critque of cartesianism and anti-cartesianism

§1: structural similarities and content differences

there are certain structural features that are present in both cartesian philosophy and my philosophy; but, the content associated with these features is not always equivalent. these similarities and differences are presented in the following table with commentary to follow. Descartes' position is listed twice. it is presented once as Descartes is commonly understood in vernacular english. at some point I2 will attempt to translate Descartes' thinking into HE to further clarify any differences; but, for now, that would be distracting.

Structural Features with Associated Content in VE only
Structural Feature Polanik Descartes (VE)
ASR: assertion of self-reality I2 am I am, I exist
AI: Awareness of Ignorance knowing that I2 am doesn't tell me what I2 am. I do not yet have a sufficient understanding of what this 'I' is.
SFQ: Search-Focusing Question What am I2? What am I?
PI: Privileged Identification I2 am an experiencer

I am a mind, a thinking thing

I am a soul, a thinking thing

ES: Epigrammatic Statement I2 experience; therefore, I2 am. I am thinking; therefore, I exist.

although our belief systems share at least these structural features, there are obvious differences of content; and, I2 want to clarify the extent to which these are due to genuine differences in perspective rather than to differences in the language we've used to express our perspectives. let us consider these structural features in reverse order of their appearance in Descartes' Meditations with a view to spotting the source of the earliest genuine difference, if any.

§1.1: the privileged identification

in the table above, I2 list two privileged identifications for Descartes. the first, 'I am a mind', represents his position in the second Meditation. this is what he comes up with after asking 'what am I' and rejecting unsatisfactory answers. the second, 'I am a soul' represents his position in the sixth Meditation. I2 am not convinced that Descartes is using these words interchangeably. I2 suspect that the shift in his vocabulary is a consequence of progress in his thinking; but, I2 will put off examination of that issue. as I2 am just starting my philosophical journey, I2 will compare my privileged identification with Descartes' initial formulation.

(Note: for present purposes an identification is a statement as to who or what something is. an identification is privileged if it is unrejectable, indubitable and/or undeniably true. elsewhere, I2 will discuss the theory of identification at greater length.)

after asking himself 'what am I', Descartes' answers, 'I am a mind' (or 'I am a thinking thing' or even 'I am a thinker'). this is his privileged identification because he considers it a certainty. how different is it from my privileged identification, 'I2 am an experiencer'?

in one sense there is very little difference. Descartes makes it clear that he is using 'thinking' as I2 would use 'experiencing'.

but what then am I? a think that thinks. what is that? a thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, is willing, is unwilling, and also imagines and has sensory perceptions. [CSM II: 19]

thus, our privileged identifications are functionally equivalent; but for, any assumptions imported by differences in the language we each use; and, I2 suspect that there are at least these two differences:

1. ambiguity as between class and member - Descartes uses 'thinking' as the name for the class of all subjective experiences. thinking, in the restrictive sense of consciously, deliberately thinking logically, is a member of that class. I2 use 'experiencing' as the name for the class and I2 use 'thinking' only in the restrictive sense in which it describes one type of subjective experience.

2. voice - in HE, a construction like 'I2 experience' is presumed to be middle-voiced until proven to be active-, middle- or passive-voiced. in VE, 'I think' is generally considered active-voiced; and, I2 believe that the vernacular french and latin in which Descartes actually wrote would likewise treat 'I think' as active-voiced.

these differences may affect the subsequent philosophical inquiry; but, neither of them seems to have been involved in arriving at this point; so, I2 must proceed up the food chain.

§1.2: the search-focusing question

After realizing that he does not know what he is, Descartes naturally asks himself 'what am I'; and, this question is functionally equivalent to my own search focusing question --- but for ambiguities as to the referent of 'I'.

in my own case, 'I2' is defined as that which asks 'what am I2'.

§1.3: the awareness of ignorance.

there is a significant difference here; and, I2 believe that I2 have achieved a greater ignorance than Descartes achieved.

