The Cartesian Spring — Part One

‘And how are you, waggy? 5 My animal his sorrafool! And trieste, ah trieste ate I my liver! Se non é vero son trovatore. O jerry! He was soso, harriot all! He was sadfellow, steifel! He was mister-mysterion. Like a purate out of pensionee with a gouvernament job. All moanday, tearsday, wailsday, thumpsday, frightday, shatterday till the fear of the Law. Look at this twitches! He was quisquis, floored on his plankcraft of shittim wood. Look at him! Sink deep or touch not the Cartesian spring!

[Proscription of the Passive.]

5 Dear old Erosmas. Very glad you are going to Penmark. Write to the corner. Grunny Grant’.

- James Joyce, (1882–1941), ‘Finnegans Wake’

Anna Livia Plurabelle and Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, chief protagonists in ‘Finnegans Wake’, have twin sons, the writer Shem the Penman and the postman Shaun the Post, competitors for succeeding their father, and for the affection of their sister Issy. Shaun, the tedious and shallow postman, eager to comply with whatever society expects of him; Shem, the smart artist and mischievous innovator, frequently taken to be Joyce’s second self, within the context of the narrative. Shaun, wanting to be seen as socially active, sophisticated, cosmopolitan, a stylish dresser, a voracious eater and a gourmand, possessor of a musical voice, a braggadocio; unhappy in his work as a messenger, preferring to be a priest. Shem and Shaun, warring twins, contrasted in the narrative through allusions to sets of opposing siblings and adversaries of history, mythology or literature; like the Biblical pairs Jacob and Esau, and Cain and Abel. Shaun has advised the disruptive Shem to get a job in Guinness’ brewery, (in fact, just as Stanislaus Joyce advised his brother James), which he viewed as the only suitable place for a boy so much lacking in faith, hope and charity; thus Shem turns into James, a sorrowful exile in ‘trieste, ah trieste’; but Shem chooses to ignore his brother’s ‘Sink deep or touch not the Cartesian Spring’ of egocentricism.

The line recalls a couplet from Alexander Pope’s, (1688–1744), ‘An Essay on Criticism’:

A little learning is a dang’rous thing;

Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.

‘The Muses Garden’, 1896, Lionel Noel Royer

In Greek mythology, the Pierian Spring of Macedonia was sacred to the Muses; a metaphorical source of knowledge of science and of art. And I say egocentrism, because Cartesian here of course pertains to René Descartes, (1596–1650), or to his philosophy or mathematical methods; famous for the first principle, (or argument? … there is an ergo in there after all), cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am. Descartes, first rate creative mathematician, he developed the techniques that rendered analytic geometry possible; a significant scientific thinker, and an innovative metaphysician; who presented a new perspective on the natural world that continues to influence our thinking to this day; that of a world of matter possessing a few fundamental properties and all of it interacting according to a few universal laws. The author of a work on metaphysics, the ‘Meditations on First Philosophy’, (by ‘First Philosophy’ he means metaphysics), together with its ‘Objections and Replies’ in 1641; the natural world is seen as including an immaterial mind directly related to the brain, in human beings anyway; and in this manner the modern version of the mind-body problem is formulated. Descartes, playing the sceptics at their own game with his method of doubt; and by means of which he investigated the knowing subject through an assessment of the possibility and of the extent of human knowledge; a theorist of great brilliance who put in place new directions in thought; the father of modern philosophy.

Descartes’ ‘Meditations on First Philosophy’ may be summarised as follows:

1. Perhaps everything we believe is false.

2. There seems to be no way of avoiding the sceptical consequences of systematic doubt.

3. But if one is doubting, one exists.

4. This is the starting point for a philosophy based on certainty.

5. But if one exists, one is a thinker, a mind; and since one conceives of a God whose conception is beyond one’s powers, there must be such a being.

6. But if God exists, then we can count on our sense experience and our reason, provided we are careful to believe only what is clearly and distinctly true.

