Rene Descartes (1596-1650)


Descartes: The Solitary Self

Individualism is one of the hallmarks of Western philosophy and civilization. No other intellectual tradition has been as intensively (some would say: excessively) preoccupied with singling out and defining the individual self than Western philosophy, and no other polity has made the presumed rights and prerogatives of the individual as central a concern as Western societies. Individualism is as defining a characteristic of our present civilization as capitalism, materialism, technology, and global expansion.

Socrates’ work and example were an important beginning of this individualistic legacy. Socrates’ inner independence from the community in which he lived set an important precedent for the way in which a person could conceive of himself or herself as a separate and distinct being. However radical Socrates’ individualism was, however, he never ceased to think of himself as a member of a community. His very individualism was defined as a social role (as his self-conception as Athens’ “gadfly” clearly shows). And no Greek philosopher in Antiquity ever thought of the individual as anything else than a social being, a zoon politicon.

This became different at the beginning of the Modern Age. Modern philosophy developed a concept of the individual that was far more solitary than that created by Socrates and Antiquity. The modern definition of the self disregards any reference to society or social context and fastens exclusively on what the self is in itself. Because of this approach to understanding and defining the self, modern philosophy ended up with a conception of an individual that was besieged by the problem of solipsism and the question of how a person could possibly relate to the outside world.

The philosopher who first formulated the idea of this solitary self was Rene Descartes (1596-1650). It is because of his groundbreaking work in this respect that he has become known as “the father of modern philosophy.” To understand why Descartes felt compelled to develop his radical individualism, it will be helpful to take a look at the general situation of his time.
The Modern Age came into being around 1500 CE--give or take a hundred years. The thousand years or so before that time are called the Middle Ages, and they are sometimes characterized as the "Dark Age." The transitional years that followed the Middle Ages brought about enormous changes in all areas of life. Four major events and developments stand out: The Renaissance, the Reformation, the change from agrarian Feudalism to urban Capitalism, and the discovery and conquest of overseas territories and peoples.

The word "Renaissance" means "re-birth," and the term refers to the rediscovery and re-activation of much of the sophisticated pagan culture of Antiquity that had been suppressed by the Catholicism of the Middle Ages. It was characterized foremost by a new worldliness of life. The earth was not seen as a vale of tears anymore, but as a place where it was “a pleasure to live.” Renaissance men and women did not think of the physical world as merely transitory and insignificant in comparison with life after death, but as a cosmos that deserved their full attention and admiration. The naked human body became a prominent subject of Renaissance painting and sculpture. Painters and art patrons did not think of it as sinful and in need of being covered up, but as something to be respected and cherished. Science, too, turned to the physical world with renewed energy and curiosity. The trailblazing discoveries, theories, and inventions of Galileo Galilei, together with the physicist’s opposition to traditional church teachings, can be seen as typical and representative of the growing secularization of the European mind.

The new worldliness became prevalent in other areas of life as well. Political power throughout the Middle Ages was sanctioned by the Catholic church, and in theory at least was tempered by carefully delineated moral obligations toward God and citizens. During the Renaissance power tended to become a purely worldly affair, and a desirable goal in itself. In his notorious book The Prince, written in 1513, Machiavelli advocated openly that in the art of ruling efficiency has to be more important than ethics, and that rulers often have to lie, cheat, and take all sorts of measures that are cruel and ruthless.

Machiavelli's theory reflected the practice of the time. Furious struggles for power were the order of the day. The papacy itself became the object of pure power politics. Kings and warlords from all European countries conquered and lost cities and territories at a rate that would have been perceived as lawless and chaotic in earlier times. Dramatists like Shakespeare explored the psychology of Renaissance princes in such characters as Macbeth, Richard III, or Hamlet's uncle Claudius. Hamlet expressed some of the dismay of the contemporaries of such violent Renaissance men when he exclaimed: "The time is out of joint! O cursed spite/ That ever I was born to set it right."