Descartes writes:

But I do not yet have a sufficient understanding of what this 'I' is, that now necessarily exists. [CSM II, 17]

there is a minor problem involving Descartes' use of 'necessarily' and a major problem involving his use of 'exists'.

philosophers do not yet have a clear concept of the contingent necessity; and, as a result, overemphasize what is necessary to the point of treating claims of necessary existence or necessary being as claims of an absolutely necessary being (by which phrase philosophers refer to god). for example, in his critique of Descartes' Cogito, Kant writes:

The 'I think' is, as has been stated, an empirical proposition, and contains within itself the proposition, I exist. I cannot say, however, everything which thinks exists; for in that case the property of thinking would make all beings which possess it necessary beings.1

Kant has already made clear that this is an absolute necessity he is talking about:

... in the first proposition [I think], my existence is taken for granted, for it is not said in it that every thinking being exists (this would predicate too much, namely, absolute necessity of them), but only I exist.2

Kant is overstating Descartes' point. a more reasonable interpretation is that Descartes is attempting to say something like this:

1. given that I think, it is necessary that I exist.

this proposition is nothing more than the Cogito ('I am thinking; therefore, I exist') stated another way; but, even this explicit statement of contingent necessity is problematic. to clarify this much more serious problem that remains, I2 will have to translate proposition 1 into HE. for the moment, the details of the translation process are not crucial; for, there are several possible interpretive translations:

2a. given that I2 experience, it is necessary that I3 be.

2b. given that I2 experience, it is necessary that I2 am.

2c. given that I2 experience, it is necessary that I1 exist.

2b represents my position. I2 believe that 2a represents the sum of what Descartes said and what he implied but left unsaid. I2 believe that 2c is consistent with the views of current materialist/physicalist theories of consciousness; although, it is not clear that such philosophers would translate their own views into HE in this manner.

what does 2a claim beyond what 2b claims?

the difference between 2a and 2b is the difference between 'I2 am' and 'I3 be'. as I2 noted in the my first meditation, 'I2 am' asserts only that I2 am real in some sense of the word 'real'; meaning, that I2 am real and have some reality type without stating what reality type I2 have. in contrast, 'I3 be' asserts that I2 know the reality type of that from which I2 originate: being, the ontological reality type. these presuppositions support Descartes' claim that the I2, the experiencer conscious self-awareness, is a non-physical substance, a mind (second Meditation) or a soul (sixth Meditation).

naturally, proposition 2c makes analogous claims; specifically, that the experiencer is merely a brain function; and, hence, that I2 experience implies that I2 originate from I1, this brain, an existential reality.

the claims that 2a (or 2c) makes above the claim made by 2b may or may not be true; but, they are certainly not necessarily true, even given that I2 experience. how does Descartes know this? to answer that question I2 will have to go further up the food chain to where he first claims this knowledge.

§1.4: the assertion of self-reality

the table above is actually too simplistic in one sense: it doesn't mention the larger statement in which Descartes embedded his formulation of the assertion of self-reality. he actually wrote:

I must finally conclude that this proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind. [CSM II, 17]

thus, the statement, 'I am, I exist', is effectively framed by the meta-statment, 'this proposition'. this implies that the statement is a single proposition. if so, then the two assertions it contains ('I am' and 'I exist') are the same proposition stated twice. thus, assuming that 'I' has the same referent in each assertion, it would follow that, for Descartes (in VE), 'I am' and 'I exist'; and, that would imply that 'amness' = 'existence' --- the exact opposite of what I2 concluded in my first meditation.

but, does 'I' have the same referent in 'I am' as it does in 'I exist'? in my translation of the cogito, I2 argue that the 'I' of 'I think' or 'I am thinking' should be translated into I2; whereas, 'I exist' should become I3 be; but, it is not clear whether 'I am' is more related to 'I think' or 'I exist'.

fortunately, although we have backtracked thru the list of structural features, we haven't reached the beginning; for, in the last quote, Descartes tells us quite explicitly 'I must finally conclude that ...'. this indicates that the proposition, 'I am, I exist', is the result of a reasoning process. let us examine it.

