Personally I find it not at all impossible to entertain the fancy that all our experience, that of self included, is part of the dream of a Demiurge, that all of it
shall dissolve/And like this insubstantial pageant faded,/Leave not a rack behind./We are such stuff/As dreams are made on, and our little life/Is rounded with a sleep
—not our sleep, but that of the Demiurge. I cannot refute that hypothesis, and I find it possible to contemplate it without intellectual turmoil. I am equally unable, no doubt, to refute the notion that my primary assurance is of myself, and that my awareness of the world about me is secondary and derivative. But I cannot contemplate that hypothesis without intellectual perturbation of the profoundest kind—a perturbation with is the deposit of all the acrobatic feats by which philosophers from Descartes to Kant have worked out the implications of that hypothesis and tried to avoid becoming entangled by it in manifest nonsense.
One of the most remarkable paragraphs in Merleau-Ponty’s essay on Montaigne is this, the final paragraph in the section on Montaigne’s religion, his Christianity.
What he retains of Christianity is the vow of ignorance. Why assume hypocrisy in the places where he puts religion above criticism? Religion is valuable in that it saves a place for what is strange and knows our lot is enigmatic. All solutions it gives to the enigma are incompatible with our monstrous condition. As a questioning, it is justified on the condition that it remain answerless. It is one of the modes of our folly, and our folly is essential to us. When we put not self-satisfied understanding but a consciousness astonished at itself at the core of human existence, we can neither obliterate the dream of an other side of things nor repress the wordless invocation of this beyond. What is certain is that if there is some universal Reason we are not in on its secrets, and are in any case required to guide ourselves by our own lights. ‘In ignorance and negligence I let myself be guided to the general way of the world. I will know it well enough when I perceive it.’ Who would dare to reproach us for making use of this life and world which constitute our horizon?
I am in almost complete agreement with this. (My disagreements should show through in what I am about to say.) One of the accomplishments of the paragraph is that it reveals Montaigne’s skepticism finally to be (what I am calling) Church-Man’s skepticism. Merleau-Ponty inscribes into the paragraph Montaigne’s lexicon of Church-Man’s skepticism: ‘ignorance’, ‘strange’, ‘our lot’, ‘enigmatic’, ‘monstrous’, ‘question’, ‘answerless’, ‘folly’, ‘secret’. Montaigne’s skepticism has an epistemic side, and so can avail itself of failures to know of a standard epistemic sort, and subsequently use those failures to humble our pretensions to certain (forms of) knowledge. This is one form of ignorance and one use of it relevant to Church-Man’s skepticism. But Church-Man’s skepticism centers on existential, not epistemological, ignorance: on not-knowing classified best as ‘alienation’ or ‘restlessness’ or ‘dissatisfaction’. This skepticism is not one that construes religion, Christianity, as providing solutions or as yielding a self-satisfied understanding. It construes religion as acknowledging mysteries, acknowledging our monstrous condition. Its questioning is justified, then; as questioning of a mystery, it remains answerless. (Not all answerless questioning need dehort.) This is Christianity’s vow of ignorance. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. A familiar passage; but not often enough reflected upon. It stresses asymmetry: I now see God’s face through a glass, darkly. God now sees my face, face-to-face free of any darkling glass. (A strange one-way mirror that has only one side.) Now I know in part, I know partly. God now knows in total, He knows totally. We long for symmetry. Our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.
And of course we will have to guide ourselves by our own lights—but we need remember that not every light we count as ours is one we lit or one we power. No one should dare reproach us for making use of this life and world. What else do we have, here under the sun? As the Church-Man says (in Ecclesiastes 3):
So I became aware that it is best for man to busy himself here to his own content; this and nothing else is his alloted portion; who can show him what the future will bring?
In my days of baffled enquiry, I have seen pious men ruined for all their piety, and evil-doers live long in all their wickedness. Why then, do not set too much store by piety, not play the wise man to excess, if thou wouldst not be bewildered over thy lot. Yet plunge not deep in evil-doing; eschew folly; else thou shalt perish before thy time. To piety thou must needs cling; yet live by that other caution too; fear God, and thou hast left no duty unfulfilled.
We cannot help but to orient ourselves, or to dream of orienting ourselves, on something above the sun, some other side of things to which we make constant wordless appeal. And so fulfillment, surely our own, perhaps not our duty’s, is denied us. What we find here under the sun is not valueless, but it’s value is not full. We live amongst valuable vanities. We are fools in the farce who eschew folly. We are wonders, mysteries, to ourselves.
