"I resolved to commence, therefore, with the examination of the simplest objects, not anticipating, however, from this any other advantage than than that to be found in a accustoming my mind to the love and nourishment of truth, and to a distaste for all such reasonings as were unsound, But I had no intention on that account of attempting to master all the particular sciences commonly denominated mathematics: but observing that, however different their objects, they all agree in considering on the various relations or proportions subsisting among those objects, I thought it best for my purpose to consider these proportions in the most general form possible, without referring them to any objects in particular, except such as would most facilitate the knowledge of them, and without by any means restricting them to these, that afterwards I might thus be the better able to apply them to every other class of objects to which they are legitimately applicable." -- Rene Descartes, Discourse on the Method, Part II (emphasis added)
And so the Cartesian privileging of the mind over object begins in earnest. Actually, it had its roots all the way back to Plato, where the ideal world was privileged over the material. The relationship between ideas and objects has been an ongoing conundrum and principal engine of philosophy. For Descartes, this dualism is reflected in the metaphorical split between the mind and body: the mind is incorporeal, as are its ideas; and the body is a sensory apparatus and very material. I like to think that when the earliest Western philosophers began asking epistemological questions, they were the first to look "under the hood" of how the mind worked. And what they were seeing was a process of understanding the physical world around them, and representing their own physicality.
The questions continued, and, relatively quickly, brought philosophers like Plato to the conclusion that the physical universe was just too damned flawed to be Real. That is to say, things broke down. There seemed to be no permanence in the physical universe. Everything changed and morphed and, in a glass-half-empty kind of way, died. For Plato, this just wasn't right. Change got in the way of the core of his philosophy. There had to be something permanent that was not dependent on this slippery, changing, and ultimately unreliable matter. Skip to Aristotle, who, in turn, embraced matter because he believed the key to understanding knowledge and permanence was actually the process of change. I like to think of this as the first "philosophical sidestep," where a philosopher points to a paradox and/or re-defines a term to make it work. The only thing that is permanent IS change. I picture Aristotle raising an eyebrow and feeling very proud of himself when his students oohed and ahhed at the very Aristotelian simplicity of his statement. I'm sure it was up to the Lyceum's versions of TAs and grad students to actually write out the implications.
With the exception of atomists like Epicurus -- who embraced matter for the material it was, thinking that we knew things via atoms of sensory stimuli that physically made contact with the physical mind -- most philosophers in one way or another were trying to figure out exactly what it was that we were knowing and exactly how we were knowing it. But there was something about the way Descartes tackled the lack of certainty inherent in the apprehension of the physical world that really stuck with western philosophy. Culturally speaking, we could look at the mind-over-matter attitude that prevails as an aspect of this. Such attitudes inform the science fiction fantasies of uploading the consciousness to different bodies, whether the media of that body is purely machine, a cyborg hybrid, or even just a clone. Regardless, all of these cultural beliefs rely upon the notion that the mind or consciousness is the key component of the human: similar to the SIM card in our phones.
Modern and contemporary philosophers and theorists have chipped away at those assumptions, focusing on the mind/body dualism itself. These critiques generally follow a pattern in which the biological basis of consciousness is reaffirmed, and deem sense data absolutely necessary for the mind to come to know itself. In spite of these critiques, however, a more subtle aspect of Cartesianism remains, and we can see the roots of it present in the quote above. Cartesianism doesn't just privilege mind over body, it privileges relations over objects. In other words, in Descartes' attempt to scope out the boundaries of certainty, he de-emphasizes the corporeal due to its impermanent nature and the unreliability of our material senses. Any later philosophy which implies that the "real" philosophical work comes in examining the relations among objects and the ways in which the "self" negotiates those relations owes that maneuver to Descartes.
Now anyone who has studied Marx, Nietzsche, the existentialists, and all the structuralists and poststructuralists thereafter should have felt a little bit of a twitch there. I won't be the jerk philosopher here and call them all Cartesians, but I will say that the privileging of relation over objects is Cartesian-ish.