The second movement that put an end to the Middle Ages was the Reformation. Its beginning is usually identified with Martin Luther's publication of his 95 theses against indulgences on a church door in Wittenberg in 1517. It unleashed a storm of Protestant rebellions all over northern Europe, and eventually lead to the break-up of Western Christianity into several independent churches. Europe became divided into Catholic and Protestant regions. More than a hundred years of fierce and brutal "Wars of Religion" ensued in which Catholic and Protestant monarchs tried to gain as much territory as possible, and to install their own faith as the official religion of their domains. The massacre of the Huguenots in France and the Thirty Years War in Germany are among the low points of these Wars of Religion.

The single most important doctrinal difference between Protestantism and Catholicism was Luther's insistence that every individual had an immediate relation to God, and that this relation could not be mediated through the offices of a priest or a church hierarchy. By reading scriptures himself or herself, every Christian had direct access to the truth; the authority of the Pope and his councils became irrelevant for how the Word of God was to be interpreted by the believer. Luther and other Protestant leaders initiated the translation of the Bible from the traditional Latin into native languages, languages that ordinary people could understand. Intensive study of scriptures, unsupervised by priests, became a widespread practice. The Catholic church found this individualistic circumvention of clerical authorities so threatening at the time, that it targeted Bible translators for special persecution. Tyndal, the first translator of the New Testament into English, was captured by the Inquisition while studying on the Continent, and eventually executed by garroting.

Catholicism was a culture of community and hierarchy. The individual had its predetermined place in both; individual freedom was limited by social status and spiritual directives. Catholicism was thus a culture that provided certainty and security to individuals who might otherwise feel abandoned and lost. Protestantism furthered a culture of individualistic self-reliance. By setting the individual free in his or her conscience, by defying the spiritual authority of the church and its worldly extensions, Protestantism became one of the origins of modern individualism in general.

Renaissance and Reformation as cultural movements did not come out of nowhere, but unfolded in the context of the decaying social and economic order of the Middle Ages. The most tangible development that marked the end of the medieval period was the accelerating change from agrarian Feudalism to urban Capitalism. Feudalism had been a relatively stable system for hundreds of years because agricultural production was very primitive--producing few surpluses, and thus keeping trade and urban developments at a low level. Serfs were forbidden by law to leave the land on which they were born, and the few individuals who left anyway had few places to go to. Most of the towns and cities of the former Roman Empire had severely decayed or vanished altogether; in some places cattle grazed among the sometimes still visible ruins of Antiquity. The once extensive road system had fallen into complete disrepair. With the exception of a few thriving cities like Paris or Cologne, an urban civilization no longer existed in the Middle Ages.

Toward the end of this “Dark Age,” however, growing numbers of serfs escaped to the few towns and cities that did exist, and these urban centers began to grow and attract more migrants. New trades developed in these places, and production intensified. Beginning with the Renaissance, small and primitive shops were increasingly replaced by bigger and efficiently structured manufacturing establishments. Ever larger amounts of money were invested in such enterprises; banking houses were established to facilitate investment and trade.

The new interest in the sciences produced many technological innovations. Gutenberg's invention of printing from movable type, for example, was the beginning of a communication technology that profoundly changed the character of European culture, and the systematic introduction of gunpowder lead to a whole new line of weapons manufacturing--not to mention a whole new type of warfare. The cities as a whole became very productive and grew rich through their trade and other commercial activities. In time their accumulated money translated into political power. The landed aristocracy began to lose influence and prestige; a new social class began to make its weight felt: the wealthy burghers, the bourgeoisie. Capitalism emerged as the dominant economic system of the future.

Capitalism is an economic system in which individual initiative and personal wealth can play a significant role. Enormous personal fortunes were made around 1500 through money lending and investments. Bankers often could dictate terms to eminent aristocrats and rulers. Besides Protestantism, Capitalism became thus an important breeding ground for the kind of individualism that was to characterize the culture of the West.

The fourth development that marks the end of the European Middle Ages was the discovery and conquest of overseas territories. Columbus' accidental discovery of the Americas in 1492 is often cited as the seminal event, but one gets a more accurate picture of the situation if one remembers that within a short period of time dozens of explorers and adventurers set out to seek their fortunes across the oceans. New technologies, such as compasses, improved ways of rigging sails, telescopes, and more reliable calculations in astronomy, made it possible for European seafarers to cross much larger bodies of water than before. The introduction of firearms and other weapons made it possible for small numbers of Europeans to defeat and subjugate large numbers of natives who might not welcome the foreign adventurers on their lands.

