René Descartes (1596-1650) was a French philosopher, scientist, and mathematician. His famous phrase, “I think therefore I am,” defines the main principle of his philosophy and is still often quoted today.
Professor of Philosophy at Bloomsburg University, Kurt Smith is the author of Simply Descartes (2018), which details a philosophical system that emerged in the 17th century.
Simply Charly: This book is about the famous 17th-century French philosopher René Descartes and his highly influential philosophical work. But, interestingly, it’s not your run-of-the-mill biography. Can you say a few words about how you approached writing it and how it differs from the typical biographical genre?
Kurt Smith: Readers are no doubt familiar with the biography as a kind of historical tracing of the significant milestones of a person’s life — it might track when and where they were born, what their childhood was like, where they went to school, which events shaped who they became, who had had a palpable influence on them, when they died, how they died, and so on. Pretty straightforward stuff.
But, interestingly, biographies don’t even need to be about real people, or about people at all. I’ve seen biographies on the Wicked Witch of the West, about God, about the Devil, and a really interesting one about the disease known as cancer. In most of these, what a reader takes away from the biography is a literary portrait of the person. Although a reader should gain insight from Simply Descartes into this great philosopher ‘s personality, the point of the book, at least as I approached it, is to provide an understanding of his philosophy. The book is really about that; it’s a biography of a philosophical system that emerged in the 17th century.
Descartes’s system, sometimes referred to as Cartesian Philosophy, can be either analyzed into its elemental parts or, beginning with the parts, synthesized into the unified system, the whole. I chose to take the synthesis route and, beginning with the elemental bits, I showed how they work to form his entire system. The reader is invited on a journey that puts together this philosophical puzzle, so to speak, piece by piece. By book’s end, in addition to having a sense of Descartes the person, a reader should have a solid grasp of his philosophy.
SC: You wrote the book for the general reader. Do you think you succeeded?
KS: Yes. Having taught this material for the past 20 years has helped me figure out a way to present Descartes’s view in nice, digestible bits. The Simply series, which focuses on the lives and ideas of a host of cultural giants, is geared for the general reader. When Charles Carlini, publisher of the series, contacted me, he made it clear that were I to agree to write the book, it needed to be geared for the general reader. The series is for the busy working person who is interested in learning about important figures and ideas but may not have had the opportunity to go to college.
But, in conjunction with Charles’s request, I realize, along with many of my professional colleagues who teach and do research in the field, that philosophers have done a spectacularly poor job at engaging the public. Typically, scholars like myself write for scholars like myself. Exclusively in-house stuff. In the days of Bertrand Russell—so, mid-20thcentury—it was common for professors of philosophy to give public talks. I guess that the Ted talks and a new generation of podcasts are serving this purpose. But, most of the books and journal articles written by professional philosophers are written for professional philosophers or for their students. The general reader gets short shrift. The Simply series refreshingly aims at engaging the public. I love this idea, and writing this book allowed me an opportunity to do that.
SC: Descartes is famous for having written: “I think, therefore I am.” Why is this famous? Can you say a few words about its significance?
KS: Descartes originally included this phrase in his Discourse on Method (1637). He wrote the book in French, which was a big deal back then, given that “serious” books were typically written in the language of the Schools, namely, in Latin. Already here, we find Descartes writing for the general reader. The phrase was originally: je pense, donc je suis. Later, when put into Latin, it became the now famous: ego cogito, ergo sum. In English, it is: I think, therefore, I am (alternatively, the Latin also yields: I am thinking, therefore I am). In the Discourse, he dubs this insight—the insight that whenever he thinks, he exists—the first principle of his philosophy.
In the Meditations on First Philosophy (1641), we actually don’t find the famous phrase. What he says in the Meditations is:
So, after considering everything very thoroughly, I must finally conclude that this proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind. (Second Meditation)
Even so, the point seems to be the same as the one made in the Discourse. Although not as clearly put in the Discourse, Descartes’s idea is that one could not even doubt that one existed while thinking. One can doubt a lot of things, but not that one exists while thinking. For, even doubting is an instance of thinking, so if one were doubting that one existed, one would nevertheless exist while doubting.
