Constructing The Cartesian Theater

René Descartes (1596-1650) is called the father of modern philosophy and, as often happens to fathers when their children seek independence, is now blamed for most of the ills of modernity. We invoke Descartes's name often, but with the caveat that what matters most about Descartes's thought is those aspects that his followers found reason to adopt and develop.

Descartes is well known for his method of doubt: to question everything he had been taught and then attempt to reconstruct his world-view on the basis of any ideas found to be indubitable. Chief among these indubitables was the fact of his own thinking. Descartes's method was the beginnings of modern foundationalist epistemology. We focus here, instead, on Descartes's image of human nature. Descartes described himself as a thinking thing, distinct from and somehow "within" his body. Thinking is a process of focusing the mind's eye; but focusing on what? On ideas in his mind. Thus there arose the image of the "Cartesian theater": the real "I" is an observer "in" the mind, looking at mental representations of what is outside. Throughout his epistemological writings Descartes focused on the solitary knower: "I am here quite alone"; "I stayed all day shut up in a stove-heated room where I was completely free to converse with myself about my own thoughts."5 Ï Stephen Toulmin and others provide a plausible account of why Descartes's quest for absolutely certain foundations seemed so important in his historical location: social and political life could no longer be based on the authorities of the past because these authorities' divergent claims had led Europe into the chaos of the Thirty Years War, The desire to find rational agreement beyond the bounds of religious and political parties led to a quest for knowledge that was general and timeless rather than local and timely - in other words, to the quest for universal theory.6

If we look not to politics but to science and the Catholic spiritual tradition we gain insight into the appeal of the image of the "Cartesian ego, sitting inside the skull and wondering whether it can make reliable contact with the world 'outside' the 'mind.' "7 Descartes was undoubtedly familiar with

4 Lash, Theology on the Way to Emmaus, p. 45.

René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, first meditation; Discourse on Method, ^ part 2.

Stephen Toulmin, Cosmopolis: the Hidden Agenda of Modernity (University of Chicago Press,

1990); cf. Jeffrey Stout, The Flight from Authority (University of Notre Dame Press, 1981).

Lash's characterization, Easter in Ordinary, p. 64.

Augustine's musings on "the roomy chambers" of his memory where images and ideas are stored, and with Augustine's description of thinking as among "the things I do within, in that vast chamber."8 But the physics and optics of Descartes's day made contact with anything outside the "chamber" seem problematic. The new "corpuscular" physics made it appear that all knowledge of the "outside world" needed to be transmitted by particles striking sensory surfaces, from which coded information could be sent to the brain and thence to the mind.9 This picture set Descartes up for a pernicious sort of skepticism: how to know that this transmission process was reliable, or, more generally, how to know that any ideas in the theater accurately represented the outside world - if, indeed, there were an outside world. Wallace Matson describes this approach to philosophy as "inside-out," in contrast to outside-in philosophies, which begin with an account of the world and at the end explain the human mind and its knowledge in the terms of that account.10

Many of the prominent features of modern thought can be explained as consequences of this inside-out approach to philosophy. It explains the skepticism regarding sensory knowledge that preoccupied early modern philosophers. Descartes solved this problem by arguing that a good God would not allow him to be entirely deceived by his senses. It also explains the persistence of the "problem of other minds" - how do I know that there is an "I" inside other human bodies, that they are not mere robots? And if the very existence of other consciousnesses has been one of the intractable problems of modern philosophy, it is easy to see why Descartes and his followers would want an account of knowledge relying only on what the solitary individual can know for him- or herself. Thus, modernity has been a period preoccupied by anxiety about knowledge: how can I ever know that any of the contents of my mind actually represent the world outside? This thoroughgoing skepticism in all realms of knowledge is the ill that foundationalism in all its forms was intended to cure. Philosophy's job became, in the modern era, not the systematizing of all knowledge -about the natural world, human life and well-being, God - but rather the discipline whose job it was to assure that any sort of knowledge was possible by providing the foundations of science and ethics, as well as the prolegomena to theology.

The modern concern with language and with the problem of whether and how language refers to reality can be seen as another consequence

8 Augustine, Confessions, book 10, chaps. 8-11.

y Theo C. Meyering, Historical Roots of Cognitive Science (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1989).

10 Wallace I. Matson, A New History of Philosophy, 2 vols. (San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987), 11, pp. 275-82.

of the image of the Cartesian theater. Richard Rorty describes Descartes's predicament as living behind the "veil of ideas."11 But, if ideas represent reality, and words represent ideas, the question naturally arises whether words represent reality. Thus, when philosophers' attention shifts in the twentieth century from psychology to language (from ideas to words) the problem of the veil of ideas becomes the problem of the veil of language. Is there a real world to which our language refers (or to which our conceptual scheme corresponds) and is language transparent or opaque? Thus, modern philosophy of language has been preoccupied with questions of reference and representation: words get their meaning from the things in the world to which they refer, but how does reference happen? Postmodern thinkers of the sort represented here are content with the question: "Which description of reality is best?" But modern thinkers characteristically ask, "Look, we have descriptions; now, is there anything to which they correspond?" Their answers have produced a variety of realisms and anti-realisms. For example, in light of Immanuel Kant's (1724-1804) absolute distinction between things-as-they-appear (phenomena) and things-as-they-are-in-themselves (noumena), the frustration of not even being able to say that noumenal reality must resemble phenomena drove some to idealism (the view that all reality is mental). Twentieth-century positivist philosophers of science proposed an instrumentalist (as opposed to realist) view of scientific theories to avoid the question of how those theories represent the reality they (seemed to) postulate. Current versions of scientific realism argue that the practical success of science shows that its theoretical terms (such as "electron") do in fact refer to objects in the real world and that well-established theories provide approximate descriptions of the way things are.

The most common form of anti-realism today (still indebted to Kant) is what Nicholas Wolterstorff calls "interpretation-universalism": experience is always-already conceptualized. To peel away this interpretation from experience would not be to get at the pure given but to lose the only given we have - the interpreted given. "Prisoners, all of us, within the house of interpretation." But the supposition of a ready-made, structured world waiting to be interpreted may not even be intelligible - any attempt to think such a world is already an interpretation of it. So, better to conclude that things exist and are the way they are only relative to conceptual schemes.12

11 Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton University Press, 1979).

Nicholas Wolterstorff, "Between the Pincers of Increased Diversity and Supposed Irrationality," in William ]. Wainwright, ed., God, Philosophy and Academic Culture: A Discussion Between Scholars in theAAR and theAPA (npp: The American Academy of Religion, 1996), p. 18.

It is important to see that both realisms and anti-realisms are attempting to answer the same knowledge question, namely: "Can we know whether our concepts correspond with reality?" In the case of anti-realism (here "interpretation-universalism"), the answer is "it is interpretation all the way down."

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