Post-Cartesian Confusion

June 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

With cogito ergo sum René Descartes initiated a value system of thought onto being. It has irreparably altered notions of knowledge, allowing that

(a) “thinking” is the value of “being”
(b) knowledge for its own sake exists.

While we could certainly take the axiom for what it is, thought as an evidence of existence, to reverse its order would be to mistake the meaning. This happens often & implicitly. As the most common &, if for no other reason, important starting-point of much philosophy & natural science practice, such an error cannot be understated.

In The Tragic Sense of Life, Miguel de Unamuno draws attention to it most starkly, accusing Descartes of initiating the intellectual disregard of baser modes of being. Unamuno’s argument follows a simple strand: evolution, mental & corporeal, is a product of creatural survival instincts [what we, in society, call the will to perpetuate & keep the same]. All of our knowledge is sourced from this well-spring; adaptation & advancement are not spontaneous. Unamuno compacts this as, “While men believe themselves to be seeking truth for its own sake, they are in fact seeking life in truth” (40). Life is, by way of the survival condition, our sole value & commodity.

Let’s take vision as an example. The eyesight of many animals, humanity included, has been key to the progress of a species, usually for the purpose of hunting. Our case is different, although it must have begun with the same aim. People have been able to achieve unexpected things with the sense, most notably, study, evaluation, & art, all of which seem to have no immediate value for survival than their stimulation of brain cells. Intelligence has proven itself the single-most important upper-hand for humanity &, thus, the innovative uses of the eye played an important role. With industrialization, we have come to the point of technological evolution which hasn’t a dependency on time & persistence — except in the private life of inventors — for the race to be able to see what is minuscule or distant.

The danger of a growing mind is the weight of consciousness. Questions proceed as naturally as despair. In coming into itself, the being observes itself & cannot find resolutions.  “Doubt is commonly something cold, of very little vitalising force, & above all something rather artificial, especially since Descartes degraded it to the function of a method. The conflict between reason & life is something more than a doubt” (116). When the bestial in the despairing is put forward, however, the same urgency for truth that drives the sciences is found to be projected there by means of a spiritual anxiety.

The integrity brought to the latter by way of passion is important to Unamuno; it is the very marrow of his religious disposition & defence of suffering. The pursuit of such philosophic truths has often been called anti-intellectualist. His response would sound like this: “there is no proof that the true is necessarily that which suits us best. The identification of the true & the good is but a pious wish” (104). Rather than the connoted term anti-intellectualism — its acceptability a product of post-Cartesian confusion — one does better to conceive of this school as vitalist, always on the side of life without ever shuddering. The best a vitalist can hope to achieve in work is a description of the world as they know it or to make a study of anguish [or even a “self-surgery” (307)].

Aside from the religious disposition of the vitalists — which is not a requirement, after all, since the church can also be read as a force against life — there is a second trait which is distasteful to the rational mind. I mean the conception of “soul* [a]s nothing but the succession of co-ordinated states of consciousness” (95), or polylogic & potentiality. That is, thinking in ordered structures does not appeal to the vitalists as life’s sole value — their actions should not be able to be anticipated like a science experiment. They also hold true that no pursuit of knowledge is innocent. Of these, it is the latter that has greater currency today, scepticism of learning having become common practice.

Socially, multiplicity works by collective chaos; “this entropia is a kind of ultimate homogeneity, a state of perfect equilibrium” (131). The various self-identifying Is, accentuated today by the capitalist encouragement of individualization & specialization, are put in a shared dwelling & made indistinguishable one from the other by their sheer volume. “Religion is a transcendental economy & hedonistic” (305), Unamuno writes, exposing a common-ground between capitalism & catholicism in the reliance on individuality, especially through self-interest. Through a single consciousness, the entirety is to be surmounted.

As far as this philosophic vein is concerned, the polylogical is easy to embrace for “reason ends by destroying the immediate & absolute validity of the concept of truth & of the concept of necessity” (114). Reason is diminished by the deductions that nothing can be known, that facts require faith & may not be unchangeable, that we are little more than an extension of survival instincts creating threats for ourselves. What is true is what can act as true catalyst; “there is nothing substantial but consciousness” (159) in the end, forming a hypothesis of the ‘I think therefore I create’ type. This drastically alters the requirements of reading: context, intent mean nothing up against the reader’s perception. Such an evaluation is only partially valuable & insufficient for academia, which has a knack for trivializing idiosyncrasy. If I gave The Tragic Sense of Life such an interpretation, my evaluation could hardly go further than saying that reading Unamuno is like having a mosquito in your bedroom at night; it is frustrating & leaves only temporary marks unless allergic.


* “& it happens that the less a man believes in the soul — that is to say in his conscious immortality, personal & concrete — the more he will exaggerate the worth of this poor transitory life” (31). [It cannot but be a mistake to use the word soul without elaborating on it with a footnote or interjection of some sort. Here, we have both — the quotations are presumably self-sufficient.]


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