Mind and Body:
From René Descartes to William James

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

Story Evolution

an exchange triggered by Grobstein's Writing Descartes ...
29-30 June, 1-2 July 2004

Dalke followed by Grobstein
with subsequent exchange inset

"We Are, and We Can Talk, Therefore..."

29 June 2004

Dear Paul,

Thank you for inviting me to listen in on the (solipsistic? world-wide?) discussion you've been having with one of your dead friends. Reading and mulling over what you've said has moved me to respond to your hope that "the conversations will continue through others who've also been talking with you."

Full disclosure: I have NOT, over the course of my reading and thinking life, talked much w/ Rene Descartes; in fact, a good deal of my work--like that of many feminist scholars--has been quite self-consciously positioned in direct refutation of (received wisdom concerning) the strict Cartesian distinction between mind and body. Women like myself, who have for decades now been reclaiming the body--female bodies in general, our individually gendered/raced/classed/(dis)abled bodies in particular--as locus and foundation for knowledge, have long understood Descartes' dualistic position as that of the (frankly clueless) enemy. Overhearing your conversation has nudged me to reconsider that opposition, with an awareness both that Descartes laid some of ground wherein I already joyfully and productively dance, and that my own feminist scholarship--and experience--may have something useful to add to the (mine)field the two of you have lately been planting and weeding together. So...!

I want to talk here about three linked things: sociality, solidity and safety. In doing so, I draw quite heavily and gratefully on conversations over the past two years with other members of the Graduate Idea Forum, where (as you know) we have had long, rich discussions about the history of American pragmatism and its contributions in our own everyday decision-making (see in particular our conversations about Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club and a recent series of essays, including one by Ken Richman, on foundational knowledge and service learning).That I rely on those conversations as my entree into this one is ground and evidence for the first observation I have to make about the inherent and insistent social nature of thinking (which the tonality of your letter, in its attention to audience reactions and resistances, implicitly acknowledges, but which neither you nor Descartes addresses explicitly in this forum).

Most of Descartes' work, as it has come down to me, has focused insistently on intrapersonal experience. Reading over Rob Wozniak's account of Descartes' life and thought, I was very much struck by all the work Descartes did on understanding and articulating the interaction of mind and body, how each affected the other in what he poetically called "interfibrillar spaces." From what I understand, both from Rob's survey and elsewhere, most of Western philosophy has followed Descartes in his privileging inner over external space in his search for a certain foundation for knowledge--because the one thing he was certain he could not doubt was his own existence as a thinking being.

I've been floundering about lately in a deep depression; when, as now, being alone w/ myself is what I most fear, what keeps me alive is friends (themselves both alive and dead--and some of the very best of them are dead, who still talk to me through their writings), friends who are willing to keep me company even--especially--when I have nothing to offer, nothing productive to contribute to the world or even to conversation. It is in that web of affiliation that I find whatever certitude, whatever comfort there remains for me when I (contra Descartes) doubt, as I doubt profoundly, the certainty and validity of my own existence. At least one of these good friends, I know, experiences depression very differently, even "oppositely." For her, it is being alone which seems safest and most certain at such times; what most frightens is the risk of connecting, really connecting, with another--in that uncertain space where the outcome of the interchange is not predictable.

The point of this (very painful) contrast is that there are no certain certainties, no stable stabilities, either within or without. There are only the constructions we use to get through these too-long days: the shared pleasure of friendship, the pleasure of unshared solitude. And as the greatest of the pragmatists said, it is those ideas "upon which we can ride," those that "will carry us" which are "true instramentally." If an idea performs a concrete function, THEN it operates as truth: Something We Can Count On. For me, the wisdom of the pragmatists lies in their utter refusal (again: contra Descartes) to conduct a search for certitude, in their understanding that in certitude lies the seeds of violence and the end of knowing, in their insistence that all knowledge is provisional, that there is no ultimate criteria for truth, but only arbitrarily and temporarily useful constructions on which we rely for decision-making and action.

