Lecture 1 – Aristotle and the Prime Mover

August 14, 2015

330px-Aristotle_Altemps_Inv8575Aristotle gives us the following definition of God in book Λ of the Metaphysics

We hold then that God is a living being, eternal most good; and therefore life and a continuous eternal existence belong to God; for that is what God is.
(1072b 29-31)

Now this definition would appear at first glance to be wholly appropriate to any monotheistic definition of God. It would seem to be the classical definition of God’s nature that we find in Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Perhaps this should not surprise us, since the source for this classical definition is Greek metaphysics, and Aristotle in particular, first of all through the Arab scholars, and then later through the Jewish and Christian writers. And yet if we read book Λ of the Metaphysics closely we will be able to see that there is a great difference between Aristotle’s proof of God’s existence and the monotheistic experience of God, even though monotheism itself will attempt to use Greek metaphysics to give a rational basis to faith. It is not at all certain, when you look at the details, that monotheism and Greek philosophy quite fit together (and it these differences, however small, that will interest us in this course). You can look at this in two ways: that monotheism is beyond philosophy, or more negatively, if you think religion must have a rational basis, then philosophy cannot in the end give a rational justification to monotheistic religion, and thus religion must be irrational and superstitious.

Book Λ begins with substance, which could be said to be the general topic of the Metaphysics, since, and this is rushing it a bit, substance is Aristotle’s definition of the meaning of being in general: everything that is, is a substance.[1] But the question of substance here, at the beginning of the book, is a particular one: ‘our inquiry is concerned with substance: for it is the principle and causes of substance that we are investigating’ [1069a18-19]. ‘Principle’ can also be translated as ‘origin’. In Greek, this is ἀρχή. Thus, the question of book Λ is a particular question about substance. It is asking about the origin and cause of substance. But what substance are we talking about? Are we talking about a particular substance within the world, as when a child asks a parent where babies come from, or are we asking about the origin and cause of the universe itself, and thus the primary philosophical question as to why there is something rather than nothing; that is to say, the reason why the universe as a whole exists.

What Plato and Aristotle have in common, and which is also shared with other Greek philosophers, and most notably the Pre-Socratics, is a commitment to a rational explanation of the universe. What is the fundamental and basic principle of the existence of the universe? Does the universe just happen by chance or is there a reason for its existence? To argue that it happens by chance would be ultimately to give up any rational explanation of the universe altogether. To say that it exists by chance is not give a reason for the universe, but to give up on reason altogether. Equally if one is committed to a rational explanation of the universe, then mythic or religious stories about the creation of the universe will not do either. For they, precisely in the manner in which they present themselves, are only stories and not rational explanations. This does not mean that there is not a rational core at the heart of these myths, but it is the aim of the philosopher to find out what this nucleus is, and to give it a rational explanation. One way of understanding what Aristotle is doing is that he is pushing this rational explanation to its ultimate conclusion.

Aristotle tells us that we must distinguish between 3 kinds of substance: ‘Now there are three kinds of substance. One is sensible [αἱσθητόϛ] (and maybe either eternal [ἀίδιος] or perishable [φθαρτός] […] Another is immutable [ἀκίνητος]’ [1069a30-34]. We might rephrase the question of Book Λ, then, to what is the relation between these different kinds of substance: perishable, eternal and immutable substance? The first and important distinction that we need to emphasise is that Aristotle’s concept of the universe is not merely a split between the finite, on the one hand, and the infinite on the other, or the sensible and the intelligible; rather the sensible realm is itself split into two. This is why there are three kinds of substance. Again this is one important reason why Aristotle’s universe and the monotheistic one, at least in its orthodox guise, cannot be mapped totally one on to the other. For in the latter, the universe is split into two (or better, the universe itself is distinguished from an ‘extra-universe’ domain that is transcendent), between the finite and the infinite, the former being non-eternal, or perishable to use Aristotle’s terminology, and the latter eternal. That we are faced with 3 substances, here, rather than just 2, already shows us that we not in the monotheistic world view. For Aristotle, the universe as such is eternal, and does not require a first cause to come into existence. Of course for monotheism this would be unthinkable, for this would deny the perfection of God, since there would be something outside independent of God’s existence. The eternal world, the universe, already exists for Aristotle. It is not issue for him to explain its existence. Rather, as we shall see, the problem for him, is how to explain its motion.

To understand why Aristotle believes there is eternal sensible substance we need to be aware of conception of the universe that he had at the time. What is important is that this is a scientific picture of the universe, and not a mythical or straightforwardly religious one. It is Aristotle’s science that requires the supplement of theology, and not his theology, science. In other words, God for Aristotle is a necessary hypothetical deduction of physics, and more specifically astronomy, and not something that one would pray to or make sacrifices for. The latter belongs to the human culture and not to the structure of the universe and would properly be the object of study of history or poetry.

Aristotle’s universe has three levels: at the centre of the universe there is earth, which is the mundane or sublunary world. On earth, there is only perishable substances – plants and animals to use Aristotle’s example. What Aristotle means by perishable sensible substance are those substances that are generated and destroyed in the constant cycle of life and death to which man also belongs. Above this sphere are the heavenly spheres of the sun, moon planets and stars. These substances, unlike the perishable substances are eternal, for they travel in an infinite circular movement without beginning or end. The third and final kind of substance is immutable substance, which unlike both sensible perishable substance, and eternal substance, is not moving (ἀκίνητος means ‘no motion’ and thus ‘unmoved’ or ‘motionless’), and for this reason must be considered as being separate or apart from the other substances.[2]

Aristotle’s universe should be seen as continuum of causality. Here on earth one perishable substance causes another perishable substance to be either generated or destroyed. And yet without the eternal substances the perishable substances would not exist. For without the eternal movement of heavenly spheres there would be no life on Earth (the movement of the sun causes the movement of seasons, which is the origin of the succession of generations here on earth). The relation between the sublunary world and the heavenly sphere is, for Aristotle, the subject matter of physics. What does not properly belong to physics is the other relation between the heavenly spheres and immutable substance. If perishable substance requires eternal substance and the argument is that it must require eternal substance for without it there would be no time, and without time there would be no change, see 1071b5-12), then why does eternal substance require immutable substance? Could they not, for example, move themselves? Why should they require some other motion in order to move?

To answer this question we have to understand how Aristotle understands change (or motion as he calls it) from the Physics. He repeats the argument of the Physics in book Λ of the Metaphysics. Change is change from some subject to some object by means of an agent. The wood changes to ash by means of fire. The agent is that which causes the change or movement. There are for Aristotle four kinds of change: change in substance, quantity, quality and place (see, 1069b8-15). These four kinds of cause can occur also in two different ways: either by art (the carpenter makes the wood into a table), or by nature. In the first case something is caused by something else, and in the latter change is self caused. The other two causes are negations of these two: chance or spontaneity (see, 1070a4-9). The relation between the agent of causality and the subject of causality must be understood, for Aristotle, through the distinction between potentiality and actuality. Thus, the substance that is changed must have the potential to be that substance that it is changed into. In other words, if wood did not have the potential to be ash, it could never actually become ash: ‘Everything is generated from that which is, but is potentially and is not actually’ 1069b19-20. And yet, what is potential can only be actualised by another actuality. There must be something that causes a potentiality within something to change into an actuality, and that cause must in the end be something actual, otherwise we would only have an infinite chain of potentialities and nothing would be actual. We can see, therefore, that Aristotle’s physics, his conception of change or motion, actually necessitates the existence of an ultimate cause, for without it no substance would exist at all, since, nothing, so to speak would be actualised.

How does the same argument, however, fit with the notion of the eternal substances? For are have they not always existed and therefore do not need to be brought into exist? Nonetheless, Aristotle criticises those philosophers (and he names Plato and Leucippius) who simply assert that there is eternal motion without questioning why there is such a motion (1071b32-35). There can only be two answers to this question: either the eternal spheres are self-movers or they move themselves. But even if the eternal spheres move themselves, then they can only do so potentially, for they must be some cause that causes them to actualise this potentiality, and this cause must be a pure actuality, for if it were a potentiality, then the universe would only potential exist, which is impossible.