§2: official program: a quest for certainty

§2.1: the origin of the quest for certainty

Descartes was clearly disappointed with the uncertainty he noticed at the foundations of all bodies of knowledge other than mathematics.

"... As soon as I2 had finished the course of studies [at La Fleche] ... I2 found myself saddled with so many doubts and errors that I2 seemed to have gained nothing. Nevertheless, I2 had been in one of the most celebrated schools in all of Europe." [Lavine, 91]

this acute awareness of the uncertainty of contemporary thinking seems to have had a profound impact on Descartes; for, years later, he opened his famous Meditations on First Philosophy with what is likely a reference to this youthful insight:

Some years ago I was struck by the large number of falsehoods that I had accepted as true in my childhood, and by the highly doubtful nature of the whole edifice that I had subsequently based on them. I realized that it was necessary, once in the course of my life, to demolish everything completely and start again right from the foundation if I wanted to establish anything at all in the sciences that was stable and likely to last. ... So today I have expressly rid my mind of all worries and arranged for myself a clear stretch of free time. I am here quite alone, and at last I will devote myself sincerely and without reservation to the general demolition of my opinions. [CSM II, 12]

§2.2: Descartes' response

Descartes responded by searching for a principle of whose truth he could be certain. his method for finding that initial certainty was quite simple: he would doubt everything until he could find something that couldn't be doubted.

anything which admits of the slightest doubt I2 will set aside just as if I2 found it to be wholly false; and I2 will proceed in this way until I2 recognize something certain, or, if nothing else, until I2 at least recognize for certain that there is no certainty. [CSM II, 16]

of course, Descartes' plan is treat the certainty he found as a foundation upon which to build.

Archimedes used to demand just one firm and immovable point in order to shift the entire earth; so too I2 can hope for great things if I2 manage to find just one thing, however slight, that is certain and unshakeable. [CSM II, 16]

§2.3: possible outcomes of the quest for certainty

there are at least four possible outcomes to a philosophical quest for certainty:

  1. I2 find an undeniably indubitable certainty strong enough to serve as the foundation for a complete and robust philosophy
  2. I2 discover with certainty that no further certainty is possible
  3. I2 find an undeniably indubitable certainty too weak to build upon, at least not without introducing additional (and uncertain) premises
  4. I2 discover no certainty at all, not even the certainty that no further certainty is possible

Descartes only considered the first and second of these possibilities; and, thus, one might reasonably impute to Descartes a belief that finding certainty was inevitable (assuming, perhaps, a sincere effort, resonable persistence and sufficient cleverness). in any event, the content of his philosophy clearly shows that he achieved the first outcome.

in contrast, I2 seem to have achieved the third outcome (assuming such a result can be considered an achievement).

the success in question stems from the finding of an undeniably indubitable proposition, a privileged identification, 'I2 am an experiencer', so similar in form and meaning to that which Descartes found. the failure in question stems from my inability to build on this foundation; at least, not in the same way that Descartes intended to build: using only the tools of logical deduction.

despite considerable effort, I2 have been unable to deduce anything of significance from the privileged identification alone. whereas, Descartes reached some momentous interim conclusions on the road to concluding that . I2 have not yet deduced that there is a God. I2 deny that knowing that I2 am tells me how I2 became a reality; so, I2 don't know either that I2 am a brain or that I2 am a mind (or soul or whatever).

whereas Descartes is able to prove to his own satisfaction that the experience of seeming to have a body is due to actually having a body that generated those experiences, I2 am reduced to simply accepting that my body actually does, in fact, exist.

§3: Descartes' initial reasoning process

Descartes begins to doubt the veracity of all his perceptions and memories supposing them to be deceptions or hallucinations.

So what remains true? Perhaps just the one fact that nothing is certain. yet ... how do I know that there is not something else which does not allow even the slightest occasion for doubt?

[he considers the origin of his thoughts. God could be putting thoughts in his head or he could be the 'author of these thoughts'.

