Cogito, the Unfinished Project

Descartes developed the idea of cogito in much a noir fashion. He introduces a crack in the ontologically consistent universe, a hypothesis that an evil genius who dominates me and pulls the strings of what I see as reality, like the Tyrell corporation in Blade Runner. But for Descartes, he understands cogito as res congitans, a small piece of the world, one of the representations. Descartes’ investigation still focuses on representations. He does not yet conceive of the cogito in relation to the whole of reality, as a point out of reality, but only as a representation that leads us to other representations.

Kant claims that all judgments are ways of thinking “the relation of a subject to the predicate”.1 In both the analytical judgment “all bodies are extended” and the synthetic a priori judgment “all bodies are heavy”, the judgments have to be prefixed with “I think” or they cannot be judgments of the subject. This I of apperception is “the vehicle of all concepts” with no content “because it serves only to introduce all our thought, as belonging to consciousness.”2 For Kant, the I of “I think” is the “form of apperception, which belongs to and precedes every experience”.3 He argued against the claim that the logical subject designates an existing substance as Descartes says. To make this I into a substance capable of acting as a “ground of thought” is to commit a paralogism and to apply to something which is not an appearance the categories of substance and cause properly applicable only to appearances.4

Kant remarks, “Through this I or he or it (the thing) which thinks, nothing further is represented than a transcendental subject of thoughts = X. It is known only through the thoughts which are its predicates, and of it, apart from them, we cannot have any concept whatsoever.”5 What should be noted here is that one defining feature of the thing which thinks is the lack of its content and its inaccessibility. For Descartes, cogito is a thing that thinks and is transparent to itself as a thinking thing, whereas for Kant, the Thing which thinks is totally inaccessible. In metaphysics’ endeavors to make inquiry into the world of appearances, the question of self-consciousness, the primordial representation in the great chain of representations or signifiers, has been around for long. For Descartes, he finds certainty in the existence of self-consciousness. Yet for Kant, we find the inaccessibility and impossibility of the Thing which thinks (impossible in the sense that its notion can not be filled with intuitive experiential content).

However, this distinction between the phenomenal I and the noumenal I of apperception is not without a problem. On one hand, everything of the empirical appears to the transcendental subject (so that they can be in relation with the subject), including the empirical subject itself. On the other hand, the empirical subject is a phenomenal appearance of some noumenal entity — in this case — of the noumenal subject. Therefore, we have a noumenal subject that appears to itself, making the whole distinction between the phenomenal and the noumenal dissolve. This paradoxical problem is already visible within Kant’s philosophy itself when he talks about the problem of “double-affection” or “self-affection”. Self-affection seems contradictory since “we should then have to be in a passive relation [of active affection] to ourselves.”6 The only way out of this impasse is to introduce a third term, to further distinguish between the I of apperception and the noumenal subject, the Thing which thinks.

Although the criticism or refinement of the Kantian philosophy is not the focus of this paper, distinguishing among these three subjects is of practical significance. In my opinion, the structure of the categories of the Kantian subject is similar to that of the psychoanalytic categories, with the phenomenal subject equivalent to ego, the noumenal subject to the unconscious. After Lacan’s “return to Freud”, he increasingly emphasizes that the unconscious is not merely the opposite of consciousness, a set of repressed memories. Rather Lacan’s famous formula is that “the unconscious is structured like a language”.7 He argues that “we only grasp the unconscious finally when it is explicated, in that part of it which articulated by passing into words”.8 As the meaning of a sentence is only complete when it is fully enunciated, although we can analyze the meaning of the symbols or signifiers expressed by the unconscious, we are not able to grasp the unconscious as a whole. “The unconscious leaves none of our actions outside its field.”9 The unconscious is like an automatic thing that thinks, whose inner structure consists of the auto-shifting of signifiers and is inaccessible to us (since it is never complete before a specific explication, like the logical propositional “I think” without a representation to accompany it). Even if we can analyze the latent thought expressed by the unconscious, of the unconscious itself we can know nothing. Therefore, we can say the same thing of the unconscious as Kant speaks of the thing which thinks: “Through the unconscious, nothing further is represented than a structure of signifiers = X. It is known only through the thoughts which are its predicates, and of it, apart from them, we cannot have any concept whatsoever.”

