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For whom skepticism?

In Part Two of his Discourse on Method (I am using this edition), Descartes makes an analogy that I am sure does not originate with him, but which nonetheless I find quite intriguing. Descartes compares knowledge to architecture, though he does not introduce the comparison in this way.

Thus one sees that buildings undertaken and completed by a single architect are usually more attractive and better ordered than those which many architects have tried to patch up by using old walls that had been built for other purposes. (7)

No mention is here made of knowledge, but it soon comes out that that is Descartes’ target. Descartes wishes to set his own knowledge on firm foundations, and sees that to do this he will have to reject most of the collective knowledge around him. Why? Because, as “one will well understand,” “it is difficult to make things that are very finely crafted by laboring only on the works of others.” (7) If Descartes is to have, within himself, firmly established, well-founded knowledge, and if it is to be well arranged, he must labor at it himself, without building on the work of others.

Descartes is quick to insist that he is not advocating that, collectively, we tear down our knowledge and start anew. Even though our knowledge is like a city that has grown up over time, gradually expanding, without any central, organizing plan, just as it would be disastrous to raze the city and start anew, so too with our knowledge. Yet Descartes, even earlier, makes it clear that he is not advocating a general strategy, but rather is telling a sort of autobiography.

Thus my purpose here is not to teach the method that everyone ought to follow in order to conduct his reason well, but merely to show how I have tried to conduct my own. (2)

And he reiterates this later, in the context of his architectural analogy:

That is why I could in no way approve of those troublemaking and restless personalities who, called neither by their birth nor by their fortune to manage public affairs, are forever coming up with an idea for some new reform in this matter. […] My plan has never gone beyond trying to reform my own thoughts and building upon a foundation which is completely my own. (9)

What this reveals is that Descartes’ skeptical project is fundamentally individualistic. And of course, of course, the extremity to which he takes his individualism—to the point where he could build his knowledge on foundations entirely independent of the work of others—is a myth. But I think it not a terribly interesting myth, any more than it is interesting to point out to the devotee of Emersonian self-reliance that the self on which one relies is indelibly molded by influences remembered and unremembered. Emerson knows this as well as anyone, and Descartes, surely, knows it too.

For a long time I have more or less written off Descartes, my mind poisoned by a too eager, too undiscerning acceptance of American pragmatism—an encounter that has done me much good and equal ill, such that I cannot say on the whole whether it has been to my gain or my loss. I say poisoned because it created within me a caricature of Descartes as a ridiculous foundationalist whose project failed. Now I am sure his project does fail, at least in the form he put it forward, but in my recent re-encounter I have been struck by this individualistic tenor of his skepticism.

In a way, that may be the source of the pragmatists’ animosity to Descartes, for their philosophy, as I understand it, emphasizes the ineliminable sociality of knowledge, emphasizes inquiry as a social and not individual process. It is as if they read Descartes and took him to be recommending for society this skeptical method. At least, whatever the pragmatists themselves were doing, that is the imprint they left within me. But Descartes is doing nothing of the sort, quite self-consciously. He lets collective knowledge be and sets about work on himself. His skepticism is an individual project, and not a social one.

I have been digressing, but I think in a justified way, for the individualism of Cartesian skepticism is a sun supporting the orbit of many planets, and my thoughts have voyaged to each in turn. My central interest, however, is in the relevance of this Cartesian individualism today. Rereading the Discourse on Method these past few days is a case of good timing, for my thoughts had already been moving toward a consideration of the value of individual skepticism—prompted in part by my reading of Montaigne. Descartes has helped to crystallize them.

Individual knowledge and collective knowledge are distinct, more so today than in the time of Descartes. The total sum of human knowledge vastly outstrips what is to be found in any individual’s head—much of it, I suspect, resides only in books or journal articles, to be cited when needed, but otherwise out of mind. What does reside in a single individual’s head is a sliver, utterly insignificant, even if we consider the most knowledgeable people in the world. In terms of major effects in society, collective knowledge matters; individual knowledge more or less does not.

