Subjectivity and the Encounter with Being

By Costanzo, Jason M. | The Review of Metaphysics, March 2015 | Go to article overview

Subjectivity and the Encounter with Being


Costanzo, Jason M., The Review of Metaphysics


I

IN THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY, Rene Descartes revolutionized metaphysics with six short meditations on the nature of subjectivity, reality, and God. Certainly the groundwork for the insights contained within this work must have been implicitly laid down much earlier within ancient and medieval thought. Nonetheless, the meditations are understood as a metaphysical endeavor in "first philosophy," and the particular manner in which Descartes achieved this end served as the precise point of differentiation between the account of being there given and the history of metaphysical thought that preceded it. Within this work, subjectivity and consciousness are for the first time established as a primary concern for metaphysics. This arose on the basis of the Cartesian discovery of the ego, the I think at bottom to the encounter with being, which is further interpreted from the perspective of a phenomenal world that has been cast into doubt in regard to its being. Although the primary aim of these meditations was to provide a more firm foundation for metaphysics, history tells us another story. So Kant would later question the possibilities of metaphysics on the basis of what was, in principle, a Cartesian foundation. Kant likewise concluded that subjectivity, rather than serving as the door into being, instead serves as an impenetrable obstacle to knowledge of things themselves. Far from obtaining a more firm foundation, metaphysics was instead deemed impossible.

To this day, we still philosophize beneath the great shadow of Kant's judgment. That is not to say that metaphysics is not practiced, for indeed it is, and there are both now and have been within the history of philosophy since Kant a number of noteworthy metaphysicians. What is nonetheless troublesome is the fact that subjectivity is still very much seen as a terrible impasse impeding metaphysical progress. In consequence, we no longer speak of being as such but only being in relation to the subject. The reduction of metaphysics to subjectivity is likewise evident within the premier works of nineteenth- and twentieth-century thought--from the Kantian a priori, to the Hegelian absolute, where being and nothing are collapsed within thought into a single concept-synthesis, to Heidegger's renewal of the question of being which, although cognizant and even critical of the Cartesian turn, nonetheless resolves being into the subject's dispositional stances of being-there ([Dasein). In each case, the classical Aristotelian idea of a science of being is either rejected or transformed into a post-metaphysical form of critical or relational ontology. (1)

Classically construed, metaphysics was understood as the science of being as being. The repetition as being further served to indicate the aspect according to which this science was thought to study its subject matter. It is inherently reflective (reflexio). But it is not only reflective in the sense in which x is x involves reflection. As a product of the human encounter with being, metaphysics both includes subjectivity but was likewise thought to transcend the subject on the basis of the human reflective capacity to double back upon itself in thinking, as it were, to reflect upon the nature of its own encounter.

That metaphysics should be founded upon an act of reflection ought not to be surprising. Indeed, we discover reflection first among the ancient philosophers--for example, Socrates, who establishes self- examination as a primary concern for the thinker. (2) Within Plato, reflection is central to the possibilities inherent in knowledge of the good and the intellectual ascent into the intelligible realm. So within the allegory of the cave, the prisoners are first completely immersed in a world of appearances. (3) The shadows upon the wall are said to preoccupy the prisoners, who are in turn embedded in the life of the body, of being in the world and being-directed toward objects without consideration of the metaphysical ground of such objects. …

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