Mind and Body:
From René Descartes to William James

Writing Descartes:
I Am, and I Can Think, Therefore ...

Story Evolution
Jed Grobstein/Grobstein

an exchange triggered by Grobstein's Writing Descartes ...
31 August 2004

J. Grobstein followed by Grobstein


The deleterious consequences of submitting one's child to institutions of 'higher learning,' after having spent a not insignificant portion of one's life cultivating the proper respect for one's own peculiar methods of thought, are well known. Therefore, I could not possibly accept the least measure of responsibility for the critique that follows.

There are, by any measure, an inexhaustible number of questions, enigmas, or bugaboos in the mind of man and woman. Relevant or obscure, practical or not, mysteries of all sorts abound. And yet, it seems that at certain times, particular questions have seemed unusually relevant; specific questions have seemed to preoccupy entire ages, generations. This is not a new concept, histories of ideas are as old, perhaps, as the ideas themselves [Hegel being the best example of a modern historian of ideas]. It is not uncommon to see Descartes and his work in science and the creation of a rational basis for inquiry into the (natural) world cited as an important step or epoch in the history of philosophy.

Descartes had a question. Essentially different from his intellectual predecessors, Descartes wanted to know how I am, how I exist. He was not so concerned with Plato's shadows and illusions or with St. Augustine's God. Descartes simply wanted to know how he could possibly justify his existence. And his answer was thought. No matter the cruel and deceitful power of whatever demon or god or computer program it was that really controlled the world, there was no way for Descartes to be fooled into existing if he didn't. I think therefore I am.

The father of rationalism, and therefore of modern science as we know it, struck a blow at two bases of intellectual authority. The first, and more effective of the two, was at superstition or 'magic;' effects which have no cause. The second was at religious authority, which, it seems, was essentially the intellectual apathy and failure of society as a whole to participate in their own (rational) exploration of the natural and social world. Descartes major contribution was to skepticism and self-examination.

However, Professor Grobstein would like to commandeer the successes of Descartes and throw a mutiny; he would turn cogito ergo sum against itself. The bugaboo of this generation is not authority. Profound skepticism is built into (American) society, we call it capitalism and adolescence and the 1960's. It seems that in a world in which the number of sources and possibilities for belief have been exponentially multiplied by the information revolution, K-12 schooling and the institution of democracy, that our problem is not in rejecting sources of authority [truth, security, tradition] as it was for Descartes and as Dr. Grobstein would have it, but in finding something relevant to accept.

There are no more sacred cows. People spend the whole of their lives changing, physically, intellectually, political parties, religions, marriages, sexual partners, can't trust our minds, better get some drugs to help, certainly can't trust our bodies or feelings. Individuality, watchword of the MTV generation, encourages us to do so. This problem is Nietszche's fault, god is dead, and nobody needs any extra encouragement to believe it. It doesn't particularly matter whether its Descartes or Jesus or McGreevy. What people need is balance and stability. Skepticism is fine, skepticism is important, but not to the extent that people spend their time worrying about whether they have a reason for action. And if one is supposed to ignore the truancy of authority in order to act, then why bother insisting upon calling attention to it in the first place? Descartes kicked out our goblins and, in time, our priests. However, he was nice enough to leave us with our minds in exchange, which, maybe, is more than we have now.

We all have our crosses to bear, you a father who is himself a son of the '60's (and fuzzy minded to boot), and me a son who insists that its what is going on NOW and not then that needs to be addressed. And so it goes ... I'd love to know what the next iteration looks like (and hope you'll get as much satisfaction from your son (and daughter) as I get from mine).

For the present, I do think its useful to situate, as you do, both Descartes and this exchange in a history of ideas, an ongoing one. And I do indeed think an important (and recent) part of the evolution is "to turn cogito ergo sum against itself". The important challenge you offer is the assertion that "The bugaboo of this generation is not authority", that the problem is instead "finding something relevant to accept". I'm not entirely sure you are actually in a position to speak generally for your generation (any more than I was/am able to speak for mine). It seems to me relevant that the challenge you're setting hasn't arisen before (here at least), but let's leave that aside for the moment. If its not currently a widespread general concern, it certainly could become one.

What I'm inclined to take somewhat greater issue with is your suggestion that "Profound skepticism is built into (American) society; we call it capitalism and adolescence and the 1960's". I think that an overvaluation of "individuality" is indeed rampant and a problem, and agree that it resulted (at least in part) from the overthrow of traditional "authorities" of various kinds. But that predated the particular brand of "profound skepticism" I have in mind, and, more importantly, I conceived that particular brand at least in part as an antidote to the problems associated with an overvaluation of individuality.

In lieu of both cosmic and social "authority" one may indeed find oneself a bit at loose ends, floating in space, so to speak, without obvious anchor. Some peoples' response to this is rampant individualism, of the "I am the authority, answerable only to myself" sort. And another is a sense of disorientation, of "wondering whether they have a reason for action". Since I'm disinclined to return to "authority" to deal with these problems, I offered "profound skepticism" instead. With regard to the first temptation, it asserts that "I" is no more an "authority" to be unquestionably relied on than any of the previously conceived authorities. And with regard to the second, it says that one can indeed trust "I" or "treeness" or other people's advice or anything-else-one-wants as a basis for action at any given time. Better yet, one trusts for action at any given time the combination of as many of them as one can manage.

They key here is that depriving EVERYTHING of the status of FINAL "authority" gives one permission/room to (not actually paradoxically) make use of everything one has at any given time. And that, for me at least, provides more "balance and security" than any of the individual things have ever provided (to say nothing of allowing one to stop worrying about whether one has picked the right one to trust). Particularly in combination with the idea that acting is not a final stage but simply a step in the process of adding more to one's own (and other peoples') repertoire of things on which to draw in acting in the future.

We still have our minds, but with profound skepticism they have more room to grow?


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