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Category Archives: Augustine

Augustine’s Own (Anti-)Private Language Argument

An Origin of Wittgenstein’s Private Language Argument?

I stumbled upon this proto-Private Language argument, even shorter than Wittgenstein’s. The more that I read Augustine’s De doctrina christiana, the more I get the feeling that Wittgenstein indeed had read this text fairly closely (I see many parallels in thought, including the tantamount notion that words are things defined by their use). These traces of familiarity make his vast misreading of Augustine at the beginning of PI all the more consternating:

Finally, the thousands of fables and fictions, in whose lies men take delight, are human devices, and nothing is to be considered more peculiarly man’s own and derived from himself than anything that is false and lying.

Milla denique fictarum fabularum et falsitatum, quarum mendaciis homines delectantur, humana instituta sunt. Et nulla magis hominum propria, quae a seipsis habent, existmanda sunt, quam quaeque falsa atque mendacia.

§39, Book II, De doctrina

One might not immediately recognized Wittgenstein’s Private Language argument here, but I provide the Latin because it may help. Augustine is speaking about the nature of signs and their necessary classification. He begins the paragraph with pictures and statues which he describes as superfluous to the truth of God (having in mind the arts of pagan Rome and Greece one supposes), and then in the cited passage he seems to have then turned to the myths and stories that go around these figures, narratives and tales. The passage ends with a nod to the useful significations of the sexes in dresss, and then the human systems of weights and measures, stampings and coins.

But what is not to be lost is the exact nature of the disqualification of the substance of human ficta et fabulae. Looking closely, there is nothing to a greater degree the propria of men. That is to say, particular to, peculiar of, but more importantly, the property of, or even especially the private property of men, than these narrative deceptions. And the reason for this is that men have them “a seipsis”, though themselves, to themselves. They are spun from, or as the translation above says, derived from, men themselves. They are, for Augustine, something like man’s Private Language, something that has its origin within the sphere of the human and a circulation solely among the human. But this is the kicker, this recursive privacy is due to their very mark of falsity and deception, their untruth. Augustine sets up an extreme, which at the limit posits a falsity working at the vector origin. That which men have in and through themselves as the sole cause is through the very nature of its privacy, or deprivation, false. (He elsewhere defines evil as a privation.)

Wittgenstein though has in mind not the story of how Zeus chained Prometheus, but the inner dialogue that is often assumed to be privately going on in someone’s head, not in English or German, but in some untranslatable form, utterly and categorically, private. Taken on as well are the private “objects” of such an imagined or subtly assumed language, whether they be private sense data of the world, or inner experiences such as a pain or a pleasure. Right here I want to concentrate upon the Beetle in the Box aspect of the Private Lanaguage argument. To repeat Wittgenstein’s own reductio ad absurdum:

Now someone tells me that he knows what pain is only from his own case!-Suppose everyone had a box with something in it: we call it a “beetle”. No one can look into anyone else’s box, and everyone says that he knows what a beetle is only by looking at his beetle.-Here it would be quite possible for everyone to have something different in his box. One might even imagine such a thing constantly changing.-But suppose the word “beetle” had a use in these people’s language?-If so it would not be used as the name of a thing. The thing in the box has no place in the language-game at all; not even as a something: for the box might even be empty.-No, one can ‘divide through’ by the thing in the box; it cancels out, whatever it is.

§293, Philosophical Investigations

Falsity and the Inner Beetle

Perhaps now we can see the parallel in argumentation. Because Augustine marks the falsity of human fabula through the very privacy of their origin, the same can be done to the supposed Private Language which Wittgenstein argues against. To draw the parallel explicitly, the beetle in the box is merely an insubstantial fabula in terms of reference. That is, because the word “beetle” has a function within the discourse of these imagined people the f actuality of the state of the beetle inside our heads (whether it be a sense datum of some kind of representation of the world or a pain, there is no fact of the matter of its state), ultimately plays no role in the justifiable functionality of the word, its public life. Thus the privacy of the imagined beetle is as Wittgenstein argues, “crossed out”, as a function of the truth of the discourse. The intersubjective (public) nature of discourse provides that any inner language that a person has a se ipso, in and through himself alone, will be marked by the very limit of falsity: when ceasing to make sense to others or oneself, one’s private objects simply dissipate as objects. As long as the person is using the language correctly, and can tell the difference between “getting it right” and not (which requires external criteria), this truth function of the language makes it not a proprium  of the man alone. Our thoughts can be translated, knowingly.

