Stoic disintegration in Philosophy and Literature.

Primary version of this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker’s Weblog.

‘Stoic’ ethics and reason (the position that reason is sovereign, is sovereign over the self, and is tested in living) is both reaffirmed and taken apart in the 16th and 17th Centuries. This can be seen in Montaigne and Descartes; Shakespeare’s plays and Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Descartes seems to parallel Cervantes in Discourse on Method, Part I when he refers to the fantastic stories that people may believe in enclosed in the world of books

But I believed I had already given enough time to languages and even to reading ancient books as well, and to their histories and stories. For talking with those from other ages is the same as travelling. It is good to know something about the customs of various people, so that we can judge our own more sensibly and do not think everything different from our own ways ridiculous and irrational, as those who have seen nothing are accustomed to do. But when one spends too much time travelling, one finally becomes a stranger in one’s own country, and when one is too curious about things which went on in past ages, one usually lives in considerable ignorance about what goes on in this one. In addition, fables make us imagine several totally impossible events as possible, and the most faithful histories, even if they neither change nor increase the importance of things to make them more worth reading, at the very least almost always omit the most menial and less admirable circumstances, with the result that what’s left in does not depict the truth. Hence, those who regulate their habits by the examples which they derive from these histories are prone to fall into the extravagances of the knights of our romances and to dream up projects which surpass their powers.

Descartes refers to the knights of romances and their influence on those who give too much importance to old fables and histories. Paying too much attention to such old books is like travelling away from our own country too much (this from Descartes who spent his life in the Netherlands, Bohemian and Sweden, rather than France). It is useful to travel so that we can compare customs, but if we travel too much we forget our on country and don’t belong anywhere. The reading of old books may take us away from the home of our own time. The interest in the value of comparing customs may come from Montaigne, though for Montaigne such knowledge comes from reading and writing at home, and sometimes from meeting people in France. The emphasis on journey into the past, and its dangers, marks a deep sense of the difference between past and present. A difference great enough that to be in a past time for too long is too become alienated from the present, and from our own mind.

Accidentally, or not, Descartes seem to describe the premiss of Don Quixote, the crazy poverty stricken minor aristocrat who reads so many books of chivalry, he thinks he is living in such a story full of magicians and giants. In this we see the breakdown of the ‘Stoic’ ideal of the sovereignty of reason, a sense that unreason is something pressing in on us, which is something Descartes deals with in the idea of the deceiving demon. With that thought, Descartes tries to push back into some deep core of the sovereign reason of the self, going well beyond the Stoic sense of self-regulation through reason. The defence of Stoic reason is just as much a recognition of its breakdown as a defence. Once reason is pushed back into this inner sphere of absolute rationality, it is losing its contact with the philosophy tested by how we live life. Descartes appeals to reason as an ethic of life, but that disappears in the purely internal struggle of mind to exclude deception.

Montaigne had already started this disintegration of ‘Stoic’ ethics and reason exploring itself. For Montaigne, reason does not just reflection on reason, or lead the will and the passions to a proper place under reason. Reason reflects on itself as something subjective and embedded in passions and will. The point becomes to understand the self as subjective self, and to understand others in their subjective selves better.

Pascal at the beginning of Modern Philosophy

Primary version of this post, with visual content, is at Barry Stocker’s Weblog.

The question of where modern philosophy begins is clearly not answerable, There’s always an earlier precedent for what someone has said, or a later really significant step beyond archaic residues, But let’s at least not just passively assume that modern philosophy began with Descartes. Even in Descartes’ time, Antoine Arnauld pointed out precedents for in Augustine for Descartes’ Cogito, in his ‘Fourth Objection’ to the Meditations on the First Philosophy (fourth of five ‘authorised’ objections to the Meditations printed with Descartes’ reply as an appendix). Of course it was Arnauld that Pascal was defending from his religious enemies, in The Provincial Letters. Søren Kierkegaard pointed out the paradoxes around saying that philosophy became modern in Descartes, as if philosophy was not claiming to be atemporal, and as if it could be reinvented again from nothing, in Johannes Climacus. In Being and Time, Martin Heidegger suggested the idebtedness of Descartes to his contemporary, the late Scholastic Francisco Suárez, somewhat messing up Descartes’ claims to have put the Scholastics in their place. Kierkegaard’s point rather undermines the discussion I have proposed, but I think Kierkegaard appreciated that we have to periodise; as always he wanted to show the inherent paradoxes of knowledge, and the absurdity of some of the formulations of Descartes’ place.

