The Cartesian Spring — Part Three

‘It’s a wild’s kitten, my dear, who can tell a wilkling from a warthog. For you may be as practical as is predicable but you must have the proper sort of accident to meet that kind of being with a difference’.[2]

[2] If she can’t follow suite Renée goes to the pack’.

- James Joyce, ‘Finnegans Wake’

‘Philosophers’, claimed the philosopher Giambattista Vico, (1668–1744), ‘neglected the study of the world of nations, or civil world, which, since men had made it, men could come to know’. Vico thus expresses an experimental and empiricist tendency characteristic of his times; searching after the true rests upon the criterion of having made the true; in no wise accomplished through any kind of arbitrary or extemporized exercise but rather through an attentive reading of the ways of fortune in the life of men and women, that is to say, of the designs of providence; for providence in its many diverse forms is the field within which the symbolic operates in shaping the world into patterns which possess universal value; and thus the ways by which providence and ultimately knowledge operate can be described in ‘Finnegans Wake’ through the Vicoan principle, verum esses ipsum factum (what is true is precisely what is made), the very principle expressed in the above passage. The opposition driving the narrative is not between that of the practical and the spiritual, it is between that of the practical and the predicable; for it is in the symbolic field that such concepts having yielded to culture and society are thoroughly established; and at the precise instant that a subject begins to speak, which is to say, to predicate things, or a subject begins to act, which is to say, to practice things, the symbol in its structure becomes all pervasive and quite comprehensively includes all the operational features of his or her action. That which is predicable and that which is practical are in a process of interchange with regard to their traits and determining factors as a consequence of their propinquity; for action is memory, action represents the interpretive, the elucidatory, the imitative not to say duplicative presentation of a representation of the very thing that is engraved by desire within the body, the reason and motive to act; as the words of the dreamer of the Wake have it, ‘you must have the proper sort of accident to meet that kind of a being with a difference’; which is to say, it is the business of action itself to allow for interpretation, and for deciphering.

Pablo Picasso, ‘Interior with a Girl Drawing’, 1935

This particular passage provides us with a glimpse of Issy, daughter of Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker and Anna Livia Plurabelle, as she sits in her room, engaged in knitting and meditating upon the ‘inbourne’ womanly wisdom that she has learned from her Gramma (i.e. grammar as well as grandmother) and mother, and the lesson is that she must play her cards right with men, leading them on up to a point. ‘If she can’t follow suite Renée goes to the pack’ does, of course refer to René Descartes, that other meditator; who, in his ‘Third Meditation’ of the ‘Meditations of First Philosophy’, ‘Concerning God, That He Exists’, proposes that there are three types of ideas; innate (‘inbourne’?), fictitious, and adventitious. Innate ideas are and have always been within us, fictitious or invented ideas come from our imagination, and adventitious ideas originate in our experiences of the world; his argument will be that the idea of God is innate and placed in us by God, (like a trademark, the mark a craftsman stamps upon his work); and thus he rejects the possibility that the idea of God is either invented or adventitious.

His argument takes two forms; in the first he inquires directly concerning the idea of a perfect being, from whence could it have come into his mind? From some other creature? From himself? Or must there be in existence a perfect being to originate the idea? And his answer is unfortunately rather obscured for the modern reader such as ourselves by the late medieval philosophical framework within which it is expressed (what ever happened to the methodology of doubt and discarding all previous beliefs (and other methods) that are susceptible to doubt?) The idea of God, claims Descartes, contains more objective reality (there can be varying degrees of ontological status? Discuss) than any other idea (including my idea of myself); but a more perfect being cannot be generated by a less perfect being; and therefore, the idea of God in my mind (which must be there assumes Descartes) must have been placed there by God him/her/itself.

The second form of the argument proceeds from the contingent quality of Descartes’ own existence, made up as it is of fleeting instants, not one of which is able either to conserve itself or to engender its successor; and much in this argument reminds us of the traditional Aristotelian proof; (that, there must be some eternal and imperishable substance, otherwise all substance would be perishable, and then everything in the world would be perishable; but the world and time are not perishable, therefore etc. etc….. and this eternal actual being must be a single prime mover, the source of all process and change but not itself subject to process or change). There is quite a difference though, which makes it clear that this new argument is only another version of the first, that is, it is not merely the existence of a contingent being that has to be explained, or of a thinking being, but of ‘a being which thinks and which has some idea of God’. Therefore, the principle that there must be at least as much reality in the cause as in the effect precludes the possibility that any being less perfect than God could have created Descartes, or any man or woman.

