A Philosophical History of Psychology, Cognition, and Consciousness: Descartes’ Cogito and the pilotless ship.

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In the Meditations we encounter Descartes sitting beside a fire in a Heraclitean setting and perhaps in a Heraclitean mood. He is presumably wondering how, if everything is changing all the time, we can be certain of anything we think. Six meditations in six days are the form he chooses to characterize his position. Descartes the Catholic has one eye on the Bible and one skeptical -scientific eye on all the falsehoods he has believed in his lifetime. This Heraclitean skepticism and scientific commitment which influenced Aristotle but did not overwhelm Aristotelian thought determines the content of these Cartesian Meditations. Descartes doubts his senses because they have in certain circumstances misled him in the past, doubts the existence of his own body, and he even doubts his awareness that he is sitting in front of the fire because he might be dreaming. After all how many times in a dream did we believe that something was happening only to wake up and realize that we had been dreaming? His skeptical method, however, was not cynical. His doubts were designed to prepare the soil for the search for a first principle. He eventually gives the senses the benefit of the doubt and convinces himself that he is awake through a reasoning process which refers to a proof for the existence of God and subsequently a claim that God is good and therefore incapable of deceiving mankind. God, it also turns out, is a guarantee for certain kinds of knowledge such as geometry and arithmetic and this, in turn, allows us to be certain we are sitting in front of a fire in virtue of the extension and motion of the matter we are thinking about. Descartes cannot, however, rest at this point as other philosophers have, he is forced to question whether he can be certain that he is thinking. He convinces himself that he must be thinking exactly because in order to doubt that one is thinking one must be thinking. This is still not sufficient to be certain that I am not being deceived by an evil demon. God is also called upon to guarantee the first truth and foundation of all Philosophy, cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am. The major difference between Heraclitus and Descartes is that the latter, some commentators have claimed, is reflecting in a Neoplatonic metaphysical environment in which dualism(and not hylomorphism) was the dominant response to materialism. Much research has been focussed upon Cartesian dualism and the division of the physical world from the world of thought but some of this research ignores Descartes’ attempts to build two bridges between these two “worlds”. Firstly, thoughts can present themselves to us as clear and distinct and the prime example of such a thought would be “I think therefore I am”: such a clear and distinct thought relates backward to a thinker, an “I”, and forward to existence in the world(although clearly reference back to the thinker is more important to Descartes than intensionality). The second bridge is more controversial and was probably built reluctantly in the course of a debate with materialists in which Descartes was asked for the location where the mind-world met the body-world. Descartes, to his credit, insisted that this was not a philosophical question but more like a scientific question but the waves of the debate rose so high that he reluctantly conceded that this material location might be in the pineal gland of the brain.

The spirit of the times of Descartes can perhaps be summarized by three legacies from Ancient Greece and Medieval times. Firstly, there was widely spread skepticism about whether there could be such a thing as knowledge considering the disputes there were between the scientists as to what science was and the disputes that occurred in religious debates consequent upon the Reformation, about what can be known in religious contexts. Secondly, there were also quite naturally a continuation of the age old disputes between materialists, dualists, and Aristotelian hylomorphism. Thirdly, in many circles of society Stoicism was the ethical position many of the educated classes fixated upon including Princess Elisabeth, one of Descartes’ correspondents.

Bertrand Russell in his work “History of Western Philosophy”(p550) argues that Descartes is relying on two principles in his Philosophy: the so-called cogito argument which concludes with the principle “I am a thing that thinks” and “All thoughts which are clear and distinct are true. He also claims mysteriously that the reference that Descartes makes to the “I” is at most a grammatical point(Russell does not attach the same philosophical significance to grammar that we find in the work of the later Wittgenstein). Reference to the “I” should, according to Russell be dropped in favour of an ultimate premise which reads, “There are thoughts”. This seems, however not to capture all of the metaphysical nuances of the Cartesian position. Kant perhaps came the closest to capturing this significance with the following words from his “Anthropology from a pragmatic point of view”:(p.15)

“The fact that the human being can have the “I” in his representations raises him infinitely above all other living beings on earth. Because of this he is a person, and by virtue of the unity of consciousness through all changes that happen to him, one and the same person…..But is noteworthy that the child who can already speak fairly fluently, nevertheless first begins to talk by means of the “I” fairly late(perhaps a year later), in the meantime thinking of himself in the third person(Karl wants to eat, to walk etc.). When he starts to speak by means of “I” a light sees to dawn on him, as it were, and from that day on he never again returns to his former way of speaking.–Before he merely felt himself: now he thinks himself.”