The insight is not really the result of an argument that one is compelled to hold that one exists (when thinking), but it’s the result of a kind of performance: one engages in doubt, where one can take as false anything that one could doubt. What one learns is that although one can doubt a host of things, including almost everything that is commonly held to be true, one cannot intelligibly make it out that one did not exist while thinking about whether one exists or not. In the very act of thinking, one exists. Period.
Casting the insight as the result of a kind of performance and not as an argument is supported by what Descartes himself says to critics when discussing the issue. To at least one critic, who had pressed Descartes on the connection he made between thinking and existing, he says:
When someone says “I am thinking, therefore, I am, or I exist,” he does not deduce existence from thought by means of a syllogism, but recognizes it as something self-evident by a simple intuition of the mind. (Second Set of Replies)
Here, the connection between one’s thinking and one’s existence is cast as immediate and as self-evident. No doubt, given Descartes’s use of the conclusion indicator word “therefore,” readers were led to think that he was making an argument (and, according to many critics, a rather lame one).
Okay, so what’s the point of emphasizing the insight? Why is “the cogito,” as this is sometimes called by scholars, important to Descartes’s philosophical system? The answer is foreshadowed in a remark he had made in the Meditations about Archimedes:
Archimedes used to demand just one firm and immovable point in order to shift the entire earth; so I too can hope for great things if I manage to find just one thing, however slight, that is certain and unshakeable. (Second Meditation)
I am not sure where (or whether) Archimedes said this. I’ve yet to locate the text. But Descartes’s point is clear, regardless of who said it. Here, he is noting that a machine, and in particular a lever, can do great work, where the lever is constructed from a strong beam of some sort and a wedge-like thing that comes to a point. The beam rests on the point, or as engineers call it, the fulcrum, and — voilà — one can move a heavy object. The idea is that the lever works in part because of the fulcrum, the fixed and immovable point. No fixed and immovable point, no lever. Similarly, Descartes suggests, in order for a philosophical system to do some heavy lifting, like making intelligible the possibility of reality, or the possibility of knowledge, and so on, it requires at least one belief, no matter how insignificant it may first appear, that is certain and unshakeable (fixed and immovable). It will be something that could not in any way be doubted—at least, that is the criterion on which Descartes insists. The cogito serves the role of fulcrum for Descartes’s philosophical system.
SC: What sorts of things would a general reader be surprised to learn from your book about Descartes, especially with respect to how his views have influenced their own?
KS: Let me answer by supposing that one was given the choice between two options: the first option is that one’s body would be annihilated, but one’s consciousness would remain and would continue as before bodily annihilation. So, one would continue to experience as before, but kind of like one does in a dream, where one is aware of a world around him or her, but none of the bodies, like tables and chairs, and even one’s own human body, exist. Dream tables are as solid to the touch as real ones, right? The second option would be that one’s mind or one’s consciousness would be annihilated, but one’s body and the bodies that surround it would remain and continue to exist. Which option would one choose? The typical person, I think, will choose the first option. Why? When asked, he or she typically notes that one’s mind and consciousness is identical to what they believe themselves to be. Although “having” a body is all fine and good, one usually doesn’t identify oneself with it. The typical person who makes this choice may not know it, but the fact that they identify themselves with their mind rather than their body is a view they have thanks to Descartes. You might think that you got this idea from the Bible, or some other sacred text, but if you go back and look carefully, you won’t find that view there. This is the sort of thing that I believe readers will be surprised to learn when reading this book.
SC: What are some of the weirdest things Descartes did during his life that people will read about in this book?