In Bk III, Montaigne’s skepticism is not something he has, an acquisition; it is something that he is, a state of being. Call it, if you will, a nisus (in F. R. Leavis’ sense of that term), a profound, unwilled set of Montaigne’s whole being. Unwilled: for there is no striving in it, no stretching, in particular no self-assertion or desire to exalt himself; it is ripe with a joyful tranquility. It is a nisus toward the total truth. But there is no hurry, no hurry; hurry would slow him down. He fondly and patiently contemplates himself and his life and life. Each essay is a new elucidation of our human being. He writes out of a prodigious lucidity, exhibiting himself to himself (and so exhibiting us to ourselves) across a living width of aspects.
He writes under the sign of Socrates. Socrates’ labor (think of the Oracle and of his understanding of it) is to dismantle double ignorance: the state of those who think they know but do not know. Simple ignorance, simply not knowing, typically need not be considered vicious. Its remedy is most often obvious and requires only time and application. Double ignorance is vicious; in it, simple ignorance teams with pride. Socrates attacks double ignorance and scorns the consequences of attacking it, drawing wisdom and courage from unknown deeps in himself. His highest hope is to attain to a genuinely humble mind–where the humility is simultaneously and wholly epistemological and moral. He hopes this for his interlocutor as well. Thomas De Quincy writes,
Without hands a man might have feet and could still walk: but, consider it, –without morality, intellect were impossible for him; a thoroughly immoral man could not know a thing at all! To know a thing, what we can call knowlng, a man must first love the thing, sympathize with it: that is, be virtuously related to it. If he have not the justice to put down his own selfishness at every turn, the courage to stand by the dangerous-true at every turn, how shall he know? His virtues, all of them, will lie recorded in his knowledge.
Socrates’ elenchus targets unacknowledged ignorance; to accept aporia is to be humbled both epistemologically and morally. Is accepting aporia enough to qualify as a skeptic? Well, say what you will. I deem there is no reason to refuse that title to someone who accepts aporia. Notice that, like everything else, accepting aporia has its conditions. Crucially, someone who accepts aporia recognizes that he has bottomed out, bottomed out in knowledge, bottomed out in pride, and is now ready to go on. Aporia ends nothing, except perhaps an episode of conversation; in reality, it is a beginning. Its valence is positive, not negative; the sun is rising, not setting. Aporia marks the moment when we come to see that what we are contending with is a mystery, not a problem. —If this be skepticism, what more can be said about it? It is a skepticism that is turned against worldly wisdom, not a skepticism that is a form of worldly wisdom. By the standards of worldly wisdom, Euthyphro knows and is rightly proud of what he knows. By the standards of worldly wisdom, Callicles knows and is rightly proud of what he knows. Socrates will not judge or be judged by those standards.
Montaigne’s Bk III essays are skeptical in this way, this Socratic way. To read the essays is to become Montaigne’s interlocutor. The essays are designed to create aporia in the reader, and to bring about its acceptance. To almost quote John Berryman:
Wif an essay of Montaigne’s in either hand
We are stript down to move on
The work of the philosopher consists in assembling reminders for a particular purpose.
If one tried to advance theses in philosophy, it would never be possible to debate them, because everyone would agree to them.
The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something–because it is always before one’s eyes.) The real foundations of his enquiry do not strike a man at all. Unless that fact has at some time struck him.–And this means: we fail to be struck by what, once seen, is most striking and most powerful.
Thompson Clarke has been much on my mind, particularly his distinction between the plain and the pure (the philosophical). According to Clarke, a sentence like “I am awake, not dreaming” has a plain use that can be exhibited thus: Imagine a scientist experimenting with soporifics. He has been using himself as subject. As he tests the various soporifics, he makes notes to himself in his journal. At one point, after awakening and shaking off his druggy lethargy, he begins a journal entry by writing, “I am awake, not dreaming.” For Clarke, in the situation as so described, “I am awake, not dreaming” is something that the experimenter knows; in the situation, the written sentence is “implained”, and the experimenter’s knowledge is plain knowledge. Clarke believes that the sentence, so situated, is an example of what Moore is defending when he defends common sense. (I am muting certain details in saying that.) But the obvious problem here is that the implained sentence, regarded as expressing knowledge, seems to express knowledge that is impure, too dependent on its situation to be such that, in expressing knowledge, it expresses something genuinely philosophically substantial, independent, something that could satisfy the deep intellectual need displayed in the problem of the external world. But the sentence that could express that is a twin of the plain sentence, i.e., “I am awake, not dreaming”. On this pure understanding of the sentence, it means whatever its constituent words make it mean, wholly independent of any non-semantic practices. The experimenter in soporifics does not know the sentence on that understanding; he knows plainly–not purely. The experimenter’s plain knowledge, compared to the promise of pure knowledge, looks restricted, or, as Clarke’s puts it in memorable phrase, there is a “relative ‘non-objectivity'” about the experimenter’s knowledge. If he knew that he was awake, not dreaming, and knew it purely, then his knowledge would be absolutely objective.