The complete title of this work is ‘Meditations on First Philosophy in Which the Existence of God and the Distinction between Mind and Body Are Demonstrated’; I did say it was a work on metaphysics, and the title suggests as much, but in order to comprehend Descartes’ interest in such questions, and hence to grasp more fully the import of the work, one must be aware that this is in effect an essay in epistemology, or the theory of knowledge. What can we know? Is there even any such thing as knowledge? And if there is, in what way is it distinguishable from mere opinion? How can error be accounted for? Such questions as these were uppermost in Descartes’ mind; but in order to answer them, and to validate knowledge, and to lay hold upon the necessity which for Descartes, following Plato in this, was the mark of truth, it was necessary to raise the fundamental questions of Being.

In choosing to set down his thoughts as meditations, Descartes makes it easier for the reader to follow the threads of his thinking; he depicts himself as seated before a fire in a comfortable Dutch abode, enveloped by his dressing gown, released from worldly considerations and anxieties, devoting himself to a task which he had for some time looked forward to, giving his mental abode a thoroughly good spring cleaning, so to speak. And so it is that over six successive days he pursues his meditation, taking us with him step by step, as he pursues the task of clearing his mind of all error.

René Magritte, ‘La Maison’, 1947

In 1628 Descartes was in his thirties and living in Holland, to which he had withdrawn from the more active life for the special purpose of carrying on his philosophical and scientific investigations; and the ‘Meditations’ was circulated in manuscript, and when it was published it included an extensive appendix composed of objections by leading philosophers of the day, Thomas Hobbes, and Pierre Gassendi, together with Descartes’ replies. The ‘First Meditation’ is, in some ways, distinct from the rest, as it describes Descartes’ effort, which in actuality engaged him for many years, to accustom himself not to think of the world in the imagery of the senses or according to the notions of common sense and the traditions of the scholastic philosophy.

Can it be, Descartes ponders, that all beliefs that he had formerly held are false? Maybe not: but if he is to achieve his goal of building up a body of incontrovertible truth, he must exercise the same rigor towards beliefs that are merely uncertain as toward those which are demonstrably untrue; which is to say, he must make doubt his instrument; instead of permitting it to hang over him, forever threatening, he must grasp it firmly and wrestle with it until he has expunged from his mind every putative certainty. And the first to go are those beliefs that depend upon the senses, in particular the belief in the existence of our own bodies and of everything that appears to our sight and touch. His habitual judgement objects, for what can be more certain, Descartes asks himself, than that he is seated by the fire holding this paper in his hand? But when we reflect that our dreams are sometimes attended with equal confidence, we are forced to conclude that there is no infallible mark by which we can know true perceptions from false.

Of course, what one doubts is, in this case, only that one’s ideas represent something beyond appearances. Descartes is one of the first philosophers to use the word ‘idea’ in the modern sense; he means by it ‘whatever the mind directly perceives’; and yet he distinguishes between the idea taken only as a mode of thought, and the idea as a representation of reality. Even in dreams we cannot deny the former of these, what he challenge is the truth of the ideas, he refers to it as ‘objective reality’, and the judgements based upon them. And his question becomes, whether or not there is anything in our sense-images that testifies unmistakably to the truth of what they represent; and the answer is, most patently not, in those that we initiate in dreams and fantasies; but no more, in those that come from without, through the senses, else how could we make mistakes as to sounds and sights?

There is, Descartes contends, another class of ideas which we seem neither to originate ourselves, nor to receive from without, but to be born with, those, for example, which make up the sciences of mathematics. Two and three are five even in dreams; for this sum does not require material counters to make it true; and yet, the ideas of numbers profess to be something besides modes of thought; they do not possess ‘objective reality’; and moreover, we have been mistaken about mathematical matters. No more than sense-images are they self-authenticating, and our habitual trust in them is not unlike that which we place in our senses, and has the same foundation, namely, that we are creatures of a benevolent deity who would not deceive us. Suppose that this is not the case, and that mathematics is merely a fancy of our mind; or even worse, suppose that it is an illusion deliberately imposed upon us by a malicious demon who has access to the workings of our minds; such a notion is most certainly not unthinkable.

