Mind and Body:
From René Descartes to William James

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

Story Evolution
Butler/Grobstein

excerpted from an exchange of emails triggered by Grobstein's Writing Descartes ...
28-29 June 2004

Butler followed by Grobstein, with comments on comments indented


Overall, I like the idea you propose: stop looking for an absolute basic truth and accept/proceed by contingent, inherently and necessarily ephemeral confluences of experience and reflections thereon (i.e., summaries of observations). However, some queries about your reformulation:

I have not read Descartes' Error, nor any of his own writing, I have only learned about him second- and third-hand, so I may be barking up the wrong tree; that said, it sounds like he was at least in part concerned with proving to himself that his being, his existence, his thereness, was not illusory; his famous dictum seems to betray this need. You, on the other hand, begin your reformulation with his conclusion, taking what was in question for him as a given. Would he perhaps turn to you and say, How do you know that you are?

Now THAT's interesting. Both your reading of Descartes' maxim AND the turning that reading back on me/the story. I'm much less familiar with Descartes' than I probably ought to be, so couldn't pretend to be authoritative even if I wanted to be (which, of course, I don't). I know nothing about Descartes that would suggest he was an early existentialist of that ilk and have never heard him described in those terms, but could he have been motivated by self-doubt, a lack of certainly about his own existence? Sartre ("Being and Nothingness" (http://www.uri.edu/personal/szunjic/philos/being.htm) was, for whatever its worth, apparently quite interested in Descartes.

How do *I* know that I am? Its funny, but it has never occurred me to ask that particular question. It has occurred to me at various times to ask whether I am good or bad, meaningful or meaningless, organized or messy, controlled or uncontrolled, significant or insignificant but not to wonder whether I AM. And so, in some sense, you're right, I take what was (perhaps) in question for Descartes as a given: I am. It has never occurred to me that I was "illusory", and that may be important whether or not it ever occurred to Descartes.

And that leads in a couple (at least) of interesting further directions. I can, I think, at least conceive of what it might be like to be uncertain whether one is illusory or not. And can imagine that in the face of that uncertainty being able to "think" might in fact have a greater significance as a desirable anchor/starting point than it does for me. So, from there (an uncertainty about whether one is illusory) a story quite different from the one I told is likely to evolve.

The other direction my brain goes in is to wonder what all this does to/for the story I told. I don't think it changes my conclusion that one should in general treat thinking with the same skepticism one applies to authority/logic/sense data etc (though it does say that doing so may be harder for some people than for others). Nor does it change my conclusion that thinking gives one some potential to alter who one is (more on this below). It does say though that I, like Descartes', fell short of "profound skepticism". I didn't question "being". Should I? In principal, of course. In practice? Here's the pragmatist in me: only if it could possibly make a difference. Could it?

Following the logic in your statement, you seem to be saying, I can change who I am because I can think (and because I exist in the first place). In my experience, the ability to think does not always suffice to change myself. I once expressed this frustration to a psychologist, who commiserated, saying that insight (alone?) is generally acknowledged (in his profession) as rather limited, in therapeutic terms. He also told me that a common assumption he finds among his patients is that they must change their attitudes in order to change their (distressing but seemingly unshakeable) habits, and he introduced me to the (more useful?) inverse idea of changing one’s attitudes by actively changing one’s behavior.

This seems to me REALLY important. Thanks for noticing the issue and giving me the chance to be sure I'm not misread on it. Yes, it is NOT the case that "thinking" necessarily suffices to change who one is (the "tree" part of oneself). Maybe every once in a while in particularly favorable cases making something "conscious" can do that but, in general, consciousness ("thinking") has to work back through the unconscious to be an effective change agent. ("It is not "making things conscious" that is therapeutically effective; it is the exchange of stories that encourages the creation of a new story in the unconscious"; what is therapeutically significant is "an alteration of the unconscious brought about by hearing, entertaining, and hence acting on a new story developed by the conscious", http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/sci_cult/mentalhealth/unconcon.html).