I present all of this not because I want to trace the mazeways of Clarke’s paper. I present it because I hope it offers an orientation on PI 127-9. Here’s a sketch.
Start in the middle, with 128. Notice that Wittgenstein is not saying that the theses advanced in philosophy cannot be debated because everyone agrees to them. Rather, he is saying that we cannot really advance theses in philosophy. When we try, we fail, because what we “advance” never turns out to have the (grammatical) features internal to a thesis–it would not be debate-apt, it would not be controversial. But that creates at least two questions: (1) Why might we take ourselves or be taken to be advancing theses? (2) What might we actually be doing? It is important to bear in mind as I answer that I judge Wittgenstein here to be thinking about someone who is concerned to philosophize in Wittgenstein’s way, not just in any old way.
(1) I reckon that the words we call on as we philosophize can be understood either plainly or purely. And it is a standing temptation to understand those words purely, not plainly. So understood, of course, our calling on those words would be our advancing theses, we would be saying something debatable, controversial. Some will say “Yea”, others “Nay”. But when we philosophize in Wittgenstein’s way, our contribution to our engagement with our interlocutor will take the form of plain words. So understood, the words will not say anything debatable, controversial. They will simply not be theses. Again, so understood, everyone will agree with them. –Still, there is the danger, since the pure saying of the words is, at the level of the words themselves, indistinguishable from the plain saying (they are twins), it will always be possible both for us and our interlocutor (undeliberately) to “gestalt shift” into the pure. If we do so, however, we leave Wittgenstein’s way of philosophizing. This sort of reading of 128 seems to me to help with 127–as indeed I believe it was intended to do. A reminder is plain. Nothing pure can function as a reminder, as Wittgenstein is thinking of it. If what I assembled, taking myself to be assembling reminders, were pure, I would instead have assembled theses, advance them. But reminders are matters of recall, not of advance. If what I offer you as a reminder is debatable, I have failed in the task assigned in 127. Wittgenstein once said that nothing he wrote in PI was hard to understand—what was hard to understand was why he wrote it. Right. There is going to be a difficulty of staying in the plain, both for ourselves and our interlocutors. What we are doing will, from one familiar angle, only seem worth doing in the name of ‘philosophy’ if we migrate to the pure. It is hard to see why anyone would assemble reminders of the sort Wittgenstein has in mind, hard to see how so doing could have any relevance to philosophy. (As if I tried to settle the debate about the external world by producing my grocery list.) That bring us to (2).
(2) So what are we doing. Well, we are implaining ourselves and (we hope) our interlocutor. We are assembling reminders for the purpose of implaining our interlocutor. We remind so as to reveal to the interlocutor the distance between where he believes himself to be and where he actually is. In the face of the twin sentences, with their divergent understandings, the interlocutor can see that he or sh has a forked understanding, divided between the pure and the plain. To bring his or her understanding back into agreement with itself, the interlocutor needs to integrate either plainly or philosophically. But to do so philosophically, he or she must be able to stabilize the pure understanding, to make clear what the words he or she calls on them say given their clinical isolation from the entire range of non-semantic practices. Maybe that can be done; maybe not: at any rate, each attempt must be met in its particular straits of exigency; there are, I suspect, too many too various strategies for attempting to make clear what the words called on mean purely for there to be any ahead-of-the-moment response to them all. To integrate plainly is to renounce the pure and to want from the words called on nothing that their relation to the assembled reminders cannot allow them to have, nothing that cannot be intelligibly projected from the assembled reminders. But that is not all: fully to integrate plainly is to come to rest, to peace, even if only momentarily, in the plain. It is to come to struck by the very plainness of the plain, by our own plainness. It is to see how the very homeliness and familiarity of the plain allow it to be the foundations of our inquiries, despite our inability normally to see it functioning so. It is to see the plain as what is most striking and powerful. But that is still not all: fully to integrate philosophically is to see the plain as what is most striking and powerful, all the while still seeing it as plain, all the while refusing to transfigure the plain into the pure. Doing this would not be a matter of quickly and gestaltly shifting back and forth but would instead be the actualizing of a specific (cultivated) capacity to be awed by the humble, to find the sublime in the everyday. If we could do this, the plain could satisfy our deep intellectual need. But we would have made it so by rotating the axis of our examination.
