Descartes’ Concept of Self


After establishing the reasons behind his radical skepticism, Descartes goes on to ask himself what he can know. In other words, what new foundations can he replace the old ones with? He quickly realizes that it is subjective knowledge about his self that is most reliable, and embarks on an intellectual journey to establish a firmer understanding of this.

He begins with an argument known commonly as the Cogito. He comes to understand that if he is capable of doubting – which is precisely what he is doing – then he must exist. He may doubt everything else, may be deceived about the existence of all other things, but he must necessarily exist. Cogito ergo sum – I think therefore I am. Now, it’s important to note that Descartes does not actually phrase his conclusion in this exact manner in the Meditations. It was only later that he came to use the famous latin sentence to describe his findings. In fact, his phrasing in the meditations might be preferable, in that he does not structure his thought process in the manner of a syllogism (a premise followed by a conclusion). The reason for this is simple; the statement “I think therefore I am” is an incomplete argument. There is a missing second premise; “all thinking things exist”. Thus, “cogito ergo sum” might actually be doubted in some way. However, Descartes responds to this by claiming that the Cogito is not, in fact, a syllogism (a stance that is strengthened by the fact that, as said, he does not present it as such in the Meditations). The conclusion is reached through an intuitive leap, rather than a reasoned examination of two premises. It is, after all, absurd to say that something can think and yet not exist at the same time.

After establishing the fact of his existence, Decartes goes on to ask himself what he is. He eventually comes to describe himself as a thinking thing. But what is a thinking thing? The easiest way to understand Decartes’ thoughts here is to look at his ideas regarding substance, the essence of a substance, and the modes of a substance. A substance is defined as something that is capable of existing independently of all things besides the sustaining power of God (which Decartes believes is necessary for anything to exist). Let’s look at the mind in terms of these. Clearly, the mind can be viewed as a substance, since we can see it existing independently (let’s not worry about chemicals in the brain for the nonce). What is its essence, though? Well, according to Decartes, the essence of mind is thought, which he describes in terms of doubting, affirming, judging, etc. This makes sense – a mind can be seen as something that is defined by thought. The modes of the mind, then, are the various ways of thinking I just mentioned (doubting, affirming, and so on and so forth).

So, Decartes has established that he is a thing that thinks, and he has achieved at least a sketchy idea of what that means. He then starts to consider material objects in an attempt to understand his mind even better, choosing to do this by examining a piece of wax. At first, the wax is hard and solid, smelling slightly of flowers and tasting slightly of honey. It makes a sound when he taps it with his finger. However, when it’s brought close to a flame it starts to melt, changing in shape and size, losing all taste and smell, and it no longer makes a noise when he hits it (as it has softened). And yet, even though his senses are perceiving something owning entirely different properties to those the wax had earlier, he is still conscious of it as a piece of wax. The same piece of wax, even. His senses do not tell him this, so he reasons that the way he really perceives the wax is through his mind. What does he perceive it as? An extended substance that is flexible and changeable*. This tells him something important about the relationship between his mind and the external world, and it also tells him that his senses are only of limited value. Naturally, without his senses he would not be aware of the wax at all, but without a judging mind he would only have a very muddled understanding of it.

One of the conclusions that Descartes draws from his examination of the wax is that he can never know anything better than his own mind. This is because, whenever he comes to understand something about a material thing, such as its size or shape, he is also becoming aware of the ability of his mind to perceive and understand that property. Whenever he learns about material objects, then, he learns about his mind. But he can learn things about his mind without learning anything new about the material world. Therefore, his mind is more readily known to him than anything else. There is, however, one problem with this. What he learns about his mind when examining the properties of an object – his ability to perceive said properties – is in fact a property of his mind. However, Descartes himself regards properties as being immaterial – it is the essence of a thing that truly matters. So it would seem that his conclusion here is not entirely solid.

This, then, is what Descartes views as the “self”; a thinking thing, as outlined above. There are some further weaknesses to his arguments, but these deal mostly with particulars and I don’t want to deal with them too throroughly here. Suffice it to say that while his main points are mostly sound, not all of his conclusions should be taken at face value (this can of course be said of virtually everything, especially when one is dealing with philosophy). To fully appreciate Descartes’ views on the self, however, an understanding of his thoughts on dualism – another topic he adresses in theMeditations- is neccessary. I’ll be looking at these shortly.

*Extended: something that occupies space. Flexible and changeable: something that can take on different shapes and sizes.


3 responses »

  1. Pingback: Descartes’ Meditations – Truth and Ideas « Poignantboy's Blog

  2. Pingback: Cartesian Dualism « Poignantboy's Blog

  3. Pingback: Austin on Descartes through Sense and Sensibilia « theesposito

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