Tag Archives: René Descartes

René Descartes — an apology

Recent posts on this blog may have given the unwary reader the impression that Monsieur Descartes was an outdated Platonist with pagan ideas of a  free-floating soul taking up a short-term tenancy in the body during its current incarnation. We may have seemed to imply that Descartes’ dualism means that mind and body are distinct to the extent that their co-occurrence in a single person was little more than a happy coincidence and that as disembodied minds, we are free to desert our bodies at will.

A more careful reading of the Sixth Meditation has now been brought to our attention the following passage:

Nature also teaches me, by these sensations of pain, hunger, thirst and so on, that I am not merely present in my body as a sailor is present in a ship, but that I am very closely joined and , as it were, intermingled with it, so that I and the body form a unit. If this were no so, I , who am nothing but a thinking thing, would not feel pain when the body was was hurt, but would perceive the damage purely by the intellect, just as a sailor perceives by sight if anything in his ship is broken (AT VII 81).

Clearly, this embodied Descartes not merely accepts but asserts the orthodox view (endorsed by the sainted Aquinas) that the body is more than just a vehicle for the soul – this latter view erroneously held by Plato. We can only apologise and lay the blame squarely at the feet of the notorious Cartesian Duellists (sic), a shady terror network that has as its sole aim sowing the seeds of discord and disharmony in a despicable attempt to divide minds from bodies everywhere.

And if further proof were needed that Descartes is not a dualist (in this sense), here is a diagram drawn by Descartes himself, illustrating the connection between perception and action.

Descartes' diagram

Descartes' very non-Cartesian image of the union of mind and body

Does it hold water?

Watching Tony Blair’s testimony at the Chilcot enquiry last Friday reminded me of a joke beloved of Sigmund Freud. A man borrows a bucket from his neighbour. Later the neighbour complains that the bucket has a hole in it. The man, indignant, gives the following defence:

1. First of all, I never borrowed your bucket.

2. Secondly, when you gave it to me it had a hole in it.

3. Thirdly, when I gave it back to you, it was in perfect condition.

The humour in the situation (OK, not side-splittingly funny I admit) lies  in the aburdity of   the man thinking  that by listing three defences he strengthens his case. Actually, because of they are mutually inconsistent, all he does is undermine his own credibility.

Now to Blair. To justify his decision to invade Iraq, Blair makes the following claims:

A. First of all, the evidence showed that Saddam had WMD and  therefore posed a threat. So, it was right to invade Iraq.

B. Secondly, although Saddam did not have WMD he could have developed them and therefore posed a threat. So it was right to invade Iraq.

C. Thirdly, Saddam was a ruthless, murderous dictator who had used gas against his own people and the world is  a better place without him.  So it really doesn’t matter whether Saddam did have or could have developed WMD, it was right to invade Iraq.

Admittedly, there is a difference. First of all A, B and C are not strictly speaking, logically inconsistent. But without contradicting each other, the addition of each reason makes the others seem less convincing as being the genuine reason for the invasion. Since C suggests that A and B are irrelevant, then maybe we should conclude that getting rid of Saddam was the real reason. But if that were the case, why is Blair so reluctant to state unequivocally that the purpose of the invasion was regime change — unless simply because this would make the invasion illegal? Can we make anything of Blair’s talk of a “the danger of making a binary distinction between regime change and WMD?” Is this a sophisticated attack on a genuinely false dilemma, or just an attempt to fudge the issue?

I don’t know where to go with this exactly and whether any amount of work in this direction would prove Blair’s argument invalid — I partly posted this because I wanted to see if someone can find the flaw in what I’m saying…or tell me how to make good.

And I am not saying Blair is lying. That would require me to show that he does not believe what he is saying.  He might though be delusional, guilty of a form of self-deception.

Being inconsistent in our beliefs is a very human trait that happens to the best of us. One way we hold inconsistent beliefs is by compartmentalisation — putting them in different boxes and not looking at them at the same time. (In this respect, pace Descartes, the mind is not transparent to itself). Being rational and honest requires that we recognise when our beliefs conflict and own up to it, even at a cost of admitting we were wrong. And when we admit we were wrong, we generally apologise.

Soul searching

I am having trouble getting finished my essay on Plato’s tripartite soul — the idea that the soul is a trio of reason, spirit and appetite. Is it because my reasoning part is being overpowered by my appetitive part that would much rather drink wine, snack, blog, surf the web or (evil of evils) go on facebook? I also find that it’s much more appetising to read a paper by that witty, American philosopher, David Lewis than another detailed interpretation of The Republic, debating what a particular pronoun in some particular sentence refers to.

In fact this wouldn’t faze Plato who according to A.W. Price would allow that  non-physiological appetites could arise from that very part of the soul characterised as encompassing our  paradigmatic bodily desires like thirst, hunger and sexual desire. But there’s a vital difference between this kind of casual flirting with philosophy and the  more serious commitment that is the prerogative of reason. Price comments:

A love of philosophy will count as an appetite if it is pursued just for fun, and not (which is harder work) out of a passion for truth. This seems a complication to be welcomed. (Mental Conflict,p. 63, italics mine)

So now the third part of my soul, spirit, chimes in, rebuking myself for my indolence, “What do you think you are doing, playing around, committing your ill-formed ideas to a blog when you should be pouring over the Phaedrus, preferably in the original Greek?.” But being the seat of not only shame but indignation, spirit confusingly does an about face and leaps to my defence, “How could Truth be hiding in dry textual commentaries, splitting hairs over correct interpretations? Sod this, I’m off to read Julian Baggini on Dan Dennett. But not before I pour myself another glass of  Kendermanns Organic 2007. Wait a minute. Who let appetite in here?”

And so it goes on and it’s no wonder that I get so little done when everything has to be agreed upon by a committee of three and at least one, if not two of them are liable to sub-divide yet further.

I bet Descartes never had this problem. For René the mind was a unity, “utterly indivisible”, “single and complete”. In the Sixth Meditation he tells us that

the faculties of willing, of understanding, of sensory perception and so on, these cannot be termed parts of the mind, since it is one and the same mind that wills, and understands and has sensory perceptions.

Bodies on the other hand can easily be divided into parts. You can even lop bits of them off. So, Descartes reasons, the mind is completely different from the body.

But wait a minute, now we’ve got another, albeit different division,  a spirit which can be willing only to be frustrated because the flesh is weak. Whatever way you look at it, unity of purpose is really rather elusive. A bit like knowledge really.

Walk away René

Encouraged by the number of visitors searching for “Rene Descartes” I plan to write something philosophical in my next post (suggestions and questions welcome). But I really have to get some essays out of the way first so, to whet you’re appetite, and so you don’t feel that your journey here was entirely wasted, here’s my favourite Cartesian joke.

René goes to get his haircut. The barber says, “The usual sir?”

“I think not,” replies Descartes, and disappears.