Thursday, September 23, 2010

Descartes' Feint

I am still working on a book called Composure. It is an attempt to overcome, both poetically and philosophically, what Damasio calls "Descartes' error", which, I believe, was not so much a mistake as a deft piece of misdirection. Here is the key passage in part IV of the Discourse on Method.

I attentively examined what I was, and as I observed that I could suppose [feindre] that I had no body, and that there was no world nor any place in which I might be; but that I could not therefore suppose that I was not; and that, on the contrary, from the very circumstance that I thought to doubt of the truth of other things, it most clearly and certainly followed that I was; while, on the other hand, if I had only ceased to think, although all the other objects which I had ever imagined had been in reality existent, I would have had no reason to believe that I existed; I thence concluded that I was a substance whose whole essence or nature consists only in thinking, and which, that it may exist, has need of no place, nor is dependent on any material thing; so that “I,” that is to say, the mind by which I am what I am, is wholly distinct from the body, and is even more easily known that the latter, and is such, that although the latter were not, it would still continue to be all that it is.

I do not believe this is an error based on an (understandable) lack of neurological knowledge. Rather, I simply do not believe Descartes when he says he could "suppose" or, as some translations put it, "pretend" (arguably a more literal translation of feindre) that he "had no body".

I cannot myself suppose, imagine or pretend any such thing. If I had no body, I would not be. If there were no world around me, there would be no place for me, no "there" (Da) for my being (Sein). Composure is coming to terms with the experience of being wholly indistinguishable from my body, my world, my history.

I am not "a substance whose whole essence or nature consists only in thinking, and which, that it may exist, has need of no place, nor is dependent on any material thing". On the contrary. This experience is my body.


Presskorn said...

I wonder what you think of Zinkernagel's way of phrasing it: "Persons are radically different from bodies and yet we cannot refer to persons without referring to bodies."

Thomas went for a walk, but incidentally he had no body.

Thomas said...

Yes, Zinkernagel is definitely a kindred spirit. Though I think he was less patient than I am. (Conditions for Description is a surprisingly breezy book, given the toughmindedness of his proposal.)

Presskorn said...

Yes, Conditions for Description is indeed an very impatient book (impatient, exactly, given its simultanuous breezyness and toughmindedness - thank you for that combination of words). And yet it remains, to my mind, a unrecognized masterpiece of 20th century analytical philosophy. MUCH better than the kindred but recognized Strawsonian project of 'descriptive metaphysics'. And only recognized by figures like Favrholdt, who distorts it into something VERY boring.

Presskorn said...

BTW, I am getting more and more curious about this Composure-thing by the day... As I believe Nicholas Manning once said: Go ahead and write the damn thing... :-)

Thomas said...

Patience, now. Patience.