Further, as a point of interest, Augustine’s vector of falsity falls right across the register of our modern praise of originality. Something that has its origin solely  in the genius of a person, authored only there, made up, is only so by virtue of its falsity. The way that we conceive of the human subject as “cut off” in various positive ways often characterized by their independence and creativity (not to mention “taste” or commercial desires) is linked to this notion of the self as the origin of precious determinations. Our esteem of the Picasso, the Mozart is founded upon a sense of private invention, what we call “originality”. But what would be an originality so complete so as to be utterly private and unsharable? The very sharability of products of genius belie a certain communicability and therefore sharing of origin. Perhaps the ultimate falsifier, the schizophrenic, in the sense that mental events become unreadable, is taken to be utterly private. But we know that this is not so (for we have Schreber’s incredible account, and Artaud, and Holderlin and so very many others). So what is the ontological status of something that is only, as Augustine’s says, a “proprium hominis”? Perhaps we want to say,  just that feeling of hesitation that Joyce might have between a word and then another, that uncrossable ford, that ephemera of pace – but wait, we have shared it now, something of it, a bit (the absolute category collapses). In the end, something of the ontological status of a thing results from its lack of its privacy, until ontology itself fades as privacy increases.

Spinoza also takes up this notion that the privacy of the mind – insofar as it is seen to be cut off from the world that it is an expression of – exhibits imaginary knowledge which is fragmentary and confused…pictures on pictures. These false ideas he says are false only in the sense of a privation (something ultimately traceable back to Plotinus through Augustine’s appropriation of Neo-Platonism). Their partiality becomes an expression of their impotence to act. The utterly unique idea (private) is the utterly impotent one. And the strength of an idea is founded upon its public, that is, communicable nature. So it follows for Spinoza that even the most confused idea or imaginary relationship, insofar as it has something positive about it – the reality it has – has such not due to its falsity but rather its proportion of adequacy.

There is nothing positive in ideas on account of which they are called false. E2p33

Falsity consists in the privation of knowledge which inadequate, or mutilated and confused, ideas involve. E2p35

A Braid of Genetic Privacy

I am not so sure how comfortable I am with the categorical foreclosure in this line of reasoning, which is to say, there is some sense in which I do feel that there is Private Language (one wants to say private distinction, or distinctions which are recursively organized). But this is nothing more than the historical substantiality of genetic progression, which in Spinoza would be simply the reality of the modes, and in Augustine perhaps the reality of the fall. There is a sense in which when we are translating others indeed there is a horizon of rational holism which follows the truth/ontology argument that all three philosophers present. If you are thinking something, or even feeling something,  it is our mutual engagement with the world and with each other which makes the origin of this “something” not a private thing solely of the person. Its very status as something depends upon this mutuality of coherence, cause and origin, conferring complete ontology to it (and supporting all three arguments). But there is a different sense in which each person is a genetic unfolding of experiences and distinctions in time, one and then the other. This configuration through its very difference from my own (or the general consensus of others) is what presents its ultimate value (and perhaps danger). Here, the “origin” is not truly only in and through the person, but a braiding of a particular line of historical developments and the mutuality of world, onto which a distinct line of expression is fed back. These distinctions, their tempo’d unfolding of differences which constitutes an difference in itself, are the portion of the originality of expression which is valued, no aspect of it in principle untranslatable and knowable, the totality of it lost to time (and not subject).

