Cartesian atomic individuals

Descartes' denial of the senses and notion of the individual self are explored by Richard Francks

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I said yesterday that although Descartes’ denial of the senses strikes us as archaic and/or absurd, we are in fact surprisingly Cartesian in much of our thinking. Here’s another example.

Probably the most famous line in Philosophy is Descartes’ ‘cogito ergo sum’. He says if you really put your mind to it you can imagine you’re wrong about nearly everything. It’s conceivable that no-one else exists, and you’re all just figments of my imagination. I can coherently pretend that there’s no real world out there, and all my experiences are just some kind of dream or simulation. It makes sense to suggest that I’m just hard-wired to go wrong all the time, even about the things I regard as most certain. None of those things is actually true, of course; but they are all coherent possibilities. But one thing you really can’t doubt, no matter how hard you try, is your own existence. After all, in order to doubt it, in order to think at all – even wrongly – you have to exist, don’t you?

Most people who read Descartes find that idea compelling. Descartes uses it as a touchstone to show him what truth is and where to find it, and he goes on to show how we can develop a secure understanding of the world on that basis. Most readers think the rebuilding process falls down after that promising start. I think the whole idea is a nonsense, and the fact that we are taken in by it just goes to show how very Cartesian our thinking still is.

Think about it. Descartes says we can know our own existence prior to and independently of that of anybody else. I learn what a person is just by being one, and on the basis of that understanding I come to realise that there are other people out there, too. Is that how it works? Does a child as it grows develop a concept of itself and its wants and its needs, and then at some later stage discover that some of the things in its environment are others of the same kind? Or is it more plausible to say that the two ideas develop in tandem – that I only come to understand myself in relation to other people? Does it even make sense to say I know myself just by being me? What does it mean to say I am me if it doesn’t mean I am not anybody else? (Could you have a concept of here if you didn’t also have a concept of there?)

Similarly, if we follow Descartes in thinking it makes sense to say the world around me might not exist, but not that I don’t exist, we are accepting his thought that my understanding of the natural world is somehow derived from my understanding of myself. How could that work? If my idea of being is the idea of being me, how could I think of external objects as having being in the same sense as I have it? Isn’t it rather the case that we create an understanding of our mentality, of our subjectivity, in contradistinction to the unfeeling objects around us, and that neither conception could possibly exist before the other?

There is a lot at stake here. Descartes’ story is that of the atomic individual, a given entity with its own nature which exists independently of every other thing in creation. I am suggesting that he is wrong, and that human beings are essentially and necessarily social – that to be a self, to be conscious at all, is to know yourself as one among others in a shared world.

Descartes’ picture is perfectly integrated with his scientific and religious concerns. How does our adherence to it fit with other things we believe?

Richard Francks retired last year as Senior Lecturer and Director of Undergraduate Studies in Philosophy at the University of Leeds. He has published translations of Leibniz (with Roger Woolhouse), his own Modern Philosophy (Routledge, 2003), and has just finished the manuscript of a Reader’s Guide to Descartes’ Meditations (Continuum, 2008).
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