Leon Wyczółkowski, ‘Wiosna w Gościeradzu’, 1933

The argument as thus outlined may be of little more than historical interest, and the same is true of the further argument for the existence of God, in the ‘Fifth Meditation’, that, since existence is a perfection, the idea of a perfect Being entails the existence of that Being; and yet, it is only fair to point out that behind the framework of traditional theistic proof lies a claim which rationalistic philosophers have thought to be valid even in our own time:

‘I see I have in me the notion of the infinite earlier than the finite — to wit, the notion of God before that of myself. For how would it be possible that I should know that I doubt and desire, that is to say, that something is lacking in me, and that I am not quite perfect, unless I had within me some idea of a Being more perfect than myself, in comparison with which I should recognise the deficiencies of my nature?’

And here we most certainly in effect have a new kind of reasoning; the medieval scholastics, whose philosophy was based upon Aristotelian logic, and the writings of early Church fathers and whose own writings were written in a convoluted style and full of jargon (much like the philosophers of today in fact, oh how much our fair Lady Philosophy has been shamelessly abused!), were committed to demonstrate the existence of God by syllogisms, (see previous part in this series), and, whether expediently or inadvertently, Descartes makes a demonstration of doing likewise; but in Descartes a new, quasi-mathematical way of reasoning was pushing the syllogism to one side, as the quotation just given, and which could be matched with several others, makes perfectly clear. Descartes’ true ground for affirming the existence of God was not that it follows from but that it is implicit in his consciousness of himself.

‘God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob — not of the philosophers and scholars’, said Blaise Pascal, (1623- 1662); for the God of the philosophers is not the God of faith; well, maybe so, and those who believe in God need to be reminded of such, but there is no requirement, however, to suppose that Descartes has any need to evoke such a conception; the certainty of God’s existence is in itself a victory, even though here the certainty is claimed for scientific, rather than for religious reasons. It is the very sine qua non of all further knowledge, since ‘the certainty of all other things depends on it so absolutely that without this knowledge it is impossible ever to know anything perfectly’. As I explained earlier, and this is Descartes’ thought, such patent mathematical truths as two plus three equals five are not self-validating, for they bear no evidence of the competency of our thought. Descartes explains to us in his reply to his objectors that an atheist cannot be sure, and hence his or her knowledge cannot be science, (we hear similar claims directed towards the atheist today, in Christian presuppositional apologetics, for instance, the claim being that God (the Christian God of course) along with Christian faith is the only basis for all rational thought, which seems to me to be a mere proof by assertion, i.e., no proof at all). Doubt, according to Descartes, may never rise to trouble the atheist; but if it does, he or she has no way of getting rid of it; but the doubt is removed when a person recognizes that his or her mind owes its constitution and working to the creativity of God, and that God is no deceiver.

For the rest, the ‘Meditations’ is primarily devoted to determining just how far a human can trust his or her faculties which the beneficent Deity has implanted in him or her …. ‘Meditation 4’ will consider the true and the false and the causes of error…..


Jan Provoost, ‘Christian Allegory’, c. 1510–1515

As for proof in general and that of the existence of God in general, well, some discussion is need about what constitutes proof; something we are told that belongs in the world of logic and mathematics alone; can we prove God’s existence through logical or quasi-mathematical reasoning? I will postpone that discussion until I get onto Descartes’ ‘Fifth Meditation’, when I will examine Hegel’s discussion on the ontological proof of the existence of God. Hegel’s take on the nature of God is particularly interesting and undermines much of what Descartes has to say concerning God. For Hegel, the God of religion makes him/her/itself existing in a process against his/her/its deficient forms of existence; but in manifesting his/her/itself the proofs for the existence of God are superfluous. As it happens, philosophers of religion and theologians of a liberal bent during the twentieth century and up to our own times endeavoured to create a conception of God that would meet people’s spiritual longings while avoiding coming into conflict Darwinian evolution and other well-established scientific discoveries. We may discover this already in Hegel (though it must be admitted that he had rejected biological evolution some thirty years prior to the publication of Charles Darwin’s, (1809–1882), ‘On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life’). Søren Kierkegaard, (1813–1855), ridiculed Hegel’s supposed reduction of faith to a dry and abstruse rational system, but Hegel’s starting point was a quite radical critique of traditional ways of conceptualising God, for God, as we see with Descartes, is often represented or conceived as a being who is omniscient, omnipotent, and so on; but this is an error, according to Hegel; if God is to be truly infinite, truly unlimited, then God cannot be a being, because a being, that is, one being, however powerful a being, among others, is already limited by its relations to the others; such a being is limited by not being being-x, not being being-y, and so on; but then it is quite clearly not unlimited, not infinite; for to conceive of God as a being is to render God finite.

