Let's return to a part of the original quote from Rene Descartes' Discourse on the Method, Part II:
"I thought it best for my purpose to consider these proportions in the most general form possible, without referring them to any objects in particular, except such as would most facilitate the knowledge of them, and without by any means restricting them to these, that afterwards I might thus be the better able to apply them to every other class of objects to which they are legitimately applicable."
In Descartes' quest for certainty, he believes that he can separate thinking from the "objects" to which his ideas refer in order to "facilitate the knowledge of them." And, for Descartes, it is the unencumbered mind which can perform this separation. Now, later philosophers noticed this leap as well. Kant critiques/corrects Descartes by elevating the role of phenomena in thinking, believing that a mind cannot function in a vacuum. Nietzsche realizes that any kind of references to any kind of certainty or truth are mere linguistic correspondences. Heidegger runs with this idea to an extreme, stating that language itself is thinking, as if to revise the Cartesian "I think, therefore I am" to read: "we language, therefore we think; therefore we think we are." After that, it's an avalanche of post-structuralists who run under the banner of "the world is a text," rendering all human efficacy into performance.
Kant was onto something. I'm no Kantian, but his reassertion of phenomena was an important moment. In my mind, I picture Kant saying, "hey guys, come take a look at this." But just as philosophy as a discipline was about to start really giving phenomena a more informed look, Nietzsche's philosophy explodes in its necessary, culturally-relevant urgency. In the cleanup of the philosophical debris that followed, that little stray thread of phenomena got hidden. Sure, Husserl thought he had it via his phenomenology -- but by that point, psychology had turned all phenomenological investigation inward. If you were going to study phenomena, it had damn well be within the mind; the rest is an antiquated metaphysics.
But the thread that became buried was the idea that we base logic on the capacity to know the self from the stuff around us. Descartes' choice to not look at "objects," but instead at the relations among them and the operations that make geometry work shifted his focus from the phenomenal to the ideal, leading him down what he thought was a road to purely internal intellectual operations. Descartes, like the Greeks before him, understood that variables were just that -- variable. The function of logic, however, was certain and unchangeable. Coming to the wrong sum had nothing to do with "faulty logic," because logic was not -- and could not be -- faulty. Coming to the wrong sum was about screwing up the variables, not seeing them, mistaking one for another, and generally making some kind of error for which the senses were responsible. And, when we realize that the imagination, the place where we visualize numbers (or shapes), is itself classified as a sensory apparatus, then it becomes a bit more clear.
Descartes was so close to a much deeper understanding of logic. But the interesting thing is that his point was not to take apart the mechanisms of logic, but to figure out what was certain. This was the point of his meditations: to find a fundamental certainty upon which all human knowledge could be based. That certainty was that he, as a thinking thing, existed -- and that as long as he could think, he was existing. Thinking = existence. Once Descartes arrived at that conclusion, he then moved forward again and began to build upon it. So Descartes can't be blamed for stopping short, because it was never his intention to understand how human logic worked, instead he was trying to determine what could be known with certainty so that any of his speculations or meditations from that point forward had a basis in certainty. That bedrock upon which everything rested was self-existence. "Knowing oneself" in Cartesian terms is only that, it is not a more existential idea of being able to answer the "why am I here?" or "what does it all mean?" kind of questions.
But answering those existential questions isn't the point here either -- and yet we can see how those also serve as a kind of philosophical distraction that grabs our attention, because those existential questions seem so much more practical and relevant. If we pause for a moment and think back to Descartes original point -- to figure out what can be known with certainty -- and push through what he thought was metaphysical bedrock, we can excavate something that was buried in the debris. So, how do we know that we exist and that we are thinking things? How do we arrive at that "first logic" I mentioned in my previous entry?
To review, that first logic is the fundamental knowledge of self that is the awareness that "I am me, and that is not me." You can translate this a number of different ways without losing the gist of that fundamental logic: "this is part of my body, that is not," "I am not that keyboard," "The hands in front of my typing are me but the keyboard beneath them is not," etc. To be fair to Descartes, contained within that idea of me/not me logic is his 'ego sum res cogitans' (I am a thinking thing). But as we've seen, Descartes lets the "thing" fall away in favor of the ego sum. Descartes attributes the phenomenon of thinking to the existence of the "I," the subject that seems to be doing the thinking. Given the culture and historical period in which he's writing, it is understandable why Descartes didn't necessarily see the cognitive process itself as a phenomenon. Also, as a religious man, this thinking aspect is not just tied to the soul, it is the soul. Since Descartes was working from the Thomasian perspective that the soul was irreducible and purely logical, the cognitive process could not be dependent on any thing (the space between the words is not a typo). I want everyone to read that space between 'any' and 'thing' very, very carefully. A mind being independent of matter is not just a Cartesian idea, it is a religious one that is given philosophical gravitas by the wonderful Thomas Aquinas. And his vision of a Heaven governed by pure, dispassionate logic (a much more pure divine love) was itself informed by Greek idealism. Platonic Forms had fallen out of fashion, but the idealism (i.e. privileging the idea of the thing rather than the material of the thing) lived on via the purity and incorporeality of logic.