KS: Well, there were lots of weird things. For starters, he was a pretty big fan of anatomy and physiology. In fact, I figure that had he not been a philosopher (he actually earned a law degree at University of Poitiers but never practiced law), he would have ventured into medicine and probably become a physician. Even so, as a big fan of anatomy and physiology, he seems to have engaged in some pretty gruesome dissections at his house, including that of a human corpse, and even of some live animals (which is called vivisection). I recall hearing a story in which Antoine Arnauld, a good friend of Descartes’s, visited Descartes in the Netherlands. The story goes that Arnauld had remarked that he saw no books in Descartes’s little apartment. He said something like, “Hey, wait until everyone back home hears that the great Descartes doesn’t read much.” Descartes apparently responded by taking Arnauld into the next room, where a human corpse lay partly dissected. “These are my books,” Descartes replied, pointing to the body.
And there is more. Stephen Gaukroger, who is Emeritus Professor of History of Philosophy and History of Science at the University of Sydney, tells a great story he found in circulation: Descartes is aboard a ship, heading across the Holland Sea. Now, it’s worth noting that Descartes had fathered a child out of wedlock, named Francine, who had died at around eight years of age. According to Gaukroger’s tale, Descartes had designed and built an automaton, basically a robot, that looked like a little girl, who he called Francine. She traveled with him, and apparently could fool people into thinking she was a little girl. Reportedly, when he’d sleep, she’d be kept in a trunk next to his bed. But, on the trip across the Holland Sea, the trunk was put in the cargo hold, and the captain became suspicious of its contents, probably due to all the noise being made by whatever was inside. He opened it and was horrified when the robot girl—kind of like Chuckie’s sister? —jumped out. He fought with the automaton and dragged it and the trunk to the deck, casting it into the sea.
SC: When you teach about Descartes’s work, do you find it challenging to convince students that he is still relevant and worth studying?
KS: No, not really. To be sure, it’s an old text, and even translated into modern English can be a bit of a challenge for students, but not because of what Descartes says. It is mostly because of the methodical and, some would say, overly cautious way that he uses to establish his system. But once we get into the weeds of, say, the First Meditation, students find themselves hooked.
Initially, it’s common for students to think that they can easily counter something Descartes says, but after even a little discussion, they see that Descartes is on better footing philosophically than first thought. It’s not unusual to have students come to my office, days after class discussion, and try their hand at giving Descartes another go. But, alas, Descartes turns out to be smarter than they thought. I believe that is the power of philosophy, and studying the liberal arts generally. The material almost always initially strikes a student either as too old to bother with, or as not scientific enough to say anything true. But engaging with figures of the past really does bring to life the adage that we can see as far as do because we are standing on the shoulders of giants who came before us. If I do my job, students will find Descartes to be a genuine giant on whose shoulders they stand.
SC: What originally attracted you to studying Descartes?
KS: My first exposure to Descartes’s work was in a philosophy class, while an undergrad at UC Irvine. At that time, Irvine didn’t have a full-time, onboard, early modern philosophy professor. Instead, the department kept open a spot that it would fill with a rotation of fancy early modern scholars. In my first year at Irvine, the department had invited the highly respected Leibniz scholar, Robert Sleigh. I believe that I visited him in his office almost every day (outside of class). He was always ready to talk shop. Like my students, mentioned earlier, I would go to Sleigh’s office ready to take down the great Descartes, but would find after some discussion how my counter-arguments failed. Sleigh once told me that I should continue studying Descartes after the course was finished; he said that I seemed to have a bone to pick with Descartes and with philosophers of the period. Perhaps he was saying that I was a knucklehead, but I took him to mean that I had a knack for understanding Descartes, why he was raising the questions he raised, why his answers were the ones he came up with, and so on. As time rolled on, class after class included something written by Descartes. This was bolstered by the rotation of scholars. So, there was Sleigh, but also Edwin Curley, and eventually full-timers at Irvine such as Christia Mercer and Alan Nelson. By the time I got to grad school, at Claremont, I was familiar with Descartes.
As luck would have it, one of the first grad seminars I took was focused on Descartes. Alan Nelson and Calvin Normore at Irvine (about an hour’s drive from Claremont) were putting together a Descartes reading group. They invited me to participate. The group, which became known as the Cartesian Circle, included a host of heavyweight early modern scholars, along with a crop of grad students like myself. Many of them get mentioned in my acknowledgments.
