About the Author:
Sanford Budick is professor of English, chair of the department of English, and founding director of the Center for Literary Studies at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
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The Western Theory of TraditionTerms and Paradigms of the Cultural Sublime
By SANFORD BUDICK
Yale University PressCopyright © 2000 Yale University
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Cultural Sublime: Descartes, Kant, and Rembrandt
In this they appear to me similar to a blind man who wishes to fight on even terms with one who can see, and so brings him to the back of some very dark cellar. These people, I may say, are interested in my abstaining from the publication of my principles of philosophy; for since these are very simple and evident, I would be doing much the same to them as though I opened some windows and let the light of day enter into that cellar where they had descended to fight. -Descartes, Discourse on Method There is an interesting sadness, such as is inspired by the sight of some desolate place into which men might fain withdraw themselves so as to hear no more of the world without, and be no longer versed in its affairs, a place, however, which must yet not be so altogether inhospitable as only to afford a most miserable retreat for a human being.-I only make this observation as a reminder that even melancholy, (but not dispirited sadness,) may take its place among the vigorous affections, provided it has its root in moral ideas. -Kant, "Analytic of the Sublime"
As a way of first entering the world of experience that I call the cultural sublime, I seek to demonstrate that a hitherto unnoticed intimacy of consciousness links Descartes, Kant, and Rembrandt. These three figures can be understood as bound together by their connection with a particular place, namely, Amsterdam. Even work so unworldly as that of the philosophers may share worldly imagery with certain paintings by Rembrandt.
Descartes's record of the experience of his cogito ("I think, therefore I am") prompts us to search for a strange intimacy of this kind. Indeed, it provokes in us the deepest questions about what a shared intimacy of consciousness-perhaps the most powerful and the most difficult of all the implicit claims of cultural tradition-would have to entail. Bernard Williams has made clear that in Descartes's cogito the move from a consciousness of thinking to the existence of a thinker ("A is thinking") logically requires an impersonal formulation, but Descartes does not and cannot supply it. Achieving the "separateness" of an impersonal formulation, Williams argues, would imply "relativizing the content of the impersonally occurring thoughts." In other words, if a place could be found for the subject to stand outside first-person thoughts (such as the thought of the cogito), the relativized subject could prove that it thinks and hence that it exists substantively, beyond consciousness, where others might have access to it. But any such "literal place" or "concrete relativization ... even if it could fall short of requiring a subject who has the thoughts ... has to exist in the form of something outside pure thought.... The Cartesian reflection merely presents, or rather invites us into, the perspective of consciousness" (pp. 98-100).
Williams repeatedly suggests that "it is not at all clear that we really can grasp ... in the abstract" the difference between thought in Descartes's first-person form and thought in Williams's impersonal form (p. 96). Thus a concrete relativization might offer some unexpected clarity. In fact, the cue for my line of questioning is Williams's imagining for Descartes-to be sure, as a problem-a possible "relation between the 'I think' in the content of the thought" and "what is objectively involved in the state of affairs which constitutes its being thought" (p.100 ). As I interpret this suggestion, Williams wants to reconceive the relation of thought to its contents, such that the state of affairs being thought is not merely assumed but recognized as necessary. Following this interpretation, my informal proposal is that without the existence of Amsterdam and Rembrandt, Descartes's thoughts of himself would not be what they are. The cultural achievements of the Amsterdam of that period and of Rembrandt in his images are the conditions needed for Descartes's supposing of presence. These achievements liberate his thought from an illusory and perhaps fetishized immediacy and dispose it to a subjunctive mood that may well be the hallmark of what we think of as works, or the work, of culture. This disposition of thought amounts to a significant kind of freedom.
Informally, then, I propose that the semantic requirement that Williams sees in Descartes's cogito, but which Descartes does not satisfy, has a cultural realization. At the end of this chapter I will specify as nearly as I can the implications of this proposal for the materials I have presented.
Descartes lays special emphasis on freedom of choice as one kind of thinking. Even in the Second Meditation he includes affirming and denying, willing and rejecting, on his short list of what a thinking being thinks (PE, p.85). In the Fourth Meditation "volition" is said to be "the liberty of the free will"; moreover, it is the highest, the divine, mark of human thinking because it is the freedom to decide between "two contraries" while no "external force" constrains the mind. In the Discourse on Method, in Descartes's description of the moment when he came to his cogito, the central term for representing the thinking of freedom is resolving or choosing. After years of delay Descartes finally set down his system because he was "honest enough not to desire to be esteemed as different from what I am" (Works 1:100). In the same paragraph he commences to lay the groundwork of the sameness or repetition of his "I am" and does so by resolving. I refer to Descartes's first resolve ("resoudre" [p. 31]), which is to remove himself from all acquaintances, to Holland. In the following paragraph he again resolves ("resolus" [p. 32]), this time to choose the hyperbolic doubt of "everything that ever entered into my mind." This resolve is what makes possible the experience of the cogito itself.
It is striking that the first resolve sketches many, perhaps all, of the second resolve's principal elements, most especially something very like hyperbolic doubt:
 It is just eight years ago that this desire made me resolve to remove myself ["me fit resoudre a m'eloigner"] from all places where any acquaintances were possible, and to retire to a country such as this, where the long-continued war has caused such order to be established that the armies which are maintained seem only to be of use in allowing the inhabitants to enjoy the fruits of peace with so much the more security; and where, in the crowded throng of a great and very active nation, which is more concerned with its own affairs than curious about those of others, without missing any of the conveniences of the most populous towns, I can live as solitary and retired as in deserts the most remote ["j'ai pu vivre aussi solitaire et retire que dans les deserts les plus ecartes"]. (Works 1:100)
 I resolved ["resolus"] to assume that everything that ever entered into my mind was no more true than the illusions of my dreams. But immediately afterwards I noticed that whilst I thus wished to think all things false, it was absolutely essential that the "I" who thought this should be something.... remarking that this truth "I think, therefore I am" was so certain and so assured that all the most extravagant suppositions brought forward by the sceptics were incapable of shaking it. (Works 1:101)
How are we to understand the verb to resolve, either in the first resolve, which apparently describes no more than Descartes's account of his removal to Amsterdam, a place of estrangement, he says, where no acquaintances were possible; or, in the next paragraph, in his resolve to assume that everything that had ever entered his mind was no more true than the illusions of his dreams?
