Mind and Body:
From René Descartes to William James

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

Story Evolution
Descartes(Frattaroli)/Grobstein

an exchange triggered by Grobstein's Writing Descartes ...
12 July 2004

Descartes(Frattaroli) followed by Grobstein


Dear Paul,

Thanks for your letter, but I have to say you are thinking way too much. Why not just unscrunch your brows, relax and "let it be," to quote one of your modern philosophers. You're too hung up on the content of what I wrote and missing the "process" dimension. It's not the thinking per se, in the sense of using our cognitive apparatus, that I was talking about. It's "consciously experiencing." I could just as easily -- with precisely the same meaning -- have said "I feel, therefore I am," "I smell, therefore I am," I judge, therefore I am, "I sense, therefore I am," I intuit, therefore I am," "I enjoy, therefore I am." In fact I spelled this out quite explicitly in my "Principles of Philosphy," specifically in principle IX, "what thought is:" To quote myself,

By the word thought I understand all that of which we are conscious as operating in us. And that is why not alone understanding, willing, imagining, but also feeling, are here the same thing as thought. For if I say I see, or I walk, I therefore am, and if by seeing and walking I mean the action of my eyes or my legs, which is the work of my body, my conclusion is not absolutely certain; because it may be that, as often happens in sleep, I think I see or I walk, although I never open my eyes or move from my place, and the same thing perhaps might occur if I had not a body at all. But if I mean only to talk of my sensation, or my consciously seeming to see or to walk, it becomes quite true because my assertion now refers only to my mind, which alone is concertined with my feeling or thinking that I see and I walk."

As for my much maligned dualism, you should really read the work of my friend, Elio Frattaroli, who points out (on p. 352 of his book, "Healing the Soul in the Age of the Brain") that "if you actually read Descartes's account of the process by which he arrived at his dualistic conclusion, it is pretty clear that he was thinking of body and soul not as fundamentally different kinds of thing, but as fundamentally different kinds of experience."

Now about that unconscious tree of yours: It's not so clear that "trees are." The only thing you can know for sure is that your experience of trees is. That's the point I was trying to make. And even if there is an absolute God's-eye view of reality from which it is clear that trees are whether anyone hears them being or not, you would probably consider it highly unlikely that a tree could know that it was, unless of course the brain is nowadays ridiculously over-rated as the center of knowing. Which as a true skeptic you should consider as a possibility and which in fact I believe it is. And believing it, I become aware of the being engaged in believing it. That would be I.

Thanks for thinking of me. Please keep those cards and letters coming.

Your pal,
René

Dear René,

I'm pleased and flattered that you would have taken the time (and found the means) to respond to my letter. I am indeed, I suspect, prone to "thinking ... too much", with associated consequences. I will try and follow your valuable advice and become more mellow.

On a more serious note, I fully agree that the letter I sent you might be misread as accusing YOU of putting a primacy on "thinking" over other activities (despite my noting at the outset that much of the problem might well have to do with people who followed you) and thank you for the clarification. Your quotation is useful not only to set the record straight about your not valorizing "thinking", but also because it shows some additional common ground between your perspective and my own.

As you say, one cannot be certain of "seeing" or "walking" because of the dream argument, and the same goes for what one sees (eg trees) or happens to bump into. The "fact of experiencing", whether it is feeling or intuiting or sensing or enjoying etc, is indeed something different from other things. This is what I (too) actually meant by "thinking", the "process" of experiencing. And I too think it is something different, distinguishable from "not experiencing" (as in trees).

My point wasn't that thinking isn't a different process. It is. My point was that prior to thinking we (like trees) are doing a lot of things without thinking, and that thinking actually DERIVES from those other things, rather than being independent of them. Ergo, there is being before thinking and we need to inquire into both.

How sure can we be about the "reality" of what we inquire into? As you say, not very. But that need not prevent us from pursuing the inquiry. While its possible that trees (and brains) aren't, it has so far proven a pretty useful story that they are, and an equally useful story that there are common underpinnings in organized matter to both thinking and what precedes it.

I'm an admirer of both your friend Elio and his book and happy if both you and he are content with seeing "body and soul not as fundamentally different kinds of things, but as fundamentally different kinds of experience". That at least leaves open the possibility that both, as well as mind/self/I, might be made sense of in terms of organized matter. And with that I (a different but related I) am content. The game is not "about getting people to "believe" things, ANY things [but rather] about sharing "stories" ... with the idea that different people may find different stories useful in different ways. And that we should be helping people figure out not only what stories are more useful but WHY they are more useful, so everyone can get better at telling useful stories themselves" (http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/local/suminst/eei03/forum7.html#6178; see also "I Believe ...": Its Significance and Limitations for Individuals, Science, and Politics).

Thanks a lot for helping out with this conversation, which I hope will usefully affect your story as well as those of others. I'll be sure to say hi to Elio for you if (as seems likely) I bump into him before you do.

Best,
Paul


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