The ambitious and ruthless power seekers that Shakespeare portrayed so well in his tragedies found their real-life counterparts in such adventurous conquerors as Cortez, Alvarado, or Pizarro. Settlement of conquered overseas territories followed quickly. Wherever possible, old native cultures were destroyed, Christianity introduced by force or persuasion, available treasures plundered, plantations organized, slaves imported, and the regular transfer of the new wealth to Europe established on a regular basis. While Europeans became fully aware for the first time of how small their old world had been in comparison to the whole globe, they aggressively exported their own culture and thereby ensured that in time their ways would become the ways of the world.

The result of all these social and cultural changes was a widespread feeling of uncertainty among many Europeans. The old stable world of the Middle Ages was gone, and a new permanent order had not yet been established. Old truths had become increasingly doubtful, but new ones had not yet firmly taken hold of people's minds. The new interest in scientific research produced the basis of what was to become the sound knowledge of the future, but confidence in that knowledge was as yet far from general. Philosophical skeptics like Michel de Montaigne, whose influential Essays were published in 1580, emphasized how uncertain all the old truths had turned out to be. His conclusion for the present, however, was not that the emergence of the new sciences was a new dawn of real knowledge. Instead he kept alive in people's minds the fundamental skeptical question: How long will it take until the new truths will have to be discarded as well?

In Montaigne's case the rebirth of the culture of Antiquity meant primarily the rediscovery of certain skeptical philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome. From the Pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus Montaigne took the notion that everything is in constant flux. From such post-classical skeptic philosophers as Pyrrho and Sextus Empiricus he accepted the notion that things that are in flux cannot really be known, and that the human senses, constantly changing themselves, could not possibly reveal to us the true nature of things. As so many other scholars of the time, Montaigne lacked any kind of optimism with regard to science and reason. For him a profound uncertainty was the basic human condition.

Shakespeare's Prince Hamlet (the play of this name was first produced in 1601) can be seen as a prototypical character of this transitional period of early Modernity. Hamlet is a student in Wittenberg, the center of rebellious Lutheran Protestantism. He has to return to Denmark to attend his father's funeral. To his disgust he finds not only that his uncle has taken possession of the throne, but also that his mother has married the usurper in undue haste. The ghost of his father tells Hamlet that he was murdered by his uncle, and he urges the prince to avenge his death. In the old days Hamlet would not have had much reason to delay the revenge. Laertes, for example, the brother of his sweetheart Ophelia (and a student at the very traditionalist University of Paris) has no compunction to attack Hamlet when he is told that Hamlet killed his father Polonius. And Fortinbras, the Prince of Norway, an impetuous and unthinking warrior of the traditional kind, does not hesitate to wage a bloody war of conquest for a piece of territory that is too small to bury all the dead that that war would produce--because that is what princes are traditionally expected to do.

Both Laertes and Fortinbras are young men who feel no hesitation with regard to their duties, as they identify with their traditional social role and the conventional moral order of their world. But Hamlet is not a traditional prince; he is a modern man, an individual full of doubt as to what is true, and what would be the right way to act. For him the old role models are not beyond question anymore, and what is real in the world, and what merely an illusion, cannot be known with certainty. Hamlet finds himself to be the Prince of Denmark, to be sure, but that is not so much a sound identity anymore, as a mere role. He knows what people expect from him, and from his upbringing he knows what attitude he ought to take, but in his own eyes that attitude is just a mask, a guise, not something he could really be. Thus he lets time go by--partly loathing himself for his vacillation between presumed duties and doubts, but without coming to any satisfactory resolution. Action is finally forced upon him, but too late--and too arbitrarily to do anyone any good. Hamlet dies senselessly--along with his uncle, his mother, Ophelia, and Ophelia's brother. Politics as usual will continue for a while after his death, but for him there is not much promise or meaning in that. "The rest is silence," are his famous last words, and they express that for him, the modern individual, the old world with its certainties and meanings has forever gone.