Example: A man tells a story about a young girl caught in a parallel universe with white rabbits or Red Queens, and the ontology of it shines through. The originality serves as origin somehow through the sharing of origin. Should it have been the contingent or creative change of a Red King and not a Red Queen (a difference we might want to attribute solely to the privacy/decision of the author), this factuality is a ‘nothing’ without the relation to the rest of the piece, and the rest of the words and images in use. It becomes an insubstantiality, a difference without difference, an evaporating falsity, until there is a communication of differences. The origin of the difference becomes parsed between the history of the genetic author who “decided” it, and the great wealth of internal and external determinations, the subsuming author but a piece, a difference among differences.

Heidegger: He Who Doesn’t Enjoy God

Not a Tool

I’ve run into a wonderful article which elucidates Augustine’s and Davidson’s theories of discourse in terms of each other,  Stephen R. Yarbrough’s “The Love of Invention: Augustine, Davidson, and the Discourse of Unifying Belief,” one which I want post something of substance soon. But today it comes to me, through Yarbrough’s explication of Augustine’s De doctrina, that Heidegger’s is a world where he uses everything, but doesn’t enjoy God (perhaps too obvious an observation, but I think it has subtle consequences). We know that Heidegger was influenced by his early study of Augustine, but it is Graham Harman’s uncovery of the hidden objects of Heidegger “tool-beings” that really lead me to think in this way. Yarbrough brings out that in De doctrina everything in the world is something to be both enjoyed and used, but only one thing is only to be enjoyed, and not used, and that is God. In a provisional sense, the entire world is full of tool-beings (which we enjoy and use), but there is only one thing that is not a tool-being, only to be enjoyed, God. And it is this that makes the entire use/truth of signifying discourse function. It grounds it, and makes it immanent. This is not something I”ve thought through, but more a morning thought worth tracing, the intersection of Graham’s eternally isolated objects falling back into their own darkness, and Augustine’s signifying world. Heidegger, the thinker that does not enjoy God.

I’ll have to look at De doctrina  more closely, and become more familiar with Graham’s objects, but something to be pursued. Comments or paths welcome.

[Addendum, Graham responds: But one possible difference is that for me, God would be the ultimate example of a "tool-being"- not as a useful pragmatic instrument who helps us more than anything else, but as an especially stunning example of a withdrawn entity.

And I exchange: But Graham, that would be a kind category mistake, at least that is how Augustine, and possibly Plotinus, would like to say. It would be like saying, well, I kinda see this object and that object, but I can’t see the Light. Because God/Light, in this metaphor, is the only thing that is not truly “Looked At” (that is it is by category, the only thing not used — tools being used), it would be a mistake to talk of it as being withdrawn. In a certain sense, it is the only thing NOT withdrawn, because it is not an “object”. As Plotinus tells us, don’t look “by” light, look “with” light.

This is also a large problem in trying to interpret Anselm’s Ontological Proof. God is not a thing, but the means of things, one could say.]

Wittgenstein’s Abuse of Augustine’s “making/doing the truth”

Wittgenstein famously begins his Philosophical Investigations  with a quote from Augustine’s Confessions, in Latin no less, which is supposed to reveal a hidden “picture” of language that was damagingly influential across the centuries of Western philosophy, an influence that goes unabated until Wittgenstein theraputically provides us with a new picture, more than 1,500 years later. A seductive story if their ever was one. The problem is that it is quite likely that Augustine did not hold such a “picture” of language, and that Wittgenstein’s snap-shot method of interpretation does not capture at all the fullness, or even sense, of Augustine’s conception of language. Wittgensgtein wants to say that Augustine sees language as fundamentally a naming process, as essentially designative, something of an over-simplification, and in so doing fails to see the consitutive role of truth, the theoretical role of God, creation and incarnation in an expressive vision of language.

