'I' Is a Tyrant. You Are What You Eat

By Mullen, Peter | The Independent (London, England), May 4, 1996 | Go to article overview
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'I' Is a Tyrant. You Are What You Eat


Mullen, Peter, The Independent (London, England)


In France they are celebrating the 400th anniversary of the birth of Descartes, "the founder of modern philosophy". It is true that Descartes is the most influential of the modern philosophers but his influence has been disastrous. This is because, as Bertrand Russell said, "It was Descartes who founded modern philosophy by demonstrating that it is subjective things which are the most certain."

Descartes famously began by enquiring whether there is any knowledge so certain that no reasonable person can doubt it. And his celebrated answer to this central question was to say that at least he could not doubt that he doubted; and if he doubts then he must think; and if he thinks he must exist. Cogito, ergo sum. What could be more reasonable than that?

What could be sillier? Descartes' conclusion is absurd, though it took Wittgenstein to demonstrate this. When Descartes says, "I think therefore I am", he must be using a language. But a private language - one that is spoken and understood by only one person - is a contradiction in terms. The concept of meaning is a public concept. And language is a public phenomenon.

But the Cogito was only the bottom of the garden path so to speak. The tradition of subjectivism and transcendental egotism based on Descartes' philosophy has been perpetuated over four centuries, corrupting not only our epistemology but our moral thought and social understanding. Descartes' "cogito" had a thoroughly technical meaning that was neither "thinking" nor "feeling"; a better translation might be, "Something is doubting that anything exists. Therefore something exists." But this would not fit so well on a T-shirt; and as his influence grew, "cogito" changed to mean something like: "I feel, therefore I am real."

In this form, Cartesian subjectivism was consolidated by Rousseau and the Romantic Movements. Its religious expression was found in such as Wesley whose criterion for redemption was to have one's individual heart "strangely warmed" - an ominous pre-echo of the nauseating consumerist revivalism of our own times which advertises Jesus Christ as my personal saviour, as if the dynamics of the forgiveness of sins were the business of insurance companies.

The "I" in "I think therefore I am" is a tyrant. This romantic individual is not only the demonic artist of 19th-century concert platforms and countless embarrassing Hollywood movies about artistic geniuses: he is also the supposedly omniscient personality inside each one of us.

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