind of method:
    In the sciences, not only (...)

13For what the solitary “I” of the cogito does, surveying the world from its subjective platform with the purpose of measuring, ordering, and reporting on the objective universe, is accumulate knowledge and add it to a particular land of storehouse. Cartesian knowledge consists of well-defined bits of information in a pre-established structure of information. Such a structure allows and calls for a particular way of looking at, and looking for, the known. Descartes’ program sets places, like place settings on a dinner table; it offers a replicable format consisting of spots for knife, fork, spoon, and glass. An instance of knowledge may be a knife or a fork, even a placemat; but it must appear as a recognizable element of the place setting. It is not that no new facts may be discovered. It is that new facts, to be discovered, must fit into the place settings already available. To seek knowledge, remember, is to rely on a “method for rightly conducting the reason and seeking after truth.”9 It is to be pulled toward closure, final say: knowledge is the already invented wheel.

14Having posited a doubt that dissolves received opinion and accustomed thinking like rain dissolving wheel ruts in mud, Descartes now, after the cogito, provides for a kind of apprehension, of seeing/knowing, that sheds water. This granite, as it seems, is clear and distinct perception, and it comes to us primarily in the faculty Descartes calls intuition. I am made human, in Descartes’ speaking, by my capacity for apprehending or intuiting clear and distinct ideas, “primary data,” and reasoning deductively from them to conclusions. Thinking, that is, consists of two components, out of which, in my need for knowledge, I construct orders of ideas. Here is some of what he says about the first and main component, intuition:

  • 10 The European Philosophers, 80. The translation of this passage from Rules for the Guidance of Our (...)

By intuition I understand, not the fluctuating testimony of the senses, nor the misleading judgment of a wrongly combining imagination, but the apprehension which the mind, pure and attentive, gives us so easily and so distinctly that we are thereby freed from all doubt as to what it is that we are apprehending. In other words, intuition is that non-dubious apprehension of a pure and attentive mind which is born in the sole light of reason... thus each of us can see by intuition that he exists, that he thinks, that the triangle is bounded by three lines only, the sphere by a single surface, and the like.10

15There is a lot in this passage to be unpacked, a lot that bears on Descartes’ picture not only of what it means to think and to know, but, behind these, of what it is to be human.

16The first important thing about this kind of knowing is that it is not sense perception. The testimony of the senses “fluctuates” and is therefore unreliable. Let us examine, Descartes proposes, a piece of wax, for example, to see what we can know of it by way of the senses:

  • 11 The European Philosophers, 37.

this piece of wax has been but recently taken from the hive; it has not yet lost the sweetness of the honey it contained; it still retains something of the odor of the flowers from which it was gathered; its color, its shape, its size, are manifest to us; it is hard, cold, easily handled, and when struck upon with the finger emits a sound.11

17He tests the piece of wax with each of the five senses, not omitting the aural even though sound does not suggest itself as a key to knowing about wax, and concludes that everything which can assure us that we are getting to know a real body is present in this one. But then he brings the piece of wax closer to the fire near which he happens to be sitting, and describes the result:

What remains of the taste exhales, the odor evaporates, the color changes, the shape is destroyed, its size increases, it becomes liquid, it becomes hot and can no longer be easily handled, and when struck upon emits no sound.

18So much for the certainty of knowledge by sense perception. How can we even refer to the same wax in the two different conditions, since all the properties by which we knew it changed when its environment changed? Knowledge must not be based on sensation, even though we are impelled by habit to speak as if the deliverances of the senses gave direct knowledge.

19Secondly, a related point: we are not to base a claim to certainty on any image or combination of images. Descartes is suspicious of images because a substance may take on any number of different attributes, as the wax can take on many different shapes, sizes, colors, and so on. In fact, a substance might take on infinitely many different shapes—and might thus appear in as many different images. Since we cannot know all of these different images, we cannot be certain that we know the substance even when we know several of its images. We might “wrongly combine” those images we know into a composite idea of the substance. Images are no more trustworthy than opinions. Indeed, Descartes says that the sciences of his day, “composed as they are of the gradually accumulated opinions of many individuals,” hit farther from the truth than “the simple reasoning that a man of common sense can quite naturally carry out respecting the things which come immediately before him.” Thus Descartes dismisses received scholastic opinion in favor of a more direct and untutored apprehension. But we notice that, here at least, he leaves “common sense” unquestioned.

  • 12 The European Philosophers, 16; Discours de la Méthode, 21.

20So if intuition, the first component of knowledge, is not sense perception for Descartes, and is not imagination, and is not opinion, what is it? It comes to us, Descartes says in that passage quoted on page 46, in an experience of clarity and distinctness, of “non-dubious apprehension,” with a purity like that of deductive reason. Descartes speaks admiringly of the “easy and simple chains of reasoning” used in geometric proofs to proceed infallibly from what is given to a “remote” conclusion. He speculates that “all those things which can fall under the cognizance of men might very likely be mutually related in the same fashion,”12 and speaks of the data of intuition as the “givens” to be linked into our picture of the world—our knowledge—by deductive steps like those in a geometrical proof.

  • 13 The European Philosophers, 80-1.

Many things are known with certainty, though not by themselves evident, but only as they are deduced from true and known primary data by a continuous and uninterrupted movement of thought in the perspicuous intuiting of the several items. This is how we are in a position to know that the last link in a long chain is connected with its first link...13

21Here seems to be another manifestation of the line Descartes is drawing, a straight line from intuition to deduction, a line that challenges us to locate ourselves and our world in our thinking (as he has defined it), and then proposes ways of validating our thinking once and for all. And here too is another hint as to what “thinking” might be: it appears in those deductions from given data that spin out a chain at whose end is certain knowledge.