I had been discussing this over at Methods of Projection, in response to the site’s  inspired attempt  to reconsile Wittgenstein’s interpretation with Augustine’s actual position on language, via Hacker. Below are some thoughts on the overall conceptual mistakes that Wittgenstein makes in a failure to read Augustine with com-prehension, perhaps in a pursuit to ground his own Tractatus  endeavours across the centuries. These thoughts flow from Wittgenstein’s admitted attempt to separate out the purely ritualistic (and expressive) from actual theory, between which the analytical idea of “picture” seems to float.

A first quotation comes from Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Frazer. In his attempt to separate out mere symbolic expression found in magical ritual and “false pictures” in a pure categorical fashion, he refers to Augustine’s calls to God:

“Was Augustine mistaken, then, when he called on God on every page of the Confessions?
Well – one might say – if he was not mistaken, then the Buddhist holy-man, or some other, whose religion expresses quite different notions, surely was. But none of them was making a mistake except where he was putting forward a theory.”
(“Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough” )

This may explain why Wittgenstein failed to take into account Augustine’s reasoned positioning of God unto the very powers of speech and the use of signs, both in the immediate context of the passage he cited, but also in the breadth of reference to language throughout the Confessions. For instance, when Augustine questions the very capacity for sign-use to explain what is going on in the expression of will, calling to God, “Is anyone to be his own artifex?” (1.6.10),  just a few paragraphs after the cited passage, are we to read this not as a “mistake” in Augystine’s reasoning, but rather part of a simply ritualistic, symbolic God-calling expression which simply does not put forward a “theory”?  It seems that the position of God in Augustine’s conception is not for Wittgenstein “theoretical”, it is not part of the all important “picture” of language.

(Concordantly, one wonders if Wittgenstein had taken to interpreting Anselm’s so called Ontological Proof in the Proslogium, if he would have been able to parse out the many appeals to God from the very content of those appeals, or the substance of the proof itself. Somehow this parsing appears to be how he conceived the Confessions.)

Now this is an odd way of reading Augustine, if indeed Wittgenstein is thinking in this way, for the very purpose of the Confessions  is to confess the errors of his ways. Quite apart from the idea that the Hindu holy-man whose religion has different “notions” than Catholic Christianity is not a man in error, it is specifically the case that Augustine’s appeals to God (and the attendant notions), are part of his Confession of the mistakes, the errors of his Manichaeism. What is the Confessions if not a description and philosophy that works toward this very idea of moving from error to truth? Wittgenstein is right the confessional attitude is expressive and symbolic, but he does not see that just this expressiveness plays for Augustine a constitutive role in the nature of truth and communication, at the theoretical level.

James O’ Donnell makes the point quite well in his introdution to a much respected commentary on the Confessions:

“He who makes the truth comes to the light.” [cited at Bk 10.1] The truth that Augustine made in the Confessions had eluded him for years. It appeared before us as a trophy torn from the grip of the unsayable after a prolonged struggle on the frontier between speech and silence. What was at stake was more than words. The “truth” of which Augustine spoke was not merely the quality of a verbal formula, but veracity itself, a quality of a living human person. Augustine “made the truth” — in this sense he made himself truthful–when he found a pattern of words to say the true thing”

See how far such a comprehensive and linguistic interpretation of Augustine’s Confessions  is from Wittgenstein’s attempt to isolate out a “picture” of language amid confession itself. This process of picture isolation is part of a conception which distinguishes the sheerly expressive/symbolic, from the theoretical, finding in confession itself solely an irreducible gesture,

“The religious actions or the religious life of the priest-king are not different in kind from any genuinely religious action today, say a confession of sins. This also can be “explained” (made clear) and cannot be explained.” (“Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough”).

