SEARCHING FOR CERTAINTY

SEPARATENESS AND THE SELF


By Paul B. Donovan

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The Montréal Review, May 2024

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‘Separateness and The Self’ (2024) by Pamela S. Pease

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Cogito, ergo sum:  I think, therefore I am. Over and over again.

Descartes was driven to the extremity of his wits, desperate to prove to himself that the external world existed, and that such certainty came with a sense of personal agency within that world. Once again, he fell back on Plato’s allegory of the cave: not for him is that which is what it appears to be!

While his youthful firsthand account is no doubt true as far as it goes, even titillating and gritty in places, a question is left dangling in midair. Why on earth was Descartes driven to an existential crisis in the first place that he needed such obscure reassurance as the ‘cogito’ offered? Is this the plaintive cry of a rather obsessive, hyper-rational young man drowning in self-imposed uncertainty, who in desperation, clings to such a tatty intellectual life-buoy?

The year is 1619, and the twenty-three-year-old Descartes was staying in the old imperial city of Ulm on the Danube, in southern Germany — coincidentally, the birthplace also of Albert Einstein...but that was much later. Alone in his hardscrabble quarters, isolated from the outside world by the onset of a freezing winter storm “having no cares or passions to worry me”, as he says, Descartes was nonetheless pleased to have the precious time to himself.

Doggedly pursing his own intellectual journey, he was experimenting with a method of directing his mind inwards, meditating all day and night with nothing but a stove for heat. While disconcertingly simple, the experiment entailed a deeper, more directed form of introspection — making himself the object of his own subjective scrutiny…with one crucial difference. While he sought to examine the process of his own thinking — what lay behind the seemingly random ‘content’ that thinking throws up — he would take nothing for granted, doubting any ‘false reality’ as may be revealed by the senses…unless it could be demonstrated as certain. Not everyone’s favorite pastime!

Descartes’ original notebook labelled ‘Cogitationes Privatae’ (‘Private Thoughts’) was unaccountably ‘lost’ — fortunately a partial copy has survived, including the full text of his famous ‘dream’ experiments, describing his stream-of-consciousness: jumbled thoughts consisting of reminiscences of past events, some pleasant, others demeaning, regretting his words or actions. Most unforgettable however, are his wildly irrational ‘dreams’ and mood states varying between utter worthlessness and ecstatic omniscience. Scary phantoms sought to inflict punishment for his past sins, followed by a dread of falling accompanied by physical chest pain, and so on.

The notebook entries were variously described by commentators, covering the full range from a dismissive youthful ‘psychoanalytic’ 1 adjustment on the one hand, while on the other hand, as ‘a significant moment in the history of thought2. Since time immemorial, conflict has raged between those ideologues in their ivory towers who would make a fetish of their intellectual ‘father’ as against the cynical realists who furrow their brows — in this case, eagerly pointing to Descartes’ messy life and prickly character not always without fault. The subtext in both cases: A genius clearly, but nonetheless human… who will cast the first stone?

Luckily, contemporary readers have more sense, brushing aside such persnickety questions, enthralled meanwhile by that most startling of Descartes’ experiences. A wonderful epiphany unfolded before him — leaving him giddy with excitement — in which he alone would develop a universal method of making all knowledge readily accessible. What is not clear — included as an afterthought — is the blurry line between which notebook entries were dreams and which occurred during his florid experiences of separateness.

A metaphysical enquiry of such intensity and duration — more likely than not — sets the scene for an encounter with separateness3. Was Descartes flailing about, beset by self-rejection, shame, disgust, and ‘wild imaginings of all kinds’, grasping for the certainty of an illusory ‘I’? We will probably never know, apart from the likelihood that his struggles gave birth to the ambiguous ‘cogito’, at once catchy and austere. Descartes had decided that if a statement was subject to any doubt, then he would discard it, a radical skepticism that became the foundation for the modern scientific method. Not for him, that error should be ‘the mother of truth’!

