“René Descartes took away the fear of science. Criticism of him is unjustified’

He is one of those philosophers who managed to achieve eternal fame with a striking slogan. In his case: cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am).

René Descartes (1596-1650) is commonly regarded as “the founder of modern philosophy.” According to Bertrand Russell i A History of Western Philosophy (1945). Russell called it “rightfully so.” With his systematic doubt about everything that exists, his search for “clear and discerning” insights and for a “shock-free foundation” for knowledge, Descartes had paved the way for natural science. He found that foundation in him cogito: The experience of thought itself cannot be doubted.

This very achievement also created waves of criticism for the French thinker, which swelled to a tsunami in the later twentieth century. His rationalism would have opened an unholy gulf between individual, community and nature, justified animal hatred (because he suspected that animals were some kind of machines) and alienated the thinking subject from the world – ‘typically Western’. In short, without Descartes there would be no destruction of the earth. Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Sartre and many other philosophers criticized Descartes’ rationalism and scientism. The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio made the criticism salafähig with his bestseller Descartes’ Error (1994).

All completely wrong, says Descartes expert Han van Ruler. He is a professor at Erasmus University Rotterdam and has been working on the rehabilitation of the reprimanded Frenchman for years. The latest feature is Van Ruler’s introduction to a brand new translation of Descartes’ Meditations on the First Philosophyfirst published in Latin in 1641. At the presentation of the book in Amsterdam, he uttered an “Ode to Descartes”.

Why is an ode to Descartes necessary?

“Because he has become the leader of Jut in Western philosophy. Books in the philosophy of consciousness or mind—or in neuroscience—almost always start with a distance from Descartes: what we certainly shouldn’t have is as Descartes did. Especially his dualism, a term Descartes himself never uses.”

In it Meditations the philosopher develops his ideas about matter and spirit, the cogito (and God, because he had to survive in the new science).

In his introduction to the translation, Van Ruler once again emphasizes the radical innovation in Descartes’ philosophy. He writes: “In Descartes, the ‘soul’ is no longer the engine of bodily processes, but merely a personal ‘inner world’, a space for mental experience of a completely different order from the world of the tangible.”

With Descartes, the world becomes an empirical process that can be described scientifically

But in doing so he opened the gap between man and the world that his critics hate so much: the ‘materialistic world view’?

“I think you have to look at it differently. Descartes tried to take consciousness or the human ‘soul’ seriously by taking the concept from science. You can’t reveal it with the tools of science.”

The exact translation of Meditations by CL Vermeulen is actually the fourth part in a series of editions of Descartes’ oeuvre, which the philosophical publisher Boom started in 2008, but which was discontinued due to lack of success. The translation includes for the first time large parts of the objections that Descartes received and answered in his meditations.

What you need to understand, says Van Ruler, is the turbulent intellectual context of the seventeenth century. “Everything was in motion. Descartes agitated against the ‘animated’, Aristotelian worldview of medieval scholasticism. We got no further than that. For Aristotle, reality consists of individual things interacting actively and purposefully. People, animals, chairs, tables, stars. With Descartes, that disappears. With him, the world becomes an empirical process that can be described scientifically. And in addition, you have cogitothe ‘I’ that is aware of something and that must be examined in a different way.”

Descartes didn’t have a good word for consciousness, so he calls it ‘thinking’

You call him misunderstood. But he got a lot of imitation too, didn’t he? The ‘hard problem’ of consciousness is still the subject of much consideration in the philosophy of mind.

“Something very crazy has happened. Neuroscientists attack Descartes when they often make the same claim. Take Damasio. He bases himself on Descartes’ textbook idea: a hard-boiled dualism of body and mind. And then he says: Descartes didn’t understand because emotions are rooted in the body, in our neurological system. Correct. Who said that three centuries earlier? Yes, Descartes in another book, Les passions de l’âme (1649). Damasio tries to refute Descartes, but he simply claims the same thing. And it will take him a book long! See, Descartes didn’t have a good word for consciousness, so he just calls it ‘thinking’ – and we associate that with distant thinking, pondering, brooding. But cogito can also refer to the feeling of pain, being aware of something, about anything.”

Damasio is a neuroscientist, Descartes also received serious criticism from professional philosophers.

“The same is often the case. Gilbert Ryle with his influential book The concept of mind (1949), same story. He believes that Descartes makes a category error with cogito, as someone who believes that there is a separate ‘University of Oxford’ somewhere next to all the buildings of the University of Oxford. No, but that is exactly what Descartes wanted to say. Our understanding of the mind or soul is not a “thing” other than the material; it plays no role in the scientific description of reality, we find it in ourselves as consciousness.”

What is an ‘I’ anyway? Descartes says it himself: it is difficult to put into words, but it is there

But then the ‘interaction problem’ arises. How can consciousness affect material things separate from it?

“Yes, the pineal gland should make that contact possible, according to Descartes. It is always pointed out not to take his ideas seriously. But in fact Descartes denies the interaction problem. The idea that the soul must ‘control’ the body or something, like an engine in a car, that is a category error. We have the science to describe physical processes, that is one. We know ourselves within, our consciousness, it is two. And we know that we have a body that plays all kinds of emotions for us. Done.”

How do you connect the two if one does not lead to the other?

“It is a good question, but according to Descartes it is not a metaphysical problem. Relating mind and body neuroscientists now do every day. If Descartes were alive today, an American historian of philosophy once said he would be in a hospital undergoing an MRI scan. I think so as well. Descartes was the first neuroscientist.”

Descartes concludes from the experience of thinking that there is something that thinks, the self. But he was already criticized for that reasoning. There can be thoughts without a ‘something’ behind them.

“Yes, but what is an ‘I’ anyway? Descartes says it himself: it is difficult to put into words, but it is there. It is the first-person perspective we have on reality, as opposed to the third-person descriptions found in science. As Wittgenstein says in his Tractatus logico-philosophicus: The subject does not belong to the world, but is a limit to the world.”

Science does not have to stand in the way of wonder

According to you, Descartes also deserves to be re-evaluated in another way: as a scientist.

“He was really a great scientist. His physics was wrong, it was quickly overtaken by Newton. But he did very good research in optics, in mathematics. He developed a good understanding of what a natural law really is. But it has almost disappeared from Rijksmuseum Boerhaave! Very strange. It ties in with the ingrained image of Descartes as a metaphysician of God and the soul. Well, that’s the fault of the philosophers, the historians of science can’t help it.”

Should he get a place in that museum again?

“Yes of course. He must be there!”

What is Descartes’ most important lesson?

“Science does not have to stand in the way of wonder, of the world or of the way we experience it subjectively. Take the current interest in gender identity, these are things you can research scientifically while still respecting everyone. Descartes wanted to allay the fear of science. It is still very relevant.”

Rene Descartes: Meditations on the First Philosophy Translated by CL Vemeulen. Introduced and commented by Erik-Jan Bos, Han van Ruler and CL Vermeulen. Boom Great Classics, 335 p.

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