22Never mind for the moment that it might be possible to draw another line—say, amo ergo sum, or loquor ergo sum. Descartes’ position seemed to open the way for personal knowledge, grounded in clear and certain principles and represented in a coherent and unified system. Rational reflection could now proceed with new authority—indeed, a new kind of authority. We recognize immediately that Descartes is authorizing the individual to engage in scientific exploration of the world. I now have the tools, the methodology to validate the results of my investigations. I seem to be standing firmly on the fixed ground of my own nature and contemplating nature’s nature. If I look from here, immutable truths are discoverable and representable. Descartes had founded, as he had set out to do, a method for “establishing something firm and lasting in the Sciences.” Or, so we might presume his purpose to have been if we read him in a certain way; if we read, as I first did, only a translation of the content of Descartes’ meditations in such a way that they conform with a particular view, one already given by a kind of philosophical/cultural atmosphere. Of course, who reads Descartes himself anymore, voluntarily at least? We all know what he said. In the restroom of the Blue Moon Diner there appears this entry: “I think I thought, therefore I might have been.” Everybody knows cogito ergo sum. Only that is not what he said. That is what we hear our culture telling us that he said—our culture of abbreviations and acronyms. In fact, he abandoned the formulation “I think, therefore I am” after using it once, in the Discourse whose title is dissected above. In its place, in later work, he put a formulation in which his sense of himself as a thinking thing is not as strong as his intuition of himself as an existing thing. Ego sum, ego existo, he now says. Je suis, j’existe. Why would he have made such a change? What difference does it make in what he is trying to say? To answer this requires some traveling, some backtracking, and a lot more looking at ideas. And also some re-inventing.

23It is nearly impossible for me to hear Descartes freshly now, but perhaps I can come closest to him if I read with a non-standard view in mind—not one that is simply far out, but one that seems as if its light might reveal a new contour in the topography of his thought. I don’t think that reading Descartes as a Marxist, say, will be worth much. But I think I see evidence that reading him as a Saussurean might work. That is, I want to explore some of what he says with Saussure’s idea of the network of linguistic “value” in the background. Of course, this is a flaming anachronism, and I make no claim about Descartes’ foresightedness. I am exploring, not arguing. I am not out to get anything right, only to follow some leads to see if they open up any promising territory for teachers to explore. (Of course, if I do happen to get something right, I shall graciously concede this point.) If this dirt road leads out into a new clearing, so much the better.

24To recapitulate: it seemed to Descartes, then, that “thinking” was bound to lead to and achieve its purpose in knowledge, adding more spokes, as it were, to the already invented wheel. But let us ask: is it therefore the main business of being human to discover and formulate knowledge? If it is, then what would be the main business of teachers and students? Would it be possible for us to have as our most basic interest the finding and maintaining of being-together, the welling-up of community? Notice that in Descartes’ paradigm what comes along with knowledge is the divorce of Subject from Object: on one side of the paper, knowledge; and on the other side, being-separate from the world and from each other. And as the letters on the knowledge side expand to fill more and more of our field of view, so do the letters on the being-separate side:

25Thus the Cartesian cogito, and the settings it prescribes for knowledge, squeeze out of view the very experience of atonement (at-one-ment), of communion between man, God, and cosmos, which Descartes had sought to restore in his time. Re-reading Descartes, noticing the gulf between self and world in the background of the Western conversation for knowledge, and speculating on the possibilities of affiliation between his work and Saussure’s, there may appear another possibility for the being of self and world: perhaps all of it is articulation. Perhaps together we speak world. Then it becomes possible to ask the question “Whom shall we be for each other?” and to think that we might have some say in that matter, not as independent individuals resolving to make a difference for others, but as listeners in and for encounter.

26Let us return for a moment to the question of what “clear and distinct perception” is. Though, as Descartes said, it requires a “pure and attentive mind,” the case is not that the attention is given to things so that we can see them without distortion. Rather, the attention of the mind gives clear and distinct perception, and the character of things follows from that. Descartes doesn’t ask us to imagine a triangle and then to see that it is bounded by three sides only. Instead, he calls our view to the character of intuition itself: an experience of clarity and certainty like that which we get, in geometrical reasoning, from the links between well-defined quantities and entities. What gives us the intuition that a triangle has three sides? Well, that is pretty close to the definition of a triangle, isn’t it—three sides, subtending three angles? What this is is a relationship between mutually defined elements. That is to say, what we get in a Cartesian intuition is a Saussurean system of values—sides defined by their relation to angles, and vice versa, and all defined in relation to the background against which the figure appears.

27What springs to clarity in an intuition—this is Descartes speaking Saussurean now—is not a sudden and distinct sensory input, but rather a full-blown, all-or-none relationship between values. To intuit a triangle or a sphere is to apprehend a network of relationships between what we call lines and angles, or surfaces and, say, volumes. The pure attention of the mind in intuition, Descartes says, calls forth a crystallization that gives us clarity; it freezes the frame of our camera—indeed, it gives us a camera, a chamber in which to hold a set of relationships between elements. If you invented a word to characterize the working of intuition—the kind Descartes places at the heart of thinking and knowledge—it might be cameropoetic. The intuition that gives us sense data is poetic. It doesn’t represent, it makes. And what it makes is articulation. Now, when we say we can “articulate” something, we usually mean we can say something that was already there to be said; “articulation” is often used in almost the same sense as “pronunciation.” But in this Saussurean-Cartesian picture, articulation is rather the collocation of joints and parts, levers and screws and slots and bearings, that makes a working machine. Articulation is when jointed parts arise together. We know, then, by dwelling in articulation.