Let's go back to the quote that led off this entry. Descartes is referring to objects, but not necessarily corporeal objects. He was imagining geometric figures. For his time period, this would be the place where the veil between the corporeal and incorporeal was the thinnest -- where the very ideal, incorporeal math meets its expression in real-world, material phenomena. Geometry relies upon physical representations to be rendered. But don't numbers and operations need to be rendered as symbols in order to be known? Not in the most simple Cartesian terms, no. You can have a group of objects which, phenomenally, precedes the number that is assigned to them. So, the objects are there, but it isn't until some subjectivity encounters them and assigns a "number" to them that they become 9 objects. The same goes for the operations among numbers -- or the relations between them. You don't need a "+" symbol to, according to Descartes, understand addition.
Now the rational philosophers before Descartes understood the above as knowledge; or, as I like to say in my classes, "Knowledge with a capital K." The relations among numbers don't change. Addition is always addition. 7 + 4 = 11. Always. Even if you replace the symbols representing the numbers, the outcome is always, ideally, 11, no matter how that "11ness" is represented. So, VII + IV = XI. "11," "XI," "eleven," "undici," all represent the same concept. Thus, mathematics -- and more importantly, the logic behind mathematics was a priori, or innate, knowledge.
Where Descartes is really interesting is that he believed that what was actually a priori wasn't necessarily math as information, it was related to an awareness of the operations that made math work. In the Sixth Meditation of Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes addresses this more directly. He states that he is able to imagine basic geometric forms such as triangles, squares, all the way up to octagons, and picture them in his imagination; but then being able to conceive of, but could not imagine accurately, a chiliagon (a thousand-sided figure). This made him realize that he could not fall back on the symbols that represent mathematical operations. So, if you try to imagine a chiliagon, you think, okay, it probably looks a lot like a circle; that inability highlights the difference between intellect and the imagination. The imagination, for many Renaissance and Enlightenment philosophers (both rationalists and empiricists alike) was a place where one recalled -- and could manipulate -- sense experiences. However, it was not where cognition took place. The imagination itself was classified as (or associated with, depending on which philosopher we're talking about) an aspect of the senses; it was a part of our sensory apparati. While the intellect was responsible for dipping into the imagination for the reflections of various sense data it needed (i.e. imagining shapes fitting together, creating new objects from old ones, remembering what someone said or what a song sounded like, calling to mind a specific scent), the intellect itself was separate from the imagination. The intellect was logical, and logic was a perfect process: x always = x. Various stupid mistakes we made were caused by faulty sense data or by a passionate (read: emotional) imagination that drew away our attention and corrupted the information coming in.
This is why Descartes epistemologically wanted to separate out the object from the relations among objects. If you really think about it, it makes sense that early philosophers would pin our humanity on the capacity to understand complex relationships among objects in the physical world. To them, no other species manipulated tools in the same way that humans did, because we were aware that the tools we used allowed us to achieve better results: self + tool = better result. It also makes possible what I see as later becoming a "sliding scale" of humanity. For example, Descartes himself -- after many of his "Meditations" -- fastens our humanity on our capacity to learn and be aware of that learning. At the basis of this learning and at the core of our a priori logic, is the certainty of our individual being itself. That is to say, the "first logic" (my term, not his), is the realization that one is a singular entity; a res cogitans, a "thinking thing" as Descartes himself likes to put it.
So, any entity which has the capacity to recognize itself as a thinking thing has this first logic. The question is, then, can this thinking thing learn beyond itself and understand its place in the world? That's a tall order, and filled with lots of wiggle room. Who is to say what is understanding its place and what is not? For Descartes, that's where a self-aware learning comes in. First, one must be able to "know thyself," not existentially, but logically. The self/other dichotomy, for Descartes, must be established in order for all other learning to apply. This is really key to the Cartesian self. Too many people want to place a more contemporary, existential/psychological dimension to this "knowledge of self" (Personally, I blame the Germans). However, for Descartes, he's speaking of a more simple, fundamental logic. Once the consciousness understands on a very basic level that it is a singular entity that has some kind of efficacy in the world around it, then things start building very quickly. So, the baby who throws Cheerios from its high chair and watches in wonder as things happen is on the cusp of this first logic. As soon as the association is made between "action" and "result" occurs (regardless of what the result is), Descartes assumes that the baby is also learning that this is "MY action."