‘That man should think of God as nothingness must at first sight seem astonishing’, said Hegel, ‘must appear to us a most peculiar idea. But, considered more closely, this determination means that God is absolutely nothing determined. He is the Undetermined; no determinateness of any kind pertains to God; He is the Infinite. This is equivalent to saying that God is the negation of all particularity’. If God is not a being, however, some account has to be forthcoming of what he/she/it is. According to Hegel, there is a sense in which finite things such as myself, or Descartes, or whomsoever, fail to be as real as they could be, for what they are is to a large degree contingent upon or determined by their relations to other finite things; and were there something that depended only upon itself to make it what it is, then that something would evidently be more fully itself than are myself, or Descartes, or whomsoever; and therefore God has to be infinite, for this makes God more him/her/itself and more fully real, as him/her/itself, than anything else is.

And further, this something that is more fully real than myself, Descartes, or whomsoever, is more than a mere hypothetical possibility, because we ourselves have the experience of being more fully real, as ourselves, at some particular times than we are at other times; this is borne out by those experiences we undergo as we step back from our current desires and projects and we ask ourselves, what would make the most sense, what would amount to the most optimum output, given these circumstances that we find ourselves in? The mere asking ourselves such a question in itself serves to make ourselves less dependent upon whatever it was that caused us to feel the desire or to have the project; instead we experience the possibility of being self-determining, through our very thinking about what would be best; and yet something that can conceive of being self-determining in this way, seems already to be more itself, more real as itself, than something that is merely a product of its circumstances.

Jan Frans de Boever, (1872–1940), ‘Les Questeurs’

This places us in the position of being able to replace the conventional conception of God; for if there is a higher degree of reality that goes with being self-determining, and thereby real as oneself, and if we ourselves do in fact achieve greater self-determination at some times than we achieve at other times, then it seems to be the case that we are familiar in our own experience with some of the higher degree of reality that we associate with God; by no means are we frequently aware of the highest degree of this reality, or the sum of all of this reality, which would be God him/her/itself; but we are aware of some of it, as the way in which we ourselves seem to be more fully present, more fully real, when instead of just letting ourselves be driven by whatever desires we currently feel, we inquire of ourselves what would be best overall; and we are more fully real, in such a case, because we ourselves are playing a more active role, through thought, than we play when we merely let ourselves be driven by our current desires.

God is thereby the fullest reality, achieved through the self-determination of everything that is capable of any kind or degree of self-determination; and God emerges out of beings of limited reality, including ourselves. Which is not to say that God is ourselves, or that God is the world, or that God is Nature, as Baruch Spinoza, (1632–1677), said; God is the fullest reality, arising out of ourselves, the world, and nature; God is not thereby reducible to us, to the world, or to nature, because God is more fully real than they are; God is not a substance as Descartes supposes, some underling being merely paradigmatically real; God is a process of increasing reality; God is not to be conceived of as a separate being; him/her/it is situated in a kind of process, of sorts, that incorporates us, the world, and nature; God is not to be identified as something that isn’t us or the world or nature, which would set limits upon God. God is neither identical with us and the world, nor a separate being from us and the world; for remember we are talking about something that is no thing; were he/she/it a thing a thing, he/she/it would be limited just as we are limited and how can God be limited? And if this strikes you as so much obfuscation, remember that in Hegel’s system reality and existence are not the same thing; what exists are material objects in time and space, perhaps also such things as souls (which for Descartes in some manner can connect with material objects), for the more spiritually minded; what is real are universals, concepts, and reality can be a matter of degree, proportional to the object’s degree of success in being self-governing, self-determining, being itself; and the anthropomorphic elements usually associated with God are thus avoided.

Of course, such a conception of God would please not at all modern theologians like N.T. Wright, (1948 — ), and William Lane Craig, (1949 — ) who lament the Platonizing of Christanity, for it was Plato (427 BCE — 347 BCE) and the neo-Platonic Plotinus (ca. 204 CE — 270 CE), who focused in various ways upon the notion of a higher, self-determining reality with which we can be involved through our capacity for seeking to be guided by the objective Good, rather than merely by emotion or appetite. And it may be further asked why employ the designator God for this emerging highest reality? Is this not rather what Hegel designates as the Absolute and which is free of any implications concerning particular connections with traditional religions? Pascal, and Kierkegaard, and Martin Heidegger, (1889–1976), all rejected the God of the philosophers, the God of Descartes, as having little or nothing to do with the God that is worshiped by ordinary believers; but Hegel, who was very well-informed about traditional religion, believed his philosophy to capture that which religious believers actually care about.