28Now, I like this combination of Descartes with Saussure. I have no idea whether or not the statement of the connection is true—I haven’t read enough Descartes, let alone studied enough seventeenth-century history, to assure me that this invented connection is not flatly contradicted by something else he says, or that what he meant by what I have read is really compatible with Saussure’s perspective. I am ignoring for the moment a crucial difference in the two men’s thought: Saussure’s insistence on the social nature of language, even the social nurture of logic, is absent from the picture Descartes draws of himself, alone in his study, devising a new founding philosophy for the West in perfect solitude. But I think the connection of the two men’s ideas might do some useful work, like the coupling of a blast furnace with a rolling mill.

29Pursuing this working relationship, let us re-read Descartes’ account of sense perception—that kind of knowing whose articulation of the world we take for granted—for now something shows up in the Cartesian account that did not on first reading. When I first encountered his argument, Descartes seemed to be saying that sense perception might not be reliable, but thinking could be, and that if you got your thinking into the right groove, you would not be deluded by the vagaries of sensation. After all, his announced purpose is to attain certain knowledge, and he says often that careful thinking can scotch the errors to which commonplace ideas are prone. It ought to be possible then to perceive truly, to know with certainty, what that elusive wax is.

30But now read the following passage, asking yourself: is Descartes talking about perception as a seeing of the wax, or as an “intuition” of a system of values? The passage comes just after Descartes has demonstrated the unreliability of sensation as a source of knowledge. Is he talking about a looking out at something, or a looking into the very way we look? We are about to embark here on some close textual analysis of the trees in Descartes’ forest, and while I do not intend to deconstruct the trees, I do intend for us to produce a clearing in which the character of the forest that surrounds us today may be more apparent. We look carefully at Descartes’ trees so as to see our own forest. Remember the piece of wax:

  • 14 The European Philosophers, 38. The brackets are present in the passage as it appears.

Now what is this wax which cannot be [adequately] apprehended save by the mind? Certainly the same that I see, touch, image, and in short, the very body that from the start I have been supposing it to be. And what has especially to be noted is that our [adequate] apprehension of it is not a seeing, nor a touching, nor an imaging, and has never been such, although it may formerly have seemed so, but is solely an inspection of the mind which may be imperfect and confused, as it formerly was, or clear and distinct, as it now is, according as my attention is directed less or more to the constituents composing the body.14

31Confusing, is it not? He starts by affirming the very thing that he seemed to deny two paragraphs earlier, that sensation gives knowledge of objects: the wax is just what he had been seeing and touching, he says. But then he denies this once more, saying that [adequate] apprehension is not sense perception but “inspection of the mind.” Does he mean that, as we first thought, you have to get your thinking straight before you can perceive adequately? So where does the criterion of adequacy come from? (And why those brackets around it?) What is Descartes saying about how we are to make our knowledge adequate? At the end of the passage he seems to focus again not on the wax but on the quality of mental attention, and states again that straight thinking is a matter of clear and distinct perception, clear intuition. And he categorically states that perception has never been concerned with sensation at all, but solely with “mental inspection.” But then another about-face: the clarity of the mental attention depends on how closely we direct our attention outward, to the “constituents composing the body”! Descartes seems to want to have perception as a physical seeing of objects and a thinking, a mental intuiting. What a muddle.

32But look. What we heard Descartes saying in his most famous dictum was, we found, at least in part an artifact of our current culturally given listening. The way we heard what he was saying came out of what we were listening for. Maybe now if we listen to him in his own language, we will be able to hear some nuance, some way of shading or coloring the thought that will give us a clearer grasp of what he meant by that most crucial of all his concepts, thinking. Here, then, is the passage as it was translated into French by Descartes himself from the Latin in which he originally wrote it:

  • 15 Œuvre philosophique de Descartes, tome deuxième, ed. Ferdinand Aliquié (Paris: Éditions Garnies Fr (...)

Or quelle est cette cire, qui ne peut être conçue que par l’entendement ou l’esprit? Certes c’est la même que je vois, que je touche, que j’imagine, et la même que je connaissais dès le commencement. Mais ce qui est à remarquer, sa perception, ou bien l’action par laquelle on l’aperçoit, n’est point une vision, ni un attouchement, ni une imagination, et ne l’a jamais été, quoiqu’il le semblait auparavant, mais seulement une inspection de l’esprit, laquelle peut être imparfait et confuse, comme elle était auparavant, ou bien claire et distincte, comme elle est à present, selon que mon attention se porte plus ou moins aux choses qui sont en elle, et dont elle est composée.15

33I hope you can read French yourself, or will check with your French department, because the difference between the original passage and the translation above is no mere matter of nuance or shading. Now that I am looking for evidence that Descartes was a Saussurean, I can see things in the French that are not even present in the English translation. The most obvious is the italicized phrase, which was added by Descartes in his French “second edition.” The sentence, as Descartes rethought it, reads: “But what is to be noted is that the perception of the wax, or better, the action by which one perceives it, is not at all a seeing, nor a touching...” Why would he have added that phrase? What does it do?

34We can reveal the answer, I think, by asking a similar question: why distinguish between what we call “typing at a keyboard” and what we call “the neural impulses by which typing is made possible”? What the extra phrase does here is to mark a distinction more clearly: between typing as a phenomenon in itself and a realm of explanation involving altogether different phenomena, different parameters. Descartes’ added phrase distinguishes perception, taken as a process or a thing in itself, and perception as the result of an “action” of a wholly different kind. This distinction suggests that Descartes was not examining the “adequacy” of sense perception at all, but the difference between sense perception and something else. It opens up a whole new realm for the inquiry, just as Kepler’s mathematics had opened up a new realm for the apprehension of bodies and movements in the universe. There is no mention of the notion of adequacy in the French passage; this seems to have been added by the English translator, for reasons of his own.