It could be Suárez, it could be Francis Bacon, it could be Montaigne, no doubt there are other contenders, so why Pascal?

1. Pascal might be the first to really give a sense that the human individual grasps itself as alien to the universe.

2. Pascal might be the first to give the sense that human nature is contradictory (between passion and reason, between reason and the senses, between mind and body), and not in a way which can be resolved by balance, moderation, or the sovereignty of reason.

3. Pascal might be the first to break with Antique notions, still very present in Montaigne and Descartes, of moderation, balance, and tranquillity, as achievable and as guiding principles for ethics and rationality.

4. Pascal might be the first to give the sense that human individual grasps itself as a concrete, particular existence preceding description or any particular perception.

5. Pascal might be the first to give a really strong sense of how different the universe is after New Science from older conceptions, when he talks about infinitely large and small, for example.

6. Pascal might be the first to give a really strong sense of humans as alien to nature.

7. Pascal may have taken a big step in scepticism beyond his predecessors. There are various ways in which Pascal picks up on sceptical elements in Ancient philosophy, and in Montaigne and Descartes. But he gets beyond the sense the earlier scepticism always has of offering a cure for illusion in a healthy life style, Scepticism is traumatic in Pascal and tied in with the trauma inherent to human existence. For Descartes scepticism cannot affect actions.

8. Pascal’s Wager might be the first bit of economic reasoning about action, an account of the trade off of benefits and costs in believing in God. It’s missing the point to think this argument is about proof of God’s existence or proof of the grounds of faith. It theorises choices and actions as guided by calculations about costs and benefits, though it looks at the conscious level it hints at the power of that at the habitual level, because the wager is about how you form a habit of belief.

9. Though Pascal takes the idea of ‘mystic foundation of law’ from Montaigne, he really creates the idea that law is absolutely and inherently unjust and violent in principle, not just in application, as I suggested in Sunday’s post.

Kierkegaard’s Epistemology

I’m including some Kierkegaard in an Introduction to Philosophy course, where I concentrate on questions of knowledge. Kierkegaard is not obviously a reference for Epistemology for most people, but I believe he made an important contribution. My teaching is drawing on Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments and on Johannes Climacus or De omnibus dubitandum est, and that’s what I will mostly refer to here.

Kierkegaard against Descartes and Epistemic Scepticism
Kierkegaard questions the method of doubt in philosophy. He contrasts Cartesian doubt with the ‘wonder’ with which the Ancient Greeks regarded the world. Descartes claims that philosophy begins with doubt. Kierkegaard’s reply is that doubt in Descartes is only possible after philosophy has begun. Descartes’ method of doubt casts doubt on previous philosophical positions. Wonder better describes a pre-philosophical attitude of curiosity and questioning with regard to the world. Descartes’ claim, or implicit claim, that modern philosophy begins with doubt, leaves two unanswered problems: what was philosophy before doubt? From where did the method of doubt originate? In general the idea of philosophy as the appearance of pure doubt in the mind, leaves finite consciousness in a confrontation with the absoluteness of pure doubt. Consciousness cannot grasp such an abrupt intrusion of an external absolute. That is another reason why we need to begin with ‘wonder’. With regard to general positions in Epistemology, Kierkegaard is against scepticism. It should follow that he rejects Foundationalist attempts to find pure foundations, beyond doubt, for Epistemology.

Kierkegaard against Hegel and Epistemic Coherentism or Internalism: Definitions
A lot of what Kierkegaard writes in many texts is directed against Hegel. Where Kierkegaard talks about Hegel, he is also referring to earlier Rationalism, particularly Spinoza. We can also take him to be referring to Kant and to the more recent phenomena of Coherentist and Internalist Epistemology; and Analytic Hegelianism. Coherentist Epistemology argues that the criterion for there being a state of knowledge, is that a set of beliefs cohere with each other. Internalism develops from this position, because it argues that there is knowledge where is agreement amongst inner beliefs. Donald Davidson’s paper ‘A Coherence Theory of Truth and Knowledge’ is probably the best known argument for Coherentism in recent philosophy. Hegel could be taken as a forerunner of Coherentism, certainly the Preface and Introduction to the Phenomenology of Spirit are open to that interpretation. Hegel is not so clearly an Internalist, because he takes consciousness is general as what knows. The earlier Fichte (first and second editions of the Grundlage der Gesamten Wissenschaftslehere, mistranslated into English as Science of Knowledge) might be a better example of an Internalist in German ıdealist philosophy, a he takes the ‘I’ as a starting point for philosophy. We might also think of recent ‘Analytic Hegelianism’ as a kind of Coherentism (thinking particularly of John McDowell and Robert Brandom).