It is as this precise point that Aristotle’s argument diverges from Plato. As we have already pointed out, what is common to them both is a rational explanation of the origin of the universe. Why does the universe exist rather than nothing? Physics and astronomy show us that the universe has a rational order. So the question then becomes why is the universe rational rather than irrational? If we reply that this is a matter of chance, then we are saying that the rational has its source in the irrational, which would mean, in the end, that the rational is irrational. The question is, then, what is the rational source of the rational. The rational source of the rational is rationality itself. The word that both Plato and Aristotle use to express the rational basis of the rational is νοῦς (nous), which we might translate as ‘reason’ or ‘thinking’.

Of course when we think of thinking we think of someone thinking, as though the universe came into existence becomes someone thought it into existence (this is a particular way of thinking creation, for example, which is absent in Aristotle’s account). This is not how Aristotle thinks of νοῦς. It is the virtue of the universe being rational as such. When we look at the universe we see that if follows regular laws. The sun, stars, and the planets move in regular movements in the sky, and the seasons follow one another here on earth. It is this regularity or continuity that is the meaning of νοῦς. What Aristotle is doing in the Metaphysics is purifying this principle of any anthropomorphism. To think of the rational order of the universe as a self-moving soul is to still picture it in human terms, as though it were imposing order on chaos from the outside. For Aristotle, on the contrary, the universe is immanently ordered.

If we were to think of νοῦς as a self moving, then we have to provide an argument as to why it moved itself. I might move myself towards the kettle to make a cup of tea, but there must be a reason for me to do so (ultimately this reason would have something to do with my body, which is thirsty). A self moving mover, therefore, has the potenitial to move, but to actualise this move, there must be a reason to do so. If we imagine the origin of the universe to be a self moving, then there would have to be an exterior reason why such being would create the universe, in the same way that we need to explain why I moved towards the kettle. For Plato the first mover cannot act without changing itself, but this would involve an infinite regress (what causes this change, and so on). To solve this problem, Aristotle separates movement and activity. There can be a pure activity that does not require the agent to change. It is this pure activity that is the unmoved mover of the origin of the lawful universe. Self movement, for Aristotle, still requires a potential to move and one would still have to supply a reason for the actualisation of this potentiality. A self-mover, then, could not be an ultimate explanation.

Let us summarise Aristotle’s argument before we explain what this pure actuality is. The eternal movement of the heavens is a fact. It is observed and explained by physics and astronomy. But we need to postulate another kind of substance that causes the movement of the heavenly spheres. This third kind of cause must itself be eternal, but also, unlike eternal sensible substance, it must be a pure actuality; that is to say, that it itself must not be actualised by any higher kind of substance. For without postulating this pure actuality we would only have potential movement: ‘There is something which moves without being moved; something eternal which is both substance and actuality’ [1072a24-26].

The only questions that remain is how this immutable substance causes the eternal substance to move, and what a pure actuality might be. This is the proper subject matter of theology in Aristotle’s sense. It is clear that is far more restricted than any monotheistic theology in the classical tradition, which is concerned not merely with a rational explanation of the universe, but also with a belief in a personal God. Even in this restricted theology, however, we shall see that Aristotle’s definition of God, which from the quote that begins this lecture would appear to have similarities with the monotheistic definition of God, is in fact not at all like this monotheistic God. The most important lesson to learn from reading book Λ of the Metaphysics in detail is to see that relation of the immutable substance to sensible substance is not at all like the relation between the Creator the created in monotheism. The unmoved mover is not God in this sense.

The first way to see this is that Aristotle makes it quite clear that the causal relation between the unmoved mover and the heavenly spheres is not an efficient one. The unmoved mover does not cause the heavenly spheres to move in the sense that an architect causes the house to exist. And yet efficient causality is precisely the way that Christian natural theology conceives of the relation between the creator and the created, for unlike Aristotle the universe is eternal. If the unmoved mover does not move the heavenly spheres efficiently, then how does it? Aristotle is very clear about this – in terms of final causality. For it is only in terms of final causality that one can conceive of substance that is unmoved and yet causes motion. The unmoved mover is therefore the object of desire of the soul of the eternal substance: ‘it causes motion as being an object of love, whereas all other things cause motion because they themselves are in motion’ 1072b3-4. Desire itself, for Aristotle, is subordinate to thought, for without being able to think something as desirable then one would not be able to desire it – desire, as Gerson rightly explains, is a ‘cognitive activity’.[3] Thought itself is moved by the intelligible, therefore the ultimate cause must be pure intelligibility.

What is this prime mover? Since it is actuality without any potentiality it must be identified with the highest kind of actuality that is thinking. We need to be very careful here. God for Aristotle does not think thoughts, for this thought are potentialities, for one could always think something else. God must think that which is most divine and that which does not change and that is pure intelligibility, or mind God is mind thinking itself thinking, which is in the end Aristotle’s definition of God: ‘thinking thinking thinking’ (ἔστιν ἡ νόησις νοήσεως νόησις) 1074b35.


[1] For a very schematic account of Aristotle’s metaphysics, see our lecture ‘Aristotle’.

[2] Because Aristotle rejects Plato’s account of separation (that the form of gold exist separately from instances of gold) does not mean that he rejects all separation. The heavenly spheres are separate from sublunary world, as the immaterial is from the material. See, Stephen Menn, ‘Aristotle and Plato on God as Nous and as the Good’, The Review of Metaphysics, 45 (1992), 543–73.

[3] Lloyd P Gerson, God and Greek Philosophy: Studies in the Early History of Natural Theology (London; New York: Routledge, 1990), p. 124.

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Descartes and the New Metaphysics – Lecture 2

March 22, 2015

800px-Frans_Hals_-_Portret_van_René_DescartesIf Galileo is the name that stands for the emergence of a new science and a new way of looking at the world, then Descartes is the one who grounds it in a new metaphysics.[1] For the scientist, who is dismissive of the need for philosophy, since for her it is only important if her model works, this is of no importance, but in the history of philosophy, he institutes a whole new way of thinking that all subsequent philosophy has to answer to.

One of the difficulties of reading Descartes, at least if you don’t read him in too much detail, and jump over the things he says that seem anachronistic, their main ideas have become such a part of our philosophical culture, indeed our culture as a whole (who has not heard of the famous cogito ego sum), that we can just read him without really making any attempt to understand. Moreover, the apparent ease of our interpretation means we can even think that we can easily dismiss these arguments, because everyone knows them and they hardly require any thought whatsoever. This is especially the case when we come to his famous proof of the existence of God, which we can dismiss with great ease if we are not aware of what problem it answers. Indeed the problem is more interesting than the question.

The simplicity of this reading has more to do with our ignorance, however, rather than our deep understanding. It is because we are unaware of the context of Descartes’ argument, why he wrote what he did, and especially their revolutionary nature, that we can easily be misled as to their depth and originality. The most important element of this context is the rise of the new sciences in the 16th and 17th century. Before he saw himself as a philosopher, Descartes viewed himself (if these different functions were really as separable to him and his contemporaries, as they might be to us), as a scientist and a mathematician. He wrote a philosophy as a defence of the new science, and the importance of the mathematical method, rather than just a work of philosophy in itself.

If we are going to understand how revolutionary the new science was, and why Descartes believed it required a different metaphysics to support it, then we have to recognise, if however succinctly and briefly, that metaphysics it rejected, which was Aristotelianism. Aristotle’s understanding of nature was the dominant picture of reality. The problem of dislodging this picture was not just that the new science rejected it, but that its hold on people’s imaginations was so prevalent and dominant. This is because Aristotle’s philosophy is the philosophy of common sense. It describes what we see around us, and thus to reject it is to reject everything we know around us. We can see why Descartes’ method is sceptical, because before he can reinstitute the new science on a secure ground, he must first of all get us to reject what we ordinarily take to be knowledge of the world. It is not enough to reform our current views; we have to reject them completely.

