Beyond Cartesianism: Conceptual Objects (I)

In 1644, René Descartes published Principia Philosophiae, which contained the famous enunciation

Cogito ergo sum

“I think, therefore I am.”

With these three Latin words, Descartes confirmed his existential qualifications & heralded a new age in western thought: the age of Scientific Materialism. In definitively dividing thought from its material surroundings—res cogitans from res extensa—the French philosopher articulated a metaphysical paradigm that would become the standard in western inquiry for all posterity: the dichotomy of Mind & Matter. To this day, we credit the Frenchman by referring to this conception as “Cartesian Dualism.”

As Descartes presents the human condition in Meditations IV & VI:

I am lodged in my body as a pilot in a vessel….
The mind or soul of man is entirely different from the body….
Each substance has a principal attribute…the attribute of the Mind is thought, while that of Body is extension….
[Body] is by nature always divisible, and the Mind is entirely indivisible.

In this way, Descartes defined two aspects of man (and the world) & conceptually rent them asunder withal. Nevertheless, the apparent elegance of such a model depends on a disembodied & aristocratic isolation from lived experience. To employ Cartesian Dualism as a vehicle for phenomenological inquiry is to ride about in a chariot of gold-plated papier-mâché: it’s attractive at a distance but when one steps inside the wheels fall off.

This is a startling claim; let us evaluate it. This we may accomplish if we carry out a simple procedure with sufficient impartiality:
(1) Consider any “Body” as Descartes described it above (we might synonymously call it an “object” or “matter”).
(2) Next inquire what it is made of.

Suppose I selected an harmonica as my object of inquiry; an eminent “body” or chunk of matter. If I attempt to assay its constitution, I might first determine it to be made of stainless-steel & brass, then particular metallic alloys. I might continue in my analytic inquiry of materialistic reductionism & indeed gradually reduce the said instrument to protons & neutrons and further even to electrons, quarks, & gluons. Sooner or later, the recognition will dawn on me that my object no longer exists & I am left with a mere mess of massless theoretical subatomic particles. “What happened to my harmonica?” I might wonder. I smelted my object in the furnace of my inquiry, as it were. In attempting to reduce the harmonica to its constituents, I extracted Mind from Matter, dividing that which is essentially indivisible. In particular, the moment I relinquish my concept of “harmonica,” I’m left with mere components, not a musical instrument. The moment I suspend my concept of brass & metallic alloys, they likewise vanish withal. I grasp at “bodies” & they invariably slip through my fingers like the air incorporal. I am left exasperated. Cartesian Dualism, therefore presents an insoluble problem; the “body” always vanishes with the conceptual bathwater; there is really no “body” bereft of mind.

“What is Mind? No matter. What is Matter? Never-mind.”

Descartes’ dichotomy doesn’t make sense because the categories of Mind & Matter are not commensurate—one might as well compare an half a pomegranate with the number 3, or argue about whether a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable. To commensurate the two is a category mistake.

The avenue of Cartesianism thus exhausted, let us return to our original inquiry, divested of our erstwhile dualistic fixations. Before us an harmonica; shiny, metallic. Or maybe it’s tarnished, rusty even. Next, we again inquire into its essence, but not by the ordinary method of analytical science (i.e. attempting to reduce it to its constituents). Unencumbered by any prejudice, we can adopt pure experience as our ultimate measure, trusting it to deliver us from our confusion. Thus do we rouse ourselves from the dogmatic slumber of our metaphysical inheritance & perceive the unadulterated truth, which before escaped us in a stupor of materialistic myopia. We see first that
Matter always appears in Mind.

And subsequently that:
Matter always appears as Mind
In short, Matter is not ontologically basic, while Mind is.
For this reason, Matter is indivisible from Mind. Their relationship, however, despite the insistence of Cartesian Dualism, is not as two substantial counterparts. Instead, their relationship might best be characterized as such:
Matter is an activity of Mind; a process in Mind.
Matter is one thing that Mind does.
Matter is patterned mind-stuff.

Things, therefore, are (not) what we ordinarily think. In the next segment, we will examine an alternative to Cartesian Dualism, which does not suffer from internal inconsistency.



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