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Philosophy is a game with objectives and no rules.
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Theology is a game whose object is to bring rules into the subjective.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Radical Separation of the Mind from the World

By defining his essential self as mind, and as mind only, Descartes made a radical and fateful separation of the mind from the body (and from the physical world in general) a cornerstone of his entire philosophy. The mind, according to him, is complete in itself, it has no need for anything physical to be what it is. It knows itself directly and with absolute certainty, while knowledge of the external world is at least theoretically doubtful. The self as mind exists as a distinct substance, as “thinking matter,” and it enjoys a supreme independence from the world of “extended matter” that is subject to the laws of physics.
There are two cultural legacies of lasting importance that Descartes’ radical separation of the mind from the physical world has left—two philosophical conceptions of reality that found expression in how Europeans related to their environment, and how they perceived their over-all existence in the world. Interestingly, these two conceptions are ultimately not compatible with each other; they point, in fact, to an important contradiction in Descartes’ philosophical system. Nevertheless, they both grow out of the basic analyses of Descartes’ Meditations, and they both left their mark on the general culture of the West.
The one legacy fastens on the absolute sovereignty of the mind vis-à-vis everything that is not mind. While the external world, including the thinker's body, is subject to the laws of physics and other external contingencies, the mind is not. I, being pure mind, enjoy a supreme degree of independence from my body and everything physical. I may inhabit a body, and thus be a citizen of two worlds, as it were, the physical world and the world of the mind. But the body is external and secondary for my essential existence. I am located in it like a pilot in a complex machine. As its pilot I am not identical with the machine, but I have a good deal of control over it. From there my control extends over parts of the rest of the external world as well. The physical world and the body, according to this Cartesian conception, are mere matter--mere raw material at the disposal of the mind. They are the other of the mind--alien substances without inherent value. The mind can do with them as it pleases.
The radical separation of mind and body--and of the mental and the physical in general--is known as "Cartesian Dualism." And by attributing to the mind something like sovereignty over the external physical world, it has prepared the way for a distinctly modern conception and experience of reality, a conception which replaced older ways of seeing the world in drastic ways. In her seminal work The Death of Nature Carolyn Merchant has documented several ways in which people switched from thinking about the world and the things in it in terms of living beings to thinking about them in terms of inanimate objects that behave and can be manipulated according to the laws of mechanics. Until the emergence of the mechanistic world view, many people instinctively conceived of the earth as a mother, for example, or at least as a living and personal being. Mining in the Middle Ages, for example, was still done with a feeling that ores were dug from the bowels of a living creature, and that such violations had to be atoned for with special prayers and rituals.
The modern mechanistic view of the world did away with such feelings. People did not only find it easier to approach such things as trees and rocks as mere objects, but they extended such insensitivity to animals and human beings as well. Animals have no souls, according to Descartes, and so it gradually became all right to use them as so much dead matter, or to subject them routinely to painful scientific experiments. And thinking of human beings as mechanisms made it not only easier for absolute monarchs and their generals to think of their soldiers as mere fighting machines (it was at this time that mechanical drill and geometric marching formations were introduced into armies), but also facilitated the massive introduction of slaves into overseas territories as mere tools of production. A self that is as separated from the external world as that of Descartes can approach living beings and deal with them much more ruthlessly than someone who approaches them on the basis of the sympathy that one would have toward fellow-creatures.
Cartesian Dualism also prepared the way for modern scientists to think about the world in abstractions. The worldview of Newtonian physics, for example, was greatly facilitated by Descartes' philosophical system. Before Descartes and Newton such plainly observable phenomena as the falling of an apple from a tree, the rhythm of the tides in the oceans, or the movements of the planets around the sun were separate and distinct events. Through Newton's abstract conceptualization, however, apples, oceans, and heavenly bodies all became essentially the same: masses attracted by masses that move according to the same laws of gravitation. The colorful variety of sensuous objects disappeared, as it were, from the view of the learned. What all matter has in common, and the mathematically expressed laws that govern its motions, became the dominant focus of modern observers of nature. The shift away from variety and sensuous detail to abstract entities and structures did much to increase human control over the natural world, but it also alienated the observer from the things observed. It replaced the closeness of touching, smelling, or seeing with the distance of mathematical calculation. And it facilitated the conquest of reality by the mind in the way it was intuited by Descartes’ radical separation of the mind from the world.
Cartesian Dualism found many other expressions in the culture of his age as well. The French garden architecture of the 17th and 18th centuries is a striking demonstration of the spirit of Cartesian thinking. This type of landscaping, which was widely copied throughout Europe, is characterized by the demonstrative superimposition of geometric shapes and figures on nature. The natural terrain of a garden is not allowed to remain as it is found, but is carefully leveled, and then sectioned into regular parts until it resembles a mathematician's blueprint. Plants are placed in such a way that they form straight lines, circles, ellipses, or artfully designed mazes. Individual trees and bushes are clipped until they represent perfect spheres, cones, squares, or other geometrical figures. It was the most deep-seated passion of the age to press nature into designs that are not natural. Pure geometry is a human creation, a creation of the abstract mind. To superimpose geometry on what otherwise grows in irregular forms was the lustful demonstration of the detached sovereign mind's power over the external world.