But--and this is a very important but, elided, I think, in the conversation so far--NONE of this is "solid." I was puzzled to hear you (seem to?) follow Descartes in saying that one can claim "a solid foundation" at the moment one decides that "one won't ask questions before acting." You overstate here what (I think?) you mean to claim. Rather: I think that all you can legitimately claim is that, at such moments, we, entirely arbitrarily, say, Here, I stop thinking: At this point I will consider no more contingencies. I cease trying to account for all relevant data. I am exhausted. I can review no more options. Time is up. The more I think, the more confused I get. I quit. I act. That is NOT, as you say, "abandoning skepticism," even "temporarily." It's Acting In Spite of Skepticism. It's Acting While Remaining Skeptical. It's insisting, despite the fact that we cannot know all we need to know (admitting that we can never know all we need to know) that we can still act.

So (the words are important here, so take some time with them, okay?) it seems to me no more useful to speak of "solidity" in this case (because it conjures up the notion that there IS something really solid--over there, across the hill) than it was to speak of getting it less wrong in a similar, and similarly worded, one years ago: because the latter construction conjures up the notion that there IS a "right," not perhaps graspable, but nonetheless in existence, and to-be-aimed for. I don't think--following the pragmatists--that it's useful--I think it's actually very damaging--to posit the possibility of "solidity," "rightness," or--while I'm in this space--"safety." A long time ago It's Not Just My Problem, Friend also slipped and slid about between claiming (on the one hand) that "I trust people who can think. I feel safer when there are people around me who can think," and (on the other) that "Almost everybody believes that its dangerous, and risky... if they think too much....Thinking IS dangerous, and risky....its ALSO the best way anyone has ever come up with to REDUCE risk."

I'd say, friend, that the explicit promise of safety in that essay, like the implicit promise of rightness in the last one and solidity in this, are false consolations. The real comfort is what you offer, towards the end of your letter to Descartes, as more-than-compensation for giving up on the security of authority and self: "the freedom to be oneself the agent of new territory." If I read you aright, and I think I do, that means the freedom not to spend one's time tracing and cataloguing what has already been made, but actually to MAKE something new. A lot of fun there, huge possibilities--but the safety is a long way off (maybe, just maybe, one will make something that will be of--unanticipated--future use).

Circulating widely on the internet these days is a piece Terry Jones published in The Guardian on June 16, 2004, entitled "This won't hurt much." It's the story of a man fruitlessly trying to find out where his son goes after choir practice. He starts by putting a bag over the kid's head and chaining him to a radiator. When his wife suggests he's gone too far, he puts a bag over her head, chains her...you get the picture. This search for certitude, for something "solid" to hold on to, the attempt to make ourselves safe by trying to find out what is going on in the heads and lives of others, Jones suggests, leads to the sorts of actions the US administration has been condoning since 9/11...

No rightness. No solidity. No safety lies that-a-way.

30 June 2004

Dear Anne,

Thanks for the rich and thoughtful assembly of thoughts, which serve, among other things, to usefully embed the conversation(s) in a broader context, both interpersonally and intrapersonally.

I hadn't thought of Descartes' mind/body dichotomy, and an associated "priviliging" of mind, in the context of feminist scholarship, and do think its useful to do so. There are indeed forms of knowing distinct from and every bit as important as the "thinking" kind that Descartes' tried to take (or was understood by others as taking) as a foundation. And it may, for some purposes, be useful/necessary in making that point to attribute them to "the body". The problem with that approach, from my point of view, is that it actually contributes to rather than corrects a deeper problem: the presumption of independent, competing entities ("mind" and "body"). A simpler, and I think in the long run more useful, story is that "mind" is a component of the nervous system, the nervous system is a component of the body, and so there IS no mind/body dichotomy. All "knowledge" is in the particulars of the organization of the complex assembly of matter that is the body, with most (though not all) of it in the particulars of the organization of the nervous system. Most knowledge of the latter sort is in particulars of the organization of the nervous system of which we are unaware. A smaller part, the "thinking" part that Descartes focused on for the purposes of grounding inquiry, is "conscious". For the purposes of facilitating inquiry, this may well in fact be the most important part, but it is very much not to be "privileged" in general and it clearly depends for its effectiveness on the other parts, our "treeness" (as per Descartes' Error). By positioning treeness (the "body") and "thinking" (the mind) in interactive relationship, this story, it seems to me, avoids the temptation to try and put EITHER in the position of a foundation not to be questioned. This, I think, would advance the causes not only of feminists but of all of us.