Such a revolutionary change, one we are still living with, is obvious in the famous rejection of the geostatic universe for a heliocentric one, but it is perhaps a more ordinary example that might make it clearer for us exactly what is at stake here. Let us compare, therefore, an Aristotelian account of vision from a Cartesian one (Hatfield 2014, pp.291–4). We today might be very blasé about Descartes’ mechanical explanation of colour, because we take for granted the physiological explanation of colour (colour is nothing but the interaction of the spectrum of light with the retina), but it would have sounded strange to his contemporaries. In the Aristotelian conception of sensation, my perception of external objects is caused by the real qualities of those objects. Thus if I see a red rose then my perception of ‘red’ is caused by the red qualities of that rose. The red exists in the rose, travels to my eye, and thereby causes my sensation of red. As we can see, this seems to be a very common sense view of what happens when we see things (and there are probably people who still think that this is what it means to physically ‘see’ the colour red).

For Descartes, on the contrary, there are no ‘red’ things as such. On the contrary, for Descartes, nature is nothing but matter in motion. Matter is corpuscular (infinitely divisible particles). The quality of red in the object, therefore, and its interaction with the eye, can be explained by the shape, size and motion of these particles. Colour is caused by the surface of the object I am looking at, which refracts light particles that interact with the eye. Descartes is not denying that we see red, but that red cannot be explained by a real quality called red. Rather the phenomenon ‘red’ requires a deeper explanation that can only be provided scientifically through the kind of mechanical model that Descartes describes

Although there are specific problems with Descartes’ explanation of colour, which will wait for the modern developments in optics, we can see that we are in two totally different scientific worlds. Fundamentally for Aristotle, everything that exists is explained through form and matter. It is the form of something that explains what it is. Thus to understand what it a tree is one has to understand the ‘form’ tree. If we are looking at an oak tree, then the form would be contained in the acorn. This is true, just as much for animate as well as inanimate things. So to explain the sun, we also have to understand the form of the sun, as well as its material existence (which for Aristotle was the four elements, plus the mysterious fifth one, aether). For Descartes, there is only a material explanation of nature. If one wants to understand the sun, then one needs to understand the nuclear fusion of hydrogen to helium. Moreover, these material laws are the same for all objects in nature and the whole of nature itself. The explanation of our sun would be the same as for all suns in the universe, and these explanations would be would be the same for everything that exists (that is, matter in motion, which can be mathematical defined).

The different physics of Aristotle and Descartes means that they have completely different metaphysics. The basis of the universe for Aristotle is individual substances. Because matter is not sufficient to explain what it is to be something, there cannot be a material explanation of nature. Each thing is an individual substance, which is the specific conjunction of form and matter, whether we are speaking of a tree or animal, me or you, the sun and the other stars. For Descartes, there is only one thing that exists and that is matter in motion, and every individual thing we see is only a property or a mode of this one material substance. Things differ only because matter differs (there is a difference is shape, size and motion of particles), not because there is an extrinsic difference between them. We can see in Aristotle’s metaphysics, that we need an explanation for each thing, whereas for Descartes, we only need a few simple laws of motion (three), in order to explain everything that we see, and that these simple laws of motion, since they have to only to do with shape, size and motion, can be explained quantitatively (that is mathematically) other than qualitatively in the Aristotelian system.

Only now with this scientific background, can we really begin to understand the Meditations. Descartes’ scepticism, at the beginning, then, is not merely an amusing thought experiment, which will later become the plot of the film Matrix, but presupposes the fundamental break that modern science has taken with the common sense perception of the world. For the hypothesis that nature is matter in motion is precisely that a hypothesis, which one can quite literally not see, and thus what I see cannot itself be true. Thus, the task for Descartes is not to destroy our knowledge of the world, but to rebuild it, but where the foundations will be more secure, no longer resting on our fallible senses, but reliable understanding and reason. Scepticism is not employed for its own sake, or even to make philosophy impossible, but on the contrary, to make our knowledge of the world even more certain, by showing that sceptical arguments can be defeated if our metaphysics is robust enough.

It is for this reason why Descartes takes his doubt much further than classical scepticism. We should not only doubt our senses, for we know that they tell us lies about the world (is that pencil really bent that I see in the glass of water), but also the world of mathematics and even the status of reality itself. How do I know that this is not all a dream, since my dreams have been as vivid as my perception of the world right now, and why it is not possible that a malicious demon hasn’t put into my head the idea that 4+4 = 8, when it really is 9?. Now all these sound a bit excessive if we don’t know the scientific context of these doubts. If the truth of reality is in fact mathematical, then the question Descartes is really asking is how I know that this mathematical reality is real, when there is nothing in my ordinary experience that would verify it.

If I can doubt everything in reality, even that my mathematical ideas are a true representation of what is real, then there is one thing, Descartes argues, that I cannot doubt, and that is I am thinking. For even if I doubt everything, there is one thing I cannot doubt and that is in the very act of doubting. What is important at this point in Descartes’ argument is not to confuse the status of the ‘I’ in the statement ‘I think therefore I am’. This I is not me as physical being. The ‘I’ that stands before you now, the ‘I’ that is writing this lecture on the computer. My physical reality is just as doubtful as the reality of the rest of physical nature. Also this ‘I’ only exists in the very moment of thinking. Only in the very act of thinking can the ‘I’ be said to exist, because it is self-refuting to argue otherwise. Even if I say, ‘I do not exist’, it is I who am thinking this, and so must exist in the moment I think it.

Though the cogito is very limited in one sense, it also includes a lot more than one might first assume. First of all Descartes includes all acts of consciousness, such remembering, desires, and most importantly for us, perceiving. Thus when I desire something, I exist in the moment of desiring, when I remember something I exist in the moment of remembering it, and when I perceive something, I exist in the moment of perceiving it. Of course, following from radical doubt, I don’t know whether what I perceive is the same as what is in reality (it really could be all a dream, or mathematical code as in the film Matrix), but I cannot doubt that I am perceiving the chair. Secondly, and this is going to be very important when we come to look at the wax, the content of what I think, desire, remember and perceive is also real Again, it is not real, as in ‘out there’, but real in my mind. So when, I am thinking, remembering, desiring, perceiving a chair, I really am thinking, remember, desiring, perceiving a chair, even though I don’t know whether a chair really exists.

What is going here, which is very important for understanding Descartes’ metaphysics, is that he is totally changing our idea of truth. Normally when we think of truth (and it should not surprise us, when we think of what we said about science above, that this too has a long Aristotelian heritage), we think of it as adequation. That is, we think that truth is about how we speak about the external world. When I say to you ‘There is chair’, you take this statement to be true, because there is a chair in the real world that corresponds to the statement. Now Descartes’ cannot appeal to this notion of truth, because at the moment of the status of the real world has been bracketed (I don’t know whether the world is true or not). He therefore replaces the truth as adequation, with truth as coherence. An idea is true because it is clear and distinct in my mind. The cogito is therefore a measure of what it is to be true since is self-evident that to have a thought there must be an ‘I’ that thinks it. But we can also say that the idea of triangle as a three sided figure is true, whereas the idea of square circle is not. Not because there are no square circle in the world, but because the idea itself does not make sense, since it is incoherent.

When we come to the example of the wax in the third mediation, therefore, we can become completely confused if we think Descartes is talking about the external perception of the wax, because this is precisely what he has given up (we don’t know what the real wax is, because we don’t even know if reality is real). What he is describing is our idea of the wax, how the wax appears to us, even if we don’t whether the wax is real or not. His first description, then, is how the idea of wax appears to us when we take the wax as something we perceive, but perception means here, perception as an action of thought (I am thinking about how the wax is perceived by me), and not perception as the sensation of an external object that I take to exist really outside of me and which effects my sense and which I then think of as was (our example of real qualities and the red flower above). If we were to take that Descartes was doing the latter, then we would be confusing him with Aristotelian account of perception.

