René Descartes

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René Descartes (31 March 1596 – 11 February 1650) was a French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist. A native of the Kingdom of France, he spent about 20 years (1629–1649) of his life in the Dutch Republic after serving for a while in the Dutch States Army of Maurice of Nassau, Prince of Orange and the Stadtholder of the United Provinces. He is generally considered one of the most notable intellectual figures of the Dutch Golden Age.

In the work of Slavoj Žižek

Slavoj Žižek’s most extensive engagement with René Descartes occurs in Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology, where Descartes’ meditations upon the cogito, that unknown thing that thinks, serve to launch Žižek’s explorations of the objet petit a that orients the Lacanian subject of desire. Žižek returns to remap the uncertain cartography of the Cartesian cogito in The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology, a book that “focuses on the reassertion of Cartesian subjectivity” (TS: vii). In both texts, Žižek’s interest in Descartes is quickly subsumed by his entanglement with a host of Descartes’ successors, most eminent among them Immanuel Kant. Jacques Lacan, of course, was more heavily invested in Kant than Descartes. Indeed, as Žižek himself insists in his introduction to Tarrying with the Negative, Lacan offers a fourth “critique of pure desire” (TN: 3) to supplement Kant’s tripartite critical philosophy. In what follows, I will provide a brief gloss of Kant’s critique of Cartesian idealism, in order to set the stage for Žižek’s post-Lacanian reassertion of Cartesian subjectivity. My remarks will focus on Tarrying with the Negative, for this book contains Žižek’s most extensive engagement with Descartes, and also, in its later chapters, foreshadows the absent centre of political ontology that haunts The Ticklish Subject.

Descartes’ aim in his Meditations on First Philosophy (1641) is to refute scepticism by overturning his unexamined beliefs in order to determine whether anything survives such a sweeping upheaval. His formulation of the basic problem of metaphysics is epistemological, and it reads: given the ontological chasm between mind and matter, how can we have certain knowledge of the material existence of anything at all? He concludes that we cannot, and thus follows that fundamental axiom of his: that the only certainty we may have is that, in so far as I think, “I am, I exist” (Descartes 2003: 25). What then is this “thinking thing” so defined by Descartes? His measured response: “A thing which doubts, understands, affirms, denies, wills, does not will, and which also imagines and senses” (ibid.: 26). The Cartesian cogito is not to be equated with the machinery of the limbs, or with the vital principle that animates the body, nor is it reducible to the pineal gland ligature between the two; finally, it is not identifiable with the self-consistency of the ego as it fixes its gaze and arranges its look in the mirror. Rather, the cogito may be analysed by turning the mind away from the senses and towards the a priori conditions of thought, but it cannot be objectively “known”, sensibly “pictured” or even properly “imagined”. This explains the philosopher’s astonishment that what is most certain to him, the cogito, is least known by him, and that what is most known by him, the sensible universe, is least certain of all.

Kant’s critique of Descartes is concentrated in his “Fourth Paralogism: Of Ideality” in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781/1787). He argues there that Descartes is at once an empirical idealist and a transcendental realist. Descartes’ transcendental realism resides in his mistakenly positing an absolute reality of things-in-themselves that exists independent of thought. This leads to an erroneous empirical idealism that undermines the certainty of outward appearances. The transcendental illusion that plagues Cartesian idealism gives rise to an epistemological error that consists in mistaking the problematic concept of a noumenal reality of things-in-themselves for an actual or transcendently real object domain that exists independent of thought. By way of contrast, Kant claims that his own critical philosophy couples transcendental idealism with empirical realism. The empirical realist does not posit a transcendent reality of things-in-themselves outside of appearances, but instead considers the material universe to be nothing more than appearances for our phenomenal understanding. Accordingly, the reality of appearances cannot be doubted in relation to some noumenal order of things as they really are, for reality, at least as we know it, really is restricted to the domain of appearances. Therefore, it follows that the reality of external appearances is no less certain than the internal reality of the cogito. Kant does not actually argue against such a noumenal order of things-in-themselves, but instead contends that whether such a noumenal reality exists independently of appearances is really no business of reason at all. More importantly, the proper business of rational philosophy consists in taking cognisance of the business that is in fact proper to it, which in this case means acknowledging the material reality of appearances and the transcendental ideality of the same.

