Transcendent Subjectivity – Cogito, Ergo Sum

(This is a reprint taken from the original Immanent Terrain blog. It was composed in February 2010 when a snow day cancelled the third session of Art After Deleuze. It was one of three “Snow Day Lectures.” The other two are reprinted here as well. See follow-up posts.)

We already traced, in class, the way Plato’s philosophy of transcendent Ideas and Forms is transformed and extended in Christian theology. In both cases the sensible, sensual world is considered inferior, is considered secondary, to another world that exists beyond or above it. Life – life in this world – is what we are taught to distrust or devalue in the name of something else, something that transcends the immanent world. In the seventeenth century another type of transcendent philosophy will emerge, and it is this one that has perhaps had the most influence on contemporary Western thought. This new brand of transcendent philosophy finds its origins in the works of the French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650). Descartes’ goal – in attempting to outline a new methodology for philosophy – was to remove all external (i.e., transcendent) sources of knowledge from the realm of truth and reason. Thus he claims, for example, that he will refrain from making assertions such as “man is a rational animal” since this statement presumes prior knowledge of “man” and “animal” (not to mention what it means to be “rational”). He also casts doubts on the objective world, since he says we can be mistaken at times in believing we are seeing external objects when in fact all that is occurring is that we are having a dream or a hallucination (or being led astray by a mischievous demon). After this exercise of removal, the casting aside of philosophical presumptions, there is only one thing – according to Descartes – that he can be certain of: cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am). The only thing he can be certain of is that he has had these thoughts and that this “having” is an affirmation of his existence as a conscious being. Note that what is foregrounded here is not thinking itself but the I who thinks; the I who has a thought; the I who recognizes the first certainty in the utterance “I think.” The assumption here is that “thinking” only occurs because there is an entity to whom this action belongs, an entity to whom we can attribute thought.

In Descartes, we no longer have a transcendence of the Idea or Form (as in Plato) or the transcendence of Being (as in Christianity) but the transcendence of a thinking subject. Now it is the I, as an expression of consciousness, which is privileged in relation to experience. This leads Descartes to assert a dualist ontology, claiming a fundamental distinction between mind and body. It takes little guesswork to figure out which of the two attributes – mind and body – will be placed on the side of transcendence and which will be placed on the side of immanence. It takes little guesswork too to figure out which of the two substances is considered superior, is giving priority over the other. Mind is superior, is transcendent, precisely because it is “immaterial”, precisely because it is not-body. If this form of transcendence continues to be dominant in contemporary society (even as we become more secular, and more suspicious of the notion of universal truths and moral absolutes), it is because it conforms to our common-sense perception of the world; each of us perceives the world as though we are at its center, with the freedom to remove ourselves from the world when we feel the necessity to reflect, to cogitate, and so on. We feel as though we are transcendent to the world, no more so than when we are thinking.

Needless to say, this mode of transcendence is no more acceptable to Deleuze than the other two we considered. There is, for Deleuze, no “mind” or “consciousness” or “self” or “I”, or whatever you want to call it, which exists outside of life (or outside of time). There is only mind or consciousness or self or I, or whatever you want to call it, that exists within life, that exists on an immanent plane along with all the other entities that make up the world, all the other entities that make up our world – the only one we have.

S I-G

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