Descartes’ Discovery of the Subject

Saint Paul“Philosophy starts by doubting the reality of the perceptible world, of the world of objects and things.”[1] But this is not enough. Philosophical theory should be primarily concerned with the thinking subject, and the meaning and purpose of his existence. “Reality is originally part of the inner existence, of the inner spiritual communion and community, but it becomes degraded in the process of objectification and by having to submit to social necessities.”[2] “To exist, is for man to dwell within himself, in his own authentic world, rather than to be at the mercy of the social and biological world.”[3]

Like Plato, Descartes expresses skepticism about physical reality; in Descartes’ case, whether external reality exists at all, and whether we can have knowledge of it. He goes beyond Plato by discovering the knowing subject. Plato’s conception of noumenal reality is universalist and has nothing that is essentially personal about it. It is populated by hypostasized abstractions, the Forms, but also a living god – the Form of the Good. Descartes’ notion of the existential interior stops short at the subject as the thinking thing. Cogito ergo sum; I am thinking therefore I am. Who is this I? Descartes asks. He replies, a thing that thinks. Multiple problems are immediately evident. One is the severely restricted and inadequate spiritual vision. There is no beauty, justice, or truth, and no God. Another is the restriction of the subject to a thinking thing. Feelings and volition are as much a part of the subject as thought, but these are simply omitted. So, there is a subject, but it is truncated and misdescribed and it would take Kant to identify the existential subject with freedom and the phenomenal world with determinism, though Kant continues to associate the noumenal with the intellect alone.

It is Christianity that regards the Person and the individual as significant. Plato’s philosophy goes from the particular to the universal and sees the universal as preeminently real and the goal of spiritual aspiration. Aristotle’s substance philosophy unites forms with matter, seemingly particularizing substance, but still sees the forms as making a substance the kind of substance it is. Forms and essences are still associated. And knowledge is of form; the universal, not the personal. Aristotle invented biology and sees human flourishing in essentially biological and social terms. Biology, psychology, and every other science focuses on externalities, false objective reality, and has no room for the existential subject. It is worse than Martin Buber’s dichotomy between I/It and I/Thou, because objective philosophy eliminates “I.” Objective philosophy forgets about the subject. It ignores the fact that no matter how objective knowledge may be, it is the creative product of the subject. When objective knowledge looks at the subject, it does so as an object and it cannot see the Person; only objective and thus secondary facts.

Heidegger’s Dasein likewise captures only the social and objective aspect of existence, the shadows in the cave. The real existential subject is spiritual, free, eternal, mysterious, and in potential communion with the divine. In Heidegger, however, the subject as object is thrown into social existence. It is being-in-the-world, being-towards-death, and horribly affected by das Man, the inauthentic “they-self.” Heidegger’s philosophy has no Person, and thus no transcendence, no divinity. Dasein is ejected into the world and there is no hope of salvation, no Kingdom of God to look forward to. This objectivized conception of existence makes no room for freedom because freedom is a spiritual phenomenon. Thus, Heidegger’s philosophy is supremely pessimistic and depressing. It can give the impression of finally getting at the mystery of life, but actually it eliminates mystery. “Although he considers the objective state a degraded one, his philosophy contributes to maintain the world in its degraded state.”[4] Dasein does have the ability to reveal being, but this ability is never explained. The explanation is that the subject and non-objectivized Being are spiritual and it is the prerogative of spirit to determine the meaning of matter.

René Girard too is a fundamentally sociological and anthropological thinker. The philosophy of mimesis is about the affects of society on the Person objectively considered. The famous nineteenth century novels that inspired Girard are about the pernicious effects of mimesis; competition for social status, the deleterious results of reading bad romance novels, and the ramping up of desire generated by rivals – in other words, the disaster of the social. Girard cannot give an adequate account of the spiritual because he has an objectivized vision of the Person. Aristotle, Heidegger, Girard are all about the Person as object, not subject, and therefore not about the real Person at all.

Saint Paul 2

Plato and Aristotle correctly assert that philosophy begins with wonder and wonder is associated with mystery. They both, however, never discover the subject. Descartes discovers the subject, and then does his best to kill mystery. Mathematics is the product of creative insight and imagination, but like everything else in the realm of phenomena is objective and thus nonspiritual. Mystery and the spiritual are inherently linked. By wanting to attain epistemic certainty Descartes does his best to eliminate the spiritual. He models his reasoning and epistemic standards on mathematics and objectivized knowledge. His arguments for God’s existence are rationalist logic-chopping with next to zero persuasive force. Trying to compel belief in God through syllogisms is antithetical to the nature of the spiritual which is connected to ultimate freedom. It turns God into an object in the manner of naturalistic metaphysics. God as mystery is the focus of faith and hope, not syllogism. A proof of God’s existence would be the final proof that God does not exist. The God of unavoidable logical outcomes is not God. It would be an “It,” not a Thou. The conversion of St. Paul, on the other hand, involved an encounter with the living God.

