Mind and Body:
From René Descartes to William James

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

Story Evolution

excerpted from an exchange of emails triggered by Grobstein's Writing Descartes ...
24 July 2004

Rachel Grobstein followed by Grobstein

Dear Dad,

I don't mean to trifle, but I guess I will. It's like this: when I first read your paper, coming so recently from the influence of Bowdoin's philosophy department (which would feel awfully betrayed if I let go unchallenged non-analytic, fuzzy thinkers who call into question the value of Descartes' legacy) I did actually think to myself: wait a second, there's something a little different in how you are characterizing what Descartes was trying to do and how I have understood what his intention was, and then I thought, it might be relevant!

Early on in your letter, you sum up your version of Descartes' aim in the thought experiment that produced his famous "I think therefore I am"; in your words, this aim was "the need to find a solid footing for ongoing inquiry". You seem to place more emphasis on the idea of "I think therefore I am" as a state of being, a way of life, than as a proof of existence, which is the context in which I have always studied his Meditations. As far as I remember, I arrived at Descartes' famous line starting from the position of the question 'Is there anything I can know?', his evil demon scenario, in which Descartes isn't concerned with trees, rocks, or indeed any other people. Instead he is concerned primarily with his own existence. The rest of the world could very well be an illusion, a dream, electrical impulses; but what is it that makes him so sure that he exists? My reading of his proposed relationship between thinking and being was less "I think, and in so doing I am," but rather, "I know that I am because I can think." Thought is a proof of his existence, not necessarily the defining characteristic of it.

As far as his answer ("I think") to the question of his own existence becoming the template for the way to answer other questions, ie, rational inquiry as the only access point to truth, I think of course the legitimacy of thinking itself ought to be called into question. But are you arguing as well that the fact that we think isn't enough or isn't the only way to answer the question of whether we exist? Or are you less interested in that angle of the question, and more concerned with the implications of placing so much emphasis on thinking as preceding or generating being?

I guess the point I'm really trying to make is that if you take "I think therefore I am" as a statement in isolation, primarily as an answer to what can I know?, it can be thought of in one sense as a very personal answer to a very individual question. (Which is of course consistent with the emphasis you place upon inquiring into one's self - contrary to the notion that thinking constitutes a stable sense of self that needn't be examined.) His meditation (if I remember correctly) is deeply rooted in a sense of his own immediate interaction with the physical world; he describes sitting at a desk, feeling the warmth of a fire, looking at his hand. I think there is something important in the fact that though the statement can be universally applicable, in the essay as it was written Descartes was using himself as an object of study. (He didn't write we think, therefore we are.) As frequently as rational thought suggests a sense of detachment or removal from one's self in order to approach "truth" "objectively" (and also in the sense that in the very act of thinking of something rationally, one excludes what can't be conceptualized in those terms, ie, the unconscious) I think it's interesting that Descartes didn't in fact attempt to take himself out of the picture at all. (To study, for instance, Humanity as some abstract concept.) Indeed, he was the picture.

I like very much your notion that there is a serious problem with the fallout of "I think, therefore I am" in that the idea "encourages people to believe there is a stable 'I', a 'self' that, like logic...can be taken as an invariant." Your amendment - using thought as an instrument of change, rather than a guarantee of stability - indeed seems consistent with the same spirit that would lead a person in the first place to ask "what can I know", (do I exist?), because in so doing, the idea of "I" falls into question as well. And it seems any examination of "I", using thought or otherwise, points to very much the same conclusion: that "I" changes. Thought itself changes who one is; for instance, the very act of processing and understanding the foreign words "I think, therefore I am", the product of someone else's consciousness, places a new set of ideas in one's head; and certainly, one's sense of self is influenced by the sets of ideas one has. To repeat the words "I think therefore I am" is also to break down the distinction between one's self and other, in the sense that one is saying words that are and are not one's own. To have the thought is to make it a part of one's self, but the words come from something other than the self; the thought is both a part of one and not one, suggesting that the self is neither static nor a self contained entity. (I came across a version of that idea in my Zen class - it's not psychoanalysis, but you would approve.)

Anyways, I'm cutting myself off, because I'm on vacation, and besides there's so much that could be brought up in connection with your essay that I figured I would try and trace one semi thought through to the kind of end, and then let it go. So I have, and frankly I'm glad I got anything written at all because when you give a teenager (loosely defined) the topic of self and change you ought to be prepared for volumes - or nothing at all, because there are too many possibilities -...point being, there's lots to be said. But - I enjoyed opening up a bit of information I studied a while ago to new approaches, angles, and ways of thinking. Hooray for education. Hope this contributes.

Dear Daughter,

Thanks for taking the time away from your "vacation" (from "education"? .... hmmmm, maybe we should talk more about that later). Yep, your letter "contributes", lots of ways. Glad you liked "some new approaches, angles, and ways of thinking", and brought your own.

My compliments to the Bowdoin philosophy faculty for nurturing your skepticism (which, for the sake of the record, I think actually has earlier origins; twenty years of observations have given me pretty good reason to suspect you were born with it). As for "non-analytic, fuzzy", I trust you'll remember an earlier conversation we had in which you suggested that "sacrificing precision (which is impossible anyway)" might make at least some things "meaningful in a different but perhaps more complete way". Its an idea that, it turns out, probably can be explored "analytically" (cf Beyond Reversibility and Computability and Consistency and Skepticism: Information?).

Enough trifling. Could it be that Descartes was "concerned primarily with his own existence"? , that he was (contra his status as the originator of modern (ie "analytic" philosophy)) actually an early existentialist? Or, at the very least, that Descartes had the kind of mind that NEEDED something to help keep it from going out of control in questioning? It is not my reading of him, but .... you're not alone in raising the possibility and it has some interesting implications that are worth thinking more about whatever the historical "reality" (see Butler/Grobstein). In addition, the notion of Descartes "using himself as an object of study" might indeed, as you say, might make him (if not those who followed him) sympathetic to a critique of "rational thought" as "detachment or removal of one's self in order to approach "truth" objectively".

In any case, my story is indeed "more concerned with the implications of placing so much emphasis on thinking as preceding or generating being", and with trying to correct some problems that it seems to me result from that misplaced emphasis (whether Descartes' fault or not). I'm glad you like the notion of switching the emphasis , ie "using thought as an instrument of change, rather than a guarantee of stability". And I in turn like your additions to this. Thinking can indeed be a route to the discovery of "self", rather than (as is often the case) being used in a way that "excludes what can't be conceptualized int those terms, ie the unconscious"). And it can indeed be used, as well, to "break down the distinction between one's self and other". I like very much the idea that when when telling/listening to stories, "the thought is both a part of one and not one", and agree that in this situation "the self is neither static nor a self-contained entity'".

Do think there ought to be something useful between "volumes" and "nothing at all", even for teenagers (which, daughter, you chronologically no longer are, whether you like it or not). Maybe that something is something like this? For you, me, and everone else in the world? Thanks for helping to try it out. Interested to say what comes of it. You too, I hope


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