Rebirth of Reason

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Saturday, October 17 - 6:30pmSanction this postReply



Foundational Frames - Descartes and Rand

Abstract, Key Words, and First Page are at the link above.

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Sunday, October 18 - 1:03pmSanction this postReply


Addendum to my paper on Descartes/Rand

Kant argued against Descartes’ view that the existence of one’s mind is more immediately and more certainly known than the existence of one’s body.[1] Kant cast out Descartes’ view that the mind is a thinking substance.[2] Because Kant rejected also Descartes’ ontological proof for the existence of God,[3] Descartes’ first philosophy collapses. Metaphysical arguments to rational necessity of the existence of God or immortality of the soul are all cases of reason flapping its wings in a vacuum, by the lights of Kant. The Critique of Pure Reason (KrV) contains Kant’s case for a more limited scope for effective theoretical reason: stay within the bounds of possible sensory experience.

Kant accepted, as had Descartes and Aquinas before him, some notion that ‘I think’ entails ‘I am’. Then again, with Rand’s mature philosophy, acknowledgment that ‘Existence exists’ entails existence of one who acknowledges. For Kant, contra Descartes, ‘I think’ does not mean I think with a mental substance,[4] radically distinct from body; and thinking of my body and of bodies outside me is as certain as the circumstance that I think and that I exist as a thinking thing.[5] Kant had a role for ‘I think’ basic to his transcendental idealism, and such is not the role it had in the first philosophy of Descartes. Let me call Kant’s the “company-role” of ‘I think’.

“The ‘I think’ must be capable of accompanying all my presentations; for otherwise something would be presented to me that could not be thought at all—which is equivalent to saying that the presentation either would be impossible, or at least would be nothing to me.”[6] (B131–32)

Kant’s ‘I think’ is utterly dependent on there being rational judgments it attends. ‘I think’ is not premier of knowing, contra Descartes. Neither it nor the ‘cogito sum’ containing it nor join of the ‘cogito sum’ to the premise of divine, absolute perfection amount to an adequate foundation of all human cognition.[7]

We might object, however, to Kant’s reasoning in the quoted passage. In early development we each had been perceiving and investigating and coordinating without any ability to reflect and realize of those episodes ‘I am having’ or ‘I am doing’, let alone ‘I am thinking’. It might be countered for Kant, in our current context of cognitive developmental psychology, that to each such episode adults around the infant or toddler can attach ‘He is having’ or ‘She is doing’ and that grown older the former little one could say of filmed early episodes ‘I was seeing’, ‘I was searching’, and so forth. The objection remains, for those remarks would be merely as from outside and pronounced on the little person, not by that person as he or she perceived, investigated, and coordinated. That such episodes occur without first-person capability to reflect and realize ‘I am having’ or ‘I am doing’ means that, notwithstanding the important fact of the company-role of ‘I think’ for all mature, discursive human cognition, it is not a necessary condition for the possibility of all human cognition in the apriori way Kant argued at B131–32. Kant’s argument there ignores the existential fact that discursive thought has a genesis from and an alliance with prelinguistic thought in early development. When Kant does discuss the pertinent infant development, in his anthropology lectures,[8] he foists the necessity argued in B131–32 off on all that development.

The company-role of ‘I think’ (as well as ‘I am having’ and ‘I am doing’) is a necessity for adult human cognition, though not for the ultimate reason and not with the type of ultimate necessity given it by Kant. And self-reflection is not a necessity for one’s earliest stage of cognition. The necessity of the company-role of ‘I think’ and its precursors ‘I am having’ and ‘I am doing’ is most basically biological, not transcendental. Without adult capability for some self-reflection, and its precursors in development, there will have been no capability for language, thence not yet human cognition in such a species.

