The Problem with Descartes: It’s Not Dualism

Some people, a lot of people, treat René Descartes as a sort of bogeyman of modern philosophy. Somehow, in the first half of the seventeenth century, Descartes sundered the seamless fabric of Being into two factions, mind and body, a thinking thing and an extended thing, res cogitans and res extensa. With that dualism set in place, soul was thereby evacuated from the universe…except for a tiny piece of property that soul could rent out in the human head, accessed through a steep driveway in the pineal gland. In a universe devoid of soul, humans lost any motivation or justification for caring about anything beyond the solipsistic ego. Thanks a lot, René! There’s no concern for other humans, for community, or for the natural world. Mechanistic thinking thus spurred the rapacious destruction of ecosocial integrity through the development of industrial technologies and market economies. Now, as humans are sawing off the environmental limb that we’re sitting on, it’s more urgent than ever to overcome Cartesian dualism and find a way back into the seamless interconnectivity of existence. No, not really. Something is very wrong with that story. “In order to seek truth,” as Descartes says in his Principles of Philosophy, “it is necessary once in the course of our life to doubt, as far as possible, of all things.” Well, one of the things of which I’m doubtful is the idea that dualism is what’s wrong with Descartes.

Does it really make sense that the mind-body distinction theorized by Descartes became the cause (or at least a cause) of the ills of late modern societies? If that’s the case, then why is the compulsory interconnectivity of global capitalism facilitating the depletion of resources worldwide? That’s not dualism, but it still sucks. If the problem really is dualism, why not pull the problem up from the root and focus our critiques on the origins of the mind/body dualism in older sources? For instance, consider Platonic schemas that oppose the intelligible and sensible (noetic and aesthetic), or Jewish and Christian understandings of creation, where only one creature (the human) is said to be made in the image of God (imago dei), while the rest of creation is devoid of that divine spark. What’s wrong with Descartes in particular? It’s weird that he is singled out so much, and also just as weird that he is combined with other bogeymen from other nations and other generations into hyphenoid monsters like the Cartesian-Newtonian worldview or Cartesian-Kantian paradigm.

The idea that there’s a difference between mind and body seems pretty sound. My mental state of satisfaction after eating a meal is not the same as my physical state of digestion. Are they related? Yes, obviously, but they aren’t exactly the same. So, it seems like Descartes wasn’t wrong after all. He was probably wrong to claim that only humans have mental states, and in that sense he fits squarely within the anthropocentric norms dominant within the European philosophical tradition. Animals are nothing but automata? At the very least, anyone who has seen an ape knows better, hence the quip from Carl Linnaeus: Cartesius certe non vidit simios (Surely Descartes never saw an ape).

While anthropocentrism is clearly a problem for Descartes and for a lot of philosophers, eliminating dualism is neither necessary nor sufficient to eliminate the problem of anthropocentrism. So, what’s wrong with Cartesian dualism? Some might say that Descartes is too rational about thought, but that doesn’t add up. Anybody that thinks Descartes was too rational must not have noticed that the Cartesian “I think” (cogito) does not necessarily separate the rational from the nonrational. Indeed, the cogito has full-blown mania. Even if I’m completely lost in madness, my ego still is, I still exist: ego sum, ego existo (cf. “Cogito and the History of Madness,” Jacques Derrida).

What if the problem with Descartes is not that he was too dualistic, setting in motion an ongoing exacerbation of alienation, but that he was not dualistic enough? If mind and body are two separate kinds of thing (res), then they must need to relate to one another in some way. But if mind and body are not separate things, but are different finite modes of the same thing, the same substance, then there is no need to establish some kind of relationship or causal passage between them. They are parallel series of events, so any relation would be extraneous. This is Spinoza’s problem with Descartes. For Spinoza, the idea of two separate orders of being (thought and extension) is correct, but there is no causal passage between those two orders. They are two modes of the same substance, with no mediation between them. In that sense, Spinoza is more dualistic than Descartes, more emphatic about the irremediable separation between thought and extension. At the same time, Spinoza is more monistic than Descartes, since thought and extension are two modes of one substance, not two kinds of substance. Monism is possible only as a radical dualism.

