Descartes famously founds modern philosophy through a gesture of radical doubt. He poses the question, what if an evil genie staged every aspect of the experiential world? What if we were all the time dreaming? What if all our experience was an illusion? In that case, Descartes further enquires, what can certainly be known? Only the experience of thinking itself: ‘I think therefore I am.’
How often do we see this meta-level turn, this twist into a problem that looks back at itself? We see it, for instance, in Turing’s conception of the halting machine, which stops its incessant processing at the point that it recognises its own operations. We see it in Kant, in the circularity of the a priori faculties that engage with the world only to reveal nothing of the exterior world at all, but only our internal conditions of apprehension.
Just as with Descartes, we end up with thought – with the machine that stops because it suddenly considers what it is doing, or with the consciousness that establishes its proper basis by bracketing everything external. With the pure thought of thought, separated from the problem of experience, appearance and memory; timeless in its way.
But couldn’t we also subject this space of thought to doubt? Isn’t it itself affected by the same conditions that characterise all experience?
How often, for instance, have I dreamed a truth? How often have I imagined a cogent argument? It has happened to me many times.
And also, even when I am lucid and awake, how completely have I ever held a logical argument? How often has it ever been simply and accessibly present? So often a series of steps lead to some logical realisation. The steps are not precisely held in the moment of realisation, but rather inform that moment from a without that can never be entirely certain. I think in time. I remember, I project, I take leaps. And none of this motion of thought is pure in any case. It is always rhetorically, grammatically, narratively and poetically informed. It flows and draws on words that suddenly, blindly become available. My thinking is never entirely my own. It is less a ground than a complex, irreducible epiphenomenon.
My point here is that thought – logical thought – is affected by the same dilemmas that affect appearance. It is never absolutely self-collected. This represents another very modern order of meta-level recognition: thought itself is the trace of unconsciousness. We can recognise this as an obvious psychoanalytical point, but it can also work to undermine the imaginary power of psychoanalysis – the notion that if we could only self consciously make sense of our thought and actions that we could somehow be cured (thought against thought, thought lifted up to another level: yet another meta-level manoeuvre).
In any case, inasmuch as aesthetics openly acknowledges its basis in appearance, inasmuch as it does not struggle to another level, inasmuch as it functions in terms of immanent rather than meta or superior relations, it engages with a dimension of truth that the discourse of truth itself will have never adequately conceived.