To put the aforementioned example of the Underground Man into examination, it is crucial to underline that what he encounters is not the image as he is, but the ideal image he endeavors to create, an external image that he is yet not, which is the base which enables the dialectic of his desire. In other words, it seems as if the protagonist, for a brief moment, takes a glimpse at not only the subject of the conscious, his ego, but more importantly, the subject of the unconscious, obtaining insight into how his desire is formally constructed. Is this not a Kantian moment when the subject is suddenly aware of the moral law? For Kant, as soon as we draw up maxims of the will for ourselves, we become immediately conscious of the moral law, asking ourselves whether that maxim could also hold as a universal practical law. In a similar fashion, the Underground Man seems to have questioned himself: is my desire pure? Am I not using others as means?

At this mysterious moment, a third term beyond the dualism of the conscious and unconscious is revealed: it is a subject that has access to the truth of the unconscious (in the same way that the noumenal subject becomes the object of apperception). This third term is not that surprising as soon as we ask a simple question: how does the unconscious become unconscious? Does it not need to be perceived first only to be repressed into the unconscious as a secondary procedure? There seems to be a logical necessity to presuppose a purely propositional subject — as the I of apperception — only to perceive both the conscious and unconscious so that they can be something “in relation with the subject”. This passive subject of apperception suddenly has a double function: relation with the subject cannot emerge without the will of the subject. The subject of apperception, on the very moment that it is revealed, is turned into an active one with freedom and responsibility. The subject of apperception has to actively consummate and realize this relation. The subject is responsible for molding objects formally, for perceiving objects in relation to the subject. In other words, the subject is responsible for constructing the reality qua appearance of how things in themselves appear to the subject. Suffice to recall how Kant addresses the seeming paradox between determinism and freedom:

[T]he very same subject being on the other side conscious of himself as a thing in himself, considers his existence also in so far as it is not subject to time-conditions, and regards himself as only determinable by laws which he gives himself through reason…

A man may use as much art as he likes in order to paint to himself an unlawful act … as something in which he was carried away by the stream of physical necessity … yet he finds that the advocate who speaks in his favour can by no means silence the accuser within, if only he is conscious that at the time when he did this wrong he was in his senses, that is, in possession of his freedom.10

We have again a subject who is conscious of its noumenal being and freedom unbounded by causality. For Kant, even when a man does something without choice, “carried away by the stream of physical necessity”, he will still realize his freedom to do otherwise. It is (as if) the subject is responsible for the whole of reality, the primordial creator of everything. Is not the freedom of subject the very terrifying truth that appears in the works of Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky? When Nietzsche says “so far one has called lies truth”, it is a thesis that in no way concerns the content of what do or do not hold to be true, but the very nature of truth. Are we justified in identifying the truth with something without? Or is it an outcome of our ultimate freedom? Who makes the lies appear to be the truth? “Zarathustra created this most calamitous error, morality; consequently, he must also be the first to recognize it.”11 Since the lie was originally created by the subject, it is clear that Nietzsche links truth-telling, not to correct the content of truth, but to the action of gazing into oneself, of the subject emptying out itself to the zero point: “I was the first to discover the truth by being the first to experience lies as lies — smelling them out.”12

  1. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, A 6/B 10.↩︎
  2. Ibid., 341/B 400.↩︎
  3. Ibid, A 354.↩︎
  4. Ibid, A 348.↩︎
  5. Ibid., A 346.↩︎
  6. Ibid., B 153.↩︎
  7. Lacan, The Psychoses, 167.↩︎
  8. Lacan, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 32.↩︎
  9. Lacan, Écrits: A Selection, 163.↩︎
  10. Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, 103-4.↩︎
  11. 328↩︎
  12. 326↩︎