Notice firstly that Russell wished to dispense with this first-person point of view in favour of a third person point of view which might make it difficult to account for what Kant saw to be an ontological difference between feeling(that which happens to man) and thinking(that which man actively does). Russell does, however, point intuitively to the fact that reference to the I as a thing is a regression back to the schoolmen and scholastic philosophical reflections on the obscure notion of Substance. It was perhaps this reliance on Substance that closed both the bridges between the two worlds and gave us the impression, according to Russell, that we are witnessing a completion of a Platonic project which was the first to suggest the presence of two independent and parallel worlds. There is something to this criticism but perhaps not as much as Russell believes. Plato’s dualism, we know also built a bridge between the physical world in which oak trees are created and destroyed and the intellectual world of the so-called forms(which Aristotle thought of as principles) that determine the nature of oak trees and everything physical that we encounter. According to Plato, on the physical world side of the bridge the oak tree “participates” in the world of forms. This word may indeed suggest that the image of two “worlds” is merely a metaphor and “participates” may merely mean to “manifest a principle”.

Here again, we encounter the problem over the concept of Substance we encountered in earlier scholastic philosophy where the interpretation was perhaps materialistic rather than in terms of the Aristotelian interpretation that regarded substance to be a form or principle. Interpreting Substance materialistically obviously leads to questions relating to the location of this substance: questions relating to a location where the two worlds meet or coincide. Aristotle in his early work “Categories” adopted a materialistic interpretation of the notion of Substance which was subsequently abandoned in his later works as his hylomorphic theory formed. Descartes never developed his thoughts in accordance with hylomorphic theory but he did oscillate dualistically between a scientific/materialistic and philosophical non-materialistic interpretation. One consequence of the materialistic interpretation was the viewing of the intellectual world of ideas as deterministic. Plato perhaps avoided this problem by claiming that the ideas or forms of the intellectual world were timeless but we see no such move in Descartes’ philosophical work(although as a Catholic he must have believed the soul to be immortal). This also left a question mark hanging over the ontological status of men, were they angels, rational organisms or Hobbesian automata? Descartes is perhaps, however, saved from this particular dilemma when he interprets the notion of substance more “spiritually”. Willing, for example, for Descartes is a form or a mode of thinking as is sensation, perception, and imagination. In the “Meditations” he asserts categorically that the mind can function without the brain…“for clearly there can be no use of the brain for pure intelligence but only for imagination and sensation.” For Descartes, it is clear that some modes of thinking involve the body and some don’t. Yet we also know that Descartes refuses to divide the body and the mind, claiming a unity which shall not be pictured in terms of a pilot inside a ship. Here Descartes is very Aristotelian in his approach to this problem. Brett has the following to say on this topic:

“…there is no unity in the doctrines of Descartes. The fact is obvious. The only task that remains is to distinguish and identify the various lines of thought that here converge. At one extreme we have a purely rationalistic element. The essence of mind is thought, and the fact that some ideas are declared innate makes the doctrines of descartes a spiritualistic psychology. Here we have a continuation of pure scholasticism. At the other extreme we have a naturalistic element. Apart from the innate ideas, the content of consciousness is furnished from the body through the passions: this is an empirical element…The dualism which he maintains is primarily scholastic, and so, indirectly Aristotelian. It is not correct to say that Descartes “had defined mind in opposition to Aristotle, as exclusively thinking substance”. Aristotle never supposed that mind as such was anything more than a principle of thought. In fact Descartes and Aristotle were remarkably alike,”(p370-1)