35This cannot be happening, I hear myself saying. Surely the translator in the venerable Modern Library edition knew what he was doing better than I do. I am an English teacher, not a philosophy major. Without special training I should not even be talking about this stuff. I might better let the experts teach me more before I go any further. Well, perhaps so, I admit, but I like the sense of being on the track of a discovery here, one that might lead me at least into a whole new forest, and maybe to a whole new realm of relatedness with my students. If this track leads into a briar patch, I’ll just backtrack and start over again. But I wonder if I already know why the translator imported the notion of adequacy.

  • 16 “Even in spontaneous perception, the faculty which posits the existence of external objects is jud (...)

36My reading of the passage does line up now with a subtlety of translation. The English version says that apprehension “is not a seeing, nor a touching...” But the sense of the French “ne... point,” not at all, serves to emphasize the distinction between perception and that “action” which makes perception possible. Descartes himself seems to have been on the track of something other than the adequacy of perception, or even the adequacy of “apprehension” as the English has it. What is this “action by which one apprehends”? What realm is Descartes really investigating here? The English translation says that it is the realm of an “inspection of the mind.” Indeed, it goes on to indicate that the mind’s inspection can be either clear or confused, depending on the degree to which the attention is directed to “the constituents composing the body.” Here, it seems, is another mistranslation. In the French, the referent of the pronoun designating the object of the narrator’s attention is not “the body.” The feminine pronoun “elle” could not refer to the masculine “morceau” (piece), or to some supposed implicit notion of body, for which the French word “corps” is also masculine. It might be taken to refer to “cette cire,” which is feminine but occurs two sentences before. No, the word “laquelle” and the later repetitions of “elle” seem each to refer to the immediately preceding feminine noun “l’inspection.” Descartes is not saying that the quality of his mental inspection depends on how closely he examines the composition of the piece of wax. What he is saying is that the clarity of his inspection depends on his focusing attention on the constituents of the inspection itself.16 Descartes is not as interested in what composes the piece of wax as in the act of mind, the inspection—the looking in—through which the piece and its constituents come to be perceived. Now the word “inspection” begins to lose its flavor of dispassionate, leisurely examination, and to take on more the sense of a sudden act of mind—an “inglance.” And what Descartes really meant by “thinking” begins to shift: now it seems that he was investigating not a phenomenon like a deduction, but one like poiesis. Now, by looking closely at the trees, we have come to see the whole forest in a different light—really, we have come out in a different forest altogether. The march of science has led to poetry.

37After knocking politely if somewhat loudly on my office door, Dustin enters, marching. “Daddy, say’ Come here, Sheriff!”’ he instructs me, looking at the lighted computer screen and wondering if I will comply. This is the videotape cartoon of Robin Hood, which he has replayed sometimes twice or three times a day for weeks. As I realize what game Dustin is up to I notice that I have two reactions, like flashes of—well, of intuition. First, I find myself somewhat annoyed at the intrusion. “Do we have to go through this again?” I hear myself asking. “How could he get such a charge out of something he knows by heart? Surely he gets his charge rather from breaking into my solitary musings and making me pay attention to him instead. Dammit! How many times can this be cute?”

38Such are the values that spring up full-blown in my immediate intuition, the first act of mind in which I apprehend Dustin’s words and actions in one particular moment. Though I am also immediately aware that as an enlightened and energetic father I shouldn’t be feeling this way, our sudden being-together calls up a gestalt, bearing with it intrusion, rote-rehearsal boredom: burden. On this inspection, this first glance into the matter at hand, Dustin’s having learned something by heart means that it is a potential headache for me, and I put up with it for a while only because of his evident delight in having snagged my company.

39 Though he is immediately aware that as an enlightened and energetic father he shouldn’t be feeling this way, Dustin’s sudden entrance calls up a gestalt, bearing with it intrusion, rote-rehearsal boredom: burden. The child’s having learned something by heart means that it is a potential headache for the parent, and he puts up with it for a while only because of the child’s evident delight in having snagged his company.

40These could serve as stage directions, couldn’t they? For they tell me how I am to act. As a script, then, this meaning-system simply occurs, without leaving even a split second for my conscious evaluation of it. It is there, present not like a filter or a haze through which I be with Dustin: instead it is what gives the interaction between us. For I begin to speak, in words and body postures and facial expressions, in ways that accord with this initial and initiating feeling/thought/perception. I follow the stage directions. It is as if I am at that first moment living in a room of a certain decor, and having frozen it into a stage setting here, I can describe some of the constituents of the tableau. I am now going to focus my attention not on the constituents composing the bodies of my interaction with Dustin, but as Descartes recommends, on the constituents that compose, at that first moment, my mental inspection of the interaction. I am going to examine the decor of that stage setting.

41Of these constituents of the decor, the most readily apparent are generalizations (such as “Why does he always have to interrupt?”) and assertions (such as “I’ll never get any work done at this rate!”). These generalizations and assertions are not spoken out loud, of course; and there are many more corollaries to these, which are present to me and, as soon as he sees or hears me react, to Dustin as well, though he would be unable or unwilling to verbalize them. “I hate interruptions,” he might hear me say underneath whatever I say, and “My time in front of this computer is valuable to me,” and “I am doing something important, which I cannot continue with you around.” He may hear also—though of course I wouldn’t endorse it if it were spoken—a larger declaration behind these generalizations and assertions: “God, this child is a bother! Leave me alone!”

42My interacting with Dustin begins, that is, in the context of a certain conversation, a set of speakings and listenings that, though not present in the way our bodies and the physical furnishings of the room are present, not physically spoken or heard, actually create the character of the space we inhabit together. An intuition, a mental inspection, is a conversation. Its constituents are other conversations, bits of conversations, speakings and listenings that give the space, so to speak, in which perception occurs. As for how it is that a speaking or listening can be present without a vocal “realization,” I leave that as a question I cannot answer yet. It’s like the question “How is it that gravity attracts?” or “How can gravity act, without a medium, through the void immensity of space?” I may be wrong, but I don’t think there are answers to that yet, either.