Descartes felt that he had reduced thinking down as far as he possibly could. Add to that the other cultural assumption that the imagination was a kind of inner sense (and not a pure process of the mind), we see that we do have to cut Rene some slack. For him, there was no reason to go further. He had, quite logically, attributed awareness to thinking, and saw that thinking as separate from sensing. The "I am" bit was the mind, pure logic, pure thinking; and the "a thinking thing" was, more or less the sensory bit. "I am" (awareness; thinking; existence itself; logic), "a thinking thing" (a vessel with the capacity to house the aforementioned awareness and to sense the phenomena around it). The mind recognizes itself first before it recognizes its body, because the body could only be recognized as 'belonging' to the mind if there were a mind there to do the recognizing. That is to say, Cartesian dualism hinges upon the idea that when a human being is able to recognize its body as its own, it is only because its mind has first recognized itself. This, to me, is the mechanism behind Descartes' "first logic." The human process of consciousness or awareness IS self in Cartesian terms. The conceit that pegs Descartes as a rationalist is that this awareness cannot become aware of the body in which it is housed unless it is aware of itself first, otherwise, how could it be aware of its body? The awareness doesn't really need any other phenomena in order to be aware, for Descartes. The capacity of awareness becomes aware of itself first, and then becomes aware of the physical phenomena around it, then finally understands itself as a thinking thing. The "awareness" kind of moves outward in concentric circles like ripples from a pebble dropped in water.
As philosophy developed over the centuries and the process of cognition itself was deemed a phenomenon, the Cartesian assumptions is still there: Even as a phenomenon, cognition itself must pre-exist the knowledge of the world around it. Pushed even further into more contemporary theory, the mind/body as a unity becomes the seat of awareness, even if the outside world is the thing that is bringing that dichotomy out (as Lacan would tell us in the mirror stage). From there, the mind is then further tethered to the biological brain as being absolutely, positively dependent on biological processes for its existence and self-reflexivity, and all of the self-reflection, self-awareness, and existential angst therein. Consciousness happens as a byproduct of our biological cognitive processes, but the world that is rendered to us via that layer of consciousness is always already a representation. The distinction between self/other, interior/exterior, and subject/object still remains intact.
I think that even with the best intentions of trying to get to the bottom of Cartesian subjectivity, we tend to stop where Descartes stopped. I mean, really, is it possible to get underneath the "thinking" of the "thinking thing" while you're engaged in thinking itself? The other option is the more metaphysical one, and to look at the other things which we are not: the objects themselves. There are two problems here, one being that most of this metaphysical aspect of philosophy fell out of favor as science advanced. The other is that the Cartesian logical dichotomy is the basis of what science understands as "objectivity" itself. We are "objective" in our experiments; or we observe something from an objective point of view. Even asking "how do we know this object" places us on the materialist/idealist spectrum, with one side privileging sense data as being responsible for the essence of thing thing, while on the other, the essence of the object is something we bring to that limited sense data or phenomena.
Regardless of how you look at it, this is still a privileging of a "self" via its own awareness. All of these positions take the point of view of the awareness first, and that all phenomena is known through it, even if it's the phenomena that shape the self. But what if we were to make all phenomena equal, that is to say, take cognition as phenomena, biology as phenomena, and the surrounding environment as phenomena at the same time, and look at all of those aspects as a system which acts as a functional unity.
I've been working this question over in my mind and various aborted and unpublished blog entries for months. To reset the status of phenomena seemed to be something that would be a massive, tectonic kind of movement. But with a clearer head I realized that we're dealing with subtlety here, and not trying to flank Descartes by miles but instead by inches. In my next entry I'll be taking apart this Cartesian "first logic" by leveling the phenomenal playing field. As we'll see, it's not just stuff outside of ourselves that constitutes sensory phenomena; we also sense ourselves.