What then do I think I perceive when I think that the idea of wax is sensation? I have a list of properties that describe the wax. It smells of flowers; it tastes of honey; it makes a sound when you tap it; it is hard and cold to the touch; and it is white and the shape of a cube. Doesn’t this, then, tell us exactly what the wax is. Why would we need to know anymore? We remember, though that Descartes is sitting in a warm room (it tells us at the beginning of the Meditations). With the heat of the room, all the properties of the wax change: there is no fragrance of flowers; no sweetness of honey; no sound when a hit it; it is not hard and cold; it is no longer white and shaped like a cup. How, therefore, can the sense tell us what the wax is, since now it is completely change. The idea of the wax under the thought of perception is a completely confused idea. However, even though I know the wax has completely changed, it is nonetheless the same piece of wax that remained the same throughout this transformation. What is this wax? It can’t be the list of properties of the sensation because these are completely different. It must be what remains when we strip away all these properties that have changed in our idea of the wax itself. What is it that remains? It is the idea of the body in general as ‘something extended, flexible and changeable’. [AT VII, 30] Although I cannot experience this body, since it would have innumerable shapes that I cannot imagine, I nonetheless can think it, and the idea of this body is less confused and incoherent understanding of the wax in general, than what is present by the idea of sensation. Going back to Descartes’ definition of truth, it is, therefore more true.

At this point we haven’t got outside the cogito itself. I can say that the idea of extension as the correct understanding of bodies, rather than their real qualities, might make more sense, but it does not mean that the what the wax is in the real world is anything like that at all. At this stage, extension (that matter is extended in three dimensions) as the explanation of all the phenomena we see, including the secondary phenomena of the senses, is merely a hypothesis. To prove that nature in itself is like that, we need to get outside of our minds. But how are going to do that? Through the proof of the existence of God, because the idea of God is a very strange idea, and necessitates the actual existence of the content of the idea, in the way that no other idea I have does.

Descartes is not the first philosopher to use the ontological proof for the existence of God, but it does have a particular form in his philosophy, so it is worth going into it in a little more detail. Also, we need to remember what kind of work the proof is doing. Descartes is not proving the existence of God because he lacks faith. He already believes in God. He does not need a proof. We are speaking here of a philosophical concept of God and not a religious one (although as we shall see with Spinoza’s criticism of Descartes, he might sneak a theological notion within this concept). The concept of God is solving a philosophical problem for Descartes, how do we know that are scientific hypothesis that we cannot see with our senses, is actually telling us the truth about the world, and not a crisis of faith.

One of the problems for the modern reader following Descartes proof is that he uses Scholastic terminology that they might not know.[2] Let us briefly explain this jargon before we look at the argument itself. When it comes to ideas in our minds, Descartes makes three important distinctions: objective reality, formal reality and eminent reality. The objective idea of the triangle is the idea of the triangle insofar as it represents a thing. The objective reality is not the thing represented, but the representation. One of the best ways to think of this is in terms of the operation of an image, though we should be careful here not thinking that Descartes thought that all representation were images. Thus when we say that a picture is a picture of something we can distinguish between what the picture is and what the picture represents. In the case of a picture of a tree for example, we can distinguish between the picture and the tree that is represented in the picture.

What is much more difficult is the idea of formal reality in Descartes. It is much more difficult because Descartes himself seems to be confused about it. We could interpret formal reality to be the actual existence of the thing that is represented in the idea. But this would admit the existence of external things, whereas we are only talking about the nature of ideas. Formal reality is the part of the definition of the idea and not the description of a thing. Many misunderstandings of Descartes have to do with confusing the formal reality of the idea with the reality of a thing. On the contrary, the formal reality of the idea describes the status of the idea itself. Whatever idea we speak of and whatever this idea might represent, the idea itself exists. Again if we go back to our picture example, being mindful that ideas are not pictures for Descartes, so that this is only an analogy, then we can make a distinction between the picture, on the one hand, and what the picture represents on the other. Now the picture, on this analogy, is the formal idea. That is to say idea of the tree itself, and not the tree that is represented in the idea.

Now for Descartes ideas themselves and not just what they represent in the idea, have degrees of reality. The best way to understand what Descartes means by ‘degrees of reality’ here is degree of perfection, otherwise again you are going to get confused and think that he is speaking about real external things. Now for Descartes it is possible to say that some ideas, formally speaking are more perfect than other’s. The idea itself is more perfect and not just what is represented in the idea (though it is true to say that when we are speaking about perfection these two are connected).. It is the idea itself that is more perfect, that is to say its formal reality, and not just what is represented in the idea, that is to say its objective reality. The idea of God does not just have more objective reality than the idea of frog; rather it has more formal reality than any other idea (Deleuze 1978). The idea of God, therefore, for Descartes, has eminent reality. Of course the immediate question we need to ask is why is the idea of God more perfect than any other idea? But before we get to this question we need to think about how Descartes explains the relation between objective and formal reality, for this is the basis of the proof of the existence of God

This relation is essentially causal for Descartes. That is to say that the formal idea is the cause of the objective idea. We might put it this way. In the absence of the idea of the frog, they would be no ‘frog’ as an object of the idea. This means for Descartes that the idea of the frog, it formal reality, is the cause of the objective reality of the frog. It is not just the causality of ideas that we need to be aware of, but also, as we have already seen, that reality means for Descartes ‘degrees of perfection’. The proof for the existence of God is a combination of causality and perfection. Thus the formal reality not only causes the objective reality to exist, but also the degree of perfection that this idea has. Descartes regards it as a fundamental axiom that more cannot come from less. If the formal reality is the cause of the objective reality, then there must be as much reality in the formal reality as there is in the objective reality. We need to be very careful that we are speaking about ideas and not objects, and the best way to think about it is again in terms of a picture. Descartes’ argument is that a picture will have more reality than any other one the more reality that the object of the picture has. Thus to use Bernard William’s example: a picture of a pile of sticks will have less reality than a picture of a complex machine, precisely because the complex machine, as an objective reality, has more reality than a pile of sticks (Williams 2005, p.124). The best way to think of the relation between objective and formal relations, when it comes causality and perfection, is therefore backwards. From the complexity of the object of thought we go back to the complexity of the idea which is the origin of this thought.

The question, then, is how I get from this relation between formal and objective reality of ideas to the proof of the existence of God. Again we need to remember that this is a causal relation for Descartes. The idea must have as much reality, perfection or complexity, as the object that it represents. In Descartes language, it contains formally as much reality as the object contains objectively. But this does not present it having more reality than the object it represents. In this instance, Descartes says it contains eminently what the object of thought only contains formally. But how does this further distinction get us any closer to the idea of God? Descartes asks whether it is possible that there is one idea that contains formally what I cannot be the cause of objectively; that is to say, whether there is an idea whose objectively reality, whose object of thought cannot have its origin in me.

Thus if I look at all the content of my ideas, I can see that they can all have their origin in me, but the objective reality of the formal idea of God cannot. Why is that? What is it about the idea of God that means that its objective reality cannot be inside of me and that it must exist outside of me? It is because the very formal idea of God, the definition of God, contains an objective reality that I could not be the cause of because I know that I myself am an imperfect being. We have already agreed that what has less perfection cannot be the cause of something that has more perfection. I could be, Descartes argues, the cause of all my other ideas, since objectively they contain nothing more than I contain formally, but I cannot be the origin of the content of the formal idea of God, the objective reality of God, since this objective reality contains more perfection than I do. That is to say my picture of God is less than the objective reality of the idea, and thus could not be its cause. This idea must be caused by something that existed outside of me, and it must contain formally speaking as much reality as the objective reality of the idea of God. Only God could be the cause of the idea of God.

So the idea of God necessarily proves that God exists and we have a little chink in the armour of the cogito. There is one thing I know that exist outside of my idea of it, and that is God. But why would that solve my problem with the wax. Why would the existence of God demonstrate that my idea of wax must be what the wax is in nature? It is the existence of God that guarantees the existence of external objects, and also that my idea of these objects correspond to the true nature of external objects. What I can clearly and distinctly perceive is true, but without God this truth would not be sufficient, since although I am perceiving this truth in my mind, there might be nothing like it in the outside world. If I can prove that God exists, then it follows that everything depends upon him, since God is the only perfection, and such a God could not deceive me. It follows, therefore, what I clearly and distinctly perceive, and I can remember having done so, must be actually true.

The success of Descartes’ metaphysical project rests on the existence of God. It would not surprise many readers that no many philosophers, even immediately so, were convinced by it. Cartesian science itself was pretty much left behind with the success of Newton (though he was clearly influenced by Descartes). However, I want to refer to one important critique of Descartes, which is Spinoza. He was as rationalist as Descartes (and thus his critique is very different from the empiricists and Kant who come later), but his argument with Descartes is that he did not take his ideas seriously enough. In other words, Spinoza wanted to out Descartes Descartes.