Aristotle would not have accepted the Cartesian account of animal life and it is highly doubtful that he would have agreed to the Cartesian distinction between the primary mathematical qualities of things and other sense based qualities. He certainly would not have agreed to the claim that Mathematics was our principal guide to the understanding of the forms embedded in the physical external world. Descartes is regarded as the father of modern philosophy but he is equally influential in the field of science for many different reasons: firstly for his insistence on the importance of Mathematics for scientific investigation, secondly for his claim that in the realm of physics there must be some conservation of quantity law, thirdly that empirical experimentation was probably necessary to establish to distinguish between different competing explanations of natural phenomena. The idea of theoretical models of reality might have its origins in these ideas. The burning issue to be resolved here is whether even here he would appeal to the role of God to guarantee the certainty of knowledge in science. Many philosophers, including Bernard Williams in his book on Descartes, claims that the philosopher intended his system to work without any divine intervention or guarantee. He claims that it was Descartes intention to free science from any theological constraints. In an interview with Brian Magee for the series “The Great Philosophers” Williams claims that the Cartesian belief in God was nevertheless genuine and not fake. His belief in God, in other words, was both clear and distinct. Kant distinguished between these two criteria by claiming that for something to be clear was probably a perceptual claim in which one distinguishes one object from another whereas a distinct idea refers to the more complex conceptual relation of representations to each other. Moreover, Williams claims the following in the same interview:

“We use, and certainly science uses, some kind of dualism between the knower and the known, the idea of a world that is independent of our process of knowing it,” (“the Great Philosophers p.92)

This suffices for us to claim what both Wiiliams and many other philosophers throughout the ages have claimed, namely that Descartes moved epistemology to the centre of the philosophical stage. A move that endured until twentieth century analytical Philosophy when logic and language was also moved to the centre of the philosophical stage, leaving Aristotle and Kant to wait in the wings for better days, One of the Cartesian images most influential in Scientific Psychology is the following taken from Williams in the same interview:

“Another question that is put to you dramatically by Descartes is “What am I?” We can imagine ourselves as other than what we are. We have a power of extracting ourselves imaginatively from our actual circumstances. We can imagine ourselves looking out on the world from a different body. We can imagine looking into a mirror and seeing a different face, and not being surprised. And this gives me the idea, a powerful idea that I am independent of the body and the past that I have. That is an experience basic to the Cartesian idea that I am somehow independent of all these material things.”

This has been an enormously influential argument and has contributed to the triumph of dualism over both Aristotelian hylomorphism and Kantian transcendentalism in spite of the fact that both Aristotle and Kant would have pointed to the inadequacies of the above argument from the point of view of rationality. Kant would, for example, deny that such imaginative ideas possess the properties of clarity and distinctness and Aristotle would have questioned whether this kind of imaginative abstraction had any significant relation to the continuity of our body and our memories.

The quote above by Brett claims that for Descartes ideas were innate. It is not clear that this is a correct representation of Descartes’ position. The resolution of this problem largely depends upon the extent to which the philosophy of Descartes resembles the hylomorphism of Aristotle. For Aristotle perception, imagination, remembering, using language, and reasoning are all powers which are only “innate” in the sense that they determine the kind of soul or principles that constitute the essence of being human. It is not a simple matter, as we have seen to correctly characterise the commitment both to a materialistic conception of substance and a commitment to a position similar to Aristotle’s. In the former approach, we can see the Cartesian deterministic explanations of other life forms and sometimes this dominates, especially when God is introduced into the picture. If that is, God has given us all our powers then it can seem as if we humans are clockwork dolls which only need to be wound up and released into the world.

Some modern Psychologists, influenced by the argument from imagination introduced above regard Descartes as one the first proponents of the importance of consciousness in the account of what it is to be human. But it can be argued that insofar as sensation, perception, and imagination may well be key components of consciousness, these are not fully fledged intellectual powers for Descartes: they are modes of thinking that are not necessarily rational.

Russell in his response to the skeptical method of Descartes claims that his method is only useful if there is a stopping point. There are two such points, Russell argues, indubitable facts and indubitable principles. Russell insists, however, that Descartes’ indubitable facts are “his own thoughts” and this is a denial of the Aristotelian stopping point of rationally arrived at principle. Russell prefers instead to see the influence of Platonism and Christian Philosophy at work here. We can see the influence of Christian Philosophy in the use Descartes makes of God to guarantee the clarity and distinctness of his facts. God guarantees not only that we are not dreaming, sensing something real when awake, and thinking, but also the veracity of subjects such as geometry and arithmetic. Descartes argues in several places for the existence of God and this might be a sign that God is not a Principle that is the source of principles as is the case in Aristotelian philosophy.

