Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Book Review: The Achilles of Rationalist Arguments

I just finished re-reading this book, having read it for one of my Master's theses. (Full bibliographical details: Ben Lazare Mijuskovic, The Achilles of Rationalist Arguments: The Simplicity, Unity, and Identity of Thought and Soul from the Cambridge Platonists to Kant: A Study in the History of an Argument. Archives Internationales d'Histoire des Idees Minor, vol 13. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1974.) It's on the development and use of a particular philosophical argument throughout history, but primarily in the early Modern era. The Simplicity Argument is the claim that, "The essential nature of the soul consists in its power of thinking; thought, being immaterial, is unextended, i.e., simple (having no parts); and what is simple is (a) indestructible; (b) a unity; and (c) an identity." In the first chapter, Mijuskovic traces the argument back to Plato in the Phaedo, where Socrates argues that "in order for the soul to grasp the essence of immaterial forms, in knowledge, it must itself share in the attribute of immateriality." Aristotle also argues for the soul's immateriality, but interestingly, Mijuskovic does not employ the most obvious text to demonstrate this, namely, De Anima, but uses the Metaphysics instead. He doesn't appeal much to Medieval philosophy because he doesn't think the argument developed much in this time, but I would have liked to see how this argument related to the position of divine illumination, that human knowledge requires a direct link to God in order to be valid.

The meat of the book, however, is the middle three chapters where he demonstrates how the Simplicity Argument was used to argue for the immortality of the soul, the unity of consciousness, and the identity of the (moral) self with thought. Mijuskovic really shows an in-depth knowledge of early Modern philosophy, appealing to most of the great philosophers of this era and even popular-level writers -- the latter to demonstrate how deeply the argument had permeated society at the time. It's interesting how some thinkers employed the argument for one of its uses but not for the others, like Descartes. He also points out how Locke argued (following Hobbes) that matter may be able to think, and so thought is not necessarily immaterial. But it should be pointed out that Locke argued that thought could not be explained simply as matter in motion: God had to "superadd" thought onto matter in order for the "matter can think" thesis to be possible (on this, see this essay and this essay by Margaret Wilson).

The most interesting of these chapters, for me, was on the unity of consciousness. Mijuskovic summarizes the Simplicity Argument's use here as follows:

The argument from the simplicity of thought and its postulation as the "transcendental" condition for the unity of consciousness most often occurs in opposition to the Epicurean-Hobbesian principle that senseless matter can think; and the argument always refers to the peculiar nature of consciousness and, especially, of selfconsciousness. Thus, for instance, the rationalist tradition involved in this epistemological aspect of the simplicity theory constantly stresses the idea that either all consciousness is actually selfconsciousness; or that there is something special, "rational," about selfconsciousness which essentially distinguishes it from mere sensation, perception, or consciousness. And that even if perception might conceivably be explained on Epicurean grounds, selfconsciousness could never be so understood. Furthermore, unless different "thoughts" or concepts inhered in something essentially unified and simple, they would fall apart and crumble into distinct pieces and a disunity of consciousness would thereby result. But the fact that we cannot divide our idea of, say, blue into pieces as we can partition a blue object demonstrates that there is something different in principle between ideas and objects; and if there were not, stones could think and reason as readily as minds. Thus unless consciousness were unified by something intrinsically simple, and therefore necessarily a unity (for what is simple must be a unity), sensation, perception, cognition, awareness, memory, reason, etc., would all be impossible.

He also goes over Hume's skepticism regarding the unity of consciousness and the soul's identity in some detail, concluding with an interesting point reminiscent of the Argument from Reason: "It may be noted, however, that Hume's ultimate scepticism concerning the self is, paradoxically enough, based on the reflexive character of thought, on selfconsciousness."

The final chapter goes over the argument's role in the development of Idealism. Mijuskovic argues that Kant's claim that space is merely an appearance is not based -- or at least is not solely based -- on his antinomies but also on the Simplicity Argument (indeed, it was Kant who referred to this argument as Rationalism's "Achilles").

In what ultimately may be traced back to "Platonic," "Aristotelian," "Neoplatonic," or "Cartesian" sources, the principle that both thoughts and minds are unextended seems to lead philosophically to a conclusion which states that whatever "appears in" or "belongs to" the mind also must be thereby necessarily unextended. For in whatever fashion we contrast or distinguish thoughts and minds (and term the former the attributes or accidents and the latter the substances, or if we identify the two) the important consideration revolves around the recognition of the essentially unextended nature of thoughts and minds. And if both thoughts and minds are incorporeal, and the immaterial is identified with the unextended ... then it follows that everything which is cognitively apprehended by the mind must likewise by essentially unextended. And indeed, even the common man -- who may be tempted to say figuratively that a thought is deep in meaning or that his cares weigh him down -- would find it literally meaningless to speak of an idea two feet deep or a pound in weight.

He concludes by pointing to some possible influences of this argument on 20th century philosophy, such as Husserlian phenomenology, and its relevance for combating certain reductivist philosophies, such as Behaviorism and Materialism. Overall it's an interesting book and a valuable contribution to the history of ideas.


Anonymous said...

Hi Jim. Just discovered your blog and bookmarked it for reading. Very interesting stuff. Say, I recall reading in Margaret Wilson's Descartes that she said he was (paraphrasing from memory) "alone among 16th century philosophers in that he didn't believe that thought could inhere in matter". But she never explained and I was totally baffled by that. Any idea what she might have meant? I am aware that Locke started a "thinking matter" debate, but that still doesn't tell me what she meant. Do you have any idea?


Jim S. said...

Hi Mark, thanks for the comment. I'm certainly not a scholar of Modern Philosophy, so I'm not really sure what Wilson might have meant by that. I mean, Descartes argued for a strong form of dualism, but that the mind and body were united. So how could thought not inhere in matter if the mind could (by inhabiting a particular body)?

Off the top of my head it sounds like she's ascribing to Descartes a position something along the lines of Aristotle's: that thought can be associated with no particular organ, because if it were it would be conditioned by that organ and could no longer "become all things." But Descartes held that the pineal gland was the point of contact between the mind and body, so that presumably won't do. I just don't know.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for taking a stab at it. It's comforting to know I'm not the only one that is baffled. I didn't associate it with the idea of a mind inhabiting matter, but then I guess it all depends on what is meant by "inhere".

I confess I haven't read Wilson's entire book yet, but I will eventually. In my first phil class a prof had us read Yolton's "Thinking Matter" idea about Locke's idea, and at the time my understanding (and other's historically as well) was something akin to whether a rock could think if God "superadded" this capability. Of course the answer we came up with was "no" it wasn't ontologically possible, but some years later reflection I'm not sure we really got the subtleties or purpose of the question. In many ways the debate revolved as much about the nature of matter as anything and I was clueless of that at the time. I'll revisit it some day. Thanks again.