43Now, as I am reflecting on this recent incident with Dustin, and rereading the passages I’ve already quoted, together with other parts of the Meditations and of Descartes’ other writings, I see more and more things that fit with the idea that Descartes’ philosophical project was not to cast doubt on sense perception in order to correct it. Instead, he may have begun by exploring the possibility that perception is not finally a matter of the senses at all, but rather that it comes out of something like intuition, the matrix of thinking. Thinking has a maternal character. Perception is born from “thinking,” though he seems to mean something different by “thinking” than what I would mean if I used it in the ordinary way. He is interested neither in “perceiving truly” nor in knowing with certainty what the wax is. He wants to know what thinking is. He is, in fact, looking into the very way we look. The attendant questions are: How does what is clear and distinct come to be so? What is this pure attention of the mind that works such wonders? Is it something we can turn on and off like a spotlight? How do we get to “non-dubious apprehension”? Or how does it get to us? What is that which is “born in the sole light of reason”?

  • 17 Second Meditation, my translation.

44So he proceeds as follows. Sense perception doesn’t reveal the world to us; we are just bound by habit to say that it does. What we say is that we see the wax before us, “the very same which we see and touch,” whenever anyone shows it to us. In the same way we may say that we see men passing in the street below our window, when what we are seeing is merely hats and coats moving against the familiar background. Why couldn’t those vestments conceal automatic machines, Descartes asks. “But I judge that they are truly men,” he says, “and thus I understand, solely by the power of judging which resides in my mind, that which I had believed I had been seeing with my eyes.”17 We judge that the same wax persists through apparent changes in its physical appearance. We are always right about the men, and the fact that our judgment works—that the wax can be said to be conserved—masks the fact that we are relying in both cases on judgment, a mental act, an “inspection of the mind.” The wax isn’t waxing: we are.

  • 18 “After about 1630, for example, and particularly after the appearance of Descartes’ immensely infl (...)
  • 19 Cf. Polanyi.

45In committing to the judgment “wax,” we are not creating the actual physical item we call wax. We are activating, bringing into play, the system of terms—the vocabulary, the conversation—in which “wax” is a value. We find out more about wax—and about the world in which wax occurs—by using that vocabulary, dwelling in that conversation. To say that a paradigm directs scientific experiments and explorations is to say, not that a theory is “behind” whatever collection of facts we see, but that facts and theory and observations and experiments all fit together in a vast network of conversations. That network of conversations is a network of commitments we’re making, bets that whatever we find next will fit into our already-devised network in certain ways.18 Only the bets, the commitments, the judgments usually slip unnoticed into the background of our investigations, and of our being together. Indeed, they can function only as background. That is why science works, why it has such huge success in catching the flies it is out to catch.19 But it is also why witches get burned at the stake, and it may be why our students fail and we bum out.

  • 20 Here is another standard translation of the same passage, Cottingham’s:
    But what is this wax which (...)

46Descartes’ wax, like Elm Street, is a customary position: a place in a system. It is, precisely, that which we are committed to calling “wax.” To preserve our common-sense background notion that perception is a matter of the senses, and not of the judgments embodied in language, the modern English translation must import the notion of adequacy and the correlated supposition that Descartes is examining a “body.” Here, at least if this translation gives any indication, the picture we current English-speakers may have of the Cartesian position doesn’t seem to agree with his own.20 Perhaps the modern translator does not see the trees in Descartes’ wood because of the forest we live in.

47Now I’m looking back on the last several pages and asking myself, “Why in the world would anybody care about Descartes’ picture of the world? That’s all very nice about the mistranslation, but it’s a little recherché, don’t you think? Surely the jobs most teachers have to do every day don’t have much to do with an accurate picture of what Descartes was saying—let alone an admittedly hypothetical picture!” Squirming my way upright in the chair, I clear my throat and begin: Yes, I have to agree: with the current state of my academic training in the background, my listening for what will wash as an argument, I can tell that my translation probably goes off on a track that Descartes, in the rest of his œuvre, might end up repudiating. If I could win an argument with philosophers about Descartes and his role in the development of philosophy, I would probably be content to let it rest at having made a contribution to the accuracy of our knowledge of the past. That is not what I am committed to here, though, so I justify my intrusion by changing the context around what I am doing. I am at work here to call attention to the background of our being together, you and I.I am at work on the matter of background, not in a given background.

48So you are invited to ask yourself how you are hearing this, reader. What gives you your picture of what is important in our jobs? What judgment is embodied in the language you use to frame your objection? By language I mean the set of mutually opposed values that give you your thinking—values such as “past” versus “present”, or the content of what is read versus the interpretation of the content. What Descartes-Saussure is saying implies that the content of anything comes out of the interpretation we bring to it, and not vice versa—that content and interpretation depend on each other reciprocally. It also implies, though I haven’t shown how yet, that the past grapples the present to itself like a backhoe scooping up soil from behind and swinging it around to the front. We think the present embraces the past and goes beyond it, continually bringing forth new things. What Descartes-Saussure is saying suggests that it is the other way around. The past embraces the present and brings forth versions of the past. What happens is what was always going to happen anyway, unless something like the telescope contributes to a shift in the structured judgments that ordinarily prevail.

