Prior Certainty of Consciousness

  • For the New Intellectual

    Descartes began with the basic epistemological premise of every Witch Doctor (a premise he shared explicitly with Augustine): “the prior certainty of consciousness,” the belief that the existence of an external world is not self-evident, but must be proved by deduction from the contents of one’s consciousness — which means: the concept of consciousness as some faculty other than the faculty of perception — which means: the indiscriminate contents of one’s consciousness as the irreducible primary and absolute, to which reality has to conform. What followed was the grotesquely tragic spectacle of philosophers struggling to prove the existence of an external world by staring, with the Witch Doctor’s blind, inward stare, at the random twists of their conceptions — then of perceptions — then of sensations.

    When the medieval Witch Doctor had merely ordered men to doubt the validity of their mind, the philosophers’ rebellion against him consisted of proclaiming that they doubted whether man was conscious at all and whether anything existed for him to be conscious of.