Descartes' sketch

On Understanding

Descartes' sketch
René Descartes’ sketch of how a rainbow is formed

Our course is now turning its attention to a simple question: how do we know?

In this section of the course we’ll be considering responses to this simple question presented by René Descartes (born in France in 1596, died in Sweden in 1650), John Locke (born in England in 1632, died there in 1704), George Berkeley (born in Ireland in 1685, died in England in 1753), David Hume (born in Scotland in 1711, died there in 1776), and Immanuel Kant (born in what is now called Russia in 1724, died there in 1804).

Each of these men (although I will draw from their contemporary women, such as Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia, Margaret Cavendish, and Catherine Trotter Cockburn) has played a significant role in how the Occident has understood itself and the world around it and they’ve each contributed to laying the philosophical concerns of the modern era. During this two hundred-year period the concept of Christendom gave way to the modern nation-state, the move from the Age of Reason to the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution. We will look on this period of transformation from a perspective heavily informed by the terms and language used by Immanuel Kant.

Kant categorized the thinkers who flourished during the period under consideration here as being in two camps: the Rationalists (here we will read Descartes) and the Empiricists (we look to the British wing, typified by Locker, Berkeley, and Hume). It should be recognized that each of the individuals I’ve named here had a multiplicity of concerns and what I am presenting here is for the purpose of better fleshing-out what the title of this course, “Ways of Knowing,” actually means. We’ve previously discussed the branches of Philosophy and you will likely recall that Epistemology is that body of our discipline that is concerned with how we can know anything.

How do we know that we don’t know something?
What kind of sense does that statement make?

Here, then we should reconsider how we understand the words we use to comprehend the world around us.

Understanding, as we typically use it today in the States, adequately describes what we intend by the term, of course. With the word “understanding” we typically intimate a sense of our mind’s grasping the things that our attention attends toward. But, just as we saw with the term “reason,” the term has a history and is a matter of cultural transmission.

Plato distinguished between νόησιϛ (noēsis) and διάνοια (dianoia). Noēsis included a sense of intellectual vision while dianoia pointed to the kind of knowledge that comes through principles like what we expect of reasoning. The distinction between intellectus and ratio in Latin also carries a similar sense to the Greek. In French the term for “understanding” is entendrement, but our English term is more like the German term Verstand (from stehen, “to stand up”).

From Denis Thouard’s “Understanding” in Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon, edited by Barbara Cassin, translations edited by Emily Apter, Jacques Lezra, and Michael Wood (page 1186):

In English, “understanding” does a better job than French or German of preserving the idea of comprehension; thus in Hobbes, it is the capacity, “in a man, out of the words, contexture, and other circumstances of language, to deliver himself from equivocation, and to find out the true meaning of what is said” (Human Nature, chap. 5, §8). Similarly in Locke, although the more general sense of “power of perception” is dominant (Essay, bk. 2, chap. 21, para. 5), it can be analyzed as
1) perception of ideas in our minds,
2) perception of the meaning of signs, and
3) perception of the agreement or disagreement between our ideas.
The semiotic dimension remains, even in the dichotomy between understanding and will tends to mask it. Furthermore, while Descartes, Spinoza, Malebranche, and Leibniz consider finite understanding by distinction with, but also with reference to, infinite understanding, for Locke it it rather a matter of direct inspection of the understanding as a specifically human capacity, as the title of the Essay itself reveals. The same is true for Hume (Enquiries concerning Human Understanding, 1758). The understanding, in English, is decidedly human, and it is also as a finite power that it appears in Germany [….] We may note that Kant’s teacher in Königsberg, Martin Knutzen, had Locke’s essay translated into German by the orientalist Georg David Kypke, whose house Kant shared (Anleitung des menschlichen Verstandes, 1755).

Let’s turn our attention now to René Descartes and his the first two of his Meditations.

Earlier we read Zhuangzi and encountered his butterfly dream. The presentation of this dream forces us to ask why we feel so confident we know what mean when we say that our waking lives are real and our dreams are fantasies. On what grounds do we establish what is real? How do we know that this is real? It’s sensible to dismiss the question because obviously this is really happening right now. But how do we know that? What part(s) of us establishes this?

Click here to continue our lesson about Descartes. We’ll define ontology and discuss the distinction between extensional and intensional objects.