Clearly here Wittgenstein has in mind pure ritual (if there is such a thing, imagined to be empty of ideas or conceptions), like perhaps the actual act of going to a confession booth, yet given the proximity of the quote above to an initial reference to the Confessions,  it actually shows the instability of the category Wittgenstein is attempting, parsing sheer expression from all theory and idea. Counter to this segregation of empty, symbolic rite from theoretical meaning, we must say that Augustine’s Confessions  is indeed a “religious action” (at least as he conceives of it), but definitionally not one that can be separated out from the entire theoretical and linguistic expression of the self which Augustine carries out. The entire work is an expression. The searching for words, the searching for true words, creates a horizon of authentic expression for Augustine from within language, positioning what language itself, the use of signs, is; and it is only from within this horizon and personal arc that Augustine’s story of early thought and language can be understood.

Far from indicating a Slab language, where words merely correspond to objects, or even more a “system of commuication” which explains the whole of language (Philosophical Investigations, section 3), the aim of language is to “make/do the truth” and thus to “come to the light” (John). Augustine makes this plain at the beginning of Book 10, which O’Donnell had cited above:

1. Let me know thee, O my Knower; let me know thee even as I am known. [Cf. 1 Cor.13:12]. O Strength of my soul, enter it and prepare it for thyself that thou mayest have and hold it, without “spot or blemish.” [Eph. 5:27]. This is my hope, therefore have I spoken; and in this hope I rejoice whenever I rejoice aright. But as for the other things of this life, they deserve our lamentations less, the more we lament them; and some should be lamented all the more, the less men care for them. For see, “Thou desirest truth”[Ps. 51:6]. and “he who does the truth [ho de poiõn tên alêtheian] comes to the light.”[John 3:21]. This is what I wish to do through confession in my heart before thee, and in my writings before many witnesses. (Confessions)

Somehow Wittgenstein in his mind had turned Augustine’s call to God, “Let me know thee, O my Knower; let me know thee even as I am known,” into part of a call to God “on every page,” a substanceless reading, not seeing how “knowing” and being “known” are part of a reasoned constitutive of “making/doing” the truth through words. This is the wish of both the confession  in Augustine’s heart, an in the religio-linguistic action of the writings themselves. 

(Or would not such a call to God fall into Wittgenstein’s wide-sweeping category of Augustine’s calling to God? We cannot ever know, for Wittgenstein’s PI analysis is incredibly devoid of any additional textual reference, or even the clue that he has read into the context of the work or ouevre at all.)

Part of Wittgenstein’s deep misreading of Augustine’s early language (1.6.8) may also fall upon his perferred method of historical analysis. Aside from the general manner in which one examines historical texts through an understanding of the likely ideas or beliefs held by authors or actors and the social influences that may have lead to them, in a narrative of development, he favors a kind of “picture” theory of history, where one can simply look back in time and just compare these pictures discovered in texts and accounts:

“The historical explanation, the explanation is an hypothesis of development, it is only one way of assembling data…It is just as possible to see the data in their relation to another and to embrace them in a general picture without putting it in the form of an hypothesis about temporal distance.” (PO, p 131)

This precisely seems to be what Wittgenstein has done in his reading of Augustine’s infant learning of language, only to uncover a “picture”. He imagines that Augustine is putting forth a “picture” of language that is the same “picture” that he himself had when writing the Tractatus. Now, this is an interesting way to do philosophy, or to conduct a history of philosophy, or even study history itself. Wittgenstein feels that one can simply take snapshots of a text, and snapshots of another text (no matter how distant in time) and just see how they are the same. Now this is perhaps a helpful way to start  an interpretation of an ancient text, to notice similarities, but really the next  step is to see if these similarities bear out in context. Simply laying one passage upon another, like transparency photographs of faces, and seeing the resemblance, without looking at context is simply not the end of an analysis. The Kodak method of historical interpretation really is not a method at all, and seems that it is just this method that lead Wittgenstein to take a short passage of Augustine’s Confessions and expand it into a vast “system of communication” meant to explain all of language, leaving Augustine’s actual ideas about the self, language, incarnation and truth far behind. We might say, turning Wittgenstein’s analytical category upon itself,  Wittgenstein’s “picture theory” of historical text is a false, or at least deeply misleading, picture of history.