We could think of this in psychoanalytic terms, where the mind and the body are feminine and masculine principles respectively. In that case, a “relation” between the sexes would destroy the irremediable tension between two different modes of sexual difference: self and other. Il n’y a pa de rapport sexuel, as Lacan puts it. There is no sexual relation, no third term mediating between oneself and the other or, mutatis mutandis, between body and mind, for that would presuppose that they are two different kinds of thing. As two different modes of the same substance, they require no mediation.

There is this—a thought—and on the other hand there is that—a body—and they do not relate. Never the twain shall meet…. This non-relation is the road to a weird kind of unity, like mind-body mirroring, or psychophysical parallelism: one substance embodied in parallel series of aesthetic and noetic events. This might be why Deleuze and Guattari consider Spinoza to be “the Christ of philosophers.” As Christ displays the glorious movement of new life out of death, Spinoza finds the oneness of substance in the duality of thought and extension. In other words, he finds the unity of God within the deathly dissonance of the natural world, deus sive natura. Reflective adumbrations of a single light are never one, never single or simple, but always displaying the difference of their psychic and physical modalities.

Furthermore, Spinoza’s (non)dualism means that there is no such thing as free will, since thought does not causally impact extension. Bodies are thoroughly determined by the power of a single substance, deus sive natura. The universe does everything, and rational choice does nothing. This is why Leibniz considered Spinoza to represent a “sect of new Stoics.” The only ethical injunction is to love fate. Nietzsche’s amor fati is not very far off, with an important caveat: the chaos and swirling perspectives of Nietzsche’s so-called perspectivism bear more resemblance to the void and swerving atoms of Democritus than to the logically ordered universe of Stoicism. Less logos, more clinamen.

This assemblage of Spinoza, Stoicism, Nietzsche, and Deleuze/Guattari provides a much more nuanced sense of what is wrong with Descartes. It’s not the dualism per se. It’s the way the dualism is mediated, including the way some kind of power of rational choice or free will or interior agency is wrongly attributed to thought. There is a dualism between extension and thought (Stoic bodies and sense), but thought isn’t an inner control center navigating an external world. This connects with Wittgenstein’s problem with Descartes. It’s not the dualism. Wittgenstein would agree that mental states are different from physical states. What he disagrees with is the idea that the mental is an inner world that acts on the outer world. There is no inner world. The whole “inner-outer picture” is wrong. “The ‘inner’ is a delusion. That is: the whole complex of ideas alluded to by this word is like a painted curtain drawn in front of the scene of the actual word use” (Last Writings on Philosophy of Psychology II, 84).

For Wittgenstein, the problem with Cartesian dualism isn’t the distinction between mental and physical states. The problem is the metaphysical understanding of that distinction in terms of an inner-outer dualism. We use the word “inner” in everyday word use to talk about mental states, sensations, thoughts, images, moods, intentions, etc. That’s fine. The metaphysical problem arises when the inner and outer are treated as ontologically distinct domains. There is no actual inside, or the inside is just the outside of the outside. The inner-outer picture carries some incorrect assumptions with it, notably, the idea that I have privileged or direct access to my own thoughts (an insider’s view), which comes bundled with the idea that I cannot access another’s person’s thoughts, feelings, etc. Our language and our experience seem to suggest that those assumptions are simply wrong. Really, I can tell what other people are thinking, but never completely, and I can tell what I am thinking, but never completely.

It is a philosophical pseudo-problem to think that the ego has to jump over some hurdle in order to know the other (the alter ego). That’s the epistemological equivalent of the ethical problem of jumping over one’s own shadow of self-interest in order to behave altruistically and care for others. There is no hurdle, because there is no world behind the scenes into which we need to leap in order to have some epistemic access to the mental states of others. We wear our hearts on our sleeves, which is not to say that hearts are easy to read.

