In a previous post I discussed the importance of Rene Descartes in shaping modern philosophy and much of the modern world. This is evident from two of his most important ideas: (a) the endorsement of radical doubt and (b) the conception of the self. I have already critiqued Descartes’ endorsement of radical doubt. In this post I want to analyze the Cartesian idea of the “self” or inner ego — one of the most prevalent and dangerous ideas of the modern world.
Famously (or infamously) Descartes wanted to doubt his way to certainty, that is, he wanted to methodically suspend every possibly false belief until he found an indubitable truth. This was not an expression of skepticism or self-doubt. Rather behind methodical doubt rests a supreme confidence in the reason of each individual. In this view, human reason becomes the highest standard of truth. Descartes was confident that through the rational application of methodical doubt, he could doubt his way to certainty. However rationalist confidence is tested and challenged by the application of methodical doubt.
Although Descartes wished to doubt his way to certainty he ended up eliminating a great number of common sense beliefs. According to methodical doubt, any belief found to be logically uncertain was worthy of elimination. Unfortunately Descartes discovered that he could not secure grounds for the certainty of the senses. He became convince that the senses are unreliable, when held up to logical scrutiny. For this reason, Descartes claimed that thinking alone, reason in isolation from the senses provided the only sure path to knowledge. Thankfully, this aspect of the Cartesian legacy has not been continued into our own times. But the same cannot be said of Cartesian anthropology.
After developing his critique of the senses, Descartes goes on to critique his belief in the reality of the body. What evidence do we have for the existence of the body? What evidence do I have that I exist in a bodily way? It is evident that our grounds for accepting the existence of the body are the sense. We see and touch the body, we experience its location and other changes. But all of these may be reduced to sensations, and the senses are not reliable according to Descartes. But the one thing that cannot be doubted is Descartes own existence as a thinking mind, that is, Descartes’ consciousness. “I think therefore I am.” In the final analysis, Descartes identifies himself with his own consciousness, his own interiority. This is a strange line of reasoning to be sure and few people seriously doubt the existence of the body, but modern man has certainly inherited the idea that the fundamental reality of the human person, our deepest identity, is something internal — the ego or the self.
Thus although we live in a materialistic age in many respects, many modern men and women tacitly assume dualism, namely, the view that the human person is two different substances — a soul (or self) and the body. At a popular level this is often expressed in the view that “I” am not my body — the person’s fundamental identity is purely interior and subjective. In this view the human person is identified with the “self,” which is described in a variety of ways: interiority, consciousness combined with self-consciousness, the ego, etc. The self is often characterized as the ultimate subject of our thoughts, decisions, memories, and feelings. As such, the self the stable substratum of experience and accounts for identity over time.
The modern idea of the self is a defining characteristic of modernity. It is a powerful idea that shapes we think about friendship, marriage, personal identity, sexuality, education, and even politics. It is the source of a great deal of psychological introspection, self-help books, new age spirituality, “self-care” techniques, and sexual confusion. Indeed, entire industries and marketing campaigns are built around the cultivation of the “self.” And of course there is the endless need to find “myself.” Despite its power and influence, the modern idea of the self is deeply misguided. In my next post, I will explore the deficiencies and errors advanced by the modern myth of the “self.”