Slightly, Re-evaluating Descartes

The Flexed Lens of Hyperbolic Doubt, as it Imaginatively Focuses the MInd


Instead of seeing Descartes as the harbinger of the tremendous severing of the Body and the Mind, as philosophy can be thought to have suffered over the centuries that followed, there are more subtle readings that grasp the cohesive project that Descartes attempting, one in which the imagination is seen to play a role in rational understanding. Such a take remains critical, but at a level which is more nuanced in the historical contexts of his ideas, while understanding the breadth of Descartes’ vision of how things cohere.

An important if prospective conclusion in concert with Descartes’ re-evaluation is reached by Graham Burnett, as he places Descartes’ pursuit of hyperbolic lenses in tentative relation to the use of hyperbolic doubt (I find this connection to be brilliant):

Descartes’ greatest philosophical success lay, from his perspective, in a systematic investigation of the human mind and the perfection of cognitive operations those investigations promised; that human mind received, via natural light of reason, an instantaneous, clear, and distinct illumination, but only by means of interposition of another hyperbolic focusing device – hyperbolic doubt…

…In Gaukroger’s reconstruction of Descartes’ psychology [Descartes, an intellectual biography ], a quite elaborate extension of the hyperbolic (lens)/hyperbolic (doubt) analogy would be possible. In Gaukroger’s reading, the imagination mediates between the pure intellect and the realm of the senses, and the experience of cognition inheres in this intermediate faculty, which represents the content of the intellect and the content of the senses both as “imagination.” Where these two map onto each other the experience is that of “perceptual cognition.” As the project of hyperbolic doubt is abundantly imaginative, and as Descartes has insisted that the natural light of reason does not stream down from God but is within our intellects, it would be possible to argue that the imagination plays the role of the focusing of the hyperbolic lens, and receives the light emanating from the intellect, which normally enters the imagination confusedly, quickly distorted by the “blinding” profusion of imagery from the senses.

Descartes and the Hyperbolic Quest

Compare this conclusion to Augustine’s own Neo-Platonic conception of our own self-knowledge, Augustine whose “Si fallor sum” preceded Descartes “Cogito ergo sum”, and we can see the legs of this approach in relation to an pervasive conception of the divine:

For we exist and we know that we exist, and we take delight in our existence and our knowledge of it. Moreover, in respect of these three things of which I speak [a trinity of being, knowing and loving], no falsehood which only resembles the truth troubles us. For we do not make contact with these things by means of our bodily senses, as we do in the case of things extrinsic to ourselves…[in] these cases it is the images resembling the sensible objects, but not the corporeal objects themselves, which we perceive in the mind and retain in the memory, and which excite us to desire the objects…

City of God against the Pagans, Book XI, Chapter 24

The much defamed “doubt” of Descartes really is not so much a doubt for skeptical doubt’s sake, or even a doubt played as a pretense for the foundation of an augment; it rather acts as a kind of imaginary corrective to sense images and experience itself, a use of the imagination upon the imagination, something that focuses the mind on just what is most sure, under a conception that reason is something that both resides and connects. When seen in this way, the division of mind and the body becomes not only ludicrously joined by the pituitary gland, but also by the imagination itself.

Descartes Sans Homunculus!?

One might productively add to this John Yolton’s reconfiguration of Descartes’ project to be one of an immediate Realism, and Natural Philosophy. Here, the scholastic division of the sign’s two parts, that of its signfication, and that of its representation, promises to free up the cliched reading of Descartes as harboring the perverse theoretical imp of an infinity of homunculi buried inside the head. As David Behan points out, scholastic formal signs (ideas) can be read by minds entirely without awareness. Representation, per se, no longer becomes the standard for Descartes’ notion of knowledge. A Few Selections…

The being of an object of the mind is epistemic; it is (in a phrase that I picked up from Norman Wells) the being of being known. The epistemic rendering of “being in the mind” is an important shift from an attempted ontic transfer of an objects reality to a cognitive transfer. The explication of “existence in the mind” does not only occur in Descartes. Behan calls attention to a passage from William of Auvernue which employs the same language, “What it does mean is that it is in the soul according the mode of the being of the soul, which is cognitive”…

