The Cartesian Spring — Part Four

‘He was down with the whooping laugh at the age of the loss of reason the whopping first time he prediseased me. He’s weird, I tell you, and middayevil down to his vegetable soul’.

- James Joyce, ‘Finnegans Wake’

The sound of bells have tolled midnight, and in the peace and tranquillity of the ‘heartbeats of sleep’ the speaker ‘dropping asleep some part in nonland’, visualises the public acclaim that has been accomplished by Shaun the Postman, the central figure in this episode of the , a postman who is travelling backwards in the night through the events that have already featured in the narrative. This chapter as a whole is written in the form of a , the way of the cross, the , the way of suffering, the path that Jesus, (c. 4 BCE — 30/33 ACE)walked on the way to his crucifixion, of which there have been fourteen stations identified since the late 15th century; although in point of fact it is merely a barrel rolling down the river Liffey; the sleeper is after all rotund, like a barrel, and recently filled with liquor; a floating barrel of Guinness.

The chapter consists of an extended interview with Shaun, 14 questions in all; and the above quote is part of the answer to question number 11 that brings out what is the ’s most candidly autobiographical treatment of Shaun’s brother Shem the Penman, that is, Joyce himself. The question asks Shaun the Postman to unriddle a mysterious letter, one which turns up frequently in the text; and Shaun’s response is astringent and defensive as he accuses Shem the Penman of reworking his, that is Shaun’s, words and concludes his response by ridiculing events in Shem’s life; describing a Shem that is a mess, with a natural tendency towards every kind of failing and infirmity of the flesh.

Shem, that ‘middayevil’ devil. He ‘prediseased me’ is a comment opon Shem/James’ diseased realm of the living; Shaun had previously been addressed as ‘the gracious one’, the religious overtones are patent. How seriously we are take the connection to the I am uncertain; but the 11th station is Jesus promising his kingdom to the repentant thief; aka the Good Thief, or the Thief on the Cross, one of two nameless persons mentioned in a version of the crucifixion of Jesus in the New Testament; the Gospel of Luke (? — 84 ACE), describes one of them asking Jesus to ‘remember him’ when Jesus will have ‘come into’ his kingdom; the other, the impenitent thief, challenges Jesus to save himself to prove that he is the Messiah.

Michelangelo Cerquozzi, ‘The Good Thief’, between 1620 and 1660

Be that as it may, ‘the whooping laugh at the age of the loss of reason’ refers to the Age of Reason, a name applied to 17th century philosophy that included the philosophers René Descartes, (1596–1650), Baruch Spinoza, (1632–1677), and John Locke, (1632–1704). The conclusions of Descartes’ ‘Third Meditation’ of his ‘Meditations of First Philosophy’, was that the existence of and of leads to another problem: If God is perfectly good and the source of all that is, how is there any room for error or falsehood? Descartes attempts to answer this question in his ‘Fourth Meditation’ ‘On Truth and Falsity’, wherein he addresses the issue, if I have got everything in me from God and he/she/it has not thereby given me the ability to make errors, it does not seem possible for me ever to be in error.

To begin with, one must distinguish between impulses that incline us to belief, for instance, the heat which I feel is produced by the fire, and insights into necessary truths, for instance, a cause must be great or greater than its effect. Both are natural, both are owing to the good offices of our Creator; but the former can be doubted, even after we have discovered the truth about God; and the latter, which Descartes refers to as ‘the light of nature’, cannot be doubted in any way whatsoever; for they are the principles of reason in our minds by which we arrive at knowledge; and we have no other means of distinguishing between the true and the false.

And further, one must consider the causes of error; for it is axiomatic that God can never deceive us and that if we make proper use of the abilities he has given us we can never go wrong; yet it is quite obvious that he has chosen to make us fallible. How does this happen? From the fact that our intellects are finite, together with the fact that our wills, being free, are infinite. One can see why both these things must be and how, as a consequent, man or woman does not easily stay within the narrow realm of truth; for the crux of the matter is that, as Descartes explains, judgement involves the will, either in the form of assent or dissent; and it is within our power to withhold judgement when convincing evidence is wanting, and to give our judgement only when the light of reason so demands. Indeed, Descartes took the view, which was expressed again by Thomas Henry Huxley, (1825–1895), and William Kingdon Clifford, (1845–1879), in the nineteenth century, that we have a duty to bring judgement under this rule, for failure to do so involves not only error but sin itself.

