Feinmann returns in this installment to discussing Christopher Columbus' "discovery" of America in tandem with Rene Descartes cogito ergo sum ("I think, therefore I am"), which Feinmann considers here as the discovery of subjectivity. The point he makes in pairing the non-philosophical Portuguese discoverer with the innovative French philosopher is that they played important and highly symbolic roles in the early stages of the rise of capitalist modernity to a dominant position.
As Feinmann puts it, Columbus didn't discover America for the first time in human history, he discovered it for the rising, new, dynamic system of capitalism. Descartes' reflections on subjectivity and the centrality of the individual in his theory were an expression on the emerging European modern worldview which at the same time helped to shape that reality. He uses the Columbus-Descartes pairing to stress that philosophers are just spinning ideas in the their heads, they are immersed in a historical process within which they work. Feinmann's sees Descartes' individual's subjectivity as that the "capitalist subject of history."
Feinmann opens this episode with a discussion of humanism, which he takes to be the kind of philosophy that takes humanity rather than God as the starting point for philosophy, as he argues that Descartes does. He defines humanism as "a conception that makes man (el hombre) the fundamental epistemological point of departure." Humanism is broadly associated with the Renaissance, which also placed a new emphasis on the work of Greek and Roman classical philosophers. Classical studies thrived in the Islamic world during the European Middle Ages. And it was from Al-Andalus, Muslim Spain, that much of the knowledge of the early classical sources of Western learning were re-introduced into Europe, though the European Catholic monasteries had also preserved a great deal of the source material.
Descartes, Feinmann argues, departed from his basic subjective method in explaining how the individual ego can know that the perceived external world (res extensa) is really there, an empirical reality. Descartes established this by arguing that if the external world wasn't real, then God was running a gigantic deception on humanity. And since God is infinitely good, He would do that. Therefore, the res extensa must be real. In making this argument, Descartes was relying on a philosophical deus ex machina, arguing dogmatically from the existence of God rather than developing the argument out of the cogito ergo sum.
Feinmann makes an interesting "move" here (as the academics say) and talks about his own memories and experiences of the repression against the universities that came with the coup of 1966 and subsequent military dictatorship first lead by Juan Carlos Onganía, who held the leadership position until he was ousted by the generals and replaced by Gen. Roberto Livingston in 1970. He uses this as a way to describe the common-sense materialist understanding of empirical reality. On his university campus, he says, he and other philosophy students had discovered that reality exists, and it was a fascist one. (He's making a joke, not a political theory point about the nature of the Onganía regime.)
But he's not doing so to belittle the question of the relation of the individual ego to the external world. On the contrary, the subject-object question continues to be an important theme in philosophy until this day. While materialism generally dominates in philosophy today, the kinds of issues raised by the various forms of idealist philosophy continue to be raised and grappled with.
Feinmann makes a point to explain that Descartes, who lived in the Netherlands, wrote in French, not in the Latin more common for his type of scholarly work in that time and place. He wrote in French, Feinmann says, because he wanted to be understood.
|Juan Carlos Organía, José Pablo Feinmann's deux ex machina to explain empirical reality's existence|
He deals in this lecture with the "transparent subject." And in doing so, he jumps to the more recent thinker, Sigmund Freud, who established in a new way that the conscious ego of Descartes theory of subjectivity, is actually driven by unconscious physical drives and psychological features. Feinmann frames this as Freud saying to Descartes that the mind is not a transparent as Descartes believed, that in fact major aspects of the mind of typically hidden from consciousness. "Don Sigmund," he says, presents Descartes with a wound to the narcissism of the Cartesian cogito ("I think").
Feinmann thinks that the most "genuinely Cartesian" point that Descartes made came in his ontological proof of the existence of God. Descartes argued that because we have in us the idea of perfection, even though we are not perfect, someone must have put that idea into us, and that must have been someone perfect, i.e., God. Unlike Descartes' argument for the real existence of the res externa, his argument for the existence of God is developed out of the human ego's subjectivity.
A question that Descartes' philosophy raised that hasn't gone away is whether the dualism between subject (the human ego) and the Object (external reality) is a dualism that cannot be overcome. That very question would later be at the heart of Kant's transcendental idealism and the theories that followed it from Fichte and Hegel, to mention two of his more prominent successors. He starts off explaining this question by talking about Jean-Paul Sartre concepts that the consciousness if necessarily continually engaged with the external world, it doesn't exist in some completely separate realm, it's part of what the mind perceives as external reality. Consciousness, in this way of viewing it, is always a consciousness of the world. Sartre saw consciousness as intentional, as directed toward the world outside itself.
And he works phenomenological philosophy into the discussion here, which he considers to be the strand of thought that see consciousness as in being in "a pact of pure intentionality" directed toward the outer world. And he ropes in the two 20th-century philosophers Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt to illustrate the importance of the view of the philosopher as someone deeply connected to his/her world and involved in transforming it. Arendt described Heidegger's active engagement for the Nazi doctrine and Hitler's regime as resulting from having his eyes on the stars and not on what was right in front of him. Feinmann - who has written quite an interesting philosophical novel about Heidegger - doesn't buy it. As he says Heidegger was very conscious of what he was doing in his engagement for the Nazis.
This circles back to his pairing of Columbus and Descartes to emphasize that philosophy and philosophers are very much a part of the real history which they not only observe passively but have an active role in making.