The Doubt to End All Doubt

It was the passion and declared goal of Descartes to put an end to the pervasive skepticism and uncertainty of the age. As he himself was troubled rather gravely by all sorts of doubts, he could embark on the removal of the general skepticism as a personal quest. He tackled the problem not by producing defenses for all the doubtful opinions that were under attack, but, on the contrary, by intensifying the general doubt to its ultimate extreme. Like a dentist who first cleans away every trace of decay from a diseased tooth before filling in new material, Descartes resolved to doubt absolutely everything that could possibly be doubted--in the hope of thereby finding something that was beyond doubt. Whatever he would find would be the basis for a new body of solid knowledge. His plan, in other words, was to doubt his way to a new certainty.

Descartes received a first-rate education at the famous Jesuit school of La Fleche in France, before leaving his native country to engage in extensive traveling and gentlemen-soldiering in Holland and Germany. After some years he returned to Paris for a short time, but thereafter moved to Holland to live the quiet life of a scholar. Taking advantage of the possibilities of the emerging Capitalist economy, he sold his inherited feudal rights and titles and invested the proceeds in stocks; this allowed him to live comfortably on dividends and interest. Over the years he made important scientific contributions to such fields as optometry, mechanics, and analytic geometry. (The "Cartesian coordinates," for example, are his invention.) He became most famous, however, for his philosophical writings. In them he laid the groundwork for all the analyses and theories that were to occupy European philosophers for the next two-hundred years and beyond.

In 1633 he was about to publish a scientific work called The World, in which he defended, among other things, the heliocentric theory of Copernicus. At the last minute he heard that Galileo was arrested by the Holy Inquisition for defending the same theory. As Descartes throughout his life tried to avoid such dangerous conflicts with the Catholic Church, he prevented the publication of his book. In 1637 he published his Discourse on Method, in which for the first time he presented his program of radical doubt. This program, too, raised the suspicion of church officials. In response Descartes published, in 1641, his Meditations on First Philosophy, in which he defended his program of doubt by showing that such an undertaking would not necessarily be in conflict with Catholic teachings. The Meditations, although a slim volume, became an all-time classic. In a sense it is the beginning of modern philosophy. And its center is the definition of the self as the one thing in the world that cannot be doubted in any way.

The book starts out with Descartes’ description of his intention, namely to rid his mind of all dubious and uncertain opinions—in order to have a sound foundation for his future scientific research:

I have not just now learned that, from my earliest years, I have received many false opinions as true, and that what I have since based on such unstable principles could not but be very doubtful and uncertain. And ever since I have realized that I would have to undertake seriously once in my life to be rid of all the opinions I have previously received into my credence, and start all over again from the foundations, if I wanted to establish something firm and constant in the sciences. ... So today, quite opportunely for this plan, I have freed my mind of all sorts of cares--fortunately feeling undisturbed by any passions, and having found a secure repose in peaceful solitude. I shall apply myself seriously and freely to the general destruction of all my old opinions.

As can be seen from these introductory remarks, Descartes establishes his program of radical doubt as a decidedly solitary enterprise. He is conducting his philosophical work in deliberate isolation--away from other people, and protected from the disturbances that usually come with practical concerns and emotional involvement. At the beginning of his Discourse On Method he had been similarly concerned with shielding himself from inner and outer disturbances: "... I was caught by the onset of winter.

There was no conversation to distract me, and being untroubled by any cares or passions, I remained all day alone in a warm room. There I had plenty of leisure to examine my ideas." Lack of company, lack of disquieting emotions, and the absence of physical discomfort are the conditions that he considered ideal for his philosophical undertaking--quite in contrast to the conditions under which a thinker like Socrates would do his work. Socrates pursued his philosophical investigations in dialogue with other people, surrounded by spectators and listeners, in often heated exchanges, and sometimes with much to worry about in terms of his well being and safety. Descartes’ deliberate retreat from passionate and full-fledged involvement in life into deep solitude is more than a personal whim. Even a detail like the quiet of winter is not an accidental feature of the scene of his work: it fits the calm and unemotional way in which this philosopher wished to do his thinking. The pronounced solitude of Descartes’ ivory tower corresponds, as will be seen, perfectly to the concept of self that he was to develop.