Mental and physical states are different, but not where there is a causal passageway from an outer/physical to an inner/mental. There is a dualism, but there is only the outside, partes extra partes. There is no inner realm. As Merleau-Ponty puts it, if you look for an interior that is supposed to be hiding within the body, all you will find is “shadows stuffed with organs” (The Visible and the Invisible, 138). Again, for Merleau-Ponty as for Spinoza and Wittgenstein, the subject/object (thought/extension) dualism itself is not the problem. Merleau-Ponty describes this with his well-known example of the phenomenon of touching one’s own hand. When my right hand touches my left hand, the touching (subject) and touched (object) intertwine but never coincide. The touching can become the touched and vice versa, but the reversibility never resolves the duality. They are always on the verge of becoming each other. The unity of my body as subject-object never actually happens; it is “on the verge,” “always imminent and never realized in fact” (250).

The subject/object dualism isn’t the problem with Descartes. The problem is the inner-outer picture. This is lost on many forms of panpsychism, which insert subjectivity or experience into all objects, undoing the anthropocentrism whereby Descartes made interiority the sole property of humans, but thereby perpetuating the notion that subjectivity is an inner realm. The idea that mental states aren’t primarily or exclusively human is fine, but when that mentality is conceived as an inside united with an outside (the proverbial ‘two sides of the same coin’), there are two failures:  the failure to account for the irreducible duality that does in fact maintain between objective and subjective states, i.e., the parallel series of Spinoza’s extension and thought (Stoic bodies and sense), and the failure to overcome the real problem with Descartes: the inner-outer picture.

9 thoughts on “The Problem with Descartes: It’s Not Dualism

    1. Touché. I appreciate your point about undivided experience. Like the uncarved wood (pu) of Daoism. Maybe none of these divisions really needs to be made. Following the Dao, The master does nothing and leaves nothing undone.

  1. Descartes not only spoke of dualism in the human but also dualism between humans and all other animals. Humans had the mental and the physical, animals only the physical. This idea was so soundly held that people following Descartes felt that animals were incapable of suffering. While there are other sources of dualism the effect of Descartes cannot be dismissed. While global capitalism arguably is a bigger problem than Descartes, the philosophy of global capitalism is filled with Cartesian dualism.

    On pansychism, it would be helpful if you discussed different types. Chardin explicitly uses the terms “inner” and “outer”. Whitehead makes a temporal distinction between the physical (causal efficacy, i.e. antecedent causation) and mental/experiential (the creative potential for self determination in every event.

    I’m not sure about the importance of the inner-outer duality, but I see the point. The bigger problem is the whole idea of a substance requiring nothing but itself to exist and thinking of objects/substances as self-contained rather than be constituted by their relationships including relations external to the experiencing subjects.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Herman. Much appreciated! I agree with the importance of distinguishing different panpsychisms. PIerre Teilhard de Chardin is much more Cartesian than someone like Whitehead. Freya Mathews draws on Spinoza in her approach to panpsychism. She is more explicitly ecological than Teilhard or Whitehead. In any case, I don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater when it comes to any philosopher or philosophical position, even classical notions of substance.

      I agree that the effect of Descartes cannot be dismissed, especially the way he put anthropocentrism into the context of a technologically driven approach to science (“masters and possessors of nature”).
      Nonetheless, as much of an impact as Descartes had, it wasn’t long until the tide of animal rights started rising. Jeremy Bentham argued for the reality of animal suffering a little more than a century after Descartes died. It’s important to bear in mind the vast majority of people who never really believed Descartes, including multitudes who never heard of him. There is a virtuous middle between exaggerating and dismissing his singular importance, just like there is a virtuous middle between thinking of things as independent entities or as relational events. I don’t think any particular philosophy is responsible for anthropocentrism. They all have problems and promise.

      At the end of the day, Descartes is probably more of a friend than foe considering how sorely some careful thinking is needed these days. A little Cartesian doubt and methodical meditation might help people doubt the delusional idea of the good life being forced on them by our suicidal/ecocidal society.

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