Nikolai Kalmakov, ‘The Mysterious Call’, 1924

‘If I suspend judgement’, wrote Descartes, ‘when I don’t clearly and distinctly grasp what is true, I obviously do right and am not deceived. But, if I either affirm or deny in a case of this sort, I misuse my freedom of choice. If I affirm what is false, I clearly err, and, if I stumble onto the truth, I’m still blameworthy since the light of nature reveals that a perception of the understanding should always precede a decision of the will. In these misuses of freedom of choice lies the deprivation that accounts for error. And this deprivation, I maintain, lies in the working of the will insofar as it comes from me — not in my God-given ability to will, or even in the will’s operation insofar as it derives from Him’.

Thirdly, we arrive upon a nest of problems that have to do with our knowledge of the external world. As I mentioned previously, (in ‘The Cartesian Spring’ — Part Two), Descartes examined a piece of wax in order to find what constitutes the essence of matter; and he observed that the sensible qualities which we most readily believe to be in matter are not part of the nature of wax, as are such attributes as extension, figure, and mobility, which are not properly sensible but intelligible. Comparing the two ways of thinking about things in nature, Descartes concludes, and in this he is following the lead of Galileo Galilei, (1564–1642), that by the senses we have only the most confused notions of matter; they arise from the influence of the mind upon the body to which it is united rather than from the mind’s apprehension by its own light of the necessary attributes of being. It is by the latter that we obtain true knowledge of nature, which henceforth is seen to possess only those qualities which can be described in mathematical terms. Or to put it another way, the physical world has to be envisaged as a vast, complicated machine, but not, let us remind ourselves, the way our senses view machines, rather the way they are viewed on the drawing board and in the mind of the engineer.

So far reason leads us, Descartes tells us. If we are correct in supposing that there is a material world, its nature must be as classic mechanics conceives it, but it does not follow that a material world actually exists. In the next part I will examine ‘Meditation Five’; ‘Concerning the Essence of Material Things, and Again Concerning God, That He Exists’; and in the following and final part, ‘Meditation Six’; ‘Concerning the Existence of Material Things, and the Real Distinction between Mind and Body’.


Maxfield Parrish, ‘Air Castles’, 1904

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, (1770 -1831), has something so very profound to say about the typical take on error just outlined. ‘Fear of falling into error’, he wrote, ‘sets up a mistrust of Science… Should we not be concerned as to whether this fear of error is not just the error itself?’ Yes indeed, and this is Descartes’ error; for error certainly plays its role in the development of science, and being afraid to err puts limits upon reason; it hampers reason from achieving its full potential of rendering the whole of nature or of existence intelligible. Immanuel Kant, (1724–1804), for instance, posited the existence of a noumenal realm of objects that exist independently of human sense and perception and hence is unknowable; a contradiction, because if we are able to say something concerning such a realm, that it is unknowable, then it is not unknowable; but worse, the positing of such a realm limits the understanding, it causes things to become unintelligible; it forsakes the naturally flowing motion of thinking; and mind or spirit cannot defer to such limits, for it desires to know.

Descartes’ ‘Meditations on First Philosophy’, despite what the title suggests, is more concerned with the problem of knowledge rather than metaphysics; but the problem of knowledge only arises because of one’s fear that one may fall into error, to harbour a belief that is erroneous; and it is this very fear itself that engenders the reflective moment of stepping back that is commonly supposed to be epistemology, reflecting on what we can know, and it is this stepping back itself that leads to subject/object dualism such as we find in Descartes; and once subject/object dualism is arrived at, once one reflectively places the object outside of one’s range of vision, so to speak, there is then no way open for its reclamation. And we can compare this with the structure of jealousy, to comprehend its import. In the fifth volume of Marcel Proust’s, (1871–1922), ‘In Search of Lost Time’, ‘The Prisoner’, the jealous narrator is living in his family’s apartments with Albertine whom he is possessive towards and would prefer it if she never went out, though when she does go out he has employed someone to keep track of her whereabouts. But once the question has arisen: how do I know if she is being faithful? …. and once the trust has gone, then it is over; from that moment forth there is nothing that she can do that will be trustworthy; the jealous one has already decided that he does not know if she is trustworthy; and he can imprison her, but then the possibility is there that even her fantasies are going to be disloyal; nothing will ever work for the object of jealousy to once more become an object of trust. And epistemology is a form of maddening jealousy, of a certain kind; like the anxiety of the jealous lover the fear of error the error; and the fear or the anxiety can henceforth generate a series of responses, and once such responses get going they deepen the separation until eventually there is no way back.

