Thought’s Ego in Augustine and Descartes.

Thought’s Ego in Augustine and Descartes. – book reviews

Louis E. Loeb

This comparative study of Augustine and Descartes is a welcome addition to the literature. Professor Matthews selects texts judiciously, and his book is accessible to readers not versed in Augustine. He writes with respect for the historical figures. This often results in insightful exegesis; Matthews’ interpretation of the Meditation II analogy to men in hats and coats (pp. 108-12) is but one example. The book is rich in materials that bear on the emergence of the cogito, the mind-body distinction, and the problems of the external world and other minds.

Much of Professor Matthews’ discussion is cast with reference to “thought’s ego”, whatever it is to which the reflexive use of “I” refers, or seems to refer (p. 7). He declines to take a stand on whether pronouns in their reflexive use are genuine referring expressions, and related issues (pp. 7-8). His interest is in the conduct of philosophical inquiry, especially epistemology, from the “perspective of thought’s ego” (p. 189; cf. 141) or the “first-person perspective” (pp. ix, 72; cf. p. 112). Matthews maintains that both Augustine and Descartes adopt this perspective, but in different ways: Descartes, unlike Augustine, takes solipsism seriously in questioning the existence of the external world (pp. 72-3, 142, 150, 152, 167, 185, 189), and rejects outside authority (pp. 142, 150); in Augustine, the first-person perspective is “interpretive” (p. 167) – Augustine turns inward to learn the meaning of claims accepted on authority (cf. pp. 37-8). Matthews does not ask why scepticism about the external world and the rejection of outside authority should converge in a single perspective. With scepticism about the external world unanswered, we would not be well-positioned to accept outside authority, but Descartes is not in this position.

Matthews suggests that Descartes offers an argument for “epistemic individualism” (pp. 126, 129-30, 167), as he calls the rejection of outside authority, built on the premise that “I cannot tell which experts are trustworthy independently of determining for myself whether what they have to say is true” (p. 129). Why could one not accredit an authority by determining for oneself that some of what they have to say is true? Matthews’ relies on a further assumption, that knowledge requires certain and evident cognition, being impelled to believe by true reasons (pp. 132-3). This might seem to preclude knowledge on authority. Matthews’ evidence that Descartes imposes this condition derives from the Rules, composed in 1628-9, and a 1630 letter. The Meditations contains arguments with the following structure: since I believe p, and have no faculty capable of correcting that belief, p must be true, or else God would be a deceiver (cf. pp. 119-20). Matthews does not explain why Descartes should take this style of argument to yield knowledge of beliefs based on the senses, but not of beliefs based on authority.

Matthews admits that the problem of the external world “is almost broached in [a] remarkable passage from Augustine’s Against the Academics” (p. 64). What is missing? According to Matthews, Augustine argues that the mind is incorporeal, but identifies himself with his mind and body (p. 73), so that “there is no notion of the external world, to which all bodies, including my own, belong” (p. 81; cf. p. 199). On Matthews’ interpretation, however, Augustine does raise the possibility that nothing exists external to him, his mind and body – this seems solipsistic enough.

It is not surprising that Augustine should come this far. He holds that some beliefs are immune to the sceptical thought that one might be dreaming (pp. 54-5, 171, 193): the belief that one exists, beliefs about what perceptually seems to be the case (and, more generally, about the present contents of one’s own consciousness), and beliefs about simple a priori truths (pp. 36, 37-8, 39-40, 54, 61, 64-5, 78, 79, 197-9). Augustine appears committed to a doctrine of epistemic priority (cf. pp. 113, 123): propositions in the enumerated classes can be known “directly,” without knowing any propositions about the external world, but not vice versa. This doctrine is the linchpin of Cartesian scepticism. To understand the first-person perspective, insofar as it is characterized by the possibility of such scepticism, we would need to understand the appeal of the picture of knowledge as requiring a vertical structure.

Matthews claims that in Augustine the certainty of one’s own existence serves merely as the refutation of universal scepticism, not as the first step in a Cartesian reconstruction of knowledge (pp. 35-6, 61, 65-6, 123, 141, 185, 193). This again obscures the common commitment to a doctrine of epistemic priority. The difference is in how far the reconstruction proceeds. As Matthews presents him, Augustine does not think we can know anything beyond an initial foundation of beliefs about one’s current conscious states and simple a priori truths. More precisely, Matthews takes Augustine to hold that we can have knowledge of the external world “in a loose or improper sense” (p. 79), though not “in the strict and proper sense” – belief that cannot be mistaken (pp. 78-9). Matthews does not tell us whether knowledge in the improper sense is mere belief or opinion, or probable, albeit not certain, and supported by the foundation.