And with such thoughts the ‘First Meditation’ comes to an end; and instead of supposing that the good providence of God sustains his thinking, Descartes resolves to hold fast to the hypothesis that he is constantly being deceived by an evil spirit, so that all his ordinary beliefs are false. In this manner, while he seems to make no progress in the knowledge of truth, he at least habituates himself to suspend judgement concerning things that he does not certainly know; but by no means is this a simple matter. Descartes pleads with his readers, in the replies to his objectors, not simply to give the exercise such time as required for reading the meditation through but to take months, or at the very least weeks, before continuing on further. How loath one is to break with the old habits of thinking he suggests in the figure of the slave who, when sleeping, dreads the coming of the day, and conspires to weave the sounds of gathering dawn into dreams rather than to embrace the light and the labours which it brings forth.

‘Landschap met omgevallen beeld’, 1942, by Carel Willink


Had Descartes been true to his method it should have led him properly into solipsism; he found it necessary to put a ladder up to God to avoid such a consequence, as I will explain subsequently in this series. The Cartesian method is just one of the many false starts in philosophy, prior to his own philosophy, that Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel, (1770–1831), identified; Hegel too was attuned to the seriousness of the threat presented by scepticism; and he was very clear about what is at stake were it not to be properly dealt with. Philosophy has to deliver on its assurances to discover reason in the world, or the forces of anti-philosophy will be victorious, thereby acclaiming a return to sceptical irrationalism, (which may have actually happened in these dreary times of ours); a sceptical irrationalism that Hegel characterises as ‘this conceit which understands how to belittle every truth, in order to turn back into itself and gloat over its own understanding, which knows how to dissolve every thought and always find the same barren Ego instead of any content’. From whence does this irrationalism arise? From the very natural assumption of the kind made by Descartes concerning the method of philosophical inquiry; an assumption once made that leads inevitably to sceptical irrationalism. What is to be done? One must demonstrate that it is by no means natural; rather, it is quite a baseless and gratuitous unjustifiable demand.

René Magritte, ‘L’oasis’. 1926

The natural assumption in question is as follows: before we embark upon discovering reason in the world, we must first mentally withdraw from our situation and consider objectively whether or not our intellects have the requisite capability for this kind of understanding; for the worry is that were it not so we would thereby be engaging in an ill-fated project that has absolutely no possibility of success. Hegel refers to John Locke, (1632–1704), as having recommended such a procedure that demands of us that we ‘take a Survey of our own Understandings, examine our own Powers, and see to what Things they are adapted’. He could equally have cited Descartes who said: ‘Now, to prevent our being in a state of permanent uncertainty about the powers of the mind, and to prevent our mental labours being misguided and haphazard, we ought once in our life carefully to inquire as to what sort of knowledge human reason is capable of attaining, before we set about acquiring knowledge of things in particular’.

The same outlook is to be found in Immanuel Kant’s, (1724–1804), critical project, whereby we are required to begin in philosophy by first investigating the scope of our intellectual capacities. Locke was neither a a sceptic or idealist, rather curiously Kant was both of these, inevitably so given his Lockean starting point; for upon adopting such an approach thought is inescapably treated as an instrument or medium with in-built limitations, from which naturally arises the notion that our cognitive capacities obstruct the way between ourselves and reality as it is in itself; and subsequently it appears that reality as it is in itself is inaccessible from our point of view, a misfortune for which there is no remedy despite all our efforts to reflect on the nature of this instrument or medium. Kant may offer solace through the endorsement of a more relativistic conception of truth, and then assert that this delivers a sufficient object of inquiry; but on the contrary, this is intellectually disingenuous, as Hegel explains: ‘we gradually come to see that this kind of talk which goes back and forth only leads to a hazy distinction between an absolute truth and some other kind of truth, and that words like ‘absolute’, ‘cognition’, etc. presuppose a meaning which has yet to be ascertained’.

