I have written a great deal, no doubt a bit repetitively, about the scene in Exodus 3 where God gives his “name” to Moses as a declarative sentence, ehyeh asher ehyeh. This is a passage that Martin Buber (Moses: The Revelation and the Covenant, Harper, 1946) considered essential, although this does not appear to be the judgment of contemporary specialists, one of whom, when I suggested that this sentence was the key to Hebrew monotheism, replied that, yes, it is an interesting passage.
Similarly, the origin of philosophy/metaphysics in Plato’s ontologization of predicates like “the Good” was also a grant of ontological fundamentality to the “proposition” or declarative sentence. Heidegger’s critique of metaphysics as a flight from “being” is best understood in our terms as a denunciation of Plato’s disconnection of language from its originary source in the ostensive. (Given the kind of political system Heidegger thought most faithful to the ostensive roots of human culture, one is tempted to side with Plato.)
Thus the Hebrews and the Greeks discovered at much the same time that the form of “mature” language that people had been using for many millennia was the instrument of an “objective” knowledge independent of the immediate world of the ritual altar (and not simply of “immediacy” or “presence” in general, since it is only in advanced “secular” cultures that we can conceive of this kind of immediacy independently of the surrounding ritual world in which all humans once lived). Just as the Hebrew God has no name that can be pointed to indexically, so the Platonic Good is not indexical either, that is, it cannot be designated with respect to one or another individual, but exists as an object of predication independently of the who or the where of the utterance that contains it. The Hebrew version of this revelation does not deny its religious, centered nature, but it reveals that this centrality is a function, not a locus, so that, as Pascal would later put it, le centre est partout, la circonférence nulle part. Plato’s Ideas are not, like God, assigned the responsibility for their own existence, but they are accessible to us through human language even if their linguistic provenance is not explicitly recognized. Philosophy is born when language becomes able to provide, via the Ideas, the guarantee of the Way of Truth.
One connection I had never thought to make in this reflection on our civilization’s linguistic origins was with the far more recent Cartesian cogito, arguably the definitive gesture of modern, post-classical philosophy. Yet, when you think about it, God’s declaration to Moses, unlike Plato’s arguments, or rather myths, concerning the substantive nature of the Ideas, is already a cogito. Thus Descartes’ achievement, accomplished when the Hebrew and Greek currents were already fully mixed, should be understood as the application to the individual soul of what had already been accomplished in, or better put, attributed to, the mind of God. In GA terms, Descartes awarded to the human individual’s internal scene of representation the dignity of the public scene centered on God as a secure locus of Being.
The Hebrew cogito, whenever this “autoprobatory” revelation occurred, is the point of departure for the Exodus, which we may understand as the Hebrews’ exit from the “compact” society of the Egyptian empire, and in linguistic terms, from the ostensive-imperative world of archaic religion. God is first revealed at the center of an ostensive scene, but the Hebrews were first to realize that the ostensive may be understood post factum as the first step toward the linguistic objectivity of the declarative, which comes in the biblical text with the renouncement of the name-of-God that was the original signifier. The Cartesian cogito demonstrates that the human individual’s internal scene of representation is equivalent to the originary, public scene on which significance, or simply being, manifests itself. For even if the truth-value of all one’s thoughts be false, one cannot deny that he in his language-using soul is the thinker of these thoughts. Cogito, ergo sum; I think, therefore I am expresses this argument.
The similarity to God’s Exodus pronouncement is striking. In both cases, the copula is used without making a normal predication. Je suis, or sum, is not normally spoken alone; we don’t go around saying “I am,” and even less, “I am that/what I am.” God, of course, does not doubt his own existence; he is giving his “name” as Being itself. Similarly, for Descartes, the point is not reasoning but being, more exactly, being a locus of being, a being that thinks and is therefore in possession of such a locus. This is made clearer in the second Meditation variant of the cogito, composed four years after the first (1641 as opposed to 1637) where the author leaves out the reasoning and simply affirms his being on the basis of his act of thinking as “an attribute . . . that alone cannot be detached from me. Je suis, j’existe.” (Descartes, Oeuvres philosophiques, Garnier, 1963: II, 418; italics in the original.)
