He was searching for the ground (a thing about which we could be certain) upon which to build the structure of knowledge.

To do so he practised a method called radical doubt.

He found that everything he could sense was doubtable because sometimes he dreamt and sensed and believed what he sensed.

Also the senses sometimes play tricks; like when you put a pencil in water it appears to be bent.

Eventually he got to the point where he examined thought it-self.

Thought – or cogito – had a much broader meaning then. It meant something more akin to our word consciousness.

He thought that because I doubt I cannot doubt that I doubt therefore I must exist as a doubting thing. He then extended this to: because I experience (cogito) though I can doubt the existence and constitution of what I experience I cannot doubt that I experience.

So he conjured the cogito ergo sum. I think therefore I am.

The problem was that he didn’t subject to doubt the reasoning; the logic that enabled him to make the statement I think therefore I am.

He also didn’t examine and define the “am” which is the being, the existing.

He separated the world into 3 distinct substances (substance then meant something self-contained and not reliant upon anything other then itself in order for its existence). They were res extensa (extended substance) res cogita (thinking substance) and res infinita divine (God substance).

What he didn’t examine was the term substance. In each case when you took away from the res (substance) the extension (which is just shape), the cogito or the infinita you were left with nothing.

See substance was supposed to be the thing which had these properties. Like in language there are predicates. This apple is green; green is the predicate and the apple is that which supports the predicate. But once you took from “substance” all its predicates you were left with nothing.

This led Berkeley (one of my favourite philosophers) to make the claim “esse est percipi” (to be is to be perceived) basically that everything exists in the mind. This because all the predicates of an objects of sense (smells, tastes, touch, sounds and images) were ideas in the mind supposedly caused by the extended objects interacting with the mind. But once you took from the object all these ideas you were left with nothing.

Also there was the problem of how the different substances interacted with each other. How did a thinking thing with no shape cause an extended thing (our body) with shape to move?

The problem was none of them focused on what it meant “to be”; to exist.

Indeed accorded to Heidegger they had forgotten how to even ask the question “What is being?” which is the wrong question because it is tautological (is and being mean the same thing).

And now we have reached Heidegger whom is new to me so I’ll finish here.


2 thoughts on “Descartes

  1. Many western philosophers struggled to break away from a very authentic yet traditional view. Christianity carried a series of beliefs to the point where their common acceptance implied their truth. Common belief was so strong it became associated with truth. Doubt represented heretical thought. Such loss of the ability to question and its freedom, quashed creativity and intuition. Eastern philosophers were not always so lacking in freedom and had long since become enlightened to the big question of ‘what is’ and ‘I am’. Lao Tzu of China and the Vedas of the Aryans in India are but two examples. Unfortunately the sin of doubt still pervades our western culture and this remains heretical not in the eyes of religion but in the conviction of science. Descartes is so believed that the concept of a holistic existence (despite it being proven) and not the belief of separate and individual body, mind and emotional regions, even spirit, remains a ‘stonable’ offence. It’s not his fault for he did make efforts to utilise doubt and substantially change the way we understood the world for the better.

    • I completely agree!

      I’ve read through “The Upanishads” read a lot of the vedantic philosophies and listened to a lot of Alan Watts.

      I’ve also read a lot of the western philosophical canon. I’ve kind of done it hotch-potchy but have mainly gone from the greeks – – – skipped the scholastics but do intend to read them at some point – gone onto Descartes, Hume and Kant.

      I’m currently reading Heidegger’s “Being and Time” and I’m like “It’s taken western philosophy 2500 years to realize what the aryans realized God knows how long ago.

      I find it kind of difficult to understand Heidegger but not as difficult as most people make him out. I get the feeling from reading him that I’ve already read him and I think that’s partly because his thinking has permeated 20th and 21st century culture but mainly because he is articulating through the western philosophical traditions language – which is incredibly ungainly for such an endeavour – the non-dualistic/holistic/advaita philosophy that I am already familiar with.

      As to your comments on science again i am in total agreement. Science has taken on the mantle of christianity and people that doubt scientific claims are laughed out the room. But science doesn’t deal with the questions Christianity dogmatically dealt with.

      When I wrote the blog that that links to the only comment I received along the lines of “I notice a pattern: you haven’t got a clue what you’re on about” and when I asked him to elaborate he didn’t respond so i didn’t let the comment show. I wish I had now because I could have used it as quote from which to write a blog about how science – not proper science but science as presented by Dawkins and the media – has become a dogmatic religion.

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