49But it is not that we need to understand Descartes in order to teach effectively. It is that inquiring into what it is to understand anything at all may open new possibilities in our being together with students/or education. We can train them passably well without this kind of inquiry, and we should train ourselves to train them well. But to engage them in education is a different matter. That may require us to get beyond the pictures embodied in standard translations, to invent our material newly. When I started writing this book, I had Descartes as one of the founders of the conversation that inhibits education. It turns out what I had was a picture I made up from a standard translation of Descartes. Of course, I am making up my new picture, and of course it doesn’t square perfectly with what we have always thought about Descartes’ thought. But I bet that, given time and means of talking to philosophy professors, I could make it square with the tradition. I bet I could add to the tradition.

50So what is the practical relevance of this re-vamping of our picture of Descartes’ philosophy? Where does it impact real life? I think that is a legitimate question, and I hope I can answer it. Well, if not answer it, at least suggest a fruitful avenue for exploring the question, and at least a provisional answer. What? Sick of questions? You want a plain answer, by God? ! Why? What if the answers, as answers, will get you stuck in one position? Don’t you wish your students would make the bet that they could add something to the material they study, that they could come to own the tradition?

51When we left Dustin, he had just interrupted a session of my writing, and I said I realized I had two reactions and described one of them. Now my other, almost simultaneous intuition. Where my initial annoyance had grown like a crystal in a supercooled solution from the seed of Dustin’s arrival, this second intuition seems to depend for its virtue on something a little less automatic, more voluntary. The “second” intuition proceeds from two sources; and again, both of these are also conversations.

52The first is an inquiry I have been maintaining for some time now, as Dustin grows and changes so fast, it is reliably frightening. I am always asking myself, a moment after I react to something he is saying or doing, “Now, what is really going on with Dustin here?” While posing this question to myself does not fully remove the annoyance of an interruption, or of some obnoxious behavior, it really does change the character of the space we share. Now I am looking and listening to him differently, and my way of being with him is given a new context. There is a slightly different tone in his voice now—so it seems to me, anyway—and my “interior” generalizations and assertions, while still present, are not as insistent or as all-encompassing as they were. It seems to me that I have gained a little room with this added conversation.

53The other source of my “second intuition,” in this particular case, was the conversation I am having with myself and with Descartes while I am writing this chapter, a conversation about the essential creativity of intuition, the contribution of our mental acts to what we call reality, the near-equivalence of “judgment” and invention. If that’s so, then what does it imply about the “perception” I have as Dustin comes up the stairs to my office? It was my immediate judgment that his arrival spelled annoyance, burden. Could I have invented that? Or is it really annoying? Well, it surely felt like an annoyance—just as it feels like... no, it bloody well is an annoyance to have classroom walls so thin that the audio from classes next door disrupts whatever tiny bit of attention you have managed to generate for what you are doing in your own room. How do you invent your way around that?

54Let’s stay with Dustin for a while longer, for I think I may be able to make a transfer from my being with him to our being with students, even in noisy classrooms. My “second intuition,” I said, was more like an intention on my part: as if I reminded myself, after that rush of annoyance, of my ongoing inquiry “What is really going on with Dustin?” and then supplemented the new space that gave by tapping into the conversation I am making up for this book. So my second intuition came to me as something like this: “The kid that wants to play the same game over and over again really loves to reinvent the wheel. If I can tap into whatever that is, maybe I’d be able to teach, say, irregular verbs.” Now I am “listening” to Dustin’s presence in a radically new way. Now I hear him as making a real contribution to what I’m up to, and I’m alive to him, alert for that secret and willing now to play with him, to keep the interaction alive instead of killing it off. Now I’m like, “Oho!” instead of like, “Go away!” I use the colloquialism on purpose: who I am for Dustin in our encounter has shifted.

55In the context given by this “second intuition,” then, I have space to respond to Dustin’s game more freely and flexibly. As the space of our being-together now occurs, I can see in it possibilities that were not available in that first instant. I could now propose a delay in complying with his request: “OK, Dus; just let me finish these two sentences.” (This usually buys me a bit of time.) Notice that in the new space what Dustin says shows up not as an interruption but as a request, to which I can be open and which I can answer with a promise to respond later. Or I could propose an alternate game. This almost always works. For it allows me to shift the focus of attention, to “get his mind off” the recycled video and onto a fresher invention. I now have the space to re-own the conversation. In that space I am called to ask myself “What am I committed to now, for Dustin and for myself?” As it replaces the generalizations and assertions I began with, that question enables teaching. Now the Robin Hood game, the noisy classroom, has become a resource instead of an annoyance. (Or perhaps a resource as well as an annoyance.) It works now as a spur for a re-inventing in which the students can be my partners. As an intuition born in the sole light of articulation, it frees me to go to work with them.

56For another experience of that birth, of re-inventing, let us return to the title of Descartes’ seminal work, this time not to look at it but to listen through it:

Discourse on the Method for Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and Seeking for Truth in the Sciences

57What if instead he had written:

Dialogue about a Plan for Conducting an Inquiry to Discern the Articulations in which We Transact Reality

58What picture of a world, and our jobs as students of it and in it, might be reflected or embodied in those words? What difference is there between a discourse and a dialogue? What do the ideas of “discerning articulations” and “transacting reality” bring with them, contrasted with the idea of “seeking for truth”? You can record your speculations about this in the spaces that follow. It would be a good idea to look the words up, especially if you already know what they mean. And did you think of the possibility of sharing the exercise with a colleague? (Be sure to set up in the background of the exercise, of course, the question “How might what we are doing together here apply in our work with students?”)










59If you worked through this revamped title, you may have seen that it gives a different conversation than Descartes’ original. It conjures different associations, spawns different questions. (One of which might be “what is it that is conducting my reason here? Are the conjured associations produced by a method, or is it more like there is some automaticity at work?) But the title alone does not conjure associations. Only in your listening to the title, using it for something, will it yield its speaking. So if you did not notice an altered conversation taking shape on the previous page, you are encouraged to change the title around as much as you like, looking up the words and asking always, “What conversation am I participating in now? What further speaking and listening could be entailed or suggested by the context this conversation gives?” And, with colleagues: “How do we feel about ourselves and our students while participating in this conversation? What possibilities does it open for us to make a difference with and for each other?”