Spinoza issue’s with Descartes is that he smuggles a theological conception of God into his philosophical idea of God, and that is the idea of creation. There are in fact three substances in Descartes: the two finite substances, mind and matter, and the infinite substance God. This mirrors the theological distinction in the idea of creation of the difference between transcendence and immanence. Now the transcendent God is beyond the comprehension of the finite mind (this is the turning point of the ontological proof for Descartes, I know that God exists, but I don’t know what God is, and God in his absolute power could have created a world in which triangles have 4 sides and 2+2=5). For Spinoza this is absurd. If there were a difference between an infinite God and a finite world, then God would not be infinite, since God would lack something; that is the finite world that is different from him. Also God could not be governed by different laws (as though God were a capricious tyrant), because this would mean that laws that came from God could have been different, but this too would mean that God would lack something, which would be the laws that he did not create. If God is infinite, and we start with this infinite, then the idea of transcendent wilful God that is still at the heart of Descartes’ project (which Spinoza will explain is only anthropomorphic idea of God), must be a fiction. ‘God,’ Spinoza writes, is the immanent, not the transitive, cause of all things’ (1P18).

Rather than explaining attributes in relation to infinite substance, Descartes has explained substance in relation to attributes, and this is why he has ended up with three substances, rather than one unique substance, God, whose essence must infinite attributes (not just two) that express themselves through infinitely many things and ideas. We must begin, Spinoza is saying, with the infinite universe and explain are place within it, rather than projecting an image of ourselves onto this infinite universe.

Bibliography

Ariew, R., 1986. Descartes as Critic of Galileo’s Scientific Methodology. Synthese, 67(1), pp.77–90.

Deleuze, G., 1978. Les Cours de Gilles Deleuze. Sur Spinoza. Available at: http://www.webdeleuze.com/php/texte.php?cle=14&groupe=Spinoza&langue=2 [Accessed October 9, 2014].

Hatfield, G.C., 2014. The Routledge guidebook to Descartes’ Meditations,

Williams, B., 2005. Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry, Psychology Press.


[1] He believed that although Galileo was to be admired, he tended to rush over the subject matter and not explain sufficiently. The purpose of Descartes’ project was to set philosophy on firm principles and work from these in a systematic way (Ariew 1986).

[2] This shows that Descartes was not as far from the Scholastics as some have presented him, and indeed, how he sometimes presents himself.


Descartes

November 8, 2014

DescartesOne of the difficulties of reading Descartes’ Meditations is that it has become such a part of our philosophical culture, indeed our culture as a whole (who has not heart of the famous cogito ego sum), that we can just read the text without really making any attempt to understand it. Moreover, the apparent ease of our interpretation means we can even think that we can easily dismiss these arguments, because everyone knows them and they hardly require any thought whatsoever.

The simplicity of this reading has more to do with our ignorance, however, rather than our deep understanding. It is because we are unaware of the context of Descartes’ argument, why he wrote the Meditations as he did, and especially their revolutionary nature, that we can easily be misled as to their depth and originality. The most important element of this context is the rise of the new sciences in the 16th and 17th century. Before he saw himself as a philosopher, Descartes viewed himself (if these different functions were really as separable to him and his contemporaries, as they might be to us), as a scientist and a mathematician. He wrote a philosophy as a defence of the new science, and the importance of the mathematical method, rather than just a work of philosophy in itself.

If we are going to understand how revolutionary the new science was, and why Descartes believed it required a different metaphysics to support it, then we have to recognise, if however succinctly and briefly, that metaphysics it rejected, which was Aristotelianism. Aristotle’s understanding of nature was the dominant picture of reality. The problem of dislodging this picture was not just that the new science rejected it, but that its hold on people’s imaginations was so prevalent and dominant. This is because Aristotle’s philosophy is the philosophy of common sense. It describes what we see around us, and thus to reject it is to reject everything we know around us. We can see why Descartes’ method in the Meditations is sceptical, because before he can reinstitute the new science on a secure ground, he must first of all get us to reject what we ordinarily take to be knowledge of the world.

Let us compare, therefore, an Aristotelian account of vision from a Cartesian one (Hatfield 2014, pp.291–4). We today might be very blasé about Descartes’ mechanical explanation of colour, because we take for granted the physiological explanation of colour (colour is nothing but the interaction of the spectrum of light with the retina), but it would have sounded strange to his contemporaries. In the Aristotelian conception of sensation, my perception of external objects is caused by the real qualities of those objects. Thus if I see a red rose then my perception of ‘red’ is caused by the red qualities of that rose. The red exists in the rose, travels to my eye, and thereby causes my sensation of red. As we can see, this seems to be a very common sense view of what happens when we see things (and there are probably people who still think that this is what it means to physically ‘see’ the colour red). For Descartes, on the contrary, there are no ‘red’ things as such. On the contrary, for Descartes, nature is nothing but matter in motion. Matter is corpuscular (infinitely divisible particles). The quality of red in the object, therefore, and its interaction with the eye, can be explained by the shape, size and motion of these particles. Colour is caused by the surface of the object I am looking at, which refracts light particles that interact with the eye. Descartes is not denying that we see red, but that red cannot be explained by a real quality called red. Rather the phenomenon ‘red’ requires a deeper explanation that can only be provided scientifically through the kind of mechanical model that Descartes describes

Although there are specific problems with Descartes’ explanation of colour, which will wait for the modern developments in optics, we can see that we are in two totally different scientific worlds. Fundamentally for Aristotle, everything that exists is explained through form and matter. It is the form of something that explains what it is. Thus to understand what it a tree is one has to understand the ‘form’ tree. If we are looking at an oak tree, then the form would be contained in the acorn. This is true, just as much for animate as well as inanimate things. So to explain the sun, we also have to understand the form of the sun, as well as its material existence (which for Aristotle was the four elements, plus the mysterious fifth one, aether). For Descartes, there is only a material explanation of nature. If one wants to understand the sun, then one needs to understand the nuclear fusion of hydrogen to helium. Moreover, these material laws are the same for all objects in nature and the whole of nature itself. The explanation of our sun would be the same as for all suns in the universe, and these explanations would be would be the same for everything that exists (that is, matter in motion, which can be mathematical defined).

The different physics of Aristotle and Descartes means that they have completely different metaphysics. The basis of the universe for Aristotle is individual substances. Because matter is not sufficient to explain what it is to be something, there cannot be a material explanation of nature. Each thing is an individual substance, which is the specific conjunction of form and matter, whether we are speaking of a tree or animal, me or you, the sun and the other stars. For Descartes, there is only one thing that exists and that is matter in motion, and every individual thing we see is only a property or a mode of this one material substance. Things differ only because matter differs (there is a difference is shape, size and motion of particles), not because there is an extrinsic difference between them. We can see in Aristotle’s metaphysics, that we need an explanation for each thing, whereas for Descartes, we only need a few simple laws of motion (three), in order to explain everything that we see, and that these simple laws of motion, since they have to only to do with shape, size and motion, can be explained quantitatively (that is mathematically) other than qualitatively in the Aristotelian system.

Only now with this scientific background, can we really begin to understand the Meditations. Descartes’ scepticism, at the beginning, then, is not merely an amusing thought experiment, which will later become the plot of the film Matrix, but presupposes the fundamental break that modern science has taken with the common sense perception of the world. For the hypothesis that nature is matter in motion is precisely that a hypothesis, which one can quite literally not see, and thus what I see cannot itself be true. Thus, the task for Descartes is not to destroy our knowledge of the world, but to rebuild it, but where the foundations will be more secure, no longer resting on our fallible senses, but reliable understanding and reason. Scepticism is not employed for its own sake, or even to make philosophy impossible, but on the contrary, to make our knowledge of the world even more certain, by showing that sceptical arguments can be defeated if our metaphysics is robust enough.