[1] Berdyaev, Solitude and Society, p. 44.

[2] Berdyaev, p. 44-45.

[3] Berdyaev, p. 44.

[4] pp. 40-41.

7 thoughts on “Descartes’ Discovery of the Subject

  1. Pingback: Descartes’ Discovery of the Subject | Reaction Times

  2. Hebrews 11. (1 -3). —

    1. Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

    2. For by it the elders obtained a good report.

    3. Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.

  3. Descartes played a trick on thinkers that even today we haven’t recovered from. Moderns are materialists… who are wrong about what matter is. Which is a bit hilarious.

    For the Medievals, qualia like taste or color were obvious a property of matter. The soul was interpreted as the form of the body, of which forms almost everything is material, biological and mortal, senses, emotions, memories etc. the only thing they considered supernatural is abstract thinking. In this sense their views were very “modern” as almost entirely materialist. With a proper understanding of matter.

    Enter Descartes. Redefines a human as a ghost in a machine. Redefines matter as having only quantitative proprties. The qualia happens in the ghost.

    Moderns generally accept this view, then later on start denying that the ghost-like soul exists. This is roughly what modern materialism, Descartes minus the ghost. And the we are very surprised just where the qualia are and keep looking for them. And then it results in absurd theories calling qualia unreal, illusionary.

    The problem with this view is that it accepts only the physicist’s view as valid, that sound is vibrations in the air, color is the frequency of light. It basically disregards the view of the biologist, for whom a sound is something an animal hears and a color is something an animal sees.

    Both the Medievals and modern biology aggree that seeing a color or hearing a sound is a purely material, biological process. There are also good reasons to think there is such a thing to see a color correctly vs. incorrectly, to hear a sound correctly vs. incorrectly, that such judgements are valid, because animals who cannot tell a lions roar from a birds chirping tend to get eaten by lions. If we can see colors correctly and hear sounds correctly, then color and sound and other qualia are real properties of matter.

    Now of course for the other part, Medievals thinking abstract thinking is supernatural, and this is why it is the only supernatural part of the soul, that is more difficult. First, to me it is obvious that the world consists not only of matter but also information. Information is a very different thing. It can be copied easily. It can be represented in different material forms, like “4” on the screen and “IV” written in sand mean the same number. Information, at a first approximation, sounds like an intent to get a message across. Communication between agents. Which might point at that idea indeed that if that communication is not entirely material, just represented in various material forms, then neither are the agents. But there are two problems. Information is destroyed if its material form is destroyed. Like, literally, a piece of paper with words on it is burned. It would imply the agent is also mortal, abstract thinking does not survive the death of the body, hence not supernatural. The second problem is that there is a class of information that was never “meant” as a communication between agents: the DNA.

    • Thanks, Dividualist. One thing about “information” is its multiple instantiation – on that piece of paper, in my mind, on a CD, on a hard drive, in smoke signals, drum talking, etc., so why not my immaterial soul? Looking at the evidence within material reality for the survivability of the immaterial, is like looking on land for fish. For that, we have mediumship and NDEs – but these days I prefer faith and hope. Secondly, the information in DNA seems to have a supernatural origin; so far at least. If we can discover a principle of physics or biology that can give rise to spontaneous code (information encoded and then decoded) we can use it to program computers instead of all those expensive human programmers. See

    • This calls to mind something Thomas Reid, a philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment said.

      He asked the question, “How can I think of a distant object?”

      Now, most of his contemporaries would have said, “By having a mental image of it.”

      Not so Reid; As John Haldane observes, “Any theory which explains my thinking of some distant object in terms of my thinking of some internal mental object that in some way represents it, is inadequate for two reasons. First, if it were true that all we really think about are internal, mental, objects, we are not in touch with the world at all, and this seems absurd. As Reid says, it is the church I think of, not an image of the church. Second, the postulation of an intermediary does not solve the problem. To answer the question ‘How do I think about things? by saying ‘You think about them by thinking about representations’ both leaves a gap between me and the object of thought, and worse, creates a second gap waiting to be bridged — the gap between the representation and the thing.”

      Reid’s solution is intriguing: “Let us suppose that ideas represent things like symbols. In this way words and writing are known to express everything. So let the intellect therefore be instructed by ideas not in the manner of a camera obscura [not like pictures] with painted images, but like a written or printed book, teaching us many things that are external that have passed away and that will come to be.”

      This is similar to Wittgenstein: “”Thinking is not an incorporeal process which lends life and sense to speaking, and which it would be possible to detach from speaking, rather as the Devil took the shadow of Schlemihl from the ground

      • Hi, Michael: Yes. The representation theory of mind seems wrong for a number of reasons. One is redundancy. Why represent the church we are looking at when we can just look at it? Secondly, it is too passive, as though knowledge is simply reflecting the world as accurately as possible. To reproduce the world is not to understand it.


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