I have been reading what must now be a classic feminist philosophy text, Susan Bordo’s The Flight to Objectivity. In it she constructs a feminist argument about Descartes’ Meditations, a seminal work that she claims many (male) philosophers have not taken seriously enough. Descartes is, of course, considered the founder of our own age, of modernity. To understand the world I live in, I have to understand Descartes. For Bordo, The Meditations reveal a masculine cultural state of extreme anxiety, which Descartes solved, at least for himself, by repudiating the feminine (body) and masculinizing thought.
When Descartes wrote “I think therefore I am”, or the Latin that’s thus translated, he didn’t mean what we think. He wasn’t talking about an activity of the brain, logical argumentation, or the power of causal reasoning. But If I had read only his famous Discourse on the Method, I would believe that “I think, therefore I am” did indeed mean ‘I reason and therefore I am’. He doesn’t elaborate on the verb “think” in his summation of The Meditations contained in The Discourse, he elevates reason above imagination and feeling, and he makes clear that he dedicated his life to learning to use reason correctly to arrive at truths. In both his treatises he compares nature and the human body to machines, with multiple references. It’s a barren view of physical reality. The universe is arid, even dead, as a clock is dead. It would appear he first created a mechanical universe, and then mechanical bodies to inhabit it.
But here’s what he said, in longer form, in the second of his Meditations:
“I am not more than a thing which thinks, that is to say a mind or a soul, or an understanding or a reason”, followed a page later by “What is a thing which thinks? It is a thing which doubts, understands, conceives, affirms, denies, will, refuses, which also imagines and feels.”
Notice that for him, the words “mind” and “soul” denote the same thing. In the third meditation he expands even more:
“I am a thing that thinks, that is to say, that doubts, affirms, denies, that knows a few things, that is ignorant of many, that loves, that hates, that wills, that desires, that also imagines and perceives.”
As Bordo notes, it was consciousness that he (re)discovered, an active incorporeal consciousness. Experiencing one’s own consciousness, any activity within it, confirms one’s own existence. And he rightly concludes that as a result the easiest thing for a human to know is him/herself. Everything outside the consciousness might be false, an illusion created by an “evil genius”, but we can be assured we exist when we doubt, or affirm, or deny or engage in any of the activities of consciousness.
Descartes (born in 1596) was thinking at a time when everything that people thought they knew had indeed been shown to be false. The period from 1400 to 1600 CE was probably the most tumultuous period in western history since the fall of Rome because of the destruction, on multiple fronts, of the monocular perspective that allowed a belief in absolutes.
During those two hundred years:
- the population of Europe was halved by famine and bubonic plague
- Luther, a monk frightened of death and even more frightened of his fear of death, ripped apart the “one true church”, thus initating a wholesale slaughter that lasted for 30 years. He also conceived a whole new God, one who predestined every event in his creation for as long as that creation existed. Humans were his chess pieces, each without the free will to determine his own life course, each without the responsibility for his crimes, or for his salvation. This God, it has been argued, was a cruel and indifferent genius.
- the writings of ancient Greeks and Romans were rediscovered, hidden in Muslim libraries, and humanism, based on neoPlatonism, emerged as a new form of Christianity.
- the printing press was invented, allowing lay people (not just monks) to read
- Marco Polo travelled to China and back and the west began to find out about ancient Chinese knowledge and beliefs.
- Muslims crowded the European borders, attempting to take Vienna to the east, and occupying southern Spain
- Christopher Columbus encountered North and South America, and the alien cultures that flourished on those continents
- Copernicus discovered the earth was not the centre of the universe. And Galileo’s telescope revealed that not all moons revolved around the earth.
In other words, all the long-held beliefs of Catholic Europe and England were challenged, were shown to be culture-specific, and even downright wrong. Ever since the conquests of European tribes by the Christian Romans, Europe and Britain had been unified by the Roman Catholic faith, and by the Latin language, and by the dense network of monastaries and churches, all of which provided a unifying set of beliefs and way of life. Life for humans all across Europe and Britain was punctuated by a whole host of holy days, which included various festivals and celebrations throughout the year.
Of particular note in the context of a woman’s study of history and of philosophy, Roman Catholicism had allowed a hallowed place for women. God might have been the “father” but the church was the “mother”. Nunneries were prolific, and mysticism was more common among religious women than men. Catholics could worship the feminine in God through Mary, the mother of God, and also through St. Anne, the mother of Mary. There were a host of female saints who could be appealed to for a variety of sufferings.
The Roman Catholic religion gave people the ‘right’ to function as nothing more than children, earning salvation through obedience and duty to father God and mother Church. The reformation, led by Luther and Calvin, was devastating to this familial concept of human life and particularly devastating to women.
Bordo argues that this is the context of “Cartesian anxiety”, an anxiety shared by the entire culture. This is the anxiety that provokes Descartes into asking about his own existence, and the existence of everything under the sun. How can I know anything exists, is his first question as a philosopher.
One can imagine the vertigo that might have resulted. People had envisioned the universe as a series of nested eggs: a circling sun, within that the circling stars and planets, then the moon, with earth perhaps as the yolk, with a little church embedded in that yoke, with tiny humans within that church, the beings for whom the entire egg had been created. And above all this, god brooding and clucking. What a home! Then people discovered it was all a mental concept, one of many wildly differing human mental concepts, and in many ways proven to be an illusion.