Descartes starts his program of radical doubt in a relatively ordinary way, in a way any critical scholar would go about doubting: He suspends his former belief in the teachings of his academic teachers. This in itself, however, would have been nothing new or particularly radical; a good deal of scholarly work at all times consists in doing just that. The philosophically radical part of his program went into effect when Descartes cast doubt on something that ordinarily has to be taken for granted: the testimony of the senses. In his words: "All that I have hitherto received as the most true and assured I have from the senses or by the senses. Now, I have sometimes found that these senses are deceptive; and it is wise never to rely entirely on those who have deceived us once."

This simple dismissal of the trustworthiness of the senses, however, is none too convincing, as Descartes himself realizes. For the very detection of a false testimony of the senses still requires the use of the senses: To see that a distant object is not a tree, for example, but a water pump, one has to get close to the object and take a look at it. It is my eyes that will tell me whether my earlier impression was true or false.

To effectively cast doubt on the truth of all sense perception, Descartes has to come up with a better argument. For this purpose he designs his famous dream argument:

How often it has happened that I dreamed at night that I was by the fire, though I was quite naked in my bed! ... I am reminded of having been deceived by similar illusions while sleeping; and, lingering on this thought, I see so clearly that there is no certain index at all by which wakefulness can be clearly distinguished from sleep, that I am quite amazed and my amazement is such that it is almost capable of persuading me that I am dreaming right now.

While dreaming, in other words, one is usually under the impression that what one is dreaming is real. When I dream that I am sitting in front of the fire place then I take it for granted that I am sitting in front of the fire place, even though I am lying in bed. I usually will not discover my mistake until I wake up. But if I can be so mistaken in dreams that I have had in the past, how can I be sure that I am not dreaming right now? I obviously think that I am sitting here, writing down these words; but how can I prove that I will not wake up in a while and see that this, too, has been but a dream? How can I possibly distinguish waking experiences from dreaming experiences?

The crux of Descartes' Dream Argument is the fact that there is no "index" that indicates whether any given experience is real or a dream. My sitting here and writing this can be a real event, but it can also be a dream. Dreams, after all, can be very clear and vivid--so vivid that they make me sweat or be afraid in the same way real events do. Without an "index" (perhaps something like "C-SPAN" in the lower right corner of my visual field) I simply cannot know for sure whether what I see or feel or hear is real or not. All I can be sure of is that I have an experience--an experience involving the senses of sight, touch, or whatever else may be involved. Consequently I do not know whether these sense impressions are impressions of something that exists out there in the world (a real writing desk, a real pen, etc.), or whether they are figments of my imagination. The world that I perceive around me right now may be real, but it may also be mere appearance, a deception. And even if it seems extremely probable that what I see and touch right now is real, and not a dream, I cannot be entirely certain about it. And absolute certainty is what is at issue here.

Since Descartes' program of radical doubt requires that he doubt not only those things that are obviously dubious, but everything that can be doubted at all, Descartes has to suspend his belief in the reality of the external world--everything which we perceive with our senses. This includes the reality of his own body. Thus, for the time of his philosophical reflections he will assume that the seemingly material world around him is not real, but something like a collection of impressions that an "evil genie" has put in his mind:

I shall assume that the sky, the air, the earth, colors, shapes sounds and all other external things are just illusions and dreams which he [the evil genie] has used to lay traps for my credulity. I shall consider myself to have no hands, no eyes, no flesh, no blood, as not having any senses, yet falsely believing that I have all these things.

Although this assumption can be seen as just a device that Descartes uses in his search for something absolutely certain, the feeling of the unreality of the external world was a very powerful one at the time. Poets and playwrights frequently invoked the images of the world as a mere stage, where people don masks and play out roles, and life as nothing but a fleeting dream. Descartes himself once wrote in a letter to a friend: "So far, I have been a spectator in this theater which is the world, but I am now about to mount the stage, and I come forward masked." The general insecurity with regard to the reality of everything was so pervasive that Descartes' philosophical supposition of the illusory nature of the external world was by no means crazily fantastic or exotic for his readers.