I realize that this isn’t a very sexy answer, but there you are.
SC: You know a lot of Descartes scholars, and they know you too. How diverse are the views among you all? Do you duke it out at conferences, or do you all agree?
KS: We are a pretty diverse group. Although we can agree on the basics — for instance, that Descartes was French, and that he held some form of mind-body dualism — there is an impressive divergence of views. The source of the diversity seems to be traceable to the fact that Descartes’s system is an interconnected conceptual system of various bits. Let’s say that you read or interpret one bit a certain way. That can (and probably will) effect how you understand the other bits. We don’t find two scholars agreeing on everything but just one bit. If two scholars disagree on how to read one bit, we’ll discover that they disagree on a lot more. For example, there are those who hold that Descartes thought there were many corporeal substances, while others disagree, positing that he believed in only one corporeal substance. In this view, bodies (plural) needs to be understood in light of what Descartes calls modal distinction. Some hold that Descartes took there to be an infinite number of innate ideas, others that he took there to be only three (the innate ideas of God, finite mind, and finite body), while some hold that he took there to be four (the innate ideas of God, finite mind, finite body, a union of mind and body).
Conference and colloquium presentations can get quite rowdy. I’ve not seen any punches thrown, but I’ve seen red faces and have heard high-pitched and robust rebukes. There’s an apocryphal story told to grad students, that the aim of a philosophy talk, at least from the audience’s point of view, is to get the speaker to take it all back. My own experience is that there is some truth to this. That said, in the end, the community of early modern scholars is professional and very serious. If the general reader ever gets a chance to attend such a talk, he or she should do it.
SC: In Simply Descartes, you show how he rejected the dominant Aristotelian views of the period, in particular replacing the Aristotelian account of life, which involved talk of the psyche (soul), with an account taken from mechanics. Can you say more about that? Can you also say something about the significance of Descartes’s identifying the psyche (soul) with the mind?
KS: There were many views circulating in the period that claimed to be grounded in the philosophy of Aristotle. So, as you rightly say, Descartes was responding to some number of these views, which for lack of a better name scholars have dubbed Aristotelian. A rather common Aristotelian view, taken from what Aristotle writes in De Anima (Concerning the Soul), begins with matter as a kind of stuff. The psyche (pronounced pasookay) was taken by Aristotle to be an organizing principle of matter. What made an oak tree different from a dog was not the stuff, the matter, but how the stuff was arranged or organized. Matter organized this way is an oak tree, but organized that way is a dog.
Aristotle took there to be three basic “levels” of organization, which accounted for the emergence of living things. What made a living thing different from a non-living thing wasn’t matter. Both are “made” of the same matter. Rather, what made living things living things was that the psyche was at work in the thing’s organization. The psyche was part of Aristotle’s account of life—bios in Greek (from which we get the word biology). The first level of organization is sometimes referred to as the nutritional level. It is the level of organization that accounts for a living thing’s bodily structure, its being able to maintain that structure over some time (i.e. its metabolic and respiratory functions), its ability to reproduce, and so on. Aristotle takes the prime example of this level to be expressed in plant life. Sometimes, instead of the nutritional level, it is referred to as the vegetative level. The second level of organization builds off of the first. Once the organism is sufficiently complex, it develops the ability to move and to perceive. This is the animal level. The third level of organization builds off of the second. Once the organism is sufficiently complex, it develops the ability to think or to reason. This is the level of the human being.
The entity that arises in this third level organization, connected with the ability to think or to reason, is the mind—Aristotle refers to it as nous. The mind is an emergent entity (or activation of some latent capacity). Notice that the mind is not identical with the psyche. The psyche, or the soul as it is called in English, is not the mind. (The Latinists translated the Greek psyche as anima, from which we get words such as animal and animation).