It is for this reason why we can Descartes’ takes his doubt much further than classical scepticsm. We should not only doubt our senses, for we know that they tell us lies about the world (is that pencil really bent that I see in the glass of water), but also the world of mathematics and even the status of reality itself. How do I know that this is not all a dream, since my dreams have been as vivid as my perception of the world right now, and why it is not possible that a malicious demon hasn’t put into my head the idea that 4+4 = 8, when it really is 9?. Now all these sound a bit excessive if we don’t know the scientific context of these doubts. If the truth of reality is in fact mathematical, then the question Descartes is really asking is how I know that this mathematical reality is real, when there is nothing in my ordinary experience that would verify it.

If I can doubt everything in reality, even that my mathematical ideas are a true representation of what is real, then there is one thing, Descartes argues, that I cannot doubt, and that I am thinking. For even if I doubt everything, there is one thing I cannot doubt and that is in the very act of doubting, I am in fact doubting. What is important at this point in Descartes’ argument is not to confuse the status of the ‘I’ in the statement ‘I think therefore I am’. This I is not me as physical being. The ‘I’ that stands before you know, the ‘I’ that is writing this lecture on the computer. My physical reality is just as doubtful as the reality of the rest of physical nature. Also this ‘I’ only exist in the very moment of thinking. Only in the very act of thinking can the ‘I’ be said to exist, because it is self-refuting to argue otherwise. Even if I say, ‘I do not exist’, it is I who am thinking this, and so must exist in the moment I think it.

Though the cogito is very limited in one sense, it also includes a lot more than one might first assume. First of all Descartes includes all acts of consciousness, such remembering, desires, and most importantly for us, perceiving. Thus when I desire something, I exist in the moment of desiring, when I remember something I exist in the moment of remembering it, and when I perceive something, I exist in the moment of perceiving it. When I perceive a something I exist in perceiving it. Of course, following from radical doubt of the first meditation, I don’t know whether what I perceive is the same as what is in reality (it really could be all a dream, or mathematical code as in the film Matrix), but I cannot doubt that I am perceiving the chair. Secondly, and this is going to be very important when we come to look at the wax example, the content of what I think, desire, remember and perceive is also real Again, it is not real, as in ‘out there’, but real in my mind. So when, I am thinking, remembering, desiring, perceiving a chair, I really am thinking, remember, desiring, perceiving a chair, even though I don’t know whether a chair real exists.

What is going here, which is very important for understanding Descartes’ metaphysics, is that he is totally changing our idea of truth. Normally when we think of truth (and it should not surprise us, when we think of what we said about science above, that this too has a long Aristotelian heritage), we think of it as adequation. That is, we think that truth is about how we speak about the external world. When I say to you ‘There is chair’, you take this statement to be true, because there is a chair in the real world that corresponds to the statement. Now Descartes’ cannot appeal to this notion of truth, because at the moment of the status of the real world has been bracketed (I don’t know whether the world is true or not). He therefore replaces the truth as adequation, with truth as coherence. An idea is true because it is clear and distinct in my mind. The cogito is therefore a measure of what it is to be true since is self-evident that to have a thought there must be an ‘I’ that thinks it. But we can also say that the idea of triangle as a three sided figure is true, whereas the idea of square circle is not. Not because there are no square circle in the world, but because the idea itself does not make sense since it is incoherent.

When we come to the example of the wax in the third mediation, therefore, we can become completely confused if we think Descartes is talking about the external perception of the wax, because this is precisely what he has given up (we don’t know what the real wax is, because we don’t even know if reality is real). What he is describing is our idea of the wax, how the wax appears to us, even if we don’t whether the wax is real or not. His first description, then, is how the idea of wax appear to us when we take the wax as something we perceive, but perception means here, perception as an action of thought (I am thinking about how the wax is perceived by me), and not perception as the sensation of an external object that I take to exist really outside of me and which effects my sense and which I then think of as was (our example of real qualities and the red flower above). If we were to take that Descartes was doing the latter, then we would be confusing him with Aristotelian account of perception.

What then do I think I perceive when I think that the idea of wax is sensation? I have a list of properties that describe the wax. It smells of flowers; it tastes of honey; it makes a sound when you tap it; it is hard and cold to the touch; and it is white and the shape of a cube. Doesn’t this, then, tell us exactly what the wax is. Why would we need to know anymore? We remember, though that Descartes is sitting in a warm room (it tells us at the beginning of the Meditations). With the heat of the room, all the properties of the wax change: there is no fragrance of flowers; no sweetness of honey; no sound when a hit it; it is not hard and cold; it is no longer white and shaped like a cup. How, therefore, can the sense tell us what the wax is, since now it is completely change. The idea of the wax under the thought of perception is a completely confused idea. However, even though I know the wax has completely changed, it is nonetheless the same piece of wax that remained the same throughout this transformation. What is this wax? It can’t be the list of properties of the sensation because these are completely different. It must be what remains when we strip away all these properties that have changed in our idea of the wax itself. What is it that remains? It is the idea of the body in general as ‘something extended, flexible and changeable’. [AT VII, 30] Although I cannot experience this body, since it would have innumerable shapes that I cannot imagine, I nonetheless can think it, and the idea of this body is less confused and incoherent understanding of the wax in general, than what is present by the idea of sensation. Going back to Descartes’ definition of truth, it is, therefore more true.

At this point we haven’t got outside the cogito itself. I can say that the idea of extension as the correct understanding of bodies, rather than their real qualities, might make more sense, but it does not mean that the what the wax is in the real world is anything like that at all. At this stage, extension (that matter is extended in three dimensions) as the explanation of all the phenomena we see, including the secondary phenomena of the senses, is merely a hypothesis. To prove that nature in itself is like that, we need to get outside of our minds. But how are going to do that? Through the proof of the existence of God, because the idea of God is a very strange idea, and necessitates the actual existence of the content of the idea, in the way that no other idea I have does.

Descartes is not the first philosopher to use the ontological proof for the existence of God, but it does have a particular form in his philosophy, so it is worth going into it in a little more detail. Also, we need to remember what kind of work the proof is doing. Descartes is not proving the existence of God because he lacks faith. He already believes in God. He does not need a proof. We are speaking here of a philosophical concept of God and not a religious one (although as we shall see with Spinoza’s criticism of Descartes, he might sneak a theological notion within this concept). The concept of God is solving a philosophical problem for Descartes, how do we know that are scientific hypothesis that we cannot see with our senses, is actually telling us the truth about the world, and not a crisis of faith.

One of the problems for the modern reader following Descartes proof is that he uses Scholastic terminology that they might not know.[1] Let us briefly explain this jargon before we look at the argument itself. When it comes to ideas in our minds, Descartes makes three important distinctions: objective reality, formal reality and eminent reality. The objective idea of the triangle is the idea of the triangle insofar as it represents a thing. The objective reality is not the thing represented, but the representation. One of the best ways to think of this is in terms of the operation of an image, though we should be careful here not thinking that Descartes thought that all representation were images. Thus when we say that a picture is a picture of something we can distinguish between what the picture is and what the picture represents. In the case of a picture of a tree for example, we can distinguish between the picture and the tree that is represented in the picture.

What is much more difficult is the idea of formal reality in Descartes. It is much more difficult because Descartes himself seems to be confused about it. We could interpret formal reality to be the actual existence of the thing that is represented in the idea. But this would admit the existence of external things, whereas we are only talking about the nature of ideas. Formal reality is the part of the definition of the idea and not the description of a thing. Many misunderstandings of Descartes have to do with confusing the formal reality of the idea with the reality of a thing. On the contrary, the formal reality of the idea describes the status of the idea itself. Whatever idea we speak of and whatever this idea might represent, the idea itself exists. Again if we go back to our picture example, being mindful that ideas are not pictures for Descartes, so that this is only an analogy, then we can make a distinction between the picture, on the one hand, and what the picture represents on the other. Now the picture, on this analogy, is the formal idea. That is to say idea of the tree itself, and not the tree that is represented in the idea.