Another aspect of the Cartesian Meditations that we need to consider is the fact that we find the individual Descartes meditating on the world from the point of view of an individual sitting in front of a fire, conjecturing on whether he could be dreaming that he is sitting in front of the fire. This, it could be argued, is a picture of an individual material substance testing his individual powers of thinking in the face of the world. Thus conceived, the world created in these 6 Meditations is a testament for Solipsism and this is further confirmed by the Cartesian insistence that those works created by individuals of genius are preferable to the things created by communities of workers. Buildings created by individual architects are preferable to those produced by teams of architects. Ancient cities sprawling across the landscape are to be less admired than those designed by one city architect. Systems of Philosophy are also best created by an individual genius, which of course Descartes took himself to be.

Descartes did not possess a library and did not, therefore, read his predecessors’ thoughts systematically. The Solipsist perhaps reasons that the only world to know and care about is this one of his that exists now. The past is the past and is as such unreal and is not part of the here and now. Everything is possible in the future even the wish of one of the new men Cecil Rhodes to colonize the planets he observed in the heavens. Descartes may have been one of the first of these “new men”(along with Hobbes) imagining that they have different bodies and may have believed himself to be an innovative genius in the field of philosophy but the fact of the matter is that, as Russell pointed out, much of what he claimed was to be found either in Aristotle or the scholastics working with a respect for the past and tradition in their respective communities. It is worthwhile also to point out in this context that a singular focus on epistemology, logic, and language provided the impetus for the difficult-to-classify philosophies of Russell and Moore as well as the impetus for the rationalism of Leibniz and Spinoza.

Descartes used the image of a tree to illustrate the respective areas of Philosophical thinking: the roots of the tree represented metaphysics, the trunk represented physics and the branches of the tree medicine, mechanics, and morality. This is a different system to the Aristotelian threefold conceptualization of Philosophy as divided into the Theoretical Sciences, the Practical Sciences, and the Productive Sciences. There is, despite its presence on the branches of his tree, no systematic attempt to discuss morality in the Cartesian writings, merely scattered remarks suggestive of an instrumental view of the reasoning operative in this arena. This would seem to entail instrumental views of virtue, and the happy life especially considering the fact that Descartes was careful to avoid any suggestion of a final cause/ teleological explanation of this realm of our lives.

In one of his latest works “Meditations”, however, this image of a tree of knowledge is supplemented by an image of the search for the truth in the form of the construction of solid, stable foundations for a house. Both images are of course Biblical, the latter being based on the parable warning one not to build one’s house upon a foundation of sand. The Science involved with this latter image is that of Architecture, a sub-branch of mechanics and Descartes’ advice here is :

“to demolish everything completely and start again right from the foundations”(AT 7:17, CSM 2:12)

In line with his skeptical method the message he is communicating here is that construction must follow destruction. Gassendi, in his objections to this skeptical strategy asks Descartes in correspondence why he found it necessary to “consider everything as false” including the extreme position of imagining a deceitful God. In reply to this objection Descartes defends himself by an appeal to the authority of “everyone”:

“Can we really be too careful in carrying out a project which everyone agrees should be performed”(Replies 5)

A reference to the anti-authoritarian atmosphere of the times perhaps. In the course of the ensuing construction we are persuaded to regard the knowledge of ourselves as more certain than our knowledge of what is happening when a piece of wax is melted by a fire. According to Descartes my awareness of myself is more clear and distinct for the simple reason that when I think something(even when the thought is false) it is not possible that the being that is doing the thinking can fail to exist. Here thinking is the very essence, form, or principle of the mind and this position is very similar to that we find in Aristotle’s reflections on this issue. Thinking is the a priori form of the mind. Descartes the rationalist is also anticipating the rationalism of Kant, at least insofar as this aspect of his metaphysics is concerned. Kant, however, saw it as part of his philosophical mission to find a position that could unite both empiricism and rationalism: a position that would enable us to characterize the importance of Ethics, Aesthetics, and Religion in a systematic account of man and his communities.

Perhaps the final test one should apply to the Philosophy of Descartes is whether it has in any sense advanced the understanding of Philosophy over the millennia since the work of Aristotle. Perhaps a Kantian conception of Philosophy can assist us in answering this question. Kant claims that Philosophy ought to provide us with answers to the following four questions: “What can I know?”, “What ought I to do?”, “What can I hope for?” and “What is man?”. Now whilst some aspects of Cartesian thought provide us with some kind of answer to the first question there is some doubt as to whether there are answers to the other three questions which are superior to the answers we find in Aristotle.

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