I'm glad you were able to detect a commitment to the "social nature" of thinking in the "tonality" of my essay. I admit to not emphasizing this matter, but it was actually there explicitly as well (the list of things which are "demonstrably useful" includes "the stories of other people"). What I DON'T do in the essay (and am not inclined to do in general) is to give the interpersonal special status, to elevate it above the status of the intrapersonal. As with the mind/body dichotomy, it may be useful to emphasize the interpersonal to redress an historical "privileging" of the intrapersonal but it is, it seems to me, unwise in the long run to do so in a way that would encourage people to expect either it OR the intrapersonal to be a solid foundation. Bear in mind that Descartes was himself trying to correct a serious imbalance on the side of the interpersonal in his rejection of both "revealed truth" and authority. While he (or people following him) may have gone too far in the intrapersonal focus, it remains the case that the tyranny of the interpersonal is every bit as much of a danger as that of the intrapersonal. Profound skepticism can be an effective antidote for both problems.

So ... on to "solid" and "right" and "safety". "Solid", you say "conjures up the notion that there IS something really solid--over there" and "less wrong", you say, similarly "conjures up the notion that there IS a "right". And you read "Thinking IS dangerous, and risky....its ALSO the best way anyone has ever come up with to REDUCE risk" as an "explicit promise of safety". I can, if I work at it, also read these writings (here and elsewhere) as promises of "solidity", "rightness", and "safety" but, in all honesty, they aren't/weren't so intended. As intended, all three were specific cases of an "utter refusal (again contra Descartes) to conduct a search for certitude". Thanks for the invitation/opprtunity to clarify. Let me see if I can do so.

The question of "solid" boils down to the question of whether there is a meaningful difference between "abandoning skepticism temporarily" and "acting in spite of skepticism". Its close, but I think there actually is. "Skepticism" is itself normally part of the "thinking" process; trees aren't "skeptical" (nor, I would argue, is the unconscious part of ourselves). And, as part of the thinking process in relation to acting, skepticism is frequently experienced as "I don't know if this is RIGHT (or "best" or whatever)", which in turn inhibits acting. My thought was that for action one temporarily abandons thinking (and hence skepticism, including conceptions of "best" or "right") in order to get around such an inhibition. And one might do that for any of a number of reasons other than "I don't have time to figure out the right/best answer", including my unconscious/treeness knows better than to believe there is a "right/best" answer. In short, "solid" for local action is a quite different concept than the certainty Descartes wanted for inquiry. "Sufficiently firm to leap from" (as evaluted by treeness) is more what I had in mind than "something really solid - over there" (which requires thinking).

In a similar vein, "getting it less wrong" conjures "right" only in a particular "thinking" mode, one that presumes the existence of "right". A tree may branch more profusely in an area with greater sunlight than one with less but has no sense at all that this is "right" in any absolute way. Similarly, my unconscious is fully capable of choosing not to do certain things because they have had/are likely to have undesirable consequences and to instead do other things, without any conception at all that the latter are "right". They are simply "less wrong". Profound skepticism encourages this way of doing things consciously as well. And that, in turn, suggests an interesting line for further exploration. Maybe just as "thinking" can influence the unconscious, so too can thinking be modified based on an awareness of characteristics of the unconscious?

I don't know quite what to say about thinking and "safety", other than that the claim was exaggerated; I didn't say thinking provides safety but only that it "reduces risk". Risk-reduction is not risk-elimination. Maybe the leap from one to the other is also a "thinking" characteristic? In any case, I now suspect, in light of the above, that I had a particular kind of thinking in mind when I was writing before. Some kinds of thinking are I now suspect definitely not risk-reducing, while others are. The difference? Profound skepticism, of course.