Now for Descartes ideas themselves and not just what they represent in the idea, have degrees of reality. The best way to understand what Descartes means by ‘degrees of reality’ here is degree of perfection, otherwise again you are going to get confused and think that he is speaking about real external things. Now for Descartes it is possible to say that some ideas, formally speaking are more perfect than other’s. The idea itself is more perfect and not just what is represented in the idea (though it is true to say that when we are speaking about perfection these two are connected). Thus to use Deleuze’s example from his own lectures, the idea of frog is less perfect than the idea of God (Deleuze 1978). It is the idea itself that is more perfect, that is to say its formal reality, and not just what is represented in the idea, that is to say its objective reality. The idea of God does not just have more objective reality than the idea of frog; rather it has more formal reality than any other idea. The idea of God, therefore, for Descartes, has eminent reality. Of course the immediate question we need to ask is why is the idea of God more perfect than any other idea? But before we get to this question we need to think about how Descartes explains the relation between objective and formal reality, for this is the basis of the proof of the existence of God

This relation is essentially causal for Descartes. That is to say that the formal idea is the cause of the objective idea. We might put it this way. In the absence of the idea of the frog, they would be no ‘frog’ as an object of the idea. This means for Descartes that the idea of the frog, it formal reality, is the cause of the objective reality of the frog. It is not just the causality of ideas that we need to be aware of, but also, as we have already seen, that reality means for Descartes ‘degrees of perfection’. The proof for the existence of God is a combination of causality and perfection. Thus the formal reality not only causes the objective reality to exist, but also the degree of perfection that this idea has. Descartes regards it as a fundamental axiom that more cannot come from less. If the formal reality is the cause of the objective reality, then there must be as much reality in the formal reality as there is in the objective reality. We need to be very careful that we are speaking about ideas and not objects, and the best way to thing about it is again in terms of a picture. Descartes’ argument is that a picture will have more reality than any other one the more reality that the object of the picture has. Thus to use Bernard William’s example: a picture of a pile of sticks will have less reality than a picture of a complex machine, precisely because the complex machine, as an objective reality, has more reality than a pile of sticks (Williams 2005, p.124). The best way to think of think of the relation between objective and formal relations, when it comes causality and perfection, is therefore backwards. From the complexity of the object of thought we go back to the complexity of the idea which is the origin of this thought.

The question, then, is how I get from this relation between formal and objective reality of ideas to the proof of the existence of God. Again we need to remember that this is a causal relation for Descartes. The idea must have as much reality, perfection or complexity, as the object that it represents. In Descartes language, it contains formally as much reality as the object contains objectively. But this does not present it having more reality than the object it represents. In this instance, Descartes says it contains eminently what the object of thought only contains formally. But how does this further distinction get us any closer to the idea of God? Descartes asks whether it is possible that there is one idea that contains formally what I cannot be the cause of objectively; that is to say, whether there is an idea whose objectively reality, whose object of thought cannot have its origin in me.

Thus if I look at all the content of my ideas, I can see that they can all have their origin in me, but the objective reality of the formal idea of God cannot. Why is that? What is it about the idea of God that means that its objective reality cannot be inside of me and that it must exist outside of me? It is because the very formal idea of God, the definition of God, contains an objective reality that I could not be the cause of because I know that I myself am an imperfect being. We have already agreed that what has less perfection cannot be the cause of something that has more perfection. I could be, Descartes argues, the cause of all my other ideas, since objectively they contain nothing more than I contain formally, but I cannot be the origin of the content of the formal idea of God, the objective reality of God, since this objective reality contains more perfection than I do. That is to say my picture of God is less than the objective reality of the idea, and thus could not be its cause. This idea must be caused by something that existed outside of me, and it must contain formally speaking as much reality as the objective reality of the idea of God. Only God could be the cause of the idea of God.

So the idea of God necessarily proves that God exists and we have a little chink in the armour of the cogito. There is one thing I know that exist outside of my idea of it, and that is God. But why would that solve my problem with the wax. Why would the existence of God demonstrate that my idea of wax must be what the wax is in nature? It is the existence of God that guarantees the existence of external objects, and also that my idea of these objects correspond to the true nature of external objects. What I can clearly and distinctly perceive is true, but without God this truth would not be sufficient, since although I am perceiving this truth in my mind, there might be nothing like it in the outside world. If I can prove that God exists, then it follows that everything depends upon him, since God is the only perfection, and such a God could not deceive me. It follows, therefore, what I clearly and distinctly perceive, and I can remember having done so, must be actually true.

The success of Descartes’ metaphysical project rests on the existence of God. It would not surprise many readers that no manner philosophers, even immediately so, were convinced by it. Cartesian science itself was pretty much left behind with the success of Newton (though he was clearly influenced by Descartes). However, I want to refer to one important critique of Descartes, which is Spinoza. He was as rationalist as Descartes (and thus his critique is very different from the empiricists and Kant that we will look at next week), but his argument with Descartes is that he did not take his ideas seriously enough. In other words, Spinoza want to out Descartes Descartes.

Spinoza issue with Descartes is that he smuggles a theological conception of God into his philosophical idea of God, and that is the idea of creation. There are in fact three substances in Descartes: the two finite substances, mind and matter, and the infinite substance God. This mirrors the theological distinction in the idea of creation of the difference between transcendence and immanence. Now the transcendent God is beyond the comprehension of the finite mind (this is the turning point of the ontological proof for Descartes, I know that God exists, but I don’t know what God is, and God in his absolute power could have created a world in which triangles have 4 sides and 2+2=5. For Spinoza this is absurd. If there were a difference between an infinite God and a finite world, then God would not be infinite, since God would lack something; that is the finite world that is different from him. Also God could not be governed by different laws (as though God were a capricious tyrant), because this would mean that laws that came from God could have been different, but this too would mean that God would lack something, which would be the laws that he did not create. If God is infinite, and we start with this infinite, then the idea of transcendent wilful God that is still at the heart of Descartes’ project (which Spinoza will explain is only anthropomorphic idea of God), must be a fiction. ‘God,’ Spinoza writes, is the immanent, not the transitive, cause of all things’ (1P18).

Rather than explaining attributes in relation to infinite substance, Descartes has explained substance in relation to attributes, and this is why he has ended up with three substances, rather than one unique substance, God, whose essence must infinite attributes (not just two) that express themselves through infinitely many things and ideas. We must begin, Spinoza is saying, with the infinite universe and explain are place within it, rather than projecting an image of ourselves onto this infinite universe.

Bibliography

Deleuze, G., 1978. Les Cours de Gilles Deleuze. Sur Spinoza. Available at: http://www.webdeleuze.com/php/texte.php?cle=14&groupe=Spinoza&langue=2 [Accessed October 9, 2014].

Hatfield, G.C., 2014. The Routledge guidebook to Descartes’ Meditations,

Williams, B., 2005. Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry, Psychology Press.


[1] This shows that Descartes was not as far from the Scholastics as some have presented him, and indeed, how he sometimes presents himself.


Eschatology and Peace – Lecture 1

January 13, 2013

Levinas opens Totality and Infinity with the remark that it is pretty important to know whether ‘we are not duped by morality’ [TI 21]. Why would we think there was a such possibility? The opposite of morality might be nihilism, but this is not really the object of Levinas’s question. His has more to do the current state of affairs. Do we not live in a permanent state of war? Isn’t peace itself merely a moment’s rest between wars? Do we not even fight wars for the sake of peace? Perhaps we ought not to be so naïve to think that there could be anything else than war and in war isn’t morality just, as Thrasymachus might say, the power of the stronger and the victor?

Even the history of philosophy seems to back this up. Is not philosophy itself from the very beginning in the thought of Heraclitus nothing but a meditation on this permanent state of war? The cosmos is nothing but the impersonal battle between the elements of which human destiny is but just a small part. We are all just parts of a system of which we are neither the author nor completely understand. Yet if there is no alternative to war is not existence itself at peril? For it is not only the enemy who is destroyed by war but also the friend. If there is any possibility of peace, real peace as opposed to the phony peace between wars, then there has to be another relation to the reality than war, but what could such a relation be?

Levinas calls this other peace messianic, but this is perhaps more problematic than an answer to our question, for we might be as suspicious of its religious overtones as we are of morality itself [TI 22]. He also describes this peace as eschatological. This word means, in the Christian tradition at least, the end of history when the Messiah is supposed to return. Yet I do not think that Levinas uses any of these words in a traditional religious sense.[1] Some philosophers might well as be as dismissive of this word, as they would have a morality that remains uncompromised by power, but its reference for Levinas is concrete experience that is universal. If there is a religious tradition of the eschatological then it first of all has its source in this experience rather than in any formal dogma. Moreover, for Levinas at least, eschatology has nothing at all to do with the familiar Christian idea of a revelation at the end of time when all is revealed, but a break with history within history itself.