Conceptual necessities are from the life of mind situated in larger life situated in the world. Conceptual necessities do not require Kant’s conceit of generative mind as ultimate origin of temporal and spatial organization in sensory experience and objective world nor Kant’s conceit of generative mind as base origin of its own fundamental concepts as forms with which the world as known shall be. Necessary conditions on the possibility of experience and cognition are in my view rightly seen as situated within biological necessities, not within Kant’s supposed, wider transcendental necessities.[9] Organicism in human consciousness—with its unities, roles, interdependencies, and self-generations—is offspring of and sign of the biological nature of consciousness. Kant saw it rather the other way around.[10] As with any other body, the body of a physical organism is in his view an object standing in spatial, temporal, and causal connections whose source of necessity is the transcendental synthetic unity of apperception.[11] Organic unities of organisms, according to Kant, are to be seen as if they were designed by a cosmic intelligence, keeping in mind that those unities are projections of the unities of our own reason, which is to say organic unities of organisms are to be understood as if sourced (and as in fact divinely sourced) in organic unities of intelligence.[12]


The ‘I’ of Kant’s company-role ‘I think’ is a unified conceptual maker of coherence from variety in the ‘I’s world of perception.[13] As Béatrice Longuenesse observes: Because the causal relation is among the organizing principles constituting the coherence-making self that must be able to accompany any sensory experience it has, we have in Kant’s company-role ‘I think’ a post in Kant’s fence against Hume’s skepticism concerning necessary connection between distinct perceived events.[14]



[1] Kant 1781(A) and 1787(B): A366–80, B274–79.

[2] A343–47 B401–6, A348–51, B407–8, B416–22. Rand, and I with her, replace substance of Aristotle or of Descartes with entity, and we would count the mind and the self as an entity, notwithstanding the special ways in which one knows one’s own mind and self.

[3] A592–603, B620–31.

[4] But see Heidegger 1953, 318–21/304–7.

[5] Kant, KrV B270–79.

[6] Also B137–39, B157–-58n, A341–43, B399–401, A347 B405, A354–55, A397- 402, B422–23n, B428–32, A848 B876; 1798, 7:127–28.

[7] Kitcher 2011, 57–62, 116–17, 193–97.

[8] Kant 1798, 7:128-29.

[9] Cf. Criticism of Kant, on possible origins of necessity in synthetic apriori judgments, by Gottlob Ernst Schulze 1792, 142–45.

[10] Mensch 2013, 99–109, 113–24, 130–45, 153–54.

[11] Kant, KrV A22–36 B37–53, B131–69, B232–34, A189–211 B235–56.

[12] A317–18 B374, B425, A686–704 B714–32.

[13] A67 B92, A107–8, A113–14, A119, A124–25, B129–39, A199–202 B244–47, A214–18 B261–65, A228–30 B281–82, A234–35 B286–87, A255-56 B311, A401–2; see also Kitcher 2011, 138–41, 144–50, 193–97.

[14] Longuenesse 2008, 15–16; see also Kitcher 2011, 152–57, 170–73; Allison 2008, 107–12, 204–5.


Allison, H. E. 2008. Custom and Reason in Hume – A Kantian Reading of the First Book of the Treatise. New York: Oxford University Press.

Heidegger, M. 1953 [1927]. Being and Time. 7th ed. J. Stambaugh and D. J. Schmidt, translators, 2010. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Kant, I. 1781, 1787. Critique of Pure Reason. W. S. Pluhar, translator. 1996. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.

——. 1798. Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View. In Immanuel Kant – Anthropology, History, and Education. G. Zöller and R. B. Louden, editors, 2007. G. Zöller, translator. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kitcher, P. 2011. Kant’s Thinker. New York. Oxford University Press.

Longuenesse, B. 2008. Kant’s “I Think” versus Descartes’ “I Am a Thing that Thinks.” In Kant and the Early Moderns. D. Garber and B. Longuenesse, editors. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Mensch, J. 2013. Kant’s Organicism – Epigenesis and the Development of Critical Philosophy. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Schulze, G. E. 1792. Aenesidemus. In Between Kant and Hegel – Texts in the Development of Post-Kantian Idealism. G. di Giovanni and H. S. Harris, translators, 2000. 2nd ed. Indianapolis: Hackett.

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Monday, November 16 - 6:43pmSanction this postReply

From “Volitional Synapses” by Stephen Boydstun

V2N1 (1994) pp. 127–30


I want to use . . . Descartes to help us uncover some of the relationship of error and choice.


Descartes approaches the issue in Meditation IV. His is a fairly traditional Christian analysis. That the human mind is capable of doubting (and a fortiori, of being in error) shows the human mind to be an incomplete and dependent thing. In realizing that character of doubt (and error), we have in our minds, also, perfectly clear and distinct ideas of completeness and independence, which is to say, we have the idea of God. Descartes then considers how error is possible. Error cannot come from some deceptiveness on God’s part “for in all fraud and deception some imperfection is to be found” (194), and none can be found in God. Humans have a capacity for judging, which must be a gift from God, and surely God would not give one a faculty that would lead one into error while one uses that faculty correctly.


