Descartes, I think not.

This week we finished reading Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, in which he lays out his principle of “I think, therefore I am,” and develops the notion of a distinct, immaterial mind which is separable from the body. Basically, Descartes claims that the only thing about himself which he can be truly certain of is that he is a thinking thing—that he is a mind. The activity of this mind does not include imagination or will or sensation. It affirms, doubts, questions, perceives, believes. True, certain knowledge is only that which can be known “clearly and distinctly” by this mind, which for him is fairly limited to the existence of God and mathematical realities or properties of things which could be “mathematizable.” Obviously, I am summarizing the argument here, it’s a bit more nuanced than this.

My instinct is to resist Descartes’ concept of the mind and what it is to know, and also his dualism of mind and body. I think perhaps he describes one way of knowing things in the world, but not all ways. I also reject the idea that the imagination and will have no part in really knowing. In class I brought up the fact that we now know how integrated our brains and bodies really are, and especially as a woman, I find it harder to assume that the mind is so distinct from what happens in our bodies.

I found myself suspicious of him while I was reading the text—something felt disingenuous about it and I felt unable to fully judge the merit and sincerity of it. Part of the problem might be that we jumped from Aristotle to Descartes, so that I do not have a good grasp of what Descartes is responding to more immediately in time and place. People have a lot of biases towards medieval philosophy in particular but I suspect the reality is much more complex than one assumes. Anyway I have found that gap in the curriculum to be profound and would like to try to do some reading on my own in order to make up for it.

Our reading from Plato’s Republic in my preceptorial this week was some of the most fascinating yet—perhaps because it felt so directly relatable to our own time and place. In Book VIII, Socrates looks at four kinds of governing regimes which he sees in both city and soul, analyzes how they come to be and how they look in cities and in individual souls. These four regimes are a “timocracy” or a sort of aristocratic meritocracy, oligarchy (rule by the rich), democracy, and tyranny. Interestingly, he sees these developing out of one another in that order, such that tyranny must necessarily come out of democracy. The citizens of a democracy become so greedy for “freedom” (more like license to do whatever they want) that they ultimately enslave themselves to a tyrant.

How does this happen? The citizens become so sensitive to any seeming limitation: “Do you notice how tender they make the citizens’ soul, so that if someone proposes anything that smacks in any way of slavery, they are irritated and can’t stand it? And they end up, as you well know, by paying no attention to the laws, written and unwritten, in order that they may avoid having any master at all.” This grows into a disease of the society, Socrates says, “the result of license,” and enslaves the democracy. “Really, anything that is done to excess is likely to provoke a correspondingly great change in the opposite direction—in seasons, in plants, in bodies, and in particular, not least in regimes.”

“Too much freedom seems to change into nothing but too much slavery, both for private man and city.” Can we see this anywhere in history? Or in our own time? Are we somehow enslaving ourselves by an excessive love of freedom?

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