The cogito once derived, Descartes develops its consequences:
Then, examining with attention what I was, and seeing that I could feign that I had no body, and that there was no world, nor any place in which I was; but that I could not feign, for all that, that I was not; and that on the contrary, from the very fact that I thought to doubt the truth of these other things, it followed very evidently and very certainly that I was; whereas, if I had only ceased to think, even if all the rest of what I had ever imagined had been true, I would have had no reason to believe that I had been. I knew from this that I was a substance whose whole essence or nature was solely to think, and which, in order to be, does not require any locus [place] nor depend on any material thing. From which I conclude [De sorte que] that this self, that is, the soul by which I am what I am [italics mine], is entirely distinct from the body, and even that it is easier to know than this body, and that even if the body were not, the soul would not cease to be all that it is. (Discours de la méthode, part 4. ibid: I, 603-04)
This passage has long been read within the philosophical tradition as an assertion of Descartes’ “dualistic” separation of the soul from the body. But in the light of the originary hypothesis, what is of interest here is that the primary characteristic of human being is the possession of language. Descartes’ soul is “immaterial” in just the sense in which signs are immaterial, not because they are made of some “spiritual” substance but because their ontology is simply different from that of worldly objects (a point I trust GA allows us to understand in an altogether unmystical way). The soul is the seat of language, and without language, representation through signs, Descartes would subsist in a pre-human world without being—not of course because he or anything else would not (yet?) exist, but because there would be no one to confer being on them, although we may prefer to conceive God as having already done this. We cannot help noticing that in his full statement of being, Descartes repeats God’s words from Exodus: je suis ce que je suis. His identity with himself, by which his personal “identity” is constituted, is inseparable from his being able to say it—although unlike God, he does not imply that this is all that may be said about him.
In contrast with philosophical exegeses, GA explains Descartes’ text in terms of language as an anthropological reality. The philosophers ponder whether Descartes has “proved” his existence, whether his philosophy’s first principle is je suis or perhaps the donc/ergo of reasoning. For the thinking derived from the originary hypothesis, “I think, therefore I am” confers being on him who possesses an internal scene of representation. That is, instead of understanding the cogito in an existential sense: I think, therefore I exist, that is: I feel myself existing when I think, it should be understood rather as: I think, therefore I possess the wherewithal of thinking, which is the internal scene of representation, on which I can imagine all kinds of falsehoods inspired by Satan or just by fatigue, dreams, etc., but where I cannot conceive my not-being, since it is the scene itself rather than any specific thought that is the locus of being.
This plausibly explains why in the Meditations, Descartes avoided repeating the reasoning of the cogito. His phrase “je suis, j’existe” indeed sounds existential, as though expressing his excitement at “feeling himself exist.” Yet Descartes is not a man of the 20th century. His enthusiasm in discovering his being is better understood as reflecting the fact that the real point of the cogito is not its “logical” deduction (ergo, donc, therefore) but the understanding that thinking demonstrates being because possessing a scene of thinking is participating in being, not in some Heideggerian-mystified sense, but simply because being is what entities “have” by virtue of appearing on the scene of human representation, and the verb “to think” that describes the activity of the scene has a subject who both “has” the scene and appears on it. In a word, “thinking” is nothing but the internal use of language. Before we can speak to others, we must be able to “speak” to ourselves. The “aborted gesture of appropriation” is not merely a communication to our fellows; it is in the first place, insofar as it is a sign and intended as a sign, the externalization of a thought.
As Descartes’ opposite number Pascal would point out a generation later, humans in knowing themselves to exist also know their mortality. L’homme est un roseau pensant, a “thinking reed,” a mortal user of immortal words, in using which he expresses his impermanence in relation to them. Indeed, Descartes’ cogito is not meant as a demonstration of human autonomy but, on the contrary, of his dependence on God, who, once his own existence is “proven,” must be understood to guarantee the generally truthful content of our sensations, even if we are occasionally tempted by false appearances. Descartes attempts to demonstrate the existence of God by a variant of St. Anselm’s famous “ontological proof” (of which he was apparently unaware): if he can conceive a being possessing all the “perfections” that he lacks, this thought must itself have come from this more perfect being, whom he can then understand to be God.
We do not find convincing this argument from “perfection,” even when he tightens it with the assertion that existence is itself a perfection, so that the most perfect being that we can conceive must exist. As a piece of logical reasoning, the argument is simply absurd, of a piece with the counter-arguments of atheists who generate analogous “proofs” that “God does not exist.” Yet if we understand it, once more, in the context of the originary hypothesis, the relationship between perfection and thinking becomes less arbitrary. The first thought, the object of the first utterance, is the one significant being, the sacred, interdicted central object. Its “perfection,” in the first place from the participants’ perspective, is precisely its arousal of, yet inaccessibility to, desire, which maintains it in a new, extra-worldly, cultural space separate from the natural world of appetite, and this “vertical” transcendence confers on it a quality that trumps all worldly qualities, and that we conceive as “perfection.” This is a perfection that at the origin definitely includes existence, for the sacred center is not an abstraction but a central object, one that had to be consumable in order to become sacred in the first place. (Later “post-sacrificial” religion will teach us that this quality is ultimately detachable from appetitive satisfaction; one cannot live on a diet of communion wafers.)
That the quality of God’s holiness is described by the philosopher in spatio-temporal terms as “infinite, eternal, immutable…” (607) should not be understood literally; when Descartes calls God “infinite,” does he really mean to attribute to him spatial dimensions? But if God is the original unique signified of language, his “perfection” is more simply understood in terms of Durkheim’s dichotomy of sacred and profane, meaningful and meaningless, horizontal and vertical. God is “perfectly” meaningful in contrast to the meaningless of all the rest, absolute in contrast to all beings within the world of space and time.