Also, note that there is only one psyche or soul in Aristotle’s view. The same soul that organizes the oak tree and dog also organizes the human being. You can see why someone like Aquinas had his hands full when trying to integrate Aristotle’s philosophy into Christianity, for, if Aristotle was right, individual human beings would not have distinct souls. They’d have distinct minds, but not distinct souls. Another implication of this view, and no doubt a further headache for someone like Aquinas, was that once the human body was no longer organized in a way sufficient to support the emergence of the mind, the mind ceased to exist. The hopes of an afterlife looked grim if you thought that it included awareness of it. You can see why some held that in order for God to judge someone, God would first have to reconstitute their body. That way, the mind would re-emerge, and the person could get what was coming to them.
Descartes drew a distinction between the body and the mind. He held that the two can (and do) exist independently of one another. So, the mind doesn’t really depend on the body after all. You can see where that differs from what Aristotle had said. But Descartes also parts ways with the Greek philosopher by identifying the mind with the soul: they were one and the same thing. So, if the soul is no longer in the account of life, what is Descartes’s account? Descartes accounts for “life” in terms of mechanics. “Living” bodies are just complex machines. Remember the story of the crazy robot girl Francine? No doubt that sort of story is derived from Descartes’s claim that in principle there is no difference between the working body of an animal and that of an automaton. Both are simply fancier versions of clocks.
SC: Descartes wrote in the 17th century when much of his work fell under the heading of Natural Philosophy. What did philosophers in the period mean by Natural Philosophy?
KS: There were basically two kinds of philosophical study in the period. The first dealt with all things human. Talk of personhood, or of personal identity, or of belief, or of intelligible action, of health and illness, of political structure, and so on, fell under the heading of Moral Philosophy. The second kind of study dealt with all things non-human. Talk of the nature of matter, the nature of motion, force, the regularity in the stars and planets, and the like, fell under the heading of Natural Philosophy. So, we’d find early treatises on ethics and politics as instances of Moral Philosophy, and early treatises in physics and astronomy as instances of Natural Philosophy.
You can see this distinction working even in categorizing college curriculum. Some time ago, at the university you’d have a college of Moral Philosophy, and a college of Natural Philosophy. Today, “philosophy” has been replaced with “science”. So, today you might find at a university a college of Moral Science and a college of Natural Science,
SC: Descartes is famous among mathematicians. Why?
KS: He was a really talented mathematician. He knew other well-known mathematicians of the period, like Isaac Beeckman, Blaise Pascal, and Christiaan Huygens. An important mathematical work of Descartes’s is the Geometry. Mathematicians find the origins of certain important concepts lurking in his work and have named some of their offspring in Descartes’s honor. One of them is the Cartesian coordinate system, that “x” and “y” jobber we use to graph functions. A primitive version of that is found in the Geometry. In fact, some things included in the Geometry foreshadow what we today call Analytic Geometry. But he was also a pretty good applied mathematician. We see this, for example, in his Optics, where he appears to have beat Willebrord Snellius (known as Snell) at proving what is today called Snell’s Law.
SC: In Simply Descartes, you show how God plays a big part in Descartes’s metaphysics (an area of philosophy that studies theories of reality) and epistemology (an area that studies theories of knowledge). Can you briefly explain God’s role?
KS: Although the cogito, mentioned earlier, looks to be the first thing one discovers when doing philosophy in the right way, Descartes makes it clear that God’s existence, and in particular knowledge of God’s existence, is actually the central philosophical bit of his system. So, when everything is properly laid out, it’s really the Archimedean point. In his metaphysics, God grounds the entire system of reality, where God is understood to be an infinite being. But God also grounds the very possibility of knowledge. In being infinite, which, according to Descartes, leads to understanding that God cannot be a deceiver, Descartes lays the ground for his notions of clear and distinction perception. I think that readers will be surprised to discover that Descartes’s notion of God is quite limited, in that he doesn’t cast God as some big guy sitting on a throne in Heaven (though in being a good Catholic, he doesn’t deny that God is those things); instead, he emphasizes characteristics such as being infinitely powerful, infinitely knowledgeable, and so on.