In the face of explosion of collective knowledge—which I admit I at times find quite alienating—what room is there for individual skepticism, of any sort? I think, in fact, that there is quite a bit. If one wishes to know a great deal, to keep up with new discoveries, and so forth, there is no end the resources by which one can do so, but the degree of specialization in the actual reports of experiments means that while one will be able to make true claims about what is going on in certain situations, one will not really know how those claims are evidentially supported, except in a cheap, toy way. Some have called the desire for such knowledge “low curiosity”—I do not wish to follow in this. But it is not for me.

It is for this reason that I think that there is a great deal of room for individual skepticism. If I hold myself to high standards as to what is to count as knowledge—even if my standards are not as high as Descartes’—then I must admit that what I know is negligible, a point in the face of all human knowledge. What standards? I would count myself as knowing only that for which I do not take on trust, that for which I clearly and deeply understand the reasoning that leads to it. I know what I have experienced, and I know a bit about William Sharp MacLeay—a 19th century entomologist on whom I am doing some research right now—but beyond that, I really know quite little.

What, then, of what I know on trust? For if I trust experts in particular fields, i.e. believe what they say, and if what they say is reliably true, do I not have justification for my beliefs? Yes, in a way, and whoever would have a great deal of knowledge must take solace in this line of argument. But I do not wish to relax my standards here. Rather, I would prefer to say that I know—because I have seen it firsthand—that this is what the experts say, without saying that I know not just what they say, but that what they say is so. This is a more or less “instrumentalist” way of taking expert testimony, and I cannot see that it does any harm.

Are there any advantages to this individual skepticism of mine—or, if ‘skepticism’ is the wrong word, this austerity of belief? Is it just a perverse exercise? I do not think so. For in fact I was somewhat misleading when I said that what is called “low curiosity” is not for me. In fact, I think it is my greatest vice, or one of them. I value knowing (with low standards) over discovering and understanding, and this stifles my thought. My individualistic project in regulating my own knowledge is an attempt to throw off these self-imposed shackles. It is my own method purely; I do not recommend it to anyone who does not belief she might find it useful.

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Skepticism at the margins VI: Descartes’ hateful demon

Descartes presented to the world the possibility of a malicious, deceiving demon as the ultimate argument for skepticism. Who is this demon?

I shall countenance two readings. On the first, the demon is the vehicle for Descartes’ skeptical point. It functions as a spring that lifts Descartes from a merely partial to a total skepticism. Call this the bloodless reading. As Aristotle notes about certain of the bloodless animals, they may be chopped into pieces and yet the parts may lead an independent existence. “But some bloodless animals and polypods can live a long time, if divided, in each of the severed parts, and can move in the same way as before they were dismembered. Examples are what is termed the centipede and other insects that are long in shape; for even the hinder portion of all these goes on progressing in the same direction as the fore-part.” [1] Descartes’ demon argument is a centipede, it may be chopped into pieces, analyzed, dissected, sewn back together, and still each part moves forward as before, until there is an endless literature of such centipedes. At some point it becomes unrecognizable that a demon was ever involved; perhaps now an envatted brain takes its place. It makes no difference, the centipede-parts crawl ever forward. So there is the bloodless reading. I do not wish to countenance it any longer.

The blooded reading is the more interesting of the two; let me revert to the great chain of being and call it the higher form. Here we take very seriously that it is a demon that disturbs Descartes in his meditations; we do not try to chop it out for fear that all life shall expire from the argument. For it is an emotional argument, motivated by fear—let us not make it pure and disinterested. Who is this demon, who gives Descartes such a fright?

We shall have to know a bit about demons. One sort of demon is the possessing sort. Demon possession is an involuntary interaction between a possessed human and a possessing demon; it ends with an exorcism which casts out the demon. [2] Claims of such possession were often fraudulent, so criteria for recognizing legitimate possession were required: (1) an ability to understand foreign languages, (2) feats of unnatural strength, (3) acting horrified in the presence of sacred objects, (4) seizures and convulsions, (5) clairvoyance. [2,3]

Descartes’ demon is not this sort of demon. His demon is malignant and deceitful, to be sure, but those demons, while they might deceive a poor girl into taking a demon for her deceased grandfather, would not deceive her about everything. [2] Demon possession was, by contrast, associated with the possession of impossible knowledge, not skepticism.