Kierkegaard against Hegel and Epistemic Coherentism or Internalism: The Critique
Kierkegaard asserts that objective knowledge must be a contradiction. What he is referring to here is knowledge as something outside subjectivity. Since it must be the subject that knows, what is know cannot completely stand outside subjectivity according to Kierkegaard. An object of knowledge is known by subjectivity and therefore cannot be absolutely objective. It mus tbe an object for a subject, though that should not be taken to mean that Kierkegaard is a Solipsist. He is an anti-Solipsist since he shows how the subject can have knowledge, if not absolutely objective knowledge. Coherentism is contradictory because we cannot enter the Coherentist circle of mutually supporting beliefs from outside. The beginning of Coherentist Epistemology cannot be epistemic since it does not already have a set of mutually supporting and connecting beliefs. There cannot be a entry into the Coherentist circles accept by weakening the criterion of Coherentism that there should be a complete set of strong mutually justşfying beliefs. Hegel was aware of this problem, as can be seen in his Prefaces and Introductions, where he announces the Preface of Introduction cannot be part of the system. He leaves open the question of why there is a Preface or Introduction. This will not do for Kierkegaard, it is the subject that knows. Hegel gets into the same problem as Descartes: knowledge is such an absolute it is not possible to understand how to enter it, and it is not possible to understand how one contingent consciousness can come into contact and union with it.

Kierkegaard’s Epistemic Alternative: Realist and Subjectivist
As was pointed out above, the early Fichte could be taken as a proto-Internalist. Indeed Fichtean has been critically examined by a major Analytic philosopher, RobertNozick as contributing to the internal understanding of the ‘I’. I hope to return to Nozick and Fichte at a later date. Fichte was certainly very important for Kierkegaard, and Kierkegaard paid exhaustive attention to the internal reflections of consciousness. He also pays great attnetion to similar aspects in the work of other German ıdealists, as in theConcept of Anxiety, where he develops Kant’s account of the inner traumas free will in Religion within the Bounds of Reason and Schelling’s development of that account in the Essence of Human Freedom. Should we see Kierkegaard as an extension of Fichtean Internalism? Kierkegaard strongly criticises Fichte in his first book, his dissertation on The Concept of Irony. The context is irony in literary aesthetics. The starting point here, and in Kierkegaard’s later work is an Ironic Subjectivism, in epistemic terms Internalism. However, this is not enough for Kierkegaard.
The Paradox. Like the method of doubt (and foundationalism), and Coherentism, Fictean Subjectivism runs into paradox. The paradox is good for Kierkegaard, it is the passion of paradox. The point though is to make a ‘leap’ beyond the paradox. It must be emphasised that the phrase ‘leap of faith’ is never used and that the leap is a twist in dialectical reasoning rather than an irrational unmotivated jump in to the beyond. There must be a dialectical move to surpass paradox, because the concepts must change. The paradox is never left behind, the existence of the paradox and the surpassing of the paradox belong together. Kierkegaard’s Epistemology is Subjectivist. It is strongly Subjectivist, because it is based on a double reflection, in which reflective knowledge reflects on its belief that something is the case.
Time. However, Subjective consciousness escapes from the isolated moment of Subjectivity because that double reflection can only be grasped over time, in a moment known as the leap, as the reflection on the paradox that subjective knowledge is not knowledge of the objective. That movement in time establishes the self as existing over time as well as in moment to moment. The self is aware of something permanent in relation to itself, indepedent in relation to itself, but which is within it What is known is Real though Subjective. It does not disappear in a moment because it can be the object of double reflection, and subsequent indirect communication. It is only grasped through those movements. If what is known endures over time, it is Real and can be known to others, and we can communicate this even if only indirectly.