Matthews also does not tell us how Augustine integrates knowledge of the external world and knowledge based on faith or authority. Some propositions that “cannot be proved … should be accepted from an authority” (p. 144). Matthews sometimes writes as if the scope of authority is expansive: “Augustine supposes that God, by assuring us of the truth of Scripture, helps us get beyond the meagre stock of truths we can use unaided philosophy to prove” (p. 186). With these truths restricted to “‘I am’, ‘I know that I am’, and the like” (p. 186) – presumably, beliefs about one’s consciousness and simple a priori truths – the existence of the Bible is established on authority, and hence falls within the province of faith. I believe Matthews’ considered view is that beliefs based on authority depend upon beliefs about the external world (cf. pp. 167-8). He takes Augustine to recognize “reasonable constraints on whom or what we may accept as authoritative” (p. 146). These include “judgments about who is ‘in all probability wise'” (p. 147), judgments that depend upon a variety of empirical beliefs (cf. pp. 147-9). Lacking explanation of Augustine’s views on knowledge in the improper sense, and hence of the probability of empirical beliefs, Matthews’ interpretation of Augustine on authority is incomplete.

Matthews is especially interested in the authority of the church or the Bible with respect to claims formulated with reference to “philosophically problematic terms” such as “God”, “time”, “evil”, “memory”, “creation”, and “lie” (pp. 158, 182-3). Without understanding such a claim, we might know on authority that it is true, whatever it turns out to mean (pp. 38, 163-6, 174-85). We learn the meaning of the problematic terms from “inside” or “within” (cf. pp. 154-7, 161, 166). The reasoning that Matthews attributes to Augustine in support of this “semantic individualism” (cf. pp. 156-7, 164) applies exclusively to ostensive concepts (pp. 156-7). This will not support the intended scope of the doctrine – few of the relevant terms seem ostensive. It is also difficult to understand how we could learn truths about the meanings of linguistic expressions, as distinct from truths about the associated concepts, from inside.

Matthews does not attempt to explain how Augustine would have us understand the claim that semantic truths are learned from within, or from Christ, “the inner teacher” (pp. 154, 187; cf. p. 166). Though the metaphors in play are suggestive of innateness, this receives no attention. And Matthews has almost nothing to say about “illumination” (cf. pp. 161, n. 4, 173). He writes: “I agree with Etienne Gilson’s rather negative assessment of the attempts in the Augustinian tradition to find a philosophical doctrine of illumination in Augustine” (p. 173, n. 1). Gilson does reject medieval interpretations of illumination as a doctrine about concept formation and abstraction, but he offers an alternative, on which the doctrine is about judgment (The Christian Philosophy of St. Augustine, New York, New York: Random House, 1960, pp. 85ff.). Surely, we should at least try to explicate Augustine’s metaphors with reference to a position in the region of innateness, or illumination, or both (and explore linkages to views on a prioricity and necessity). To the extent that the inward search evinces a commitment to innateness, Augustine and Descartes have more in common than Matthews allows. These matters are helpfully discussed by Charles Taylor (Sources of the Self, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1989, Ch. 7).

A suggested interconnection between literary form and philosophical structure (pp. ix-x, 1-6, 150, 188-92) leads Matthews to explain away apparent counterexamples. Thus, Descartes’ Principles invites us “By admonition, … rather than by example, … to conduct a philosophical inquiry from the perspective of thought’s ego” (p. 189); “despite its literary form, … Augustine’s Soliloquies is not … structured according to thought’s ego” (pp. 191-2). Other difficult cases are overlooked. If a dialogue (Augustine’s On Free Choice of the Will) is supposed to preclude the first-person perspective (cf. p. 150), what are we to make of Descartes’ The Search For Truth?

Matthews takes interpretations of the cogito as a single intuition, inference, and performance to reflect noncompeting explanations of why one cannot doubt one’s own existence (pp. 24-5). Even if correct, this is of limited interest. Descartes’ reconstruction of knowledge requires, in addition to the cogito, the belief that I have an idea of an all-perfect being, beliefs about how I am appeared to perceptually, etc. Clearly, the performative interpretation does not generalize to these beliefs. This sort of limitation infects many discussions of the cogito.

Matthews refers to the questions “How do I know that I am not now dreaming?” and “How do I know that not all life is a dream?” as the “epistemological” and “metaphysical” dream problems, respectively (pp. 52-63 and 64-76). Since both problems are epistemological, this is confusing. Matthews’ identification of the metaphysical dream problem with “the problem of the external world” (p. 76; cf. p. 74) makes matters worse – the deceiver hypothesis offers grounds for scepticism distinct from a dream hypothesis. Matthews’ otherwise sympathetic treatment is marred by his distaste for Descartes’ appeal to the coherence of sensory experiences to explain how we can know that we are not dreaming at particular times (cf. pp. 58-60, 74, 77-8, 89, 203). There is an index of passages, though cited passages in Descartes’ correspondence are omitted. The reference to Taylor’s Sources of the Self should be page 133 rather than 113 (p. 37, n. 3).

LOUIS E. LOEB Department of Philosophy University of Michigan 2205 Angell Hall Ann Arbor Michigan 48109 USA

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