‘Cup of cognition’ (‘The Children’s Cup’), 1894, Odilon Redon

In order to fend off this seemingly inescapable slump into the maw of sceptical irrationalism, one must recognise that nothing, nothing at all, places us under any obligation to adopt the natural assumption that presupposes one must commence by first of all arriving at a proper understanding about cognition; such may be designated the critical epistemic method. For the justification for such an approach is that, though I have just pointed out its presupposition, it is strangely regarded as without presuppositions, for it pretends to make no assumptions concerning our capacity to investigate the world; and yet the adoption of this procedure most certainly does not render the critical epistemic method as absent of presuppositions; there is the assumption that we have the capability to successfully step back and examine our cognitive capacities. And if it is asseverated that the limitations of our intellect have to be assessed prior to any inquiry into Being of the kind with which Descartes was concerned, then presumably prior to any inquiry into the limitations of our intellects it is necessary to appraise our capacity for such inquiry; and prior to any appraisal of our capacity for such inquiry, we must appraise our capacity for such appraisal; and thus we have arrived at an infinite regress; for ‘the examination of knowledge’, said Hegel, ‘can only be carried out by an act of knowledge’.

And so it is that the objective of the critical epistemic theorist is to inquire into our cognitive capacities without also using them, ‘to seek to know before we can know’, as Hegel explains, and which is just senseless unreasonable absurdity, ‘as absurd as the wise resolution of Scholasticus, not to venture into the water until he had learned to swim’.

Max Klinger, ‘Drowning’, 1920

But confronted by such an objection may not those who seek to defend the natural assumption rather claim that their procedure is justified, for contrariwise in the absence of such an assumption one can never be certain of one’s cognitive faculties being up to the task of reaching genuine knowledge; such indeed was Kant’s view, as Hegel suggests: ‘We ought, says Kant, to become acquainted with the instrument, before we undertake the work for which it is to be employed; for if the instrument be insufficient, all our trouble will be spent in vain’. Why should we require any guarantees of this kind before commencing upon our inquiries? Let us rather just dive straight into it and then discover how far we may actually get. Instead of bothering ourselves with any kind of preparatory inspection of the capabilities of our faculties, ‘Science . . . gets on with the work itself . . . and mistrusts this very mistrust’.

It may be objected that Hegel’s point has some force when directed against the critical epistemic method that regards it as a natural assumption that an inquiry into the nature of our cognitive capacities is an evident and prudential point of departure for any responsible philosophical undertaking, either because of an assurance that in this way one is safeguarded against taking hold of the ‘clouds of error instead of the heaven of truth’, or because of a concern about taking anything for granted; but what of the alternative motivations for the critical epistemic method? After all, it is apparent enough that there is specific evidence to indicate a limitation upon our cognitive capacities; such evidence, that is, as is grounded upon an apparent lack of success with regard to our inquiries into particular areas; for instance, metaphysics, and theology, perhaps aesthetics and ethics also. And granted that such evidence of limitations to our cognitive capacities exists it may seem judicious enough to investigate those aspects of our cognitive capacities that generate such limitations, and hence we can then spare ourselves the fruitless endeavour of attempting to stride over them; and then the motivation for the critical epistemic method, rather than being an excessive epistemic fastidiousness that gets things back to front by examining our capacities prior to their use, is instead an aspiration to compile a reasonable catalogue of our capabilities while confronted by genuine evidence as to their limitations. Such a critical theorist would thereby not be someone wanting to learn to swim without getting wet, but rather someone coming close to drowning and getting out of the water to reflect upon how far their swimming abilities can be expected to take them.

To raise such an objection would be to miss the point however; our concern is with how the natural assumption about philosophical method as such can lead us to into sceptical irrationalism, and with the assertion that proper methodology requires that we should start with the critical epistemic method; we are not concerned with ruling out the possibility that once we embark upon our project of attempting to understand the world, we may discover that we come across particular awkward and unmanageable difficulties that make it evident that there are particular cognitive limitations that we just must accede to. And were this to happen, and Hegel has such an admirable confidence in the power of reason especially his own as to suppose this to be unlikely, then proceeding according to the suggestions of the critical epistemic theorist would be reasonable enough. And so our central philosophical point remains secure; that is to say, we have very little reason to adopt the critical theorist’s approach as a natural assumption at the outset, prior to philosophical inquiry; and it is only by virtue of the very fact that it is a natural assumption that it has any value for the sceptic’s position, for only then would it appear to demonstrate that doubts about our capacity for knowledge emerge as soon as we even begin to seek such knowledge, so that it is thereby somehow self-defeating to seek to know reality. The point to note is that Hegel has undermined the status of the critical epistemic method as a natural assumption, regardless of whether some of its proponents, such as Kant, may have had other, philosophically more substantive, reasons for adopting it.