David Behan interprets Descartes’ brain motions as formal signs. In support of this interpretation, he refers to the scholastic tradition just behind Descartes, a tradition to which Descartes must have been exposed. As Behan explains, formal signs in that tradition are not themselves known, they signify without without or being aware of them. If we read Descartes’ suggestion of brain motions as signs in this way, the supposed need, which commentators are fond of insisting upon, for a code-reader or, as Wolf-Devine repeatedly says, a homunculus, does not arise…

As a mode of mind, an idea does not…make ‘something other than itself come into the mind’. If an idea represents or if,…the act of cognizing by means of ideas does the representing (the combination of act and idea), in that function, ideas are not ideas as such. That is, in that representing function, they are not modes of mind. I do not suppose that there are any ideas on Descartes’ account that are only modes of mind in the narrow sense I am suggesting. I simply want to distinguish their nature as modes of mind from their nature of function as objectively real. It is this objective reality that is in some cases (e.g. the idea of God, some physical objects) caused by something other than the mind. Ideas as objectively real (or the combination of act and idea) do not play a sign role: they simply are the objects, that which is known.

There is an interesting similarity in Descartes’ account of brain motions and ideas: both play two roles or have two function. Brain motions are both physical events and signs carrying meaning. The motions become something other than motion. Ideas are ideas and objects, modes of mind and the object known. In this secondary role, ideas are something other than ideas. Brain motions become signs to a mind. Signs must refer beyond themselves. Ideas as objects do not really refer beyond themselves on Descartes’ account: they are the objects known. Thus the relation or function of representation is not a signifying relation, signifying differs from representing. Both are necessary for knowledge and perceptual awareness. To represent is to be that which is represented. The combination of signifying and representing ‘gets the object into the mind’, that is, makes the object known.

John Yolton, “Response to Fellow Symposiasts” found in, Descartes’ Natural Philosophy

I think sometimes we moderns, (even we post-moderns), are in the habit of setting up our grand narratives. And in our story about the errors of our historic ways Descartes has come to play the conveniently villanous role that makes any good story worth telling. He plays this role in a curious way though, in particular in the form of the rather easily used and ubiquitous adjective “Cartesian”. We should watch just how satisfying this word is, how simplifying. It is tossed about in Philosophy of Mind and in so many other fields with remarkable reassurance. In regards to it, there is supposed to be a neat and tidy error – some want to call it a irrefutable sounding “categorical error” – which is consistently present in Descartes’ program, and ferreting out this error (or even defending it obstinately) wherever we may find it makes up a very good portion of our philosophical endeavors.

In such a perspective Spinoza can be of very good use for he represents a turning point just before Idealism took up and swallowed the Cartesian poisoned pill. Descartes severed the Mind from the Body, but Spinoza just would not let him. I do think that there is much to be said for such a broad brushing of philosophical history on the West, and even for the very useful distinctions which underpin it. But I also suspect that Descartes’ thought holds within itself much more subtlety and tension that is otherwise granted. Representation simply does not hold such a privledged, and pristine place in Descartes’ thinking about knowing. And in this way, Spinoza’s thought, in relation to Descartes, is perhaps more complex and sympathetic than we otherwise might suspect.

This does not make Spinoza’s thinking “Cartesian” – that adjective again ! how it works something like the words “Communist” or “Racist” - for I am not even sure how frequently we can be assured that Descartes is entirely “Cartesian”; but it does make the connections between the two thinkers more imbricated than a simple comparison of a position of Attributes affords. I suspect that in the grey penumbra of Descartes, somewhere in Descartes’ conception of the blind man’s cane, for instance, in the folds of his treatment of the Imagination, and in the signifying, homunculus-defying aspects of Idea, there are sweet-spots of affinity between the two that may be good to trace.



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