This entry is the first in a series of entries about major ideas of major philosophers. The more I have learned about philosophy, the more interested I have become. For this reason, I’d like to share some important ideas from various philosophers. I think a blog is a pretty good way to do this because when being asked “What is philosophy about?” I’ve found myself rambling with fits and starts way too often. Hopefully this will be valuable to others as well as myself.
There are many places one could start when trying to explain the history of philosophy, but I have chosen to start with Rene Descartes. Though Descartes is nowhere near the first philosopher, his philosophy marks what many consider to be the beginning of modern western philosophy and seems a good place to start.
Rene Descartes (1596-1650)
Even if you’re not familiar with Descartes, you’ve probably heard a phrase of his repeated hundreds of times without ever really knowing what it means. This phrase is “I think, therefore I am.” I know I had heard this phrase tons of times, but until the last few years I really had no idea what it meant. This entry will help explain what Descartes meant by this and what it was he was really trying to get at.
Descartes lived in a peculiar time in history. The Earth was no longer thought to be flat, the “New World” had been discovered and it seemed that much of what humans thought they knew was slowly being turned on its head. In an atmosphere such as this, Descartes realized that much of what we say we “know,” we actually do not know for sure. Descartes began a process of radical doubt in which he wanted to find what in the world we could be absolutely certain about. Once he found something that could not be doubted, Descartes felt that we could begin to build a foundation upon which we could be certain about things in the world. But first…we must discard anything that is not absolutely certain.
Descartes was mainly concerned with two areas of philosophy; Metaphysics and Epistemology. Metaphysics is concerned with answering the question “What is reality?” while Epistemology is concerned with answering the question “How can we gain knowledge about reality?” (It sounds weird, and bizarrely simple, but that’s the point.)
By beginning the process of doubting everything that you could not be completely certain of, Descartes immediately ran into a big problem. Most of the information we get about the world around us is from our senses. It is our sight, hearing, touch and taste that tell us almost everything we seem to know about the world around us. However, Descartes realized that we cannot be certain of the information our senses give us.
If you’ve ever heard someone call your name when they actually had not, seen a mirage of water on a hot highway, or had a very vivid dream, you can understand why Descartes thinks that we cannot trust the senses. Our senses, at least sometimes, give us bad information. When we put a straw in a glass of water, our sight tells us that once the straw hits the water it shifts its direction. However, we know that this is not the case. We use reason to tell us that our eyes are mistaken and the straw is actually straight even though it looks otherwise. It’s situations like this that forced Descartes to believe that human reason is a much better way to gain knowledge than using our senses (this is known as Rationalism).
So, Descartes was forced to scrap our senses. Since they sometimes deceive us, we cannot be certain of the information they give us about the world. As Descartes went on he thought that there were certain things we could be certain about. Geometry and mathematics seem so basic to the world we should be certain of them; after all 2+2 will always equal 4. However Descartes, being a religious man, had to question even this. Isn’t it possible that God, or an evil demon, is actually deceiving us all the time? What if 2+2 actually equals 5, but every time we do the math God steps in to deceive us? After all, we are only humans, and it is possible than an all powerful being is constantly deceiving us for their own purpose (Matrix style).
To cut to the chase, Descartes got to the point where it seemed as if there really was nothing we could ever be certain of. The world around us is in doubt, the thoughts in our mind and mathematics are in doubt; what else is left? However, there was something left; our thoughts. Even if all of Descartes thoughts are being deceived by God…there is no way to deny that he is having thoughts. If he is having thoughts, then obviously he must exist.
“I think, therefore I am.”
With this assertion, Descartes was able to find the only thing he felt human beings could be completely certain of. We can be completely certain that we are having thoughts, which means we can be completely certain that we exist.
However, Descartes didn’t end there; he would go on to attempt to prove that the physical world does exist as well as God. However, this development was huge in the history of science and philosophy. Descartes believed that although humans live in both the physical world (our bodies, the objects around us), we also live in the mental world (our thoughts). Descartes felt that the mental world was much more important than the physical, and believed that if the physical world went out of existence our minds would continue to exist because they did not exist in the same “substance” or world.
This distinction, known as the mind-body distinction, has had a huge impact on Western civilization by creating a thick dividing line between the non-thinking, physical world and the non-physical, thinking world.
All in all, Descartes gave humanity the idea that we are, above everything else, “thinking things.” We may exist in a physical world, but at the end of the day we are really just minds. This idea, along with Descartes’ method of doubting, would go on to influence philosophy, science and civilization for centuries.
(This entry is a bit long, and perhaps a bit dry, but it helps to know some Descartes to understand other philosophers)