What Am I? A look at Descartes – Strawson

For many years, philosophers have been attempting to solve one of the most fundamental questions we can ask about ourselves. That is, ‘what am I’? From this, other questions arise such as ‘what is the nature of the self?’ and ‘is the self distinct from the body?’. In this brief essay, I examine the French mathematician and philosopher, Rene Descartes and his arguments for what he thinks is the self and its identity. Later, I discuss a critique of Descartes proposed dualism put forward by the English philosopher, Peter Strawson, as he examines some problems of the dualist position.

Descartes’s Dualism

In Descartes’s second meditation of the nature of the human mind, he argues for the existence of a soul as a separate substance from the body. In doing so, he assumes that the mind is distinct from the body through thought alone.  Descartes’s reasons for believing this is based on the proposition that the body and senses are things which can be doubted unlike the soul which he knows exists as long as he thinks.

Descartes mentions ‘nutrition’, ‘movement’ and ‘sense perception’ as properties that he doesn’t have if he has no body. The property of thinking, by contrast, is one that he cannot suppose he lacks – not even on the hypothesis of a malicious demon. He is thus led to believe that which survives the doubt – a thinking thing.  Descartes’ argument can be written as follows:

P1 If I convince myself of something, then I certainly existed

P2 There is a deceiver who is deliberately and constantly deceiving me

P3 If he is deceiving me, and I think that I am something, then I undoubtedly exist

C Therefore, so long as I think, I exist.

“What then am I? A thing that thinks. What is that? A thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, is willing, is unwilling, and also imagines and has sensory perceptions.”

From the above excerpt, Descartes makes the distinction between the extended body and the thinking self. These are the properties of the soul, of course all mental ascriptions. It should be noted that he does accept these attributes as not separated from his self; these merely affirms his existence since he is often engaged in these activities, e.g. doubting, understanding etc. He knows he exists but does not know the ‘I’ he is aware of. But imagination is partially responsible for all that is known in the mind. In order for him to know what he is, his imagination would have to be ignored. On the one hand, it will allow him to have knowledge of himself without using his imagination. On the other hand, imagination involves corporeal things, and is not an appropriate source of knowledge, because bodily things can be doubted as he had already established and come to believe. Nevertheless, the point is that even though he can doubt what he imagines he cannot doubt that it is he who imagines. Imagination is based on sense perception. He likens sense perception to the case of imagination.  Something which is sensed can be doubted, but a sensory experience belonging to him cannot be doubted. What he is saying on the one hand is that there is a distinction between having a sensory perception and on the other hand, seeing the light, for instance. In its restricted sense, the experience of having a sensory perception is purely mental and the seeing is somewhat physical. From this, according to Descartes, you can doubt whether there is really a book and whether you have eyes, but you cannot doubt that you are having an experience in which it seems to you as if there is a book in front of your eyes. This is where he draws the line between the mental and the physical, from which emerges his mind-body dualism.

P.F. Strawson Responds to Descartes’s Dualism

In his ‘Self, Mind and Body’ essay, Peter Strawson, an English philosopher, argues against Descartes’s distinction between mind and body, rather favoring a unitary view of human beings – that the mind and body are not made up of two different substances but as one.

Strawson expounds the difficulty for the dualist first with the predication difficulty. In this argument, he tentatively suggests that the Cartesian dualist is committed to thinking that there is a philosophically more revealing way of talking about people than our everyday way. He suggests that if a human being was really two things of the same then when a predicate is ascribed to a human being, might be best expressed with two subject-predicate sentences – one of them having a soul as subject, the other  having a body as subject. Essentially, Strawson thinks, the Cartesian dualist ought to be able to show that they can reduce statements about persons into statements about souls and statements about bodies. However, this is not his main argument against the Cartesian dualist.

Strawson’s main argument can be called the identity and numerability argument. For the notion of an immaterial Cartesian mind or soul to make sense it must be possible for specify criteria of singularity and identity for souls. That is to say, ‘we must know the difference between one such item and two’ and ‘we must know how to identify the same item at different times’. His underlying claim is that no one really understands the concept of an X (a person, a soul, an orange or whatever) unless they can say what it is for something to be an individual X (an individual person, an individual soul, an individual orange). If so much can be said about X then there must be something to be said about what makes one X different from all the other Xs. From this, Strawson holds that the Cartesian cannot give a just account of how things they call souls are identified, unless they subject themselves to the concept of an individual human being.

Strawson believes that the Cartesian suffers delusion, for which a style of thinking, characteristic of Descartes’s meditations, is partly responsible. Strawson’s  arguments have shown that we cannot recover our ordinary conception of a human being from a Cartesian conception of the soul.


About Ferlin

Secular Humanist, Astrophotographer, IT Professional, Final-Year Undergrad Philosophy Student at the University of London.
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