Žižek begins the first chapter of Tarrying with the Negative, “I or He or It (the Thing) Which Thinks”, by returning to the locus of this debate between Descartes and Kant concerning the ontological status of the cogito. For Kant, the cogito is equated with the “I think” of transcendental apperception, and thus serves as the condition of possibility for all experience. But Kant resists the Cartesian manoeuvre of “hypostasizing” this transcendental function of the imagination into a noumenal thing. This is because, for Kant, such a substantializing manoeuvre moves beyond the realm of appearances to posit a substantial entity (call it the cogito, the soul or the ego) that exists outside of its transcendental functionality within the field of experience. Žižek aligns Lacan with Kant against Descartes, and he does so by making reference to Lacan’s formula of fantasy, which reads: “‘I think’ only insofar as I am inaccessible to myself qua noumenal Thing which thinks” (TN: 14). Stated otherwise, the subject of thought is only in so far as it is inaccessible to itself as the “Thing which thinks”. In fact, the lack of intuited content for the “I think” is constitutive of transcendental apperception in its formal resiliency to phenomenal comprehension, which explains the title for the first part of Žižek’s book, “The Cogito: The Void Called Subject”. What Lacan adds to this debate is that the fantastic itinerary of the subject of desire is to heal the wound introduced by the advent of the signifier, and by doing so, somehow to reclaim or fill the void that lies at its extimate centre. Th e “Thing which thinks” is thus the condition of possibility for all of my experience, but it is at the same time inaccessible to me as an agent of desire, and this very lack of being constitutes me as the subject that I am.

According to Žižek’s Lacanian appropriation of Kant’s transcendental reformulation of the Cartesian cogito, the objet petit a occupies the structural gap in the symbolic matrix of desire. The objet petit a accordingly takes on an ambivalent resonance: on the one hand, it is the hard kernel of the Real that resists symbolization; on the other hand, it is nothing more than a fantasy of plenitude that is engendered by the void introduced by symbolization. Or, rather, it is both at one and the same time: it thus serves as a transcendental object that holds the place of lack, but only when this lack engenders the illusion of a plenitude that desire forever falls short of or fails to achieve. A leitmotif of Tarrying with the Negative is that limitation precedes transcendence, at least from the dialectical (Hegelian) point of view of the Lacanian subject. Žižek accordingly writes that the main point of Lacan’s reading of Kant is that “the distinction between phenomena and the Thing can be sustained only within the space of desire as structured by the intervention of the signifier” (TN: 37). Thus, every object that is destined to fill the place of the lack in the subject is only another hallucinatory wish fulfilment, the first in the sublime and sublimated series of which the first is nothing other than the “thinking thing” secured by Descartes’ doubtful meditations, a cogitative role model Kant was only too quick to replicate, whether as a transcendental function of apperception or as the spontaneous agent of freedom. Indeed, in The Ticklish Subject, Žižek endorses Martin Heidegger’s criticisms of Kant, for in this later book Žižek reads Kant as belonging to the same tradition of modern subjectivity initiated by Descartes. Ultimately, Žižek will find that Heidegger followed Kant’s lead and abandoned the question of being, for his post-Kehre focus on the piety of thought and the dignity of the thinking being suggests that he too “recoiled” from the abyss of the transcendental imagination.

I would like to conclude by gesturing towards how Žižek’s criticism of the Cartesian cogito feeds into his analysis of the complicity between radical evil and nationalism. In “Enjoy Your Nation as Yourself!”, the final chapter of Tarrying with the Negative, Žižek claims that nationalism is a privileged form of radical evil. For Kant, radical evil consists in elevating sensuous or particular maxims (e.g. of self, wealth, ethnicity, religion, class and nation) over the universal law of reason. The fanatical nationalist presumes to have made phenomenal contact with the Good, and then proceeds to elevate this phenomenal object to the dignity of the Thing. Of course, from Žižek’s Lacanian perspective, limitation precedes transcendence, and thus the nationalist’s presumption to know the Good (in the form of the nation) is the epistemological equivalent to the pre-Cartesian philosopher’s presumption to know the Soul. Following Kant, Žižek is able to denounce this as a radically evil act of nationalist mystification. Yet, the question remains, does not the Lacanian settlement of the problem of finitude amount to the same hypostatization of the subject of doubt, only this time in the form of the barred or inaccessible subject of desire? In other words, does he not substitute an illusory object of his own in the place hollowed out by the Real – call it the cogito, the Thing that thinks, the objet petit a or, indeed, the nation? Given Hegel’s profound mediation in Žižek’s Cartesian itinerary, if limitation precedes transcendence, then the obverse or Hegelian side of this injunction is that transcendence precedes limitation, which is one way of reading Žižek’s prescription for the absent centre of political ontology. The psychoanalytic cure consists in traversing the fantasy to its limit, and thus in revealing the void called subject that lies at its extimate centre. Žižek repeats Kant’s critical turn by following Lacan’s trajectory from a theoretical unveiling of the subject of desire to an ethical praxis that remains haunted by the spectre of the Cartesian cogito.