Why is it that smart and insightful philosophers are able to do this while unaware of the snare they have thus fallen into? Because, like Descartes, they hold to the completely unjustified view that the mind is better known than the body or the world itself; that through non-inferential knowledge of their mind they thereby are in possession of a kind of certainty about themselves even were they to know nothing about the world; and whereas someone who is certain about their own inner states but uncertain about the world would normally be diagnosed as suffering under some kind of psychosis, there is an entire edifice of philosophy that is premised upon that very idea; that the inner realm is knowable and secure, that the outer realm is chaotic and unknowable. Hence David Hume, (1711–1776), in his ‘A Treatise of Human Nature’, describes the disconnect he feels between what he takes to be his own rational scepticism and why he feels it necessary to put out of mind the certainty about himself so that he may enter the world and partake in the commerce with others:

‘I am first affrighted and confounded with that forelorn solitude, in which I am placed in my philosophy, and fancy myself some strange uncouth monster, who not being able to mingle and unite in society, has been expelled all human commerce, and left utterly abandoned and disconsolate. Fain would I run into the crowd for shelter and warmth; but cannot prevail with myself to mix with such deformity. I call upon others to join me, in order to make a company apart; but no one will hearken to me. Every one keeps at a distance, and dreads that storm, which beats upon me from every side. I have exposed myself to the enmity of all metaphysicians, logicians, mathematicians, and even theologians; and can I wonder at the insults I must suffer? ‘I have declared my disapprobation of their systems; and can I be surprized, if they should express a hatred of mine and of my person? When I look abroad, I foresee on every side, dispute, contradiction, anger, calumny and detraction. When I turn my eye inward, I find nothing but doubt and ignorance. All the world conspires to oppose and contradict me; though such is my weakness, that I feel all my opinions loosen and fall of themselves, when unsupported by the approbation of others. Every step I take is with hesitation, and every new reflection makes me dread an error and absurdity in my reasoning’.

‘Antropoides’, 1902, Frantisek Kupka

In demonstration of the vital role played by error in the movement of knowing, to which Hegel gives the name , there are examples to be found in Hegel’s ‘Phänomenologie des Geistes’, that wonderful ‘exposition of the coming to be of knowledge’. As with the ‘Finnegans Wake’ episode, the is evoked; for what is being explicated is ‘the various shapes of spirit as stations on the way through which spirit becomes pure knowledge’. At the stage of perceptual consciousness, for instance, perceptual understanding uncritically takes empty abstractions to be the truth, leading it from one error to another. Viewed philosophically, however, such empty abstractions are taken to be essences which are false in-themselves; for they are indeterminate; and philosophical thinking can grant them determinacy whereby their universality can then be conditioned, and in this way they will be released from their indeterminate movement, their thoughts brought together and thus superseded in their essence.

The courage of Spirit on its way to absolute knowledge commits it to err so that it can become properly scientific. Perceptual understanding mistook an abstraction devoid of content for a hard and fast truth; but such errors are necessary errors, because the moment of error is preserved in the dialectical progression of consciousness; error and failure of proper recognition occur at the level of the object as it is understood and as it manifests as an object of knowledge for consciousness, as Hegel explains:

‘Consciousness knows something; this object is the essence or the in-itself; but it is also for conscious the in-itself. This is where the ambiguity of this truth enters. We see that consciousness now has two objects: one is the first in-itself, the second is the being-for-consciousness of this in-itself. The latter appears at first sight to be merely the reflection of consciousness into itself, i.e., what consciousness has in mind is not an object, but only its knowledge of that first object. But… the first object, in being known, is altered for consciousness; it ceases to be the in-itself, and becomes something that is the in-itself only for-consciousness. And this then is the True: the being-for-consciousness of this in-itself. Or, in other words, this is the essence, or the object of consciousness. This new object contains the nothingness of the first, it is what experience has made of it’.

