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Marc Champagne “What Anchors Semiosis: How Descartes Changed the Subject”

Champagne, Marc 2008. What Anchors Semiosis: How Descartes Changed the Subject. Recherches Sémiotiques / Semiotic Inquiry 28(3-1): 183-197.

To recapture the truly revolutionary scope of Descartes’ inluence, we have to consider the curiously bifurcated semantics of the term “subjective”. The Collins English Dictionarycontains two deinitions in its entry. On the one hand, “subjective” is described as “the grammatical case in certain languages that identiies the subject of a verb”. On the otherhand, it is said to be “of or based on a person’s emotions or prejudices”. These incommensurate meanings are an archaeological trace, a scar that bears silent witness to a severe paradigmatic tear. At the risk of oversimplifying, the irst acceptation owes mainly to Aristotle, and the second to Descartes. (185)

By retreating strictly to what is phenomenally present before the mind, Descartes deliberately casts aside this long-standing way of viewing the world in favour of an agent-centred viewpoint, one which willbecome a deining staple of philosophical Modernity. (186)

[…] Aristotle introduced a very inluential distinction between “matter” and “form”. Exploiting an analogy with a sculpture refashioned into various shapes, he adduced matter as the source of whatever “thisness” stays constant throughout the change, concomitantly letting the form imposed on that matter account for the “suchness” that undergoes modiications from one moment to another. (187)

All we need retain for the purposes at hand is the idea that, in the Aristotelian conception, what anchors the succession of states is the substantial subject. According to this theory, there is an ontological substrate which carries a given thing’s various properties (see Lisska 2010 : 144). (187)

As Aristotle explains : it is plain that there must be something underlying, namely, that which becomes. For when a thing comes to be of such a quantity or quality or in such a relation, time, or place, a subject is always presupposed, since substance alone is not predicated of another subject, but everything else of substance. (Ibid.: 325) (188)

What we ind in the well-known remarks about the melting piece of wax is a drastic revision of the notion of “subject”. (189)

[…] the idea of “subjectivity” as pertaining to a grammatical subject — which includes but is not limited to the irst-person pronoun— goes back to a bygone ontology of substances. Unlike the construal of the subject as that which apprehends, this more archaic sense of the word pertains to that which is apprehended. Our grammar still attests to this Aristotelian thesis. (189)

We can thus say that Aristotle’s “subject” is the “it” lying in the world, whereas Descartes’ “subject” is narrower and is limited solely to the singular and incorporeal“I”. (189)

Of course, once a thing’s predicates are stripped away, it is not altogether clear what — if anything — remains. The only plausible candidate seems to be that extension through space is the one primitive that cannot be eliminated. In his 1634 The World (Descartes 1985 : 90-92), Descartes endorses an arid quantitativeontology akin to what one would ind in a purely geometrical universe. But at this point in his investigations, Descartes is more preoccupied with the still more problematic question of how one could come to know this sort of bare extension. Seeing how the senses each latch onto qualitative properties that shift and replace one another, what faculty can possibly allow us to gain insight into the residual presence that is left over? (190-191)

Note that the level of insight into the wax’s true nature depends not on the thing itself, but on the degree of care and rigour with which the “thinking thing” ponders it. (191)

[…] the senses provide us with a qualitative spectacle, but it is the unaided intellect which grasps quantitative aspects like extension. And since such extended space is in the inal analysis all that bodies consist in, Descartes holds that only mental scrutiny gives us insight into the nature of things. (191-192)

In the Aristotelian scheme defended and expanded by Latin thinkers like John Poinsot, experiential predicates like hot, soft, and pungent were united by and anchored to a worldly “subject” in the archaic dictionary sense outlined earlier. In the new Cartesian scheme, it is a mental “subjectivity” which gathers these qualities and judges them to appertain to a common spatial region. Predicates are therefore notthe gateway to a clear and distinct knowledge of things. Much the contrary, since they can morph to the point of unrecognizability, they obscure and distort the true essence of a thing, which is its inert spatial extension. It is the unaided intellect of the thinking subject which attains a true knowledge of the nature of things, and it does so by putting aside the unclear and indistinct qualitative distortions of the phenomenal field
and relying solely on the ironclad verdicts of rationality. (192)

Instead of a plurality of worldly subjects, intelligibility is now beholden to a singular mental subject. Descartes’ relections on the piece of wax can thus (in hindsight) be seen as the precise locus of this paradigmatic rupture (it would be interesting to pinpoint the exact date when Descartes sat in front of his ireplace with wax). (193)

Indeed, by the time we reach the irst edition of the Critique of Pure Reason in 1781, Hobbes’ proposed terminology has become the norm, such that Kant no longer feels it necessary to mention any departure from the once-accepted scholastic usage : “I, as a thinking being, am the absolute subjectof all my possible judgments, and this representation of Myself cannot be used as the predicate of any other thing” (Kant 1998 : 415-416 [emphasis in original]). (194)

Although the task of pinpointing the precise date when this shift manifested itself in natural linguistic usage is best left to lexicographers, I have proposed that the philosophicalrupture from the subject-construedas-a-worldly-thing to the subject-construed-as-a-solipsist-mentalactivity can be traced back to Descartes’ introspective relections on the piece of wax. (194)

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