I propose that in his representation of the origins of his philosophy Descartes's resolve to experience hyperbolic doubt is occasioned by a line of representations-each of which lets us see its inadequacy as a representation-that together form a particular culture. By culture I mean no more or less than the patterns of cultural transmission specified by the works of given cultures. Focusing the term culture in the subterm cultural transmission is, I believe, commensurate with widely accepted usage. Clifford Geertz, for example, writes, "The culture concept to which I adhere has neither multiple referents nor, so far as I can see, any unusual ambiguity: it denotes an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life. Of course, terms such as 'meaning,' 'symbol,' and 'conception' cry out for explication. But that is precisely where the widening, the broadening, and the expanding come in."
Among other things, the present chapter explores the possibility that in a given history of culture the means of cultural transmission (or communication, perpetuation, bequeathing/inheriting, or development from one generation to another) already determine the meanings, symbols, and conceptions of that culture. If so, then the means of cultural transmission are central to what culture is.
I am therefore particularly concerned with the fact that Descartes resolves to remove himself not just to anywhere but to a culture transmitted by partially dispossessed representations. Already in his opening words he shows (although he camouflages it) that the line of transmission that he experiences in, or as, this culture holds open the opportunity of hyperbolic doubt, which enables his freedom of choice.
I wish to note certain symmetries among the representations that make up Descartes's first resolve. Each representation is dual. Each is constituted by delineating first a totality suggestive of great activity or even material turbulence and then a withdrawal from part of the totality, leaving a place of emptiness within the maelstrom. In ways that are not immediately clear, Descartes locates his "I am" in a line of points within vortices.
Descartes's first representation is of the peculiar activity of the Dutch: "a great and very active nation ... more concerned with its own affairs than curious about those of others. "The great, divided activity of Dutch life-that is, its active concern with worldly affairs side by side with its indifference to neighbors or acquaintances-is conserved by an equally paradoxical representation of armies that "seem only to be of use in allowing the inhabitants to enjoy the fruits of peace with so much the more security." Thus Descartes's resolve "to remove myself from all places where any acquaintances were possible, and to retire to a country such as this"-which is to say, to remove or withdraw or retire to "peace"-is formally symmetrical with the prior representations constituted by the paradox of self-immersion in the activity of the world and then, somehow as a result, withdrawal from it to the place where the condition of "I can live" is attained: "In the crowded throng of a great and very active nation ... I can live as solitary and retired as in deserts the most remote."
The continuing line of representations of subtraction in Descartes's first resolve already heralds his cogito with a veiled announcement from the depths of his withdrawal into a condition highly congenial and perhaps indispensable to his hyperbolic doubt. Into "les deserts les plus ecartes," that is, Descartes withdraws from everything but the pronouncement, by way of an anagram, of his own name: here "I ... live," or, here I am, in les deserts ecartes.
From this serially emptied place Descartes immediately sets out to represent his resolve to hyperbolic doubt. When in the first sentence of part 4 he speaks of "the first meditations there [y (p. )] made by me," he means the meditations experienced in les deserts ecartes, which is his thinking of freedom and his "I am," in other words, his cogito.
There is thus an indispensable continuity between the first and second resolves. The first is a series of representations of subtraction or removal, each of which reveals its own incompleteness of representation; thus each succeeding representation is chosen from the freedom of a nothingness (a space of withdrawal or occlusion) opened by a previous representation. Continually removed from all external objects or forces that might constrain his freedom of thinking and choosing, Descartes remains solitary, unconstrained, in the remotest desert, "there," and in this void his second, apparently more significant resolve is freely enacted.
Despite the very continuity of the representations that culminate in the freedom prerequisite to his cogito, Descartes will soon claim that an infinite series of representations must be denied or halted. He is well aware, however, of at least his initial experience of that continuity. In the Third Meditation he lays down the propositions "One idea gives birth to another idea" and "Ideas in me are like paintings or pictures" (PE, p. 98). But Descartes is silent about the kind of nothingness opened, in the Discourse at least, within each chosen representation (or painting or idea). Instead he ascribes the freedom of volition in his "present" moment of being to God's concursus (concurrence), which alone allows him to return from nothingness. Moreover, the concursus of God's being and his own nothingness is the very image in which the continuous "regress" of representations comes to a halt: "Step by step we finally arrive at an ultimate cause which will turn out to be God. And it is very obvious that in this case there cannot be an infinite regress, since it is not so much a question of the cause which produced me in the past as of that which conserves me in the present" (PE, p. 106). "To be conserved at every moment that it endures," Descartes explains, "a substance ... needs the same power and the same action which would be necessary to produce it and create it anew if it did not yet exist" (PE, p. 105). The scene of the concursus is therefore the most fateful moment imaginable for human being per se. God alone gives Descartes the present experience of both nothingness and being. To be created "at every moment ... anew" means to be created at every moment ex nihilo; hence at every moment every created thing must have just been nothing.
Excerpted from The Western Theory of Tradition by SANFORD BUDICK Copyright © 2000 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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