I recall Chesterton’s words from Orthodoxy:
How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it? How can this queer cosmic town, with its many-legged citizens, with its monstrous and ancient lamps, how can this world give us at once the fascination of a strange town and the comfort and honour of being our own town?
Merleau-Ponty engages one of the most difficult ideas of the essay very near its beginning. He writes of Montaigne:
Self-consciousness is his constant, the measure of all doctrines for him. It could be said that he never got over a certain wonder at himself which constitutes the whole substance of his works and wisdom. He never tired of experiencing the paradox of a conscious being.
Having written that, he turns directly to the task of differentiating Montaigne’s understanding of conscious being from Descartes’. Montaigne’s understanding is as follows:
At each instant, in love, in political life, in perception’s silent life, we adhere to something, make it our own, and yet withdraw from it and hold it at a distance, without which we would know nothing about it.
Merleau-Ponty terms this adherence and withdrawal, consciousness’ acceptance and alienation, consciousness’ bondage and freedom, “…one sole ambiguous act…” Descartes understands conscious being differently. For him, consciousness is not one sole ambiguous act, but rather a pure act: it does not adhere, accept or become bound. It is all withdrawal, alienation and freedom.
Montaigne does not know that resting place, that self-possession, which Cartesian understanding is to be. The world is not for him a system of objects the idea of which he has in his possession; the self is not for him the purity of an intellectual consciousness.
Later in the essay, Merleau-Ponty again contrasts Montaigne and Descartes:
Descartes will briefly confirm the soul and body’s union, and prefer to think them separate; for then they are clear to understanding. Montaigne’s realm, on the contrary, is the “mixture” of soul and body’; he is interested only in our factual condition, and his book endlessly describes this paradoxical fact that we are.
I take all of this differentiating to be internal to understanding Montaigne’s skepticism. But before I say anything more about that, and I will by and by, I want to say a little about the differentiating itself. What exactly is Merleau-Ponty describing, what sort of distinction is he drawing? The answer seems to me to be in the phrase “…one sole ambiguous act…” For Montaigne, as Merleau-Ponty reads him, to be conscious of something, say of a horse seen through the library window, is to be open to the world, to the horse, even adherent to the horse; the horse is a gift that we accept. There is no question that what we are conscious of is the horse. And, being conscious of the horse, there is a sense in which consciousness becomes the horse, incarnates itself in horseflesh. Yet, in the same act, consciousness withdraws into a kind of distance from the horse, alienates itself from the horse, is free of horseflesh, is utterly discarnate. But this is not to be decried: without the distance, the alienation, the freedom, we could not know the horse. “We are equally incapable of dwelling in ourselves and in things, and we are referred from them to ourselves and back again.” Although Merleau-Ponty puts this in a way that sounds as though it is successive acts, I take him to be describing one sole ambiguous act, and act in which we are all at once all in and all out. This is the paradox of conscious being. We are everything and nothing. We are Gods in nature; we are weeds by the wall. We are not these by turns, but simultaneously, our conscious being is at each moment one sole ambiguous act. Montaigne never got over a certain wonder at this, and no wonder. Montaigne’s consciousness is in one sole ambiguous act a becoming and a knowing; and each requires the other while also being capable (abstractly) of cancelling the other: to simply become would be to fail to know; to simply know would be to fail to become. By becoming, we are in a world; by knowing, we find ourselves in that world. But strangely, again paradoxically, our finding ourselves in the world requires that we not be where we are in the world. “To be conscious is, among other things, to be somewhere else.” Somewhere else, of course, contrasts with here, i.e with where I am.