Thus God ultimately guarantees the world within which the individual demonstrates his existence independently of faith. But the fact remains that the demonstration that is the cogito requires only the thinking soul of the individual, whose ontological dependency is deduced from the cogito itself. Whence Pascal thought of his precursor as a functional atheist, whose conception of God was essentially that of Spinoza, a purely abstract being whose “perfections” are qualities of the scene of representation rather than of the “living God” of a true Christian. But if we understand the scene of language as coeval with our concept of God, then we must conceive the cogito as itself a product of this scene. Once we realize that reasoning of any kind involves language, and that language is not an abstract potentiality but the essential mode of human interaction, we have no difficulty in describing Descartes’ reasoning in anthropological terms. We may then situate Pascal’s objection within the scope of humanity’s dependence on the history of the revelations through which we discover new truths about the originary scene. Descartes’ abstract notion of God is derived from the substantive God-concept of the Hebrews, subsequently personalized or better, “impersoned” by Christ. Pascal, as a faithful Christian, foregrounds this religious truth, whereas Descartes is concerned to seek a minimal core of religious belief that he can demonstrate on the basis of experience. GA does not “resolve” this difference, but it is the sole mode of thought that allows us to understand both sides of the issue as different ways of recalling human dependence on the (same) originary scene.
God’s “cogito” tells us that he has no name, and more generally, that he has no discrete “qualia” that can be pointed to. His only quality is being itself, but not just being-as-such, or “existence” in whatever form, as though he had just said “I am,” but being-himself. Nothing particular can be predicated of God because he is being-as-selfhood, and thus his own predicate. If we recall the derivation of the declarative from the imperative in The Origin of Language, God furnishes the predicate as a way of situating himself on the “other scene” of language when he cannot be accessed by the interlocutor of the imperative. God’s tautological sentence defines this “other scene” as independent of the real world and its qualities, understandable only as, or by analogy to, the self-substantiality of “mature” declarative language that is or reflects his self-substantiality. That is, the ostensive presence of God is superseded in our understanding by this universalpresence that the linguistic entity of the declarative permits us to grasp.
The Cartesian cogito is different because it does not seek to (un)define the “name” of God but to establish the “being” of the self. Of course we “know” we exist via Sartre’s “pre-reflexive” cogito; in terms of the “sentiment of existence” we don’t need a logical conclusion. What Descartes is doing in dismissing doubt is to access through his own experience the Parmenidian “way of truth” that is the basis of all (metaphysical) philosophy. “Thinking” is making use of one’s internal scene of representation. Humans, philosophers above all, had always done this, but before Descartes, in thinking even about the processes of thought (“logic”) they had notthought about the scene of representation on which thought takes place.
Descartes, the quintessential modern philosopher, instead of frequenting the agora like Socrates, prepared his Discours de la méthode by locking himself in his room. He was in fact more a mathematician than a philosopher, more interested in logical reasoning for its own sake than, as the Greek philosophers all were, in the survival of the polis. Descartes’ age was that of Faust, Montaigne, Don Juan, Don Quixote—the first “modern” egos touched by what would come to be called the “Protestant ethic” of the market system, the system of exchange that obliges its participants to possess a model of the system and its “infinite” possibilities within themselves, since its configuration cannot be grasped and handed down as a general law. This was a world where doubt, fear of being deceived by one’s senses and one’s reasonings, reflected the loss of ritual meaning from socio-economic transactions. Without claiming that the cogito depends on a spiritual context such as Calvinist predestination or the Jansenist concept of grace as a rare gift of which we cannot become aware before death, we can say that the modern self has to be sure of its resources. And of these, the most fundamental, the basis of its famous ability to master nature, is its “being” as a user of human language, a participant on the scene of representation, a scenic context already in Descartes’ day no longer sustained primarily through ritual-liturgical acts, but by acts of individual judgment. The idea that the isolated self remains nonetheless connected to the human scene of representation is the source of Descartes’ assurance that the universe he faces is one made for him by God, the guarantor of being-for-humanity.
Descartes was never concerned to construct an anthropological scene of origin. Yet the intuition of an individual scene of representation was a liberating concept that allowed such thinkers as Descartes’ contemporary Hobbes to conceive of the anthropological model of the “social contract,” the scene on which a number of independent human individuals join in a communal decision to liberate themselves from the “state of nature.” The nascent scenic imagination of the Early Modern era had as its prerequisite a concept of the human individual whose ability to think, that is, to participate in human culture, was guaranteed not by the community but by his own internal scene, consciousness of which preceded awareness of the unifying being of God. The cogito is a key stage in the evolution of human self-consciousness toward awareness of its scenic nature.