Let us look elsewhere for a model, then. Giordano Bruno offers a useful threefold taxonomy of harmful demons. [4] First are the deaf and dumb demons, which lack reason. They cannot hear or otherwise perceive threats or prayers; instead they are like brute animals. They cause injury without reason and without malice. Because they lack language, they cannot be banished, but they may be controlled by the proper ascetic techniques. Second are fearful, suspicious demons, which have language, but are unable to distinguish the possible from the impossible. They resemble the human disturbed by dreams—recall the steps of Descartes’ ladder to skepticism!—and may be banished with threats of death and fire. Lastly, there are the hateful demons. These demons are wise and reside in pure air, and they “freely distort all these things and play with humans by counterfeiting illusions of fear, anger, religion and such things. They understand languages and the sciences, but never make any firm assertions.” The result is no surprise: “And so these hateful demons introduce confusion and doubt into the human mind and senses.”

Now we have the tools to classify Descartes’ demon: it is the third type, a hateful demon, one that delights in deception in all matters. The possibility of possession by such a demon is sufficient to drive Descartes to skepticism, if only for a time—only until he banishes the demon. And by ‘possibility’ I do mean possibility, and not mere conceivability: Descartes is not merely countenancing a logical possibility, but a very real, very frightful possibility. Demons, in those days, were quite real. Incidentally, Bruno says nothing about banishing such demons. We seem to be left up to their whims. Descartes succeeds in banishing his demon only with the help of God—though we might wonder whether he succeeds, for, if we trust Bruno, hateful demons are adept at distortion even in matters of religion.

We could stop there; perhaps it would be wise to do so. But, at the risk of myself falling prey to a hateful demon who would deceive me in matters of religion, I want to raise a doubt. This doubt arises when we consider how Descartes introduces his demon. Descartes first considers that God might provide for him always to be in error. But surely, Descartes says, God would not do so, and so Descartes instead imagines an exceedingly potent demon. Very well. But Descartes says more: he says of this malicious deceiver that it gives him his being. But this is just the role of God: to create and sustain being. Descartes’ demon seems to be doing more than mere merciless toying with God’s creation. The demon itself appears as the creator. And if this is so, then Descartes’ worry runs deeper than the worry that he is possessed by a hateful demon. His worry is: What if God himself is demonic?

Seen as a hateful demon, Descartes’ deceiver gives us skepticism, but a skepticism that may be banished by God—putting aside for now our worries. I do not oppose this reading. But lurking beneath it, prowling the shadows, is a more sinister threat, that the very God who is supposed to save us from skepticism might be a demon—and now what hope is left? Who can banish God? This, then, is a skepticism that haunts the margins of skepticism itself. Descartes quickly stifles it in his text, but what does this God-demon care for his words? What recourse is there when it possesses us?

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

[1] Aristotle. 1984. On the Progression of Animals. Trans. A. S. L. Farquharson. In The Complete Works of Aristotle: the revised Oxford translation. Ed. Jonathon Barnes. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[2] Sluhovsky, Moshe. 1996. A Divine Apparition or Demonic Possession? Female Agency and Church Authority in Demonic Possession in Sixteenth-Century France. The Sixteenth Century Journal 27:4, 1039-1055.

[3] Walker, Anita and Dickerman, Edmund. 1991. “A Woman under the Influence”: A Case of Alleged Possession in Sixteenth-Century France. The Sixteenth Century Journal 22:3 535-554.

[4] Bruno, Giordano. 1998. On Magic. In Cause, Principle, and Unity: and essays on magic. Ed. Richard J. Blackwell and Robert de Lucca. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

A violence against reason: Bartleby versus human nature

2013/09/24 2 comments

As the readings for the seminar I am taking on the boundary between human and ani­mal nature have progressed beyond Plutarch, I have noticed an interesting trope used in several scholastic and Cartesian texts. After putting forward a position, the author condemns those who oppose it as being unable to rise above their imagination. This occurs in Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, Descartes’ Discourse on Method, and in Thomas Willis’ Two Discourses on the Souls of Brutes. (Of course, that it appears in these three readings, all part of the same seminar, indicates that it was likely widely used at the time.) All three texts at various points are concerned to distinguish what sets apart humans from the other animals.