Try this difference on instead.
What This Isn't Just MY Problem, Friend said was that thinking was risky because it unsettled the status quo. What is "being said" (passive selected advisedly) in Writing Descartes is that thinking is risky because "it" (impersonal pronoun selected advisedly) tries to force "the human" system, in the language of this morning's information group, into a "formal" (read: coherent, consistent, complete) system.

So (turn of screw, changed angle of vision):
the "new territory" of which "oneself is the agent" could be (simply) accepting the old/limbic/reptilian (snake. phobia) one: one's own unruly unconscious (as a friend said: "it's just a deep dark sea"), NOT forcing it to fit the coherent/consistent/complete script of consciousness, but just... floating. growing

Fair enough. Am all in favor of "just ... floating, growing". Indeed, think its essential. Is the "treeness" on which the more elaborate "thinking" architecture exists and depends. And can be an important generator of "newness" in its own right. Lots of "thinkers" testify to this, to the experience of finding from some unknown place inside oneself something important/new "bubbling up". Is a central part of the notion of serendip. So, yes, one can find "new territory" in "one's own unruly unconscious" (how "unruly" it actually is is an interesting question, as is where whatever unruliness that is there comes from).

On flip-side, I'm ALSO in favor of "thinking", and think of the two activities not as incompatible but rather as complimentary and mutually supportive. Yes, thinking can upset the status quo (both outside and inside). And yes, it can also "cramp" more fluid patterns into more "formal" and less generative ones. But it is precisely the interplay between the more fluid and the more formal that creates the widest new spaces. And it is precisely the interplay between treeness and thinking that gives one the capacity to make one's own choices about what one becomes.

Whether clarifications help or not, I agree that "the freedom to be oneself the agent of new territory" (rather than any promise of solidity/rightness/safety) is the real payoff of profound skepticism (and punchline of the essay). Thanks for highlighting that. In return, a couple of perhaps related thoughts on depression (with which, as you know, I too have some personal experience).

As you say, depression comes in different flavors and so is unlikely to be directly related to, for example, either one's interpersonal or one's intrapersonal status per se. For what its worth, what has resonated with my own experiences is a letter from David Hume (speaking of philosophers) in which he wrote

"I was continually fortifying myself with Reflections against Death, & Poverty, & Pain, & all the other Calamities of Life. These no doubt are exceeding useful, when joined with an active Life; because the Occasion being presented along with the Reflection, works it into the Soul, & makes it take a deep Impression, but in Solitude they serve to little other Purpose than to waste the Spirits, the Fource of the Mind meeting with no Resistance, but wasting itself in the Air, like our Arm when it misses its Aim."

One might (if one were me) read "Reflection" as "thinking" and the "Occasion" as treeness. If one did, one might speculate that depression, whatever its origin in particular cases, is an expression of the hazards of taking too seriously Descartes' "I think, therefore I am". My own experience is certainly one of hyperactive thinking coupled with an absence of treeness. Perhaps profound skepticism could be an antidote not only for inter- and intra-personal tyrrany but (paradoxically?) for depression as well?

gotcha. but you get this? about the difference between the risk of conscious thinking, unsettling what is, vs. the risk of unconsciousness, allowing what is just to... be? is this profound skepticism or just calculated balancing of risk?

Do understand that there is a "risk" in thinking AND a "risk" in treeness, with the former being perhaps more a risk of causing something to happen that might not otherwise have happened (a "sin of commission"?) and the latter being perhaps more of a risk of not preventing things from happening that one might have prevented (a "sin of omission"?). BUT, thinking can also "cramp" things (a sin of omission, as above) and treeness can also disrupt things (a sin of commission, as in acts of passion). So I don't think the "balancing act" is either specific to thinking/treeness OR an expression of "profound skepticism". Profound skepticism says you can't get rid of "risk", neither by treeness nor by thinking nor by any combination of them. While you may be able to lessen "risk" by some appropriate combination, what's more important is that, along the lines of what you said earlier, the combination makes it possible to understand "risk" as "opportunity". It is precisely in the space of not being sure how to act, and hence acting in the face of "risk", that one has the room to become something different from what one has been.

