The Ocean of Illusion–A Few Thoughts

I was struck again a couple of days ago by the remarkable extended metaphor that Kant uses to open his “Phenomena and Noumena” chapter of CPR.  Here is a bit:

We have now not merely explored the territory of pure understanding, and carefully surveyed every part of it, but have also measured its extent, and assigned to everything in it its rightful place.  This domain is an island, enclosed by nature itself within unalterable limits.  It is the land of truth–enchanting name!–surrounded by a wide and stormy ocean, the native home of illusion, where many a fog bank and many a swiftly melting iceberg give the deceptive appearance of farther shores, deluding the adventurous seafarer ever anew with empty hopes, and engaging him in enterprises which he can never abandon and yet is unable to carry to completion.

Kant advises that, before setting sail on the ocean of illusion, we should take on last look at our map of the land of truth, asking two questions:  (1) Can we be satisfied with what the map discloses, indeed, are we not in fact compelled to be satisfied with it, since there may be nowhere else to settle?; and, (2) By what title do we possess even the land of truth, are we in fact secure against all opposing claims?  Kant takes the “Analytic” to effectually have answered these questions, but he thinks that reviewing a summary answer to them is worthwhile.

The summary is not so much of interest to me now.  I am more interested in the extended metaphor itself.  It is an icon of CPR.  Up to this point in the text, Kant and his reader have been mapping the land of truth, exploring it, surveying it and measuring it.  But now it is time to go down to the ship, to set keel to breakers–to go forth on the ungodly sea.  Now it is time to face illusion.  And we have no choice.  –What mesmerizes me is Kant combining the ideas that we are compelled to be satisfied with our island, that we do possess a clear title to it, and that we are nonetheless gripped again and again by hopes (empty and delusive though they will prove to be) of farther shores out across the enshadowed ocean, tempted by (ultimately idle) adventures.  To be compelled to be satisfied does not guarantee satisfaction.  (The peculiar fate of human reason!)  Against what I take to be the ground on which CPR is figure, namely against the prioritizing of the practical over the theoretical, we can see CPR as thematizing the Church-Man’s skepticism.  Reason provides only conclusions in which nothing is concluded.  That is a topic I will return to in subsequent posts.

(Kant’s extended metaphor also provides an icon of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.  But in PI, Wittgenstein and his reader are almost always sitting amidships, wind jamming the tiller, sailing into and then out of fog banks, up to and then away from swiftly melting icebergs.  He and his reader spend scant time on the land of truth.  They spend their days on deepest water, longing for shore leave, for a dry and homely ingle.  But real needs keep them at sea.  Being at sea and occasionally coming back home:  the rhythm of their lives.)

Kantian Skepticism and John McDowell

In an earlier post, I mentioned the distinction (treated most fully in Jim Conant’s paper) between Cartesian and Kantian skepticism.  I want to say a bit more about the latter, particularly in relation to John McDowell’s work.

When I first fell hard for McDowell’s work, back in my days at Rochester (I had somehow, I am now not sure how, managed to get hold of a bootlegged draft of Mind and World), I was both deeply enamored of and quite puzzled by McDowell’s response to skepticism.  I suppose now I would say that, at the time, I simply did not surely grasp the category of ‘Kantian Skepticism’ and so kept reading McDowell as if he were supposed to be responding, straightforwardly, to the Cartesian skeptic—and that made McDowell’s response to skepticism seem oddly non-responsive, full of mazeways that all dead-ended. But, as I said, I was also enamored of his response; it seemed somehow right despite my puzzlement at it. My gut seemed to get it; my head lagged behind.

What I finally came to say to myself was something like this:  “McDowell is simply unperturbed by skepticism, that is, about skepticism of ‘External World’ variety.  Maybe that is because, for McDowell, the action is somewhere else.  The illusions that worry him are not (call them) ‘illusions of sense’, but instead ‘illusions of thought’.  His skeptical worry seems somehow more entangled with spontaneity than with receptivity, although of course he withstands any attempt to treat those two as if they could be clinically separated.  It is as though McDowell has found a way to “gain the whole world” but only “by (potentially) losing his own soul”.  McDowell’s illusions of thought are not merely dialectical illusions, say, but are instead illusions that one is in fact even having a thought.  But if skepticism can penetrate that far (to the capital city, as it were), what does it matter if we manage to hang on sense-certainty (to distant villages)?  Aren’t we lost?  Even worse, what sense can be made of the ‘we’ who may be lost?”