For Descartes, consciousness dwells in itself; consciousness is a resting place. It possesses itself–but that is all it possesses, since its ideas are crucially creatures of itself. It is not tied to things, adherent to them. It remains pure, wholly self-involved. (This understanding of conscious being is in part responsible for Cartesianism being a gap-displaying method.) The world of Cartesian consciousness is a system of objects kept by God in the right sort of relation to its ideas. Cartesian consciousness is all light within; all darkness without. The Cartesian walks by reason and not by sight. He has the key to the world. Montaigne (like Pascal, according to Merleau-Ponty) understands himself as interested in a world he does not have the key to. For Montaigne, the world is a motley of things of things making an appeal to consciousness, and consciousness in response turns outside while it also faces inside. The lightness and darkness of Montaigne’s consciousness is a crazy plaid, thrown over inside and outside alike. Opacity is as much an inside thing as an outside thing.
As a result, achieving self-understanding cannot be circumspectly rotating the oculus mentis around its clean and well-lit place. It is rather self-questioning, a dialogue with self in which the being who answers is at least partly opaque to the being who asks, and the being who questions must wait for an answer, “…a questioning without which reason’s purity would be illusory and in the end impure…” Purifying reason requires self-questioning, not merely “visual” self-inspection. It happens over time, not all at once, and it never results in any final purity, but must be done again and again, day after day, as Socrates did it in the Agora, and once, outside Athens’ walls, under a tree with Phaedrus. “Phaedrus, my friend! Where have you been? And where are you going?”
For some of us, the impulse to philosophize is bound up with a realization of our broken world and our patchwork lives. But among those of us for whom this is true, there is a further division: for some of us, the breaks and the patchworks are problems, something to be solved; for others of us, they are mysteries, something that we live through. Marcel famously distinguishes problems from mysteries; I am using his distinction—but I will not try here to provide a full account of the distinction, rather only an anticipatory sketch. I need the sketch because it will aid me in my continuing reading of Merleau-Ponty’s “RM”. I will say a bit about how momentarily.
Central to Marcel’s distinction is this: a mystery is something whose true nature can only be grasped from the inside; no objective statements can be made about it from outside, for it is our situation, ours to live through. We cannot get outside of it. A problem has no inside/outside contrast, so to speak; it is something I confront, something I find complete before me. I can therefore, as Marcel puts it, “lay siege to it”. A problem is an object before me, inert; it is “voiceless”. I can take an interest in it or not, but whether I do or not is a matter for my unconstrained decision. A mystery is something that presents itself to me; it “speaks”; I respond or I refuse to respond. A problem is always coordinate with a technique, a way of handling, treating, working on or solving it. A mystery transcends technique. Progress, as a notion, belongs to the problematic; is has no truck with the mysterious. We make progress on a problem as we come to know things of which we previously were ignorant. But the knowledge/ignorance contrast gets no real hold on a mystery; to the extent that it may seem to, each new acquist of relevant knowledge only to deepens the mystery.
One important result of this distinction is that it makes available a new term of philosophical criticism, namely the degrading of mysteries into problems. We might think of this as a form of metaphilosophical reductionism. Degrading is perennially tempting, because it allows us to normalize philosophy, to tame it. Often, we degrade without realizing it: we take something to have the form of a mystery while we deny it the power thereof. Degrading permits us to be philosophers by acquisition, by having a philosophy (if you know the passage, think here of Marcel’s joking talk of “Marcelism” early in vol. 1 of The Mystery of Being), instead of requiring us to be philosophers only by maintaining ourselves in relation to mystery (since you will know it, if you have been following the blog, think here of Merleau-Ponty’s distinction between teaching the absolute and teaching our absolute relation to it.)
I know that all this is far from clear, but I will continue to develop the distinction in later posts. For now, bear in mind that what we think of Montaigne the skeptic will be quite different if we take Montaigne to be so-called because of his response to problems or because of his response to mysteries.
Merleau-Ponty starts “RM” with a pertinent reminder:
Skepticism has two sides. It means that nothing is true, but also that nothing is false. It rejects all opinions and all behavior as absurd, but it thereby deprives us of the means of rejecting any one as false. Destroying dogmatic, partial, or abstract truth, it insinuates the idea of a total truth with all the necessary facets and mediations. If it multiplies contrasts and contradictions, it is because truth demands it.