There is the object in-itself, and there is the object in-itself for consciousness, and consciousness takes the second object, the object as understood, the object as an object of knowledge, which is to say, its own knowledge, and encounters it before it ever encounters the first; but given that it knows something about this first object, it knows of its existence, the first object is transformed by the turning inward of consciousness when it encounters the being for consciousness of the in-itself in the second object; a process that inevitably reveals that both in-itselfs are false; and this is the truth of the new knowledge, the truth lies in the moment of realization of the untruth of the in-itself of the object that preserves what was true about the previous form of knowledge: ‘Since what first appeared as the object sinks for consciousness to the level of its way of knowing it, and since the in-itself becomes a being-for-consciousness of the in-itself, the latter is now the new object’. That is to say, consciousness takes the category in-itself as its object, it takes its own knowledge as its object, and in this manner truth and untruth coincide and misunderstanding drives the dialectic of the consciousness; for untruth does not reverse into truth by way of negation, instead untruth is the means by which consciousness negates the second object in-itself as a being-for-consciousness and then allows consciousness to negate the negation by negating the first object qua the regulative ideal (a rule of procedure) that produces the object in-itself and in-itself as a being for consciousness. And then consciousness can take itself as object and comprehend its own development, and finally, whether scientifically or logically, free itself from the snare of representation and think things in-themselves.

Another example: cultural spirit, which discerns error and superstition to be everywhere; faith and the consciousness it engenders is organized into a realm of error in which false insight, common to a great many people, is immediate, unsophisticated, unreflective. But ‘what pure insight pronounces to be its other, what it asserts to be an error or a lie, can be nothing else but its own self; it can condemn only what it is itself’. Which is to say, while enlightenment thinking in conjunction with insight contests against error, an intense struggle between insight and faith, it is apparent from the initial moment that the original position of insight was not only in itself erroneous and crooked, dependent upon the very same commonplace superstitious inclinations of its adversary, for insight always makes something other of its objects of critique; and so, upon denouncing faith it is revealed by faith to be in reality quite unreasonable, speaking more than it can know; for when it declares that faith is alien to consciousness what it is actually declaring is that it is ‘the innermost nature of consciousness itself’. Which is to say, when insight declares to the priest that he is merely contriving myths and fables this is stating the obvious; but the error of insight was to treat religion as an object of sensual, that is, according to the senses, certitude, rather than according to its Notion; its Notion being a community of believers who grant Spirit being through a set of religious beliefs and practices.

All Faith is false, all Faith is true: Truth is the shattered mirror strown

In myriad bits; while each believes his little bit the whole to own.

- Richard Francis Burton

‘The Spirit of Christianity’, 1873 -75, George Frederic Watts

Another example, the syllogism (see ‘The Cartesian Spring’ — Part Two). All criteria, through which we can make judgements or decisions, carry with them their principle, and a determinate movement is given by the principle to the object of the principle; a movement that must always be held to be suspect. In the case of a syllogism this is acutely apparent; a syllogism is purely presented to the sensibility of the understanding, that is to say, purely subjectively and therefore can simply attest to the objective finitude of things. Or, to put it another way, in the absence of a middle term, a syllogism can only assert or , it has a content that is purely rational but at the same time is totally bereft of any Notion. As Hegel says, syllogisms are rather humdrum and familiar, they do not attest to a great deal, but at the very least they are effortless: ‘it must be concluded that drawing correct conclusions no more depends on previous study of logic than adequate digestion, respiration, etc., requires a preliminary study of anatomy’.