What could possibly be such a break with or interruption of history? Surely history, in a rational sense, is seamless totality? What lies beyond history is the judgement of history itself. We should not confuse, however, this ‘beyond’, with some kind of mysterious transcendence, as though it were the gods or God Himself who were the judges or judge. Whatever Levinas will mean by ‘transcendence’ it will not be this. For we know that religion in this sense is just as much a part of war as the peace it hypocritically proclaims. Who judges history? Not me, for as such a judgement would always be complacent and self-serving. The judgement of history is the suffering of others, for even the victors cannot abolish that completely. The judgement of history is the judgement against me not for me. If I am oblivious to this suffering, then history continues as before, but it will eventually sweep me away in its wake too. The only experience that stops history is my response to the suffering of others who are more important than I myself. Levinas is not saying that I cannot ignore this suffering, for history is nothing else but this, but if it is possible to truly respond to it, then permanent war is not the only truth of reality and we are not duped by morality.

If we say that such an appeal is just a matter of faith and opinion, then we are claiming that philosophy’s view of reality is the only perspective that can be had. We might ask what kind of truth is this if it leads to the countless deaths of the innocent. Have we not the right to ask whether there is more to reality than this? If we cannot find any counter-evidence to the evidence of philosophy, then we have to accept this state of affairs. It is not a matter of throwing our arms up an bemoaning the harshness of reality. We need to ask ourselves whether we have any proof of an exception to it.

Such an alternative, Levinas argues, is the experience of the ‘face of the other’ in speech [TI 25]. Only if it is possible can there be a break with history and the reality of war. Yet, in turn, the possibility of such an experience, where I have a non-allergic relation to the other, requires that experience itself is re-thought. Is not any experience I have obviously my experience? But if it is my experience, then how can it truly be an experience of the other? Would not my experience already shape how I experienced the other, and thus prevent me from ever really experiencing them as other? It is a common place, we know, when anthropologists talk about other cultures, that we cannot really know them as they know themselves for we will always project our own values and beliefs on them. Is this not the same when we come to speak of the other? If the experience of the other that Levinas speaks of is the experience of the face, would I not always describe this face by the concepts that I already know, the colour of the skin, the shape of the eyes, the culture that it belongs to, for example?

If there is to be an experience of the other as other, then there must be another way to relate to my knowledge of the world, or there must be another experience of thought. This is what Levinas means by borrowing Descartes’ concept of the idea of infinity. He is not interested in it as part of the proof of God’s existence, but its logical form. For what is significant about this concept is that it suggests the possibility that the object of the idea is greater than the idea itself. In other words, that one might have an idea of God, but this idea could never contain what God Himself is. Or you might have an experience of the other, but the other still exceeds this experience. This excess of the other over the self Levinas calls ‘hospitality’ [TI 27]. Only if I were to assert that the meaning of experience could only have its source in the subject, could I claim that no true experience of the other were possible. But what if it were possible to experience the surplus of the other over any idea that I might have of them and this precisely was the meaning of the face? Is it not a prejudice of philosophy itself to suggest that thought can only think what is already part of thought? Cannot thought be open to what is beyond thought without at the same time falling into thoughtlessness?

This is precisely, Levinas will argue, what the method of phenomenology implies when it seeks to find in the known the horizon of the unknown. The only difference between traditional phenomenology and the phenomenology of Totality and Infinity, is that the former presupposes that this horizon is only more thought, whereas the latter that it is concrete experience. To discover such hidden horizons of thought is not an empty and lazy mysticism but, as we shall see, the very meaning of metaphysics. The problem with reason is that it is not rational enough, if we mean by critique the uncovering of the hidden assumptions of thought. It is not a matter of opposing irrationality to reason, for the irrationality is the very meaning of war and violence, but being more reasonable than reason by showing that its foundation is justice and ethics.

Metaphysics has always been taken to mean the search for what is other than reality. We can read this two ways: either as flight from reality, as Kant describes Plato in the opening of the Critique of Pure Reason, or has deepening of reality.[2] Such a deepening is the desire for the other, but we should not confuse this with a lack. When I lack something, I feel a need for it. My needs, however, already constitute my reality, they are not other than it. To truly desire something is to go beyond what I myself know and possess. It can only be the desire for what is ‘absolutely other’, which is not just another item or element that completes me. The relation of desire, therefore, is one of separation and distance, rather than union or oneness. If I were to reach what I desired then I would not long desire it. It is only because it is forever out of my reach that I desire it at all. Desire, unlike need, increases the more it desires, whereas need only looks for satisfaction.

Only if what is desired it out of reach, is desire infinite. The infinity of desire comes from the side of the other rather than me. Only because there is an experience of the other is there a difference between need and desire. Otherwise, I would only need others, as I need sustenance and they would become part of me as the food I eat. The difference between my desire for others and my needs, Levinas calls the ‘height’ of the other. This height is not a dimension like any other because the other is not out of reach like the cake on the table is out of reach of the child’s hand, but because no conception I have of the other could ever totally comprehend what the other is. Such is the invisibility of the other. They escape any possible viewpoint or context that I might already have of them. You are more than the colour of your skin, the shape of your eyes, or the culture that you belong.

In the distance between the desired and desire there is the break with totality, for they do not exist at the same level. To desire someone is not to cross the distance between your desire and the one desired but to maintain it. If you were to treat them equally, then you would destroy the difference between you. Both are separate from one another, but at the same time in relation to one another. The relation does not destroy the distance or the difference between them. This is not just a formal relation but a concrete experience. The other is not other than me because I have an idea that it is ‘not me’. Rather, it really is other than me. Separation is produced. This means alterity (the distance and separation of the other) is not the same as negativity. For what is negated belongs to the same system of meaning as the negator, since we are merely opposite sides of the same coin. Rather than negative, alterity is the superlative. The other, whom I desire, is more than me, rather than not me.

Metaphysics traditionally is not thought of as the desire for the other, but for knowledge. This knowledge both transcends the other and the self as the ultimate meaning of reality. Such an understanding of metaphysics, for Levinas, reaches its culmination in Heidegger, where this meaning is interpreted as the anonymity of Being that is the basis of every being, including human beings. Here all things are equivalent. Against this dogmatism, Levinas contrasts the possibility of a critique which is open to what is beyond ontology. Such a critique he names ‘ethics’ [TI 43]. Ethics is not opposed to philosophy, but is a different philosophy. There are perhaps two philosophies. The philosophy of power, ontology and war, and the philosophy of justice, ethics and peace.[3] To only compare and contrast them is this way, however, would be to treat them as though they were equivalent, as though one could make a choice between them. On the contrary, for Levinas, ontology is only possible because of ethics. Rather than ontology being first philosophy, as Aristotle asserted, it is ethics. There are, therefore, two key arguments of Totality and Infinity. One, that the concrete experience of the face in speech interrupts the system of concepts and ideas that underpin our history and politics, and secondly, that this system has its origin in this ethical relation. Ethics is not something added to human existence, once we have defined or interpreted it, but human existence is ethical through and through.

Works Cited

Kant, I., 2007. Critique of Pure Reason 2nd ed., Palgrave Macmillan.


[1] Or it might be better to say that what he means by the word ‘religion’ is not at all traditional. For religion does not mean a belief in God but a relation to the other. ‘We propose to call “religion” the bond that is established between the same and the other without constituting a totality’ [TI 40].

[2] ‘The light dove, cleaving the air in her free flight, and feeling its resistance, might imagine that its flight would be still easier in empty space.  It was thus that Plato left the world of the senses, as setting too narrow limits to the understanding, and ventured out beyond it on the wings of the ideas, in the empty space of the understanding.’ (Kant 2007 A5/B9)

[3] Levinas is aware that at the margins of Western philosophy there is always evidence for such a different philosophy. In Totality and Infinity, he refers to the agent intellect in Aristotle and the description delirium in Plato, and of course the idea of infinity in Descartes [TI 49].