As the child becomes more advanced, it comes to the real philosophical knowledge that it is a unique entity with efficacy in the world , and it can imagine itself acting in a given situation. It is aware of itself being aware. It has self-reflexivity. For philosophers of the time, this is what constitutes the difference between human beings and animals: an animal can be trained, but that's different from 'human' learning which is a process that requires that second layer of awareness. The easiest way to think about it is how we fall into physical or mental habits. In a behavioral fashion, certain things are reinforced. However, we have the capacity to recognize that we are falling into a habit, and thus have the power to change our behaviors. It may not be easy, but it is possible. The smartest breeds of dogs (Border Collies, Standard Poodles, etc), seem to perform complex tasks and are very attuned to the most subtle behaviors. Using a mixture or training and instinct, they behave this way. However, they cannot transcend that mixture.
In a Cartesian tradition, it is a human awareness of the self as this res cogitans (thinking thing) that defines the human for itself, by itself. And, for Descartes, it was the only thing of which we could be absolutely certain. This is very important, because this certainty was the basis upon which all other logic was founded. Descartes' philosophy implies that an intuitive, innate awareness of the self as a thinking thing (X = me, Y ≠ me), basically superseding Aristotle's own logical cornerstone: to say of what is that it is not, is false; to say of what is not that it is, is false. Understanding that you yourself are a thinking thing and acting accordingly is proof that you are aware that X = X (this = me) and that X ≠ Y (that ≠ me), only then can one be aware of what is and what is not.
This means that any entity that knows itself in this manner -- and acts within the world with an awareness that it is an aware being acting in the world (an awareness of being aware) -- is human. Thus, an automaton was not human, because it was incapable of moving beyond its programming of gears and cams. It had no awareness that it was acting from a script and this could make no attempt to move beyond it. In practical terms, this meant that the complex, representational thinking needed for the creation and support of laws, ethics (regardless of custom), any kind of agriculture, animal husbandry, coordinated hunting, etc.) were human characteristics. Any entity that showed these behaviors was human, because they showed planning; or, an imagining of oneself in the future, creating if/then scenarios.
Descartes' philosophy was quite egalitarian in his designation of humanity. He was well-traveled and understood that customs and cultural differences were superfluous in the designation of the human. To have any kind of customs or cultural traditions was to have a self-reflexivity. The dehumanization of other cultures, races, and gender identities was a product of psychological, social, religious, and economic forces which distorted Cartesian principles: i.e., if someone's culture is not as technologically advanced as ours, it means they're not thinking in an advanced way, which means that they're not quite human. This was NOT a Cartesian idea, but a twisting and misrepresentation of it.
However, Cartesian principles do come into play in the justification of what it is to be "human" in various other areas, and are usually at the crux of many ethical issues when it comes to abortion, euthanasia, and even animal rights. A the capacity to measure and map brain activity advances, and our understanding of psychology and ethics evolves, we are starting to grant more human-like qualities to non-human entities, especially species which show the very Cartesian characteristic of self-reflexivity. Great apes, dolphins, elephants, and other species have been shown, via variations of the rouge test, to have an advanced self-recognition. Notice, however, that all of those designations are ones that hinge upon a capacity to, in some form or another, know oneself; to be aware of oneself in one's surroundings and learn accordingly; to transcend a simple behavioral relationship to the world. Also helping here is the fact that psychology and sociology have shown that much of what we do is actually a product of reinforced, behavioral patterns. So science readjusted the parameters a bit allowing us to be more like animals.
As a philosopher, this is a tempting point of departure where I could start discussing the differences between human, animal, and artificial intelligences and problematizing their designations. This inevitably leads toward the age-old "what does it mean to be human" question. Please, if Descartes were alive today, "he'd freak the fuck out" (as I say so eloquently in my classes), because by his own definition, if a machine could learn based on the parameters of its surroundings, it would thus be human. But, over time, especially through the industrial revolution and into the 20th century, "humanity" remains in tact due to some slight tweaks to the Cartesian subject, most of which come back to the self-awareness inherent in self-reflexivity.
But as we will see in my next post, these possibilities are the shiny objects that distract us from the fact that all of this conjecture is actually based on a fundamental leap in Cartesian logic: that a mind is a separate entity from not only its body, but also from the objects which it thinks about.