[in either case] am I not, at least, something?

[considers whether he could exist without a body (which he has doubted along with the rest of the physical universe].

Does it now follow that I too do not exist? No: if I convinced myself of something or thought anything at all then I certainly existed. But [what if] there is a deceiver of supreme power and cunning who is deliberately and constantly deceiving me. In that case too I undoubtedly exist, if he is deceiving me; and, let him deceive me as much as he can, he will never bring it about that I am nothing so long as I think that I am something. So, after considering everything very thoroughly, I must finally conclude that this proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind. [CSM II, 16-17]

clearly, Descartes begins with the phenomenological fact that he is experiencing something. so, irregardless of whether he is perceiving or hallucinating, he has to be real to experience anything at all. irregardless of where the thoughts come from, he has to be real to experience them. as long as he is thinking the proposition 'I am' it is necessarily true. but, as previously noted, if the meaning of 'am' and 'exist' is unclear, the only part of these assertions that Descartes can be certain of is the self-referencing: I am the referent of 'I' when I say 'I am'; therefore, I can't be nothing, I have to be something ... real. Descartes is in effect using a principle that could be formulated in any number of ways; but, 'Nothing unreal is self-aware' seems to capture the importance of self-referencing.

in HE, Descartes' reasoning would be: I2 know that I2 am the referent of 'I2' whenever I2 say 'I2 am'. thus, I2 know that I2 am self-aware. since nothing unreal is self-aware, I2 must be real (in some sense).

unfortunately, all this proves is that I2 am real in some sense. it doesn't indicate either that I2 am an existential reality or that I2 am an ontological reality or that I2 am a function of one or more of these.

in any event, I2 would have to conclude that what Descartes is trying to say is 'I2 am and I3 be'; but, while he is entitled to conclude 'I2 am', he is not entitled to 'I3 be'.

§4: intro to structure diagrams

as I2 am concerned with the question 'what is the structure of the human individual?', I2 have developed a symbology for classifying belief systems by the assumptions they make or the conclusions they draw as to the structure of the human individual. elsewhere I2 have a systematic presentation of this symbology. for the moment, I2 will elaborate only enough to chart my progress against Descartes' journey thru his Meditations.

the structure of the complete human individual is presented within square brackets.

Descartes Polanik
( I1 ≡ I2 ) the flash of insight I2

the flash of insight. initially, all I2 know is that I2 am.

[ I1 ? ( I2 ≡ I3 ) ] Descartes realizes that he doesn't know whether he really has a body or is merely subject to a hallucination of having a body. [ I1 ? I2 ? I3 ]

after but a few moments consideration I2 am ready to acknowledge that I2 have not yet proven either that I2 am associated with a body that exists or an 'I3' that be.

[ I1 ? I2 ? I3 ]  &&  ! [ I2 ]

I2 further realize that the I2 must be associated with at least one reality independent of its experience.

[ I1 - ( I2 ≡ I3 ) ] Descartes concludes that the experience of seeming to have a body is due to actually having a body. [ I1 - I2 ? I3 ] I2 accept as true that the experience of seeming to have a body is due to actually having a body; but, I2 continue to wonder whether there is an I3.
Descartes has now finished his meditations; whereas, I2 have just begun. however, for reasons stated elsewhere, Descartes' position seems to have been evolving; and, my position begins to take notice of the findings of quantum mechanics.

[ I1 - I2 - I3 ] I2 realize that another entity must be postulated to account for the observer/observed interaction described by quantum mechanics.
[ I1 ~> I2 <~ I3 ] the position Descartes may have come to had it not been for his untimely death. [ I1 ~> I2 <~ I3 ] one hypothesis that flows naturally from the assumption that there are two metaphenomenal components of the human individual.


[1]: Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. New York: Doubleday: Anchor Books. (Muller translation). 289-290; B: 422-426. [Back]

[2]: Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. New York: Doubleday: Anchor Books. (Muller translation). 288; B: 418-422. [Back]