The boundary, for each of them, is drawn along the boundary of reasoning: man has a rational soul, whereas the animal does not. In the case of Descartes’, this is shown by the uniqueness of language to humans. Willis’ treatise (at least the part I have read) is likewise concerned with the intellectual capabilities of the brutes, and finds them stopped short of proper reasoning. The power of rational judgment is denied to the animals. That is a faculty solely of the rational soul, which is unique to humans. What is granted to animals is imagination, a faculty incapable of reason. (Even Marin Cureau de la Chambre, who defends the thesis that animals reason, does so by arguing that the imagination has powers sufficient to be called reason—he nonetheless denies that animals have judgment.)

In this light, we can see that the accusation of being unable to rise above the imagination is an insult that cuts more deeply than is initially apparent. It is a denial of the ability to reason, and thus a denial of being fully human. It likens the accused to the animals, mute and arational.

Against this background, I want to look at the impact of Bartleby in Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener”. (I will use the Library of America volume containing Melville’s Piazza Tales; all page references are to this volume.) Specifically, I want to understand how Bartleby presents a violent affront to reason, and does so in a way that undermines the human/animal boundary.

Bartleby is, of course, the one who “would prefer not to”, and who in the course of the story progresses to the point of complete motionlessness. Bartleby’s sedateness, however, has tremendous, inflammatory effects on those around him. Indeed, as frequently as Bartleby is described as cold or “cadaverous”, the narrator describes himself as incensed, burning. How does Bartleby produce these effects?

To understand how Bartleby changes the humans around him, we must understand how they perceive him. One reason for this, which I hope to discuss further in a future post, is that there is something inherently idealist (metaphysically speaking) about Bartleby. This is seen in many ways; for instance, the first appearance of Bartleby at the law office of the narrator is described as his “advent” (636)—he does not exist before he is perceived. Furthermore, when he augments “I would prefer not to” with “I am not particular” (666-7), we can read a pun in the word “particular”: Bartleby is not a particular, physical object. Bartleby, in a sense, does not exist apart from being perceived.

What is most fascinating about how he is perceived, however, is that this perception is radically unstable. The narrator’s descriptions of Bartleby, his sense of who Bartleby is, never resolves itself, but instead cycles through a series of temporary, unsatisfactory resting places.

Perhaps most prominent among these is the sense that Bartleby is something inhuman. After the first instance of “I would prefer not to”, the narrator muses that he would have “violently dismissed him”, if only there had “been any thing ordinarily human about him” (643). Yet there is nothing human about him. This is shown starkly a few pages later when, after another instance of “I would prefer not to”, the narrator responds, “You will not?” and receives the reply, “I prefer not” (648). Bartleby does not will; he does something else, something strange: he prefers not. Yet we think to will is what is quintessentially human, the counterpart of reason. If Bartleby does not will, he is not human.

And indeed, Bartleby is described throughout as being many inhuman things. On two occasions, once by the narrator and once by Nippers (a copyist in the office), Bartleby is described as a mule. Yet another instance of Bartleby’s formula results in the narrator asking, “How? Surely you do not mean to persist in that mulish vagary?” (647), while Nippers more angrily yells, “I’d give him preferences, the stubborn mule!” (655). Here Bartleby is reduced to the animal; he is not human, but less than human. (This is, in part, because he is an affront to reason. I will return to this thought.)

Bartleby is also viewed as less than human in another way: he is “cadaverous” (cf. 650, but the word is rampant in the story), like a dead body. This stems from his paleness and sedateness: in both color and (lack of) motion he resembles a corpse (cf. also the “morbid moodiness” of 653). He is like a human body without a soul. Yet here there is an interesting contradiction. For the third inhuman way of perceiving Bartleby is precisely the opposite of the soulless body of a cadaver: he is the bodiless cadaver of a ghost. Upon being summoned, he appears “like a very ghost” (648), and, much later, he is seen “haunting the building generally” (666).

Lastly, there is also something divine about Bartleby, as is seen for instance when the narrator finds Bartleby in the office on a Sunday. Speculating about why he could be there, the narrator concludes, “Besides, it was Sunday; and there was something about Bartleby that forbade the supposition that he would by any secular occupation violate the proprieties of the day” (651). There is a sacred purity to Bartleby. Yet he is also devoid of divinity, likened to “the last column of some ruined temple” (658). He is not so much divine as a remnant of what was once divine, but has been abandoned by divinity. (He is even compared at one point to an “incubus”—663—though this sort of image of Bartleby occurs only once.)