Pause on that last point. Leaving out of account God’s responsibility, is it true that if we always use our faculty of judgment correctly, we shall never make an error? I doubt it, but more on this below.


Whence come our errors according to Descartes? We have in our minds an idea of God, a being of supreme perfection, and while we think only of God, there is no possibility of error in us. So, I gather from Descartes, if we always look to existence, we shall not err. Can we not look to existence, perfectly devoted, yet fail to see aright what we aim for? Descartes denies it. We have not only an idea of God (being), but an idea of nothing. . . . We ourselves are poised between being and nonbeing, and because we participate in nonbeing, we can err. Error is not a positive real thing, but a defect, a privation. To fall into error we require no dedicated faculty for error, only that our faculty of judgment be limited.


God decided, so to speak, to give us the ability to err. This he does by giving us a limited faculty of knowledge (a limited understanding) and by giving us free will. In our understanding by itself, apart from will, we apprehend (ideas of) things upon which we may form a judgment. Though we may have ignorance along with knowledge in our limited understanding, considered in operation by itself, we have not error. Our liberty of choice is enormous. In the bounty of this trait, we are most like God. Man’s will is so “much wider in its range and compass than the understanding, I do not restrain it within the same bounds but extend it also to things which I do not understand: and as the will is of itself indifferent to these, it easily falls into error” (198). Descartes makes our free will the source of our errors, although we should observe he takes the indifference of the free will to be inessential to the free will, the indifference arising rather from “lack or negation of knowledge” (198). Whenever we see clearly what is true, we affirm it, yet even this assent is free.


If only we abstain from giving judgment on any thing we do not perceive with sufficient clearness and distinctness, then we shall not be in error. “Knowledge of the understanding should always precede the determination of the will. And it is in the misuse of the free will that the privation which constitutes the characteristic nature of error is met with” (199).


God, according to Descartes, decided to constitute us otherwise, but he could have made us so that we were with limited knowledge, with free will, yet without any deliberation or error. Alas we have been given the power to go astray. Be not discouraged, however, “for although I notice a certain weakness in my nature in that I cannot continually concentrate my mind on one single thought, I can yet, by attentive and frequently repeated meditation, impress it so forcibly on my memory that I never fail to recollect it whenever I have need of it, and thus acquire the habit of never going astray” (201).


Descartes does not seem to notice that by entering failure of memory, he has introduced a new possible source of error. The source he acknowledged was: limited knowledge and a free and overweening will. That combined source does not seem to me to be the complete story of error. We must count also limitations in our mental functioning. These, too, can result in errors, and I doubt our most perfected will could prevent every malfunction. Correct judgment requires our remembering right things at right times. We may fail in memory, and so, in judgment (see also Principles 1.42, 44). Further, correct judgment may require imagination, and we may fail to have sufficient imagination on occasion (Brown 1988, 137–49).


There is another reservation I have over Descartes’ analysis. Descartes counsels conservatism in forming judgments. Yet we must act. Locke speaks of our “necessity of believing without knowledge, nay often upon very slight grounds, in this fleeting state of action and blindness we are in” (EU 4.16.4). Locke exaggerates, but it seems to me that our acting under limited knowledge may very well settle in us more belief than we have reflected on. It is unclear to me that the mind can tally all its abductions. Still, Descartes’ counsel is good (see also Principles 1.71–74).


Another quibble is this. When we see the truth plainly, I do not think we are still free to directly deny it in our minds. When we see the truth plainly, we become convicted . . . . We have made prior standing choices to seek truth.  . . . Undoing those would be like trying to move a mountain.




Brown, H.I. 1988. Rationality. London: Routledge.


Descartes, R. 1641. Meditations on First Philosophy. In Wilson 1976.

——. 1646. Principles of Philosophy. In Wilson 1976.


Locke, J. 1959 [1690]. Essay on Human Understanding. New York: Dover.


Wilson, M.D., editor, 1976. The Essential Descartes. E.S. Haldane and T.R.T. Ross, translators. New York: Meridian, Penguin Books USA.

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