60What if Descartes’ most basic intuition, his first principle, had been amo ergo sum? What would follow from that? What conversation would that found? There exist communities that take loving as the ground of being. Whatever we may feel about the doctrinal variants of Christianity, “Love thy neighbor as thyself” may work better as an ontology than as a commandment. “Love thy neighbor” is an inquiry, what world does its attendant conversation call us into? What about loquor ergo sum? How could speaking be the ground of being? I speak, therefore I am? Of course Descartes was not a Saussurean. But what if he had noticed something about human-being-in-the-world, something that, two and a half centuries later, Saussure revisited? If Descartes had read Saussure, what he might have meant by “I am thinking” is “I am speaking.” And the purpose of Cartesian doubt would then have been to interrupt the easy and usually harmless assumption that words refer to things, supplanting it with the notion that the world is articulation.

61The question posed here in Part One becomes, then: Are we articulate because we know, or do we know because we dwell within an articulation? Are we looking at the particulars of the world, the scales on the butterfly’s wing, or are we looking right through a clear and distinct articulation of ideas? Whether we are looking through particulars to generals, or through generals to particulars, Cartesian doubt has opened, briefly, a window on the question what is it to look through? Wittgenstein will propose an answer:

One thinks that one is tracing the outline of the thing’s nature over and over again, and one is merely tracing round the frame through which we look at it.

  • 21 Philosophical Investigations, §50.

What looks as if it had to exist is a part of the language.21

62 Perhaps to look through is to speak, to be engaged in language. What-we-call a Triangle is what-we-call Bounded By what-we-call Three what-we-call Sides.

  • 22 Merleau-Ponty speaks of “the system of Self-others-things [which] comes into being...” (Phenomenol (...)
  • 23 Levinas speaks of a “saying” which has “a meaning prior to the truth it discloses, prior to the ad (...)

63There is one further point to be made in this regard. A system, a language founded in sociality, in being-together, makes not only facts possible. It makes individuals possible, too. Hence je suis, j’existe instead of je pense, donc je suis. Ego sum, ego existo, not cogito ergo sum. I speak, therefore I exist; and with “I” comes world. (When Helen Keller got “water,” she got her hand wet in the bargain; and she got that her hand was wet.)22 We are looking from Descartes here toward Saussure’s insight. Descartes begins to say “I arise together with a world”: ego sum is world arising. To know yourself is to know a set of things that are not you. You exist in distinction, as a distinct member of a system of distinctions.23 We not only look through the system; we are in it. We be in it. Alone in his study, Descartes says “I judge.” With his students in the classroom, Saussure says “we speak.”

64So now the final question of this chapter: What is the system, the articulation of values, you “be in” when you walk into the classroom each day? Another way to ask it: What pictures do you not notice in the background as you teach? For it may not be the system of values you know about and can manage, the one you design your life around, that has power to shape your experience and your being with students. Looking through the window, you say that you see men passing in the street; but do you see that really you are judging that they are men? What I hold as axiomatic is what may design me. Or rather, what I take for granted along with the axioms is what designs my life, my being, the practices and pursuits and goals that characterize me.

65In his “On the Heavens,” Aristotle states what he took to be axiomatic about the universe in which we live:

The shape of the universe is necessarily spherical. For that is the shape which is most appropriate to what is primary by nature. The universe itself is what is encompassed within the extreme circumference, since we habitually say that the whole, or everything, is the universe.

Let us say that something is heavy when it naturally moves to the center of the universe; and light when it naturally moves away from the center

66Easy as it is to see this as a piece of musty didacticism, not agreeing with scientific “discoveries” we have made since, we should also be able to see it as an articulation of values, a commitment to a system of terms. Its mode is “Let us say.” It lays down a pattern to be shared. Thus the ancient system of four observable elements—earth, air, fire, water—was supplemented by a fifth value, the “ether,” a value that has only in this century died out of our scientific conversation.

  • 24 In Rajchman and West, eds., Post-Analytic Philosophy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), (...)

67Richard Rorty warns of the “fallacy of seeing axioms where there are only shared habits, of viewing statements which summarize [shared] practices as if they reported constraints enforcing such practices.”24 What if the picture of rationality-as-representation, as it has developed since Descartes, is a constellation of myriad axioms and assumptions mutually supporting each other—that reality hangs together in a structure of facts; that theories account for facts; that a comprehensive theory accounting for all the facts would solve all our problems; that subject and object, teacher and student, are different kinds of entity; that the social world is made up of individuals; that the individual as rational and moral agent should be the object of our attention; that this individual acts on the basis of knowledge (or sometimes of ignorance)... What if these were not truths about the world or constraints enforcing our teaching practices? What if the axioms of representation were seen as ways of summarizing how the world shows up now, for us, rather than ways of getting at the truth of how the world is? Perhaps if we look at them as parts of a language, if we hold them as a set of values supported not by the facts of nature alone but by our own agreement in concert with the facts, something will appear that could not appear when they were held as axioms. Particularly for teachers, it may be that viewing axioms as natural truths entails some cost. Descartes himself might have warned us against taking an axiom—for instance, that Aptitude times Motivation equals Achievement, or that Cognition and Affect are separable, or that there is such a thing as an LD or ED kid—for a solid piece of wax. Descartes would not deny that the designations “Learning Disabled” and “Emotionally Disturbed” apply to some independently constituted reality, some features of a perhaps neural organization. But as with the wax, he would notice that it is our commitment to the terms that keeps them in place. We may indeed have good reasons for our commitments, here as elsewhere in our vocabulary. But it does not follow that the designated states are any the less phenomena of judgment. The question Descartes’ work may open for us is whether there might be some other terms, held in place by and in a somewhat different system, that might serve us better.