‘Figures in the Night Guided by the Phosphorescent Tracks of Snails’, Joan Miro

However, we would err were we to take the failure of the critical theorist’s natural assumption to demonstrate that we can be certain that our view upon reality is the correct one, or that we may proceed with adopting whatever presuppositions we may please; for the problem is that diverse conceptions of the world can strike diverse inquirers as perfectly valid; we have to be able to demonstrate why one conception is to be preferred to the others, otherwise we cannot make the claim that one conception, ours, has any right to be regarded as the true one. And it would be a mistake to expect these other conceptions to concede defeat without any argument, that would be mere dogmatism, and it would be a mistake to endeavour to overcome such other conceptions by assuming things about the world that they do not accept, that would be mere question-begging. We must therefore attempt to demonstrate that these other conceptions are inadequate on their own terms, and therefore undermine themselves, so that in the end if and when we arrive at a conception that is not inadequate in this way, we will have arrived at a conception that has established its legitimacy in a non-dogmatic and a non-question-begging way. This is the Hegelian method of immanent critique, so much the more secure method of proceeding, and much richer in its results, than the Cartesian method of doubt; through adopting the method of immanent critique we can establish that our conception is the one that is best able to make us feel at home in the world, and we can demonstrate that these other conceptions cannot overcome the problems and conundrums that arise for them, so that they cannot thereby assert to be delivering the sort of rational satisfaction that we require.

And so it is that we need make no assumptions about the world at the outset; nor do we need employ such assumptions in a critique of consciousness; rather, leave consciousness to the labour of criticising itself; and as to how that can work Hegel explains for us: ‘Consciousness provides its own criterion from within itself’ by which its adequacy can be judged, ‘so that the investigation becomes a comparison of consciousness with itself’. Every non-dialectical viewpoint involves some sort of self-contradiction; it is therefore a ‘way of despair’ for ordinary consciousness, as it comes to recognise that its conceptions are inadequate: ‘this path is the conscious insight into the untruth of phenomenal knowledge, for which the supreme reality is what is in truth only the unrealized Notion . . . The series of configurations which consciousness goes through along this road is, in reality, the detailed history of the education of consciousness itself to the standpoint of Science’. Which is to say, by the very fact that each inadequate stage of consciousness ‘suffers this violence at its own hands’, consciousness, in a non-dogmatic and non-question-begging way, seeks to make good on its own internal problems: ‘since what consciousness examines is its own self, all that is left for us to do is simply to look on’.

Consciousness will discover itself to be in the position of seeing that how it took things to be is somehow incoherent, and so it will be compelled to revise its outlook accordingly, until ultimately a conception is arrived at whereby it is able to see how to release itself from these problems, at which point ‘knowledge no longer needs to go beyond itself, where knowledge finds itself, where Notion corresponds to object and object to Notion’. However, while consciousness will proceed forward immanently in this way, without our having to motivate or impel it from without, what will not be apparent to consciousness is how exactly its new way of looking at things is related to its previous conception, and how this new conception has come about; for this sort of shift involves a revision in how consciousness thinks about the world; but although consciousness undergoes these shifts, it is not aware that this is the driving mechanism behind them, so that here ‘the origination of the new object . . . presents itself to consciousness without its understanding how this happens, which proceeds for us, as it were, behind the back of consciousness’.

To consciousness, it appears that its understanding of the world develops because the world has revealed itself to it in a new way; but to us, as phenomenological observers, it is clear that this has only happened because consciousness has altered its way of thinking about the world, so that these cognitive shifts do not come about ‘by chance and externally’, but ‘through a reversal of consciousness itself’, as it proceeds from one conception to another by questioning some assumptions while taking on board others, and only at the terminus of its odyssey is consciousness ready to understand what has happened to it and why; it is then able to think reflectively and self-consciously about the categorical shifts that have led it forward from one problematic situation to the next, to the point at which ‘it gets rid of the semblance of being burdened with something alien’ and can at last feel at home in the world.