Thus it seems clear that, whatever Bartleby is, he is not quite human. Wherever the boundaries of the human lie, Bartleby stands somewhere outside them. Yet the narrator cannot accept Bartleby as inhuman. Or, at least, he keeps returning to the attempt to treat Bartleby as human. After encountering Bartleby in the office in Sunday, and seeing this as an illustration of the “forlornness” of Bartleby, the narrator remarks, “The bond of a common humanity now drew me irresistibly to gloom” (652). This occurs again when Bartleby stops copying altogether, and the narrator is “touched” (656), an empathetic feeling.

This occurs even though the inhumanity of Bartleby is inescapable. Indeed, it is the very forlornness that evokes this common bond that, a page later, snaps it: “but just in proportion as the forlornness of Bartleby grew and grew to my imagination, did that same melancholy merge into fear, that pity into repulsion” (653). Despite this, the narrator cannot but treat Bartleby as reasonable.

And it must be stressed that to treat Bartleby as human and to treat him as reasonable are inseparable. Reason is the mark of the human, here. The attempt to treat Bartleby as human is often marked by the narrator’s attempt to reason with him. When the narrator is trying to be rid of Bartleby, he considers one strategy (that he has already tried and failed), then rejects it and “resolved to argue the matter over with him again” (660)—in short to reason with him. And later: “In a calm and serious tone, I commended the idea to his careful and mature consideration” (663)—again an attempt to reason.

If we look at what Bartleby is, however, what most characterizes him is that he is an affront to reason. Indeed, his very sedateness, his preferring not to, is “violently unreasonable” (645). This is the only accusation of violence leveled against motionless Bartleby: violence against reason. Needless to say, every attempt to reason with him, to treat him as human, fails. He is so offensive to reason that he even undermines the reasoning of those around him. In a telling passage, imagination and judgment are juxtaposed, when the narrator finds his judgment (i.e. his reason) incapable of understanding Bartleby’s “passive resistance” (646). The narrator instead leaves his imagination, his animal faculty, to dream up an explanation of Bartleby’s condition.

There is one charge that seems to stick to Bartleby: madness. He is a “demented man” (656), “a little deranged” (670). This charge I think accounts for all of the others, both his incredible inhumanity and the irresistibility of attempting to treat him as human. For if reason is what characterizes the human, then madness is something both human and not human. Plutarch, for instance, argues that dogs can reason on account of the existence of dogs that are deranged—one cannot be mad if one could not reason in the first place.

Yet in Bartleby his madness is even deeper than this. This comes out when we consider a passage in which the narrator commends himself on a brilliant plan to rid himself of Bartleby (it fails, needless to say). He says the plan must appear “masterly” to any “dispassionate thinker” (658). This is the standard image of reason: that it is dispassionate. Yet what has been emphasized, throughout the story, is that it is Bartleby who is dispassionate, and that this is just what sparks the passions of the narrator. In the narrator, reason and passion are inseparable, inextricably intertwined. In Bartleby, by contrast, he is perfectly dispassionate, the model of reasonableness. Yet he is mad. He exists at the point where madness and reason are no longer separable, where they run together, where the boundaries are blurred.

This is a function of Bartleby’s purity, and his purity shows up the impurity of everything human. Human boundaries are blurred not because pure madness and pure reason are inseparable (as in the case of Bartleby), but because what is human is inherently impure. The boundaries are blurred because everything is mixed up in everything else. One example will suffice to show this, though they can be multiplied. The narrator reflects on the commandment to love one’s fellow man, which he says “saved” him (661). He comments, “aside from higher considerations, charity often operates as a vastly wise and prudent principle […] Mere self-interest, then, if no better motive can be enlisted, should, especially with high-tempered men, prompt all beings to charity and philanthropy” (661). The divine foundation of human ethics is mixed up with “mere self-interest”, until one can no longer tell which is which.

With impurity, the boundaries are blurred; with purity they vanish. Such is the lesson of Bartleby.