So, I do indeed think that "I can change who I am because I can think (and because I exist in the first place) but that does not mean either than one can't change without thinking or that thinking is a guaranteed mechanism for change. Trees change a lot without thinking. What thinking gives one that trees don't have is the capacity to conceive oneself as other than one is (tell a story about oneself) and that is a tool that make possible (but not inevitable) the capability to change oneself in ways trees can't (nor can the unconscious).

My attention also got hung up on the image of a "starting point" for inquiry. As you write, there is actually an infinite series of interconnected points, with multiple threads (some continuous, some abandoned and hanging loose) between them—these points are more like nodes or knots, a tying together ("summary" of not only observations but also experiences (some of which are available for reflection/observation)

Need more here. Descartes wanted (I think) an abstract starting point, a place to stand firmly from which all else could be built, a place usable not only by him but common to and usable by all inquiring people. My suggestion is that the search for such a place be abandoned, that we accept instead that the appropriate starting place is wherever one is at any given time, hence lots of starting points and no necessary commonality among people. But you want them "interconnected"? And "threaded", "more like nodes or knots"? What's this getting one? And what are you distinguishing between with "observations" and "also experiences"?.

Re: "nodes" and interconnection--didn't mean that different people's starting places should have anything in common; I was thinking more at the level of individual trajectories/evolution of individual storylines.

Ah so. Are BOTH relevant, I suspect. Where an individual can go is, by virtue of stories exchanged (both consciously and unconsciously), intermeshed with where other people go. So there IS an important social dimension to this. And, indeed, for an individual at a given time there are also lots of different but related directions in which one might go next. The "starting point" isn't any one of them but rather the recognition that they exist, that there are, yes, always lots of "threads".

As to difference between observations and experiences, I guess it's just a matter of definition; yes, from one perspective they're the same, but I was thinking of observation as more of a structured, deliberate activity--to experience is to be totally immersed. At any rate, am more than happy to conflate the two.

Got it. Do think that's a useful distinction, the observer in contrast to the participant. Is, of course, what some people think is wrong with "science", the ambition to be disengaged observer ("the view from nowhere"). Interesting to have it arise in this context. For present purposes, am also happy to conflate the two.

Before I lose my focus: I don't think that you lionize thinking as an agent of change ("one acts, observes the consequences of action, and then uses those observations as part of one's on-going inquiry. If they raise questions about the appropriateness of thinking, that's fine"), but your statement implies as much. It leaves out all the other factors, giving priority to thinking over feeling, and to conscious over unconscious processes. (Am I missing the point or is what I’m saying relevant? I'm not sure).

Yeah, is relevant. See if the above helps. No, do NOT want to give priority to "thinking over feeling, conscious over unconscious". Am trying instead to put both (and other things) on equal footing (one should be skeptical of all of them). BUT thinking does provide ONE thing that the others don't: the ability to "conceive oneself as other" and so produce change in that particular mode and with any unique outcomes made available by it.

So essentially, assuming that I get the general gist of what you are saying (and I think I do), I'm really just asking whether your choice of words reflects the fullness of what you mean. I'm trying to think of an alternate verb that might better capture one's ability or potential--to change who one is. Perhaps "learn"? "I am, and I can learn, therefore I can influence who I am"? (yes, I prefer "influence").

Yep, you got it. And, appropriately, went off in your own direction with it. Agree that in general "influence" is perhaps better than "change", feels less obtrusive and definitive. But ... if one accepts that one always starts in the present (another story, see http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/local/scisoc/time/time.html) the issue is in fact "change". Understand too your preference for "learn" over "think". Problem with that is that the tree probably and the unconscious certainly can "learn", in the sense of "become changed by an event in such as way as to behave differently and more successfully in the future". What's key here is not "change" or "influence" but rather "conceive self otherwise" which then is the patterner of change.

Re: the capacity to conceive oneself as other than one is--how about "imagine"?

Like it, but isn't quite there yet. "Thinking" is both being able to conceive oneself as other AND doing some reflections on the desirabilities/likelihoods of such reconceptions. Given that thinking was Descartes' term, I don't think we can drop it entirely. But how about if we understand "think" as "imagine/reflect"?




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