I put forward these remembered musings not because they are of sustained interest, but because they do, it seems to me, contain a moment of interest for Kantian skepticism.  Just in case it seemed as though Cartesian skepticism were a game played for the highest possible stakes, along comes Kantian skepticism to show that it is possible to up the ante.  Anyone who—as I now think McDowell does—aims to use gains made responding to Kantian skepticism against Cartesian skepticism bets his bottom dollar.  But maybe that is the way it is with skepticism:  we can only win from it in proportion to what we are willing to risk against it.  There is no low-risk high-reward gamble with skepticism.

Logos, Tropos and Hamlet’s Ambivalence

I’ve got Hamlet on the brain, I guess.  I was thinking today about the wildly divergent claims Hamlet makes about human beings in the play.  At one point, very famously, Hamlet begins, “What a piece of work is man!”.  But at another point, less famously, he notes, “Man delights not me.” Is this just Hamlet’s antic disposition at work (or at play)? Or is there something else to say about it?

St. Maximus the Confessor in various works follows the Orthodox tradition of seeing something other than a mere parallelism in the Scriptural line,

Then God said Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness…

For Maximus, the image is one thing, the likeness another.  Human beings are made in the image of God—and, for Maximus, this is our essence, our Logos.  But whether we are in the likeness of God is not a matter of how we are made; it is rather a matter of what we make of ourselves (and of course we can make nothing of ourselves outside of (non-hypostatically) participating in God’s life, i.e., we can make nothing of ourselves without our Logos)—and what we make of ourselves is our Tropos.  Our Logos is what we are; our Tropos is the way we are, how we are.

It strikes me that we can use Maximus to gloss Hamlet.  In the vaunting passage, when Hamlet acknowledges what a piece of work we are, he sees our Logos.  In the deploring passage, when he expresses his disrelish of us, he sees our all-too-human Tropos.  For Hamlet, we are made in the image of God, yes; but we all-too-rarely manage even to come close to God’s likeness.


St. Francis de Sales:

Love is bittersweet, and while we live in this world it never has a sweetness perfectly sweet, because it is not perfect, not ever purely satisfied.

George Herbert (“Bitter-Sweet”):

Ah my deare angrie Lord,
Since thou dost love, yet strike;
Cast down, yet help afford;
Sure I will do the like.

I will complain, yet praise;
I will bewail, approve:
And all my sowre-sweet dayes
I will lament, and love.

The Church-Man’s Skepticism 2

I have added bits of poetry in the last couple of posts, one from Johnson, the other from Herbert, as further explorations of what I am calling “Church-Man’s skepticism”.  I suspect some may find my choice to call this “skepticism” as peculiar; perhaps “pessimism” or “cynicism” will seem to them to be more appropriate.  I have puzzled over those terms; I have felt, indeed I feel, their pull.  But I do not think they fit as well as “skepticism”.

I should admit that I use the term idiosyncratically.  I have learnt so to use it from Stanley Cavell and Thompson Clarke.  Cavell, developing a line of thought in Clarke’s work, insists that there is a truth in skepticism.  Now, the skepticism that Cavell and Clarke first are thinking of is more or less Cartesian external world skepticism, a skepticism that pictures the would-be knower as related to the would-be known in something of the way that the Rich Man was related to Lazarus:  between them there is a great gulf fixed.  The would-be knower has thoughts and those thoughts bear on the world, but the question is whether they bear on it in a way that makes them true.  As much as the would-be knower would like to feel the cool water-drop of knowledge on his parched epistemological tongue, he cannot.  His cognitive thirst cannot be satisfied.  Lazarus is barred from him.  But looming behind Cartesian external world skepticism is a larger and darker form of skepticism, Kantian skepticism.  That skepticism questions whether the would-be knower is rightly so-called; it questions whether the “would-be knower” so much as has thoughts that bear on the world; it doubts that the “would-be knower” can so much as produce items that could be truth-valuable.