But prior to such a homecoming being possible, it is necessary that we follow Hegel, who, like the Publius Vergilius Maro, (70 BCE — 19 BCE), in the ‘Inferno’ of Durante di Alighiero degli Alighieri, (c. 1265–1321), will direct us through the odyssey of the Soul, ‘so that it may purify itself for the life of the Spirit, and achieve finally, through a completed experience of itself, the awareness of what it really is in itself’.

Edgar Degas, ‘Dante and Virgil at the Entrance to Hell’, 1858

Hope springs eternal in the human breast:

Man never is, but always to be blest.

The soul, uneasy and confined from home,

Rests and expatiates in a life to come.

- Alexander Pope

To be continued …..

Notes to ‘Finnegans Wake’ quotation:

1. waggy = wagtail (Slang), whore.

2. Erosmas = Christmas; Desiderius Erasmus (1466–1536), Dutch humanist; and erasmios (Greek), dear, lovable; Eros (Greek), sexual love.

3. Penmark = Village and peninsula in Brittany, France, where Tristan dies. Tristan watched for Iseult’s sail from the cliffs of Penmark.

4. animal = anima, Jung’s term for the inner part of the personality or character, as opposed to the persona or outer part; also, the feminine component of a male personality; and anima (Latin), soul.

5. sorrafool = sorrowful, full of, oppressed by, sorrow or grief; unhappy, sad; and Vulgate Psalms 42:43: Quare tristis es, anima mea? (Latin), ‘Why art thou cast down, O my soul?’; and Vulgate Matthew 26:38: ‘tristis est anima mea usque ad mortem’. ‘my soul is sad even unto death’.

6. trieste = triste, trist, sad, sorrowful, melancholy; James Joyce lived in Trieste from 1905 to 1915 and again in 1919–20, working as an English teacher at the Berlitz School; ‘O triste, triste était mon âme…’ (French), ‘Oh, sad, sad was my soul…’, title of a poem by Verlaine appearing in ‘Romances sans paroles’.

7. mi sono mangiato il fegato (Italian), I ate my heart out (literally ‘I ate my liver’; expressing grief, vexation, anger).

8. Se non è vero, è ben trovato (Italian proverb), if it is not true, it is a happy invention; son trovatore (Italian), I am a troubadour; ‘Il Trovatore’, Verdi’s opera, in which the hero, Manrico, is a troubador.

9. jerry = Phr. to take a jerry (to): to investigate and understand (something).

10. soso = so so, neither very good nor very bad, but usu. inclining towards bad; and so-so (Slang), tipsy.

11. harriot = Harriot, Thomas (1560–1621), English mathematician.

12. sadfellow = sadful, sorrowful.

13. steifel = Stifel, Michael, 16th-century German mathematician, inventor of our signs for ‘plus; and ‘square root’; and Stiefel (German), boots.

14. mysterion (Greek) = mystery, secret rite.

15. purate out of pensionee = curate; and ‘The Pirates of Penzance’, a comic opera in two acts, with music by Arthur Sullivan and libretto by W. S. Gilbert.

16. gouvernament = gouvernement (French), government.

17. twitches = twitch, a sharp pain; a pinch, pang, twinge. Frequently of mental pain.

18. quisquis = quis, ‘Who (wants this)?’, asked by the possessor of a specified object which he no longer requires, to a group of his fellows; and quisquis (Latin), everybody, any one.

19. floored = brought to the ground, overthrown; also fig. overpowered, done for.

20. plankraft = raft built of planks; and Kraft (German), power, strength.

21. shittim wood = the wood of the shittah-tree, acacia wood (used in making the Ark of the Covenant, Exodus 25:10).

22. Pierian Spring = Pieria is the area, North of Mountain Olympus, Greece, where the Muses (called the Pierides) were worshipped. Pope’s Essay on Criticism: ‘A little learning is a dang’rous thing; / Drink deep, on taste not the Pierian spring’.

23. Cartesian = pertaining to Descartes, or to his philosophy or mathematical methods.

24. proscription = denunciation, interdiction, prohibition by authority; exclusion or rejection by public order.

Phoenix Park, Dublin, photo by me




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

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David Proud

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.

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