Assuming then that the entire external world, including one's body, is a dreamlike illusion, is there anything at all left that cannot be doubted? The fact that "I am, I exist" is Descartes' answer. And this, in a nutshell, is how he arrived at that conclusion: I can doubt the existence of the external world, and I can doubt the existence of what appears to be my body. But when I try to also doubt the existence of my inner self, my thinking, then I find that I am still there--as a doubting mind. And if I try to doubt the existence of this doubting mind, then I still find the activity of my doubting. And no matter how hard I try to doubt this doubting, I cannot help but find the process of doubting. My doubting is the thing that in the end I cannot doubt. Doubting, however, is thinking, and the existence of thinking implies the existence of a thinker. Hence Descartes' famous conclusion: "I think, therefore I am"("Cogito, ergo sum" in the Latin in which he wrote).

After establishing that he exists, Descartes lays out the answer to the question as to what he is:

I find here that thought is an attribute that belongs to me; it alone cannot be separated from me. I am, I exist--that is certain; but for how long? As long as I think. For it may happen that, if I stopped thinking altogether, I would at the same time altogether cease being. I am now admitting nothing that would not be necessarily true. Thus I am, speaking precisely, only a thinking thing; that is to say, a mind, an understanding, or a reason, which are terms whose meaning was previously unknown to me. In other words: I am a real thing and really existent; but what thing? I have already said it: a thing that thinks.

The Radical Separation of the Mind from the World

By defining his essential self as mind, and as mind only, Descartes made a radical and fateful separation of the mind from the body (and from the physical world in general) a cornerstone of his entire philosophy. The mind, according to him, is complete in itself, it has no need for anything physical to be what it is. It knows itself directly and with absolute certainty, while knowledge of the external world is at least theoretically doubtful. The self as mind exists as a distinct substance, as “thinking matter,” and it enjoys a supreme independence from the world of “extended matter” that is subject to the laws of physics.

There are two cultural legacies of lasting importance that Descartes’ radical separation of the mind from the physical world has left—two philosophical conceptions of reality that found expression in how Europeans related to their environment, and how they perceived their over-all existence in the world. Interestingly, these two conceptions are ultimately not compatible with each other; they point, in fact, to an important contradiction in Descartes’ philosophical system. Nevertheless, they both grow out of the basic analyses of Descartes’ Meditations, and they both left their mark on the general culture of the West.

The one legacy fastens on the absolute sovereignty of the mind vis-à-vis everything that is not mind. While the external world, including the thinker's body, is subject to the laws of physics and other external contingencies, the mind is not. I, being pure mind, enjoy a supreme degree of independence from my body and everything physical. I may inhabit a body, and thus be a citizen of two worlds, as it were, the physical world and the world of the mind. But the body is external and secondary for my essential existence. I am located in it like a pilot in a complex machine. As its pilot I am not identical with the machine, but I have a good deal of control over it. From there my control extends over parts of the rest of the external world as well. The physical world and the body, according to this Cartesian conception, are mere matter--mere raw material at the disposal of the mind. They are the other of the mind--alien substances without inherent value. The mind can do with them as it pleases.

The radical separation of mind and body--and of the mental and the physical in general--is known as "Cartesian Dualism." And by attributing to the mind something like sovereignty over the external physical world, it has prepared the way for a distinctly modern conception and experience of reality, a conception which replaced older ways of seeing the world in drastic ways. In her seminal work The Death of Nature Carolyn Merchant has documented several ways in which people switched from thinking about the world and the things in it in terms of living beings to thinking about them in terms of inanimate objects that behave and can be manipulated according to the laws of mechanics. Until the emergence of the mechanistic world view, many people instinctively conceived of the earth as a mother, for example, or at least as a living and personal being. Mining in the Middle Ages, for example, was still done with a feeling that ores were dug from the bowels of a living creature, and that such violations had to be atoned for with special prayers and rituals.