The reminder here is that there is a form of skepticism, Montaigne’s, that serves the demand of truth. As such, Montaigne’s skepticism is two-sided: it has its expected negative side (“nothing is true”) but also its unexpected positive side (“nothing is false”). The point of the two sides is not skeptical self-stifling, but rather an all-the-more gladsome servitude to truth. Dogmatism, partiality, abstraction all ill-serve the truth, providing only one facet among many or excluding required mediations. Think of this as skepticism with a finally positive valence, a skepticism that approaches truth by various refusals of truths.
As I mentioned before, in his “In Praise of Philosophy”, Merleau-Ponty insists that great philosophers thematize ambiguity, but that their so doing “contributes to establishing certitudes rather than menacing them”, and so he distinguishes between good and bad ambiguity–the one, I take it, establishing, the other menacing, certitude. What Merleau-Ponty says about Montaigne’s skepticism concretizes the claim about thematizing ambiguity. In destroying dogmatic, partial or abstract truth, Montaigne thematizes good ambiguity, an ambiguity calling for nuance, mediation; an ambiguity indicating the shape of the total truth.
Montaigne contradicts himself, when he does, out of the extremity of his servitude to the truth.
The first and most fundamental of contradictions is that by which the refusal of each truth uncovers a new kind of truth.
This sentence is the nervus probandi of the Merleau-Ponty’s introduction to “RM”. Notice that Merleau-Ponty here describes (materially) metalinguistic negation. (Laurence Horn, who has done the most to clarify this form of negation, understands it as a metalinguistic device for registering objection to a previous utterance on any grounds whatever (including even the way it was pronounced). In the thanks-footnote to his classic article from 1985, Horn provides a gracious and humorous example of the phenomenon: after mentioning the folks he is indebted to, he notes, “Their contributions were not important–they were invaluable.”) I understand Merleau-Ponty to see Montaigne’s negations as informed by a recognition that a particular utterance is dogmatic, or is partial or is abstract. That utterance is then negated on the grounds that it is either dogmatic, or… This is the way in which Montaigne’s refusals of truths “uncover a new kind of truth”, where “new kind” does not mean that we have, as it were, shifted from a truth-predicate at say, the zero level, to one at the first level (and so on) but rather that we are moving from a partial truth to a less partial truth–and the partial truth is not negated in the sense that it is false, but rather in that it is partial. This shifting can be seen not only at the level of particular lines of Montaigne’s essays, but even in the essay’s basic structure, in the way paragraph follows paragraph, shifting from the partiality of the previous paragraph to a subsequent paragraph that renders what is being said less partial. The earlier paragraph is not to be refused totally, but rather refused in the interests of the total truth. A formalist example: If I say “It is not exactly incorrect to say that p”, I do not mean that It is correct to say that p but I also do not mean It is correct to say not-p. Rather, saying “p” stands in need of further saying, of a further less partial saying, perhaps; or, of one less dogmatic or less abstract. A new kind of truth is a less dogmatic or a less partial or a less abstract truth. (Some of you will recognize metalinguistic negation from its very common use in J. L. Austin’s work, where it informs not only the content of his presentation of, e.g., performatives, but where it informs the very style of Austin’s prose. Jean-Philippe Narboux has recently written a wonderful paper on this and related matters, “There’s Many a Slip between Cup and Lip: Dimension and Negation in Austin”.) Often, then, what take the form of contradictions in Montaigne are best understood as pairings of p and not*-p, its metalinguistic negation. This has an important shaping effect on Montaigne’s skepticism and his prose, and helps to reveal that it is, as Merleau-Ponty says, two-sided, insisting on facets and mediation, multiplying contrasts and contradiction, welcoming ambiguity as a helpmeet—because truth demands it.
Montaigne’s Book III essays are crossroads of skepticisms. As a way taking up Merleau-Ponty’s take on Montaigne’s skepticism, I want to say a little about the skepticisms that I do not find as such in Montaigne.
Cartesian Skepticism. I certainly do not mean by this that there are no moments of epistemological skepticism in Montaigne. There are. But they are not Cartesian, as I understand Cartesian skepticism. Cartesian skepticism incorporates a method, first and paradigmatically exampled in the Meditations. The crucial phenomenological feature of Cartesianism—namely the gap it finds between itself and the world—is the residue of the method. I do not mean that the gap is methogenic, in Marvin Farber’s term, i.e., an artificial and properly discountable effect of the method itself, one overcome not by solving it within the confines of the method, but enlarging the conception of method, so that the feature vanishes, much like certain optical illusions do when we allow ourselves to get up and walk around the source of the illusion, instead of staring fixedly at it. No, I am not claiming that the Cartesian’s gap is methogenic. But I do want the connection between the method and the gap to be clear: the Cartesian method is a gap-displaying method. But in Montaigne, even in his moments of epistemological skepticism, no gap yawns. And, even more clearly, there is little if any method of any Cartesian sort in Montaigne’s moments of epistemological skepticism. We need to understand such moments; but treating them as speciations of Cartesian skepticism will not help us.