5 July

Can we talk about that a little more, about how "precise" that formulation/formula is? About how much room there is, inside, to become something different? About how large the inside space is, for the making of something new? And about wherefrom the newness (and/or the space/interplay that generates newness) comes?

We've been talking for some time now in the Emergent Systems group about whether the (external) design space (of the universe) is entirely designated, entirely written (and whether we are then reduced to just reading it, identifying and re-running its algorithms, per Wolfram), or whether (per you) we are agents in its construction, able both to imagine and make something new. I know you need to believe that we are free agents; I don't know that we know (or how we can know) that we are. And I suppose my question here is the same question we've been worrying there, now applied internally. It's also another way of asking/ spelling out your parenthetical questions above: "So, yes, one can find "new territory" in "one's own unruly unconscious" (how "unruly" it actually is is an interesting question, as is where whatever unruliness that is there comes from)."

Your claim has always been that much/most of it comes in the package--we are born w/ it, or rather, neurologically, w/ the capacity to generate it. My (conscious) experience has always been that it comes from engagements with the outside: I'm greedy, gobble down whatever presents itself to me, trust I can make good use of it, then can't figure out how to digest what I've ingested. Mulling over our earlier conversation, I find my own binary of (doubtful) self and (dependable) others, even the binary implied in "the social nature of thinking" to be false (=not-so-useful). 'Twould seem to me now "less wrong" to say that the self-that-doubts-itself is itself an ingestion of all others--as you, in writing to Descartes, have ingested him; as I, in writing back, have ingested you; as participants in the Graduate Idea Forum and Emergence, whether conscious of it or are not, are being ingested, their ideas masticated, made use of, in this on-line conversation.... The self is, within itself, porous and multiple, as the self constantly takes others within itself...

Of course the other may dislike intensely being masticated (I'm smiling at the memory of the reaction of some of the students in The Evolution of Stories to Sena Naslund's "domestication" of Ishmael in Ahab's Wife: they wanted him to remain the lonely wanderer, did not want him to settle down, even loosely held in Naslund's/Una's capacious and imagination...)

And that's the rub for me right now: all those others within who are not @ home there...and, in their exile, generating a so-strong and concomitant sense of self in exile from itself. In Three Guineas, her 1938 call to women not to ascribe to "unreal loyalties" in their desire to participate in the larger social order, Virginia Woolf imagined "The Society of Outsiders." We've spoken of similar constructions in other interdisciplinary working groups @ Bryn Mawr, ways in which outsiders can learn to love (even profit from) their outsidedness, learn to value and make good use of the double vision that outsidedness gives. There was talk, in the Graduate Idea Forum, of "double consciousness" (a wish for 2 contrary impulses--what we want and what IS--to be in alignment, and an awareness that they are not); more talk, in the Symposium on Beauty, of "negative capability" (being in uncertainties w/out an "irritable reaching" for resolution). The first of these is often understood as a location for political action; the second as a calm place of aesthetic understanding. I would like to believe that this place of intense discomfort in which I am living now could be the antechamber of such a landscape, amid a busy cacaphony of a(n emphatically non-)society of exiles within: this sense of self-division, of self divorced from self, unable to adjudicate amid the sound of multiple voices shouting one another down, crying to be heard, not knowing which to listen to....

Yup.Yep, "self" is indeed "porous and multiple", both inside and outside. Is neither "thinking" nor "treeness" but the combination of both. As such it derives properties from both, and from the interaction between them, and from the inside and the outside and the interaction between those. Is, unlike thinking, NOT coherent, except insofar as it is dominated by "thinking" or experiences with hierarchy outside. IS multiple; IS the combination of all of those contending, self-centered forces (like the College is, like the world is). Trick is for the "thinker" to accept/listen to/facilitate communication among all of them, noticing what they are each good for and nudging them each in directions that will please each of them, make each of them feel part of a common story.

For more from Anne, see Expanding the Conversation Without and Within

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