68To explore further what is axiomatic for us, the frame that produces what is intuitively clear and distinct for us, we turn next to John Locke. Thomas Jefferson ranked Locke with Bacon and Newton as “the three greatest men that have ever lived without exception.” As one of the intellectual fathers of our country, then, Locke has had much influence in the educational system we inherit.


1 Contingency, irony and solidarity, 152.

2 Un autre Descartes: Le philosophe et son langage (Libraire philosophique J. VRIN, 1980), 159 (tr. auct.).

3 In section 129 of Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein notes:
The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something—because it is always before one’s eyes.) The real foundations of his enquiry do not strike a man at all. Unless that fact has at some time struck him.—And this means: we fail to be struck by what, once seen, is most striking and most powerful.

4 Of course, Descartes’ thinking occurred (and his work was published) in French, but I will start with an English translation of his title and then use the Oxford English Dictionary’s definitions of its terms. This will give us at least a first approximation of what the words in his title mean, and a preliminary sense of the grammar of his thinking. No one would suppose that a dictionary definition, even one from the magnificent Oxford dictionary, can pinpoint the precise sense of a word as it was intended by its author in a particular work at a singular moment in the development of the culture in which the work lived.

5 Oxford English Dictionary, 2668.

6 In The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor as Myth and as Religion (New York: Harper and Row Perennial Library, 1988), 113.

7 Huston Smith, Beyond the Post-Modern Mind, 7.

8 All quotations in this paragraph come from the first two of Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, in The European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche, M. C. Beardsley, ed. (New York: Random House Modern Library, 1960).

9 In “The Nature of Language,” Heidegger speaks about this kind of method:
In the sciences, not only is the theme drafted, called up by the method, it is also set up within the method and remains within the framework of the method, subordinated to it... Method holds all the coercive power of knowledge. (In On the Way to Language, trans. Hertz [Harper and Row, 1971], 74)
I think Heidegger is wrong about the relation between method and science here—as Kuhn and others have shown, science depends on meticulous adherence to method partly to produce the surprises that lead to revolutions in scientific views. But in equating “method” with the “coercive power of knowledge” he is thinking of a way of using language characteristic not only of the sciences: the way of representation. It is this way of depending on language, this assumption about the work our language is doing for us, that makes it so difficult to achieve education.

10 The European Philosophers, 80. The translation of this passage from Rules for the Guidance of Our Native Powers is by Norman Kemp Smith.

11 The European Philosophers, 37.

12 The European Philosophers, 16; Discours de la Méthode, 21.

13 The European Philosophers, 80-1.

14 The European Philosophers, 38. The brackets are present in the passage as it appears.

15 Œuvre philosophique de Descartes, tome deuxième, ed. Ferdinand Aliquié (Paris: Éditions Garnies Frères, 1967), 426.

16 “Even in spontaneous perception, the faculty which posits the existence of external objects is judgment, and the condition or necessary ground of judging... is understanding. Thus ‘the action by which one perceives’ (the wax) is, even in sense perception, inspection by the mind. But, confused when is is spontaneous and immediate, this mental inspection itself becomes the object of a clear and distinct idea when it is analysed and arrives at consciousness of itself.” (Œuvre Philosophique, 426, n. 4)

17 Second Meditation, my translation.

18 “After about 1630, for example, and particularly after the appearance of Descartes’ immensely influential scientific writings, most physical scientists assumed that the universe was composed of microscopic corpuscles and that all natural phenomena could be explained in terms of corpuscular shape, size, motion, and interaction. That nest of commitments proved to be both metaphysical and methodological. As metaphysical, it told scientists what sorts of entities the universe did and did not contain: there was only shaped matter in motion. As methodological, it told them what ultimate laws and fundamental explanations must be like: laws must specify corpuscular motion and interaction, and explanation must reduce any given natural phenomenon to corpuscular action under these laws.” (Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 41. See also ibid., “Postscript,” section 2.)

19 Cf. Polanyi.

20 Here is another standard translation of the same passage, Cottingham’s:
But what is this wax which is perceived by the mind alone? It is of course the same wax which I see, which I touch, which I picture in my imagination, in short the same wax which I thought it to be from the start. And yet, and here is the point, the perception I have of it is a case not of vision or touch or imagination—nor has it ever been, despite previous appearances—but of purely mental scrutiny; and this can be imperfect and confused, as it was before, or clear and distinct as it is now, depending on how carefully I concentrate on what the wax consists in. (René Descartes: Meditations on First Philosophy, trans. John Cottingham [Cambridge University Press, 1986], 21.)
The phrase that Descartes added—“or rather the act whereby it is perceived”—is placed in a footnote.

21 Philosophical Investigations, §50.

22 Merleau-Ponty speaks of “the system of Self-others-things [which] comes into being...” (Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith [London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, and New York: The Humanities Press, 1962], 57).

23 Levinas speaks of a “saying” which has “a meaning prior to the truth it discloses, prior to the advent of the knowledge and information it communicates, free of everything said, a saying that infinitely, prevoluntarily, consents.” This saying which consents to system, to an involvement in each other, he reads as “the I that breaks through in the cogito when all being is in shipwreck, but before the I is rescued into being, as though the shipwreck had not taken place...” (Emmanuel Levinas, Collected Philosophical Papers, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Dordrecht: M. Nijhof, 1987), 147.)

24 In Rajchman and West, eds., Post-Analytic Philosophy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), 9.

© Les Presses de l’Université d’Ottawa | University of Ottawa Press, 1999

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