The modern mechanistic view of the world did away with such feelings. People did not only find it easier to approach such things as trees and rocks as mere objects, but they extended such insensitivity to animals and human beings as well. Animals have no souls, according to Descartes, and so it gradually became all right to use them as so much dead matter, or to subject them routinely to painful scientific experiments. And thinking of human beings as mechanisms made it not only easier for absolute monarchs and their generals to think of their soldiers as mere fighting machines (it was at this time that mechanical drill and geometric marching formations were introduced into armies), but also facilitated the massive introduction of slaves into overseas territories as mere tools of production. A self that is as separated from the external world as that of Descartes can approach living beings and deal with them much more ruthlessly than someone who approaches them on the basis of the sympathy that one would have toward fellow-creatures.

Cartesian Dualism also prepared the way for modern scientists to think about the world in abstractions. The worldview of Newtonian physics, for example, was greatly facilitated by Descartes' philosophical system. Before Descartes and Newton such plainly observable phenomena as the falling of an apple from a tree, the rhythm of the tides in the oceans, or the movements of the planets around the sun were separate and distinct events. Through Newton's abstract conceptualization, however, apples, oceans, and heavenly bodies all became essentially the same: masses attracted by masses that move according to the same laws of gravitation. The colorful variety of sensuous objects disappeared, as it were, from the view of the learned. What all matter has in common, and the mathematically expressed laws that govern its motions, became the dominant focus of modern observers of nature. The shift away from variety and sensuous detail to abstract entities and structures did much to increase human control over the natural world, but it also alienated the observer from the things observed. It replaced the closeness of touching, smelling, or seeing with the distance of mathematical calculation. And it facilitated the conquest of reality by the mind in the way it was intuited by Descartes’ radical separation of the mind from the world.

Cartesian Dualism found many other expressions in the culture of his age as well. The French garden architecture of the 17th and 18th centuries is a striking demonstration of the spirit of Cartesian thinking. This type of landscaping, which was widely copied throughout Europe, is characterized by the demonstrative superimposition of geometric shapes and figures on nature. The natural terrain of a garden is not allowed to remain as it is found, but is carefully leveled, and then sectioned into regular parts until it resembles a mathematician's blueprint. Plants are placed in such a way that they form straight lines, circles, ellipses, or artfully designed mazes. Individual trees and bushes are clipped until they represent perfect spheres, cones, squares, or other geometrical figures. It was the most deep-seated passion of the age to press nature into designs that are not natural. Pure geometry is a human creation, a creation of the abstract mind. To superimpose geometry on what otherwise grows in irregular forms was the lustful demonstration of the detached sovereign mind's power over the external world.

The Cartesian separation of the mind from all physical matter facilitated not only a willful attitude of the human mind toward nature, but also toward the monuments and creations of history. That is made explicit in the way Descartes looks at older European towns, towns that are irregular in their layouts because of the slow and gradual accumulation of houses and streets in the course of centuries. As befits the inventor of the Cartesian Coordinates, Descartes preferred a regular geometrical grid to the crooked designs of medieval communities. In his Discourse on Method he writes:

Thus it is observable that the buildings which a single architect has planned and executed, are generally more elegant and commodious than those which several have attempted to improve, by making old walls serve for purposes for which they have not originally been built. Thus also, those ancient cities which, from being at first only villages, have become, in the course of time, large towns, are usually but ill laid out compared with the regularly constructed towns which a professional architect has freely planned on an open plain; so that although the several buildings of the former may often equal or surpass in beauty those of the latter, yet when one observes their indiscriminate juxtaposition, there a large one and here a small, and the consequent crookedness and irregularity of the streets, one is disposed to allege that chance rather than any human will guided by reason must have led to such an arrangement.