The Cartesian separation of the mind from all physical matter facilitated not only a willful attitude of the human mind toward nature, but also toward the monuments and creations of history. That is made explicit in the way Descartes looks at older European towns, towns that are irregular in their layouts because of the slow and gradual accumulation of houses and streets in the course of centuries. As befits the inventor of the Cartesian Coordinates, Descartes preferred a regular geometrical grid to the crooked designs of medieval communities. In his Discourse on Method he writes:
Thus it is observable that the buildings which a single architect has planned and executed, are generally more elegant and commodious than those which several have attempted to improve, by making old walls serve for purposes for which they have not originally been built. Thus also, those ancient cities which, from being at first only villages, have become, in the course of time, large towns, are usually but ill laid out compared with the regularly constructed towns which a professional architect has freely planned on an open plain; so that although the several buildings of the former may often equal or surpass in beauty those of the latter, yet when one observes their indiscriminate juxtaposition, there a large one and here a small, and the consequent crookedness and irregularity of the streets, one is disposed to allege that chance rather than any human will guided by reason must have led to such an arrangement.
It is obvious from the representative architecture of the next hundred fifty years or so (from the castle and park of Versailles in particular), that builders that came out of the age of Descartes preferred to do away with all remnants of the past, and to start building everything from scratch. Beauty and comfort were primarily seen in the creations of the human mind, in the "human will guided by reason," while nature and the remnants of history were at best available raw material, and at worst an annoyance or a menace. The symmetries and regularities of geometric architecture were the bastions of order and stability, erected against the threats of uncertainty and anarchy, just as the philosophical reconstruction of reality on the basis of Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” was the philosopher’s bulwark against the unsettling skepticism and uncertainties which he had set out to conquer. Separating the self as pure mind from the contingencies of uncontrolled nature, and installing it as the sovereign ruler over everything external, was the basic vision that shaped people’s existence in the age of Descartes.
Lording over nature has its price, however: It implies the alienation of the ruler from the ruled. The Cartesian who overpowers nature has to mortify part of himself or herself—feelings, passions, the body, and everything else that is part of the physical world. There is a certain coldness in geometrical forms and the life of the Cartesian mind, and therefore a subliminal longing for the nature that has become lost. However much satisfaction people gain by subjugating nature, there is something in them that does not want to dominate, but rather to become one with her. This underlying ambivalence toward nature, as will be seen, plays an important role in “Last Year at Marienbad.” It provides the inner parameters within which the story of the film unfolds.
The other important legacy that originates with Descartes’ radical separation of the mind from everything physical is the inherently solipsistic individualism that time and again emerged in the course of modern European philosophy. Solipsism is the extremist philosophical theory that I am the only being that exists. This theory is invariably perceived as either comical or crazy by anyone who discusses it, and most philosophers have assumed that there are convincing reasons for dismissing it without much ado. The way Descartes sets up and explains his procedure of radical doubt, however, makes it impossible to avoid the conclusion that the doubting self may indeed be the only being that exists. In spite of all efforts to refute it, Cartesianism remains haunted by the ghost of Solipsism. For if it is possible to doubt the existence of the external world, it is equally possible to doubt the existence of other human beings. If rivers and mountains or the desk at which I write may be figments of my imagination, then obviously the people that I perceive in this world may be imaginary as well. What my senses provide me with may be representations of beings that exist outside of me, but they may just as well be impressions that reside in my mind alone. The decisive point of Cartesian doubt is the contention that I cannot go outside of myself, as it were, to check whether what I see is real or not. I am always and irremediably inside my mind, and that always keeps alive the theoretical possibility of the truth of Solipsism.
In his Meditations Descartes had laid out his program of radical doubt, followed it through, and then found that there was something that he could not possibly doubt: his own doubting, and thus the existence of his own thinking self. From there he had proceeded to argue that the existence of the external world can be proven as well. But while Descartes may have convinced himself of the reality of what the senses convey, he did not convince many other philosophers that his reasoning to that effect was sound. His argument in support of the reality of the external world does not amount to more, indeed, than his assertion that God is good, and that therefore God would not permit anyone to be deceived to the extent that the "evil genie" might deceive people. Descartes has therefore gone down in history as a philosopher whose doubts were far more convincing and intriguing than his arguments that were to lay these doubts to rest. To this day Descartes’ Dream Argument from the beginning of the Meditations is seen as far more powerful and interesting than his attempted restitution of common sense. Once he had introduced his radical doubt, in other words, Descartes never quite found his way back to a robust perception of the outer world as real. Within the orbit of Cartesian thinking the unreality of what I perceive outside me is still a theoretical possibility, and thus the possible truth of Solipsism a haunting thought.
As mentioned earlier, Descartes was a philosopher who preferred to think in solitude. And by making his “I think, therefore I am” the inner center of his worldview, he created a model of self-reflection that influenced the entirety of modern European philosophy profoundly. Much of what later thinkers belabored revolves around the radical separation of the self from everything external, and the sometimes desperate attempts to reconnect the self with the rest of the world and other human beings. The dialectic of the self’s radical separation from the external world and its inevitable re-connection to it characterizes much of modern European thought. It is a dialectic that is also at the heart of “Last Year at Marienbad.” It is one possible summary of the film to say that it is the Cartesian mind’s attempt to find an exit from the labyrinth of its solipsistic solitude.

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