When Hegel talks about human beings becoming more themselves by stepping back from their current desires and projects, he does not imply that they are focusing on a narrowly intellectual sort of functioning; again, it was Plato that pointed out that love necessarily has an intellectual dimension, a dimension of inner freedom or questioning, because love seeks what is truly Good for those that are loved, and thus love asks: what is truly Good? And further, Plato was at pains to demonstrate that inner freedom ultimately has to lead to love of others, for their capacity for freedom; so inner freedom and love, head and heart are not ultimately separable from one another; and Hegel, developing upon Plato’s thought, explains that inner freedom leads to love of others; attempts to be free independently of others necessarily fail, because by excluding others from what I am concerned about I define myself by my relationship to them, namely, the relationship of excluding them, and thereby I prevent myself from being fully self-determining; that is to say, from having inner freedom.

Freedom and love are so intimately connected, which is not to say that we must agree with others about everything, or endorse everything that they do; rather, we need to be able to see something in others that we can identify with, so as not to be confronted by something completely alien, which will always define us by this relationship rather than by ourselves. And the connection between inner freedom and love must operate on the level of God; who is fully self-determining because he/she/it is not defined by not being anything else, is intimately involved in every living thing, as its capacity for self-determination; an involvement that may be thought of as ‘free love and boundless blessedness’, simply because of its universal inclusiveness. As Hegel wrote:

‘The pure Notion is the absolutely infinite, unconditioned and free … Essence is the outcome of being, and the Notion the outcome of essence, therefore also of being’.


‘The Notion is, in the first instance, the absolute self-identity that is such only as the negation of negation or as the infinite unity of the negativity with itself. This pure relation of the Notion to itself, which is this relation by positing itself through the negativity, is the universality of the Notion’


‘The universal is free power; it is itself and takes its other within its existence, but without doing violence to it; on the contrary, the universal is, in its other, in peaceful communion with itself. We have called it free power, but it could also be called free love and boundless blessedness, for it bears itself towards its other as towards its own self; in it, it has returned to itself’.

‘Moving Water’, 1898, Gustav Klimt

The God of Hegel manifests a combination of justice and nurturing love, for all of us are included; the God of Hegel emerges from the world of finite things, gives to them the greatest reality of which they are capable; he/she/it is thus a creating God, and because such creating takes place throughout time, rather than only in the beginning, it certainly accords with cosmological and evolutionary theories concerning the history of the universe. And as free love and boundless blessedness the God of Hegel may be said to save his creatures, not through intervention in the world, or through something coming after; rather, the God of Hegel is omnipresent in the world, giving each of us the full reality and thus the blessedness of which we are capable; not a personal God, however, for a person is like you and me and is finite and something we could confront face to face; but if a person is a reality characterized by inner freedom, then the God of Hegel is personal in that sense, as personal as it is possible to be. And religion in the Hegelian way can be characterised as learning to know and to love this kind of person in every one of his/her/its manifestations.

That we devote ourselves to God is seen

In living just as though no God there were.


God is the perfect poet,

Who in his person acts his own creations.

- Robert Browning, ‘Paracelsus’, 1835

Guercino, ‘Ecce Homo’, 1647

‘God’s in His Heaven-

All’s right with the world!’

- Robert Browning, ‘Pippa Passes, 1841

To be continued ………..

Notes to ‘Finnegans Wake’ quotation:

1. kitten = a young cat (not full-grown); fig. applied to a young girl, with implication of playfulness or skittishness.

2. warthog = a swine of the African genus Phacochrus

3. predicable = that may be predicated or affirmed; capable of being asserted; and predicate (Grammar).

4. accident = Grammar. pl. The changes to which words are subject, in accordance with the relations in which they are used; the expression of the phenomena of gender, number, case, mood, tense, etc.; Obs. replaced by accidence.

5. follow suit = to play a card of the same suit as the leading card; hence often fig., to do the same thing as somebody or something else.

6. René Descartes.

7. go to the pack = to lose a (high) position, to ‘go to pieces’; and Mackirdy & Willis: ‘The White Slave Market’ 192: (quoting a ‘missus’ arguing with an American Consul trying to convince her to stop her traffic in American women to the East) ‘What will you do, Sir Consul — ‘follow suit,’ ‘reneague,’ or ‘go to the pack’?’

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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