Sunday, 24 November 2013

Answering Descartes

Descartes sought for an indisputable first principle on which to base his philosophy, and concluded that “the proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind.” I think therefore I am. But where does the “I” come from, and to what does it refer? Thinking is certainly taking place, but all that is proven here is that thinking exists.

The foundation of thought is not “I am”—that is too specific, too hasty—but “something is” or “being is”. Being is that in which there can as yet be no distinction between what it is and the fact that it is—essence and existence. It is that whose nature is to exist. Everything else exists against the background of that necessity, a Presence or Principle which contains every possibility. And all human knowledge is rooted in the intuitive apprehension of being through a participation in the uncreated light of God’s own intellect. It is in this light that we contemplate the melody of nature, the thoughts of God expressed in creation, and the Logos holding it all together.

What of the “I”? My “I” comes from that same infinite being and is a reflection of it. Being must therefore be an “I”. We know this, because every effect is an expression of its cause. Being is the “I” that lies deep within my own “I”. It is the presence of the all-holy, the spark of divine light at the core of our being. When God names himself “I AM” (Exodus 3:13-15), he is in a sense only confirming the identity of transcendental Being with transcendental Selfhood. This is the deepest answer to Descartes, for the gap between the “I” and the action that manifests its existence (thinking) is overcome. The first act of being is also the beginning of “I”.

The word “I” also implies community. An “I” only exists as such in relation to the not-I. My own sense of identity is awoken when I feel called by another, another deep within myself. I am called to holiness, to perfection. But when an “I” is born, so is a “Thou” and a “We”—a communion of persons. And so “the divine name ‘I am’ is equivalent to an ‘I give myself wholly to a Thou,’ and ‘I am one with a Thou,’ and therefore also with a ‘We are’ ” (Edith Stein, Finite and Eternal Being, p. 350). The “I AM” of God, speaking to Moses, implies such a community, which is later revealed as a Trinity by the incarnation of the Word.

If we start with being, instead of the “I” proposed by Descartes, we will be able to resume the conversation he interrupted. It is the apprehension of being (as John Paul II indicated in Fides et Ratio) that is the foundation of philosophy and of all human thought. A less technical name for it is “wonder”. All philosophy begins in the awakening of the question as to why anything at all exists. To wonder in awe before the world that reveals itself to us is to open the door both to philosophy and to religion.

See also on this topic here. For more on the illustration go here.

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