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Marshall Brown “I Think, Therefore I Feel”

Brown, Marshall 2017. I think, therefore I feel. In: Brodsky, Claudia; LaBrada, Eloy (eds). Inventing Agency. Essays on the Literary and Philosophical Production of the Modern Subject. Bloomsbury Academic

Latin usage limits the meaning of “cogito” to judgments, excluding anything that might be considered mere intuitions or reveries. A thinking thing – res cogitans – is a rational animal. Being stands in some sort of relation of implication to judgment. But judgment must stand in some relationship to a judging mind. If thinking could be merely daydreaming, then it might be lodged almost anywhere. Animals might think, or (as some ecocritics now assert) even plants.

Kant’s Copernican revolution put the question of identity front and center. The Kantian world of experience is constituted by transcendental conditioning – by the pure forms of sensible intuition governing perceptions of space and time and by the categories of the understanding that make consciousness possible. It is not clear whether the conception of the transcendental ego defined being or simply displaced it into an indefinite intellectual region. But in any event it turned Descartes upside down by beginning philosophy with beings rather than with thinking. And what Kant posits as a starting point becomes – or, indeed, had already become – a focal point in imaginative writings. Selfhood is a mysterious, indefinite or even infinite “I am”; it is known before being understood. It dawns; it does not result.

The sentiment of being is nothing without a sensing self, and for Wordsworth it entails specifically not Rousseau’s thoughtlessness but a feeling thought that recovers what, otherwise, might be “lost”: the lost cannot be found in knowledge, that is, not in cognition, but rather in a feeling thought that touches the heart. And while Rousseau denies taking the trouble to think, he opens the Reveries by asserting his unique existence – “Me voici donc seul sur la terre” (“here am I, then, alone on earth”)  – and, a short paragraph later, his existence as a thinker: “et plus je pense à ma situation présente …” (“and the more I think on my present situation”).

As Michel Serres has reiterated more poetically than anyone else since, everything flows, panta rhei, and thought is, by consequence, “steeped”, that is, immersed, were it only in being surrounded by “steep and lofty cliffs” that willy-nilly impress “thoughts” in a self that dreams of merely feeling.

Sense, life, and joy mingle to constitute the intellect that links our existence to the world. Feeling is linked to thinking, but thinking remains an anti-Cartesian state that is independent of judging. “An intellectual charm” is not cogitation. (of Wordsworth)

Well before Wordsworth, in fact barely a year after the Reveries appeared, Kant’s Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysic had echoed Rousseau’s feeling of self. Kant here restates the Cartesian principle as follows: “Nun scheint es, als ob wir in dem Bewusstsein unserer selbst (dem denkenden Subjekt) dieses Substantiale haben, und zwar in einer unmittlebaren Anschauung” (“Now it seems as if we have this substantial [self] in the consciousness of ourselves [in the thinking subject], and indeed in an immediate intuition”). But then a footnote defining “das absolute Subjekt” (“the absolute subject”) turns the tables on Descartes: it says that the absolute subject or the pure apperception of the self, is “ein Gefühl eines Daseins ohne den mindesten Begriff” (“a feeling of an existence without the slightest concept”). This sounds like Rousseau trumping Descartes. However, the note turns back on Rousseau to claim that the feeling of self is, after all, “nur Vorstellung desjenigen, worauf alles Denken in Beziehung (relatione accidentis) steht” (“only a representation of that to which all thinking stands in relation”).

The ground of thinking both is and is not itself a thought. Thinking and feeling are two sides of one coin. Indeed, and essay a decade later, “On a Recently Emergent Superior Tone in Philosophy”, heaps scorn on a “Philosophie aus Gefühlen” […] and on the demand of “die allerneueste deutsche Weisheit …, durchs Gefühl zu philosophieren” (“the very latest German wisdom, to philosophize through feeling”). While I cannot think without being steeped in feeling, feeling is not independent of thought. Hence the implicit new syllogism: I think, therefore I feel.

In the Cartesian syllogism, the “I am” and the “I think” are mutually self-confirming. But they are so only under the condition of presupposing an enduring I that is the thing that thinks, and that is. Thinking and being are nothing in themselves; they must inhere in something. But that ego is a mystery. In terms of Descartes’s early remark that he ascended the stage of the world masked, the person is a persona. To be at thing, it would have to have a separate existence or nature. But Descartes is clear that the being of the ego is coterminous with its thoughts. The syllogism is true, as he says in the Meditations, “quoties a me profetur, vel mente concipitus” (“each time I utter it, or conceive it in my mind”), but only so long as he is uttering or conceiving it.

The Romantic sense of self teases apart the ego from its thoughts, engendering the mixed feelings of inexpressible satisfaction in autonomous existence with inexplicable sadness or even grief at separation.

“Dubito, ergo sum” has long been considered Descartes’s alternative version of his syllogism. Thinking and doubting are, at bottom, one. “I think, therefore I feel” links the intensity of selfhood to its uncertainty. Uncertainty is anxiety, inscrutability, potential, all three in ever-varying ration. Descartes is unraveled: he is rescued by being overcome. Any change is a transformation, and any transformation a deformation. That is how history moves, and seldom so radically as when the Romantics consumed Descartes, digested him, and transformed him into nourishment for a new spirit.

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