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.

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The Practice of Irony in Pierre Hadot

Pierre Hadot is well-known for his idea that philosophy is not a merely professional endeavor or simply a system of ideas but is a way of living, a practice for which one must engage in “exercise” or “training” (askēsis). That point is evident throughout Hadot’s writings, but it is especially emphasized in Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault. Philosophy isn’t just about talking and thinking; it’s a way of being in the world. It’s not just a vocational choice; it’s an existential choice. It’s not just about ideas; it’s about one’s entire self. Hellenistic philosophy provides the bulk of Hadot’s examples of this kind of philosophy, and the figure of Socrates plays a prominent role for Hadot. Of course, an important part of the Socratic way of life is Socratic irony. Reading over notes from Adam Robbert’s recent panel presentation on this topic, it struck me: Hadot’s presentation of philosophy as a way of life includes a profound sense of irony: “Ye gods! Here we have the well-known irony of Hadot” (cf. Plato’s Republic, 337a).   Continue reading