I will say more about these two forms of skepticism in a later post; I will also say more to connect my use of the term to Cavell’s and Clarke’s in a later post; so treat what I have said so far as partial but I hope helpful background.  But I want now to consider what Cavell in one place (in The Claim of Reason) says is the truth in skepticism, namely that our relationship to the world is not primarily one of knowing.  Gloss: we do not secure a world to know or a world to talk about primarily by acts of cognition, specifically by acts of knowing.  Of course that is not meant to leave us ignorant of the world.  Rather, it changes the way in which we find ourselves as in the world.  We find ourselves in the world in our non-bodily circumstances, oriented away from our bodies, indeed from ourselves, and so away from our bodies as the sufferers or ourselves as the bearers of knowledge.  Finding ourselves in the world in this way makes problems of knowledge recede; they do not press us.  To reverse and amend Schopenhauer’s classic set of claims (near the beginning of vol. 1 of The World as Will and Representation): there is a sun; there is an earth; I do not know an eye that sees a sun or a hand that feels an earth.  But saying this does not solve, resolve or dissolve skepticism.  It simply shunts it aside, shuns it, crowds or reduces the space in which it lives and moves and has its being.  Put another way, this truth in skepticism will not satisfy the skeptic; it will not seem to him or her to capture the truth of skepticism. (As, indeed, it does not, if there is such a thing.)

But thinking about skepticism in this way allows us to remove ourselves from the primarily theoretical predicament of Cartesian and even Kantian skepticism and allows us to return our attention to our practical predicament, and to forms of skepticism that may arise within it.

Church-Man’s skepticism is primarily practical.  It focuses not so much on knowledge as it does on various other ways in which we are implicated in the world, particularly on the world as a scene of values, and of those values’ spheres of influence. Church-Man’s skepticism is not skeptical about our knowledge of those values, but of the valuability of the values themselves, of whether or not they are wholly satisfactory.  It questions not the reality of the values, or their (differential) availability, but rather their fullness (for lack of a better term).  This is neither cynicism, which would question, even deny, the reality of the values; nor is it pessimism, which would question, even deny, their availability.  It is a skepticism, practical or (as I said in an earlier post) existential. It does not deny that life, here under the sun, is livable or that life must deny the wise person any satisfaction. But it does understand that life as enigmatic; its meaning, sought here under the sun evades us–again, not as a theoretical insight, but rather as a practical reality.  Our problem is not ignorance:  it is restlessness.

The Pulley: George Herbert

WHEN God at first made man,
Having a glasse of blessings standing by ;
Let us (said he) poure on him all we can :
Let the worlds riches, which dispersed lie,
Contract into a span.

So strength first made a way ;
Then beautie flow’d, then wisdome, honour, pleasure :
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that alone, of all his treasure,
Rest in the bottome lay.

For if I should (said he)
Bestow this jewell also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts in stead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature :
So both should losers be.

Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlesnesse :
Let him be rich and wearie, that at least,
If goodnesse leade him not, yet wearinesse
May tosse him to my breast.

The Vanity of Human Wishes (first verse): Samuel Johnson

Let Observation with extensive View,
Survey Mankind, from China to Peru;
Remark each anxious Toil, each eager Strife,
And watch the busy Scenes of crouded Life;
Then say how Hope and Fear, Desire and Hate,
O’er spread with Snares the clouded Maze of Fate,
Where wav’ring Man, betray’d by vent’rous Pride,
To tread the dreary Paths without a Guide;
As treach’rous Phantoms in the Mist delude,
Shuns fancied Ills, or chases airy Good.
How rarely Reason guides the stubborn Choice,
Rules the bold Hand, or prompts the suppliant Voice,
How Nations sink, by darling Schemes oppres’d,
When Vengeance listens to the Fool’s Request.
Fate wings with ev’ry Wish th’ afflictive Dart,
Each Gift of Nature, and each Grace of Art,
With fatal Heat impetuous Courage glows,
With fatal Sweetness Elocution flows,
Impeachment stops the Speaker’s pow’rful Breath,
And restless Fire precipitates on Death.

