"Spoken of, the world is never naked."

So what am I reading for the final days of Advent? Metaphysical Horror by Leszek Kołakowski, which has – easily – the best opening of any book of philosophy I’ve read:

A modern philosopher who has never experienced the feeling of being a charlatan is such a shallow mind that his work is probably not worth reading.

Safe to say, ergo, that Kołakowski (who died this last summer) had considered the possibility that he is a charlatan.

A good part of the book is concerned with that most famous ergo: specifically, Descartes’ cogito ergo sum, and Kołakowski’s somewhat tenative effort to rehabilitate the claim, or at least the sense of “the Absolute” implied by the claim. And thus we get passages such as this:

Everybody may indeed use the words cogito and sum without hesitation and with a feeling of understanding, but the very use of language is not innocent: every sentence we utter presupposes the entire history of culture of which the language we use is an apect. No word is self-transparent. None may pretend to hand over to the hearer the unadulterated world to which it is supposed to refer. Whatever reality the word conveys, it si a reality filtered through the thick sediments of human history we carry in our minds, through not in our conscious memory. Therefore, by phrasing his immortal sentence, Descartes had no right to plead epistemological innocence, or ‘pressuppositionlessness’ (an ugly and unnatural word, used in English translations of Husserl as perhaps the only possible equivalent to the sound German noun Voraussetzungslosigkeit). Assuming that there is a bottom-reality (whatever that means) and even that there is an experience whereby we touch it, the unique quality of this experience. its uncontaminated freshness, its being the divine beginning, is fatefully lost when it is dressed in words. Spoken of, the world is never naked.

Percy, you may recall, took issue with Descartes, and I admit I’m a fan of both the novelist and the philosopher who helped bring forth the “epistemelogical turn” of the 17th century. Both were inspired by the absolutist claims of the Roman Catholic Church, so I certainly find it difficult to question the motives of either, as I think others would for precisely the same reason. Anyway, this winter I’m thankful to Kołakowski for all his work, and especially the little I’ve read.

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