Another example, and this one certainly raises problems for Cartesian dualism. ‘The presentation of untrue consciousness in its untruth’, said Hegel, ‘is not simply a negative movement, as it is considered to be by the one-sided view of natural consciousness’. And as Hegel points out, dualism is a philosophical attitude that operates within settled dichotomously opposed determinations: ‘Dualism, which makes the opposition of finite and infinite insuperable, fails to make the simple observation that in this way the infinite itself is just one of the two, [and] that it is therefore reduced to one particular, in addition to which the finite is the other one’. Such a false opposition of finitude and infinitude also exposes the flaw in Descartes supposition of an infinite will. As Hegel explains in the ‘Science of Logic’, the section on affirmative infinity and determinate being, it is the determination of finitude or infinitude that causes one term to collapse into the other:

‘In each…there lies the determinateness of the other, although according to the standpoint of the infinite progress these two are supposed to be shut out from each other and only follow each other alternately; neither can be posited or grasped without the other’.

Through the very act of differentiation unity is revealed; through particularizing and separating the finite and the infinite they are rendered unified objects; and in accordance with their Notion, they determine themselves by positing their otherness; a determination that inscribes their essential limit as the moment of coincidence with their opposite term and realizes this coincidence since, as separate determinations or particularities in-themselves, the qualities finitude and infinite are discovered to be inherent in both; it is through affirmative infinity that we clearly see the error of taking up either the finite or the infinite as a point of departure:

‘Both finite and infinite are this movement in which each returns to itself through its negation; they are only as mediation within themselves, and the affirmative of each contains the negative of each, and is the negation of the negation. They are thus a result, and consequently not what they are in the determination of their beginning; the finite is not a determinate being on its side, and the infinite a determinate being or being-in-itself beyond the determinate being, that is, beyond the being determined as finite. […] If, at first, the return into self was considered to be just as much a return of the finite to itself as return of the infinite to itself, this very result reveals an error which is connected with the one-sidedness just criticized [the understanding overlooks the mutual negation of finite by the infinite and vice versa as moments of the movement of a whole]: first the finite and then the infinite is taken as the starting point and it is only this that gives rise to two results’.

‘The Nostalgia of the Infinite’, 1911, Giorgio de Chirico

I could go on. As always, when discussing Hegel’s system in a short article, I probably do more harm than good. ‘The True is the whole’. Let that be our rallying cry. But I cannot resist giving one final quote, from his ‘Philosophy of Mind’, in which he equates error with mental derangement:

‘Error and the like is a content consistently admitted into this objective interconnection [between the sober subject and the ordered totality of the world his individual world]. In the concrete, however, it is often difficult to say where error begins to become madness. Thus an intense passion of hatred, etc., based on trivial reasons, may, in contrast to a presupposed higher self-possession and stability, seem like going out of one’s mind with madness. But madness essentially involves the contradiction in which a feeling that has come into being in a bodily form confronts the totality of mediations that is the concrete consciousness. The mind that is determined as merely being, in so far as such being is undissolved in its consciousness, is diseased’.

Error is constantly admitted, which is to say, casually integrated into the ordered totality of the world.

‘A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals to discovery’.

- James Joyce

René Magritte, ‘The Victory’, 1939

To be continued ……

Notes to ‘Finnegans Wake’ quotation:

1. whooping laugh = whooping cough, a contagious disease chiefly affecting children, and characterized by short, violent, and convulsive coughs, followed by a long sonorous inspiration called the hoop.

2. age of reason = in Catholic theology, the age at which a child is capable of moral responsibility and committing sin (traditionally, the age of seven); and Age of Reason, a name applied to 17th century philosophy (e.g. Descartes, Spinoza, Locke).

3. whopping = that whops; almost always figuratively, that is a ‘whopper’, abnormally large or great, ‘whacking’, ‘thumping’; and very.

4. middayevil = midday devil, translation of Vulgate Ps. xc[i], for which the English Bible has ‘the destruction that wasteth at noonday’; and medieval.

5. vegetable = veritable; and A vegetable Soul is a facultie or power that giueth life vnto bodies” (1601 Dolman ); and vegetabilis anima (Latin), vivifying principle.

The River Liffey, Dublin, photo by me



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David Proud

David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.