The Church-Man’s Skepticism

Here is Mgr. Knox’s translation of the opening of Ecclesiastes:

A shadow’s shadow, he tells us, a shadow’s shadow; a world of shadows!  How is man the better for all this toiling of his, here under the sun?  Age succeeds age, and the world goes on unaltered.  Sun may rise and sun may set, but ever it goes back and is reborn. Round to the south it moves, round to the north it turns; the wind, too, though it makes the round of the world, goes back to the beginning of its round at last.  All the rivers flow into the sea, yet never the sea grows full; back to their springs they find their way, and must be flowing still.  Weariness, all weariness; who shall tell the tale? Eye looks on unsatisfied; ear listens, ill content. Ever that shall be that ever has been, that which has happened once shall happen again; there can be nothing new, here under the sun. Never man calls a thing new, but it is something already known to the ages that went before us; only we have no record of older days. So, believe me, the fame of to-morrow’s doings will be forgotten by the men of a later time.

And here is Montaigne closing “Of Vanity”:

This opinion and common usage to observe others more than ourselves, has very much relieved us that way; ’tis a very displeasing object: we can there see nothing but misery and vanity: nature, that we may not be dejected with the sight of our own deformities, has wisely thrust the action of seeing outward. We go forward with the current: but to turn back toward ourselves is a painful motion; so is the sea moved and troubled when the waves rush against one another. Observe, says every one, the motions of the heavens, of public affairs; observe the quarrel of such a person, take notice of such a one’s pulse, of such another’s last will and testament; in sum, be always looking high or low, on one side, before, or behind you. It was a paradoxical command anciently given us by the god of Delphos: “Look into yourself; discover yourself; keep close to yourself; call back your mind and will, that elsewhere consume themselves into yourself; you run out, you spill yourself; carry a more steady hand: men betray you, men spill you, men steal you from yourself. Dost thou not see that this world we live in keeps all its sight confined within, and its eyes open to contemplate itself? ‘Tis always vanity for thee, both within and without; but ’tis less vanity when less extended. Excepting thee, oh man”, said that god, “everything studies itself first, and has bounds to its labors and desires, according to its need. There is nothing so empty and necessitous as thou, who embracest the universe; thou are the explorator without knowledge; the magistrate without jurisdiction: and, after all, the fool of the farce.”

And here is Samuel Johnson’s Imlac, speaking of the pyramids in Rasselas:

But  for the pyramids no reason has ever been given adequate to the cost and labour of the work…It seems [that this pyramid] has been erected only in compliance with that hunger of imagination which preys incessantly upon life, and must always be appeased by some enjoyment. Those who have already all that they can enjoy, must enlarge their desires. He that has built for use, till use is supplied, must begin to build for vanity, and extend his plan to the utmost power of human performance, that he may not be soon reduced to form another wish.

I consider this mighty structure as a monument of the insufficiency of human enjoyments. A king, whose power is unlimited and whose treasures surmount all real and imaginary wants, is compelled to solace, by the erection of a pyramid, the satiety of dominion and tastelessness of pleasure, and to amuse the tediousness of declining life, by seeing thousands labouring without end, and one stone, for no purpose, laid upon another. Whoever thou art, that, not content with a moderate condition, imaginest happiness in royal magnificence, and dreamest that command or riches can feed the appetite of novelty with perpetual gratifications, survey the pyramids , and confess they folly!

What emerges across these quotations is a form of skepticism that I want to call Church-Man’s Skepticism, after the writer of Ecclesiastes.  It is a form primarily of practical skepticism, not theoretical–call it an existential skepticism.  But it is not existentialism, unless it be Christian existentialism.  I plan to write more about this over the next few weeks.  Let me finish with one more quotation, this time of Mgr. Knox himself, from a remark about Ecclesiastes:

The argument of the book does not progress in strict logical fashion, but the general sense is clear:  no human value is entirely satisfying; life itself therefore is an enigma.  But it still remains livable, and the doctrine of the author is that a wise man will be satisfied with living it, while remembering its deficiencies.

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