Pyrrhonian skepticism. Montaigne favors epistemic modesty but he is not advocating epistemic chastity, an epistemic policy of withholding of assent (whether it is withheld generally or only in the face of a particular class of propositions). One reason why disentangling Montaigne from Pyrrho is tricky is that Montaigne’s skepticism permeates him, permeates what he takes to be an artful, and so happy, life. Call this the existential demand of Montaigne’s skepticism. Pyrrhonism makes its own existential demand. (Cartesian skepticism makes no existential demand. In fact, in the argumentative economy of the Meditations Cartesian skepticism not only makes no existential demand, but it is crucial that its making an existential demand is not fully intelligible.) The state that the Pyrrhonian seeks to cultivate, call it a state liberated from the coils of dogmatism, differs from the one that Montaigne seeks to cultivate, although he is no fan of dogmatism. I will investigate that difference when I turn to characterizing Montaigne’s skepticism positively.
A few more preliminary matters.
I had the good fortune, a few weeks ago while in Bordeaux, to visit Montaigne’s Chateau. I have venerated the man and his work for many years. That I visited while taking part in a small conference devoted to Thompson Clarke’s “The Legacy of Skepticism”, and so a conference devoted more broadly to the problem of skepticism, made the visit reverberate existentially even more than it would have. I guess you could say I was vulnerable to the call of Montaigne in a way I was unprepared for, even though I was excited to go and expected the visit to be meaningful.
At one point I stood in Montaigne’s library, described by him in considerable detail late in “The Kinds of Association”. The library’s ceiling was openly crosshatched by large, rough beams, into which Montaigne had carved his favorite sayings in Greek and Latin. The first beam in the central section of the ceiling bore, “Per omnia vanitas”, the second, “Quantum est in rebus inane” (the title of this blog). I hardly exaggerate when I say that this blog began in Montaigne’s library, as I stood beneath those beams to take a photograph. Various seeds of ideas I have carried a long time, many planted long ago by my teacher, Lewis White Beck, during countless mornings over coffee, watered by Thompson Clarke and the conference, were given the increase by Montaigne and his library. I am still—obviously—working to find a way to say something about what began growing that day and am still jealously guarding its continued growth. It is always dangerous to speak, to write, too early: but sometimes speaking, writing, is itself necessary to find your way to what you have in you to say. (Don’t folks talk to plants to make them grow?)
A Montaigne essay is a field of interest. (Emerson learnt this from Montaigne.) It is a field of interest in which he participates disinterestedly. The field of interest has a focal object (now concrete, now abstract), and Montaigne writes out of an intent absorption in that object. It is Montaigne’s profound interest in the focal object that makes possible his disinterestedness. This is crucial. So often the focal object of Montaigne’s field of interest is himself; that does not forestall disinterestedness. Montaigne drives his essays forward by means of a sustained willingness to re-encounter his focal object; one look does not suffice, he vets first impressions. The instinct authority of the focal object obliges his experience—but the focal object does not reveal itself fully or declare the whole of its authority at any single moment of experience. Montaigne will suffer contradiction or the appearance of contradiction rather than to disoblige his experience. All this makes writing about Montaigne hard. He writes what he writes where and when (in the essay) he writes it, addressed to whatever his focal object happens to be. Quoted outside of that essayistic location, outside of that address to the focal object, what Montaigne has written is not clearly what he has written. Sentence after sentence seems designed for citation. But it is unclear any can survive it. The fish that glinted multipotently beneath the water, in rainbow extravagance, is in one sense the same fish that lies in bleak grey contortion on the wet deck. But is it in every sense the same fish? (Emerson will push this phenomenon of quotable unquotability even further in his own way, as will Cavell in his own, different way.)
What do we want from a proper response to epistemic skepticism? To answer, I will press into service wonderful words from (more or less) Virginia Woolf .
That such a response would be above all things delightful; that it would add spring-heels to our boots; that it would fire the cold skepticism out of us and make the world glow in lucid transparency before our eyes…