So where did Descartes go, once he had established the certainty of his own existence? He brought reality indoors, as it were, through the mechanism of “ideas”. All our ideas are reflections of outer reality. Rather than questioning the truth of outer reality, he questioned the truth of the ideas within his own consciousness. In order to answer in the affirmative, he needed God and he needed the concept that it is our will that affirms the truth of our ideas. How do we know that our will is correct in affirming the truth of any idea? His answer was that if the idea was irresistible to the will, then it must be true. But in order for that proposition to be true, he had to conceptualize a God who created people with a will that would not find the false irresistible.
Some philosophers have argued that this is a circular argument. How do we know x is true? Because our will finds it irresistible. Why does our will find it irresistible? Because it’s true. In any case, Descartes was following in the footsteps of Luther and Calvin, who had conceived of “inner conviction” as the measure of truth. This inner conviction, they said, was put in our heart by God.
These concepts, the “irresistible idea” and the “inner conviction”, both resting on God, are extremely dangerous concepts. This was a shift away from outer authority as evidence of Truth. Outer authority could mean the local priest, a church council or synod, or the Pope, all of whom spoke for God as they understood God. They were human “fathers” who stood in for the great, unknowable God the Father.
The developments of the reformation and the renaissance absconded with the father, in a manner of speaking. His representatives stopped being absolutely believable. For some he stopped existing at all in the form of priest or learned religious scholar. All that remained was a distant unknown.
So I think with Bordo that it was a time in which an entire culture was faced with the need to grow up, to separate from a familial unity. Bordo argues that men were overwhelmed with separation anxiety from the mother, and as a psychological defence, repudiated her. But it seems to me that, rather than directly repudiating the feminine, or the maternal, as Bordo argues, the culture reacted most forcibly to the now absent father. The symbolic father, realized in the church fathers, and the pope, were now internalized or introjected as “inner conviction”. Introjection occurs when a person internalizes the ideas or voices of other people, particularly those in authority. Introjections involve attitudes, behaviors, emotions, and perceptions that are neither digested nor analyzed; they are simply adopted as a part of one’s personality as concepts that one considers should be believed or behaviors that one thinks ought to be followed. Introjection can be a defense mechanism adopted by a child whose parent becomes unavailable. The introjected parent becomes a substitute for the lost one. Because the ideas are not digested, a person in the grip of an internalized parent cannot be reasoned with. A destructive internalized concept is psychopathological – it drives us to do things for pathological reasons that we don’t understand ourselves, and that we can’t control or modify.
Descartes, and his contemporaries, went from one absolute to another, and I would suggest “inner conviction” is far more capricious and unreliable than an outer authority. And the only argument against someone’s inner conviction is demonization. It becomes a trial of accusations of being led by the devil rather than by god. And that’s exactly what did happen – which led to mass slaughter.
Bordo’s main point is that Cartesian dualism – the absolute split between mind (consciousness) and body – was a masculinization process. Descartes did declare the mind to be clear and distinct and completely incorporeal and therefore separable from the limited, corporeal body. He was developing an argument, he says in The Discourse, to prove that the mind could live on after the body was dead.
But he does conclude The Meditations with a renewed belief in nature: “there is no doubt that in all things which nature teaches me there is some truth contained,” and a few lines later “Nature also teaches me by these sensations of pain, hunger, thirst, etc., that I am not only lodged in my body as a pilot in a vessel, but that I am very closely united to it, and so to speak so intermingled with it that I seem to compose with it one whole.” This doesn’t seem to me to be a total repudiation of the body, or of nature.
Bordo, in her analysis, abandons The Meditations after the fourth; I would like to have seen her comment on the last two Meditations. And also on what male philosophers did with this Cartesian conception — how they elaborated on it, developed it, and used it to the advantage of men. Her book could have been three times as thick as it is.
I am also interested in Descartes views on imagination and feeling. He says that because it takes more effort to imagine than to conceive, the imagination is not essential to his nature and that he (a being that thinks) would remain the same without imagination. The same for feeling. So, finally, he claims that the “I”, the conscious being is separable from, and complete without body, imagination or feeling. Clearly he privileges the intellect and the will as essential to the self.
And yet, he says in the Discourse that he intends to spend the rest of his life searching for medical truths that will help people live healthy and long lives. These seem, on the surface, to be contradictory attitudes. With what medicine do you heal a clock?
My belief (at this point in my reading) is that the protestant reformation led the way in destroying the feminine aspect of the divine, and thus in destroying a place for women in public. The divine became again, in popular conception, a distant, remote, inscrutable and indifferent father/creator. Those who introjected this distant father figure might well have felt “he” repudiated the feminine and therefore were acting on his orders as they began a violent campaign against women, and against everything they saw as feminine.
It was, I think, religion rather than philosophy that was most to blame. Bordo writes that the century from 1550 to 1650 was a horrifically misogynist time, with most of the hatred centred on woman as mother. Thousands of old women were roasted for witchcraft. What caused it? Fear, of course. But was it fear of the power of woman, or fear of what “He”, the introjected Father, might think?