It is obvious from the representative architecture of the next hundred fifty years or so (from the castle and park of Versailles in particular), that builders that came out of the age of Descartes preferred to do away with all remnants of the past, and to start building everything from scratch. Beauty and comfort were primarily seen in the creations of the human mind, in the "human will guided by reason," while nature and the remnants of history were at best available raw material, and at worst an annoyance or a menace. The symmetries and regularities of geometric architecture were the bastions of order and stability, erected against the threats of uncertainty and anarchy, just as the philosophical reconstruction of reality on the basis of Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” was the philosopher’s bulwark against the unsettling skepticism and uncertainties which he had set out to conquer. Separating the self as pure mind from the contingencies of uncontrolled nature, and installing it as the sovereign ruler over everything external, was the basic vision that shaped people’s existence in the age of Descartes.

Lording over nature has its price, however: It implies the alienation of the ruler from the ruled. The Cartesian who overpowers nature has to mortify part of himself or herself—feelings, passions, the body, and everything else that is part of the physical world. There is a certain coldness in geometrical forms and the life of the Cartesian mind, and therefore a subliminal longing for the nature that has become lost. However much satisfaction people gain by subjugating nature, there is something in them that does not want to dominate, but rather to become one with her. This underlying ambivalence toward nature, as will be seen, plays an important role in “Last Year at Marienbad.” It provides the inner parameters within which the story of the film unfolds.

The other important legacy that originates with Descartes’ radical separation of the mind from everything physical is the inherently solipsistic individualism that time and again emerged in the course of modern European philosophy. Solipsism is the extremist philosophical theory that I am the only being that exists. This theory is invariably perceived as either comical or crazy by anyone who discusses it, and most philosophers have assumed that there are convincing reasons for dismissing it without much ado. The way Descartes sets up and explains his procedure of radical doubt, however, makes it impossible to avoid the conclusion that the doubting self may indeed be the only being that exists. In spite of all efforts to refute it, Cartesianism remains haunted by the ghost of Solipsism. For if it is possible to doubt the existence of the external world, it is equally possible to doubt the existence of other human beings. If rivers and mountains or the desk at which I write may be figments of my imagination, then obviously the people that I perceive in this world may be imaginary as well. What my senses provide me with may be representations of beings that exist outside of me, but they may just as well be impressions that reside in my mind alone. The decisive point of Cartesian doubt is the contention that I cannot go outside of myself, as it were, to check whether what I see is real or not. I am always and irremediably inside my mind, and that always keeps alive the theoretical possibility of the truth of Solipsism.

In his Meditations Descartes had laid out his program of radical doubt, followed it through, and then found that there was something that he could not possibly doubt: his own doubting, and thus the existence of his own thinking self. From there he had proceeded to argue that the existence of the external world can be proven as well. But while Descartes may have convinced himself of the reality of what the senses convey, he did not convince many other philosophers that his reasoning to that effect was sound. His argument in support of the reality of the external world does not amount to more, indeed, than his assertion that God is good, and that therefore God would not permit anyone to be deceived to the extent that the "evil genie" might deceive people. Descartes has therefore gone down in history as a philosopher whose doubts were far more convincing and intriguing than his arguments that were to lay these doubts to rest. To this day Descartes’ Dream Argument from the beginning of the Meditations is seen as far more powerful and interesting than his attempted restitution of common sense. Once he had introduced his radical doubt, in other words, Descartes never quite found his way back to a robust perception of the outer world as real. Within the orbit of Cartesian thinking the unreality of what I perceive outside me is still a theoretical possibility, and thus the possible truth of Solipsism a haunting thought.

As mentioned earlier, Descartes was a philosopher who preferred to think in solitude. And by making his “I think, therefore I am” the inner center of his worldview, he created a model of self-reflection that influenced the entirety of modern European philosophy profoundly. Much of what later thinkers belabored revolves around the radical separation of the self from everything external, and the sometimes desperate attempts to reconnect the self with the rest of the world and other human beings. The dialectic of the self’s radical separation from the external world and its inevitable re-connection to it characterizes much of modern European thought. It is a dialectic that is also at the heart of “Last Year at Marienbad.” It is one possible summary of the film to say that it is the Cartesian mind’s attempt to find an exit from the labyrinth of its solipsistic solitude.

(From Jorn K. Bramann: The Educating Rita Workbook, Copyright © 2004.)

Philosophical Films
"Last Year at Marienbad"
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