Only later, did Kierkegaard4 came to regard separateness as ‘the dread’, the spiritual anxiety of despair. The question arises on the one hand, as to whether Descartes fell back on the ‘cogito’ to provide a refuge of mental stability as a means of enduring the grueling experience of separateness? On the other hand, was the ‘cogito’ a breakthrough insight evolving from that very same experience? The only thing of which he could be certain was the awareness of his own thinking. If so, then it is not unreasonable to venture that separateness and the associated ‘cogito’, played a seminal, if controversial, role at the dawn of modern philosophy.

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Rene Descartes' mother died when he was just an infant — sadly, it wasn’t long before his father re-married and moved away, leaving the young child in the care of his elderly but caring grandmother. Against the odds of high childhood mortality, he nevertheless survived, though a frail child with a sickly, neurasthenic constitution…yet fueling an overriding restless determination, beginning with his school studies and lasting throughout his life.

He was born into the the age of Scholasticism, in which any new learning was stifled, if not by the rigid teachings of the church, then by the hallowed, untouchable writings of classical Rome and Greece, particularly the colossus of Aristotle. Descartes, however, was a man for his time — that rare occurrence: an original thinker, no less! In his later ground-breaking ‘Passions of the Soul’ (1649), he explored the spectrum and nature of human emotions, in which he certainly didn’t pull any punches — putting aside the formalism of the ancients, “as if no one had written on these matters before”. The treatise signaled the advent of a new age of Humanism, stressing the significance of the unique individual, prince or pauper alike, while contributing at the same time to the greater good.

The closest that Descartes came to a modern notion of the Self was his conception of the spiritual ‘soul’. As for the mind, it came disembodied, unconnected to matter…such as the Brain! Thus, Mind and Body are treated as two separate entities. A false dualism which nonetheless persists even into modern times and the root cause, it is argued by many observers, of the contemporary split between ‘mental health’ and ‘medical care of the body’. Here lies a case of a modern problem looking for a scapegoat — conveniently removed by several centuries — so that his philosophical writings can be turned to a psychophysiological situation he never intended, nor could foresee.

“This ‘I’— that is, the soul by which I am what I am — is entirely distinct from the body, and…would not fail to be whatever it is, even if the body did not exist.”
— Descartes, “Discourse on the Method and Essays”, Leiden, 1637

Descartes’ works, though remaining a lifelong inspiration even for existentialists such as Sartre5, continue to be hotly debated in the checkered history of ideas. The famous ‘cogito’ for example, with its central premise of ‘thinking’, conflates the notion of Mind with that of the Self, as if they are one and the same. This confusion caught the eye of that master contrarian, none other that the erratic Friedrich Nietzsche6. In keeping with his ‘bad boy’ reputation, Nietzsche was rankled by Descartes’ aphorism — he asked, provocatively: ‘how can the ‘I’ know what thinking is in the first place?’ Thinking about thinking, ad infinitum, in which the subject becomes the predicate, then swaps places, and so on…unthinkable!

This smacked of outright sophistry, and Nietzsche promptly proceeded to pull the ‘cognito’ apart…much as a bratty little boy pulls the wings off a butterfly. Surely, it would be more consistent, though just as meaningless to say, ‘I am, therefore I think’? In the end, any judgement whatsoever — even Descartes’ apparent certainty about ‘thinking’ — must ultimately remain subjective, Nietzsche added not surprisingly, courting his favorite brand of nihilism.

Any discussion of the Self should begin by placing it firmly in context… beginning with the Brain as a predominate bodily organ. Whence comes the collective mental processes of the brain known as the Mind. These mental processes, called ‘thinking’, interact with external events as the individual develops over time, shaping the characteristics of a distinctive Self. Simply put, Brain generates Mind which engages the world, and from which interaction the ‘felt experience’ of the Self emerges. The Self is dependent on the workings of the Mind, which is one reason why Dementia — considered as a Brain Disorder — has such devastating effects on the Mind, and consequently on the Self.

In the everyday world, the Self may choose to focus attention upon a specific object, whether thing or a person, using the full might of its subjectivity, much as one may stare at a stunning Cezanne painting, totally absorbed in the minutiae of the brush strokes.

What happens however when the specific object is not a painting… moreover, not even present externally as a material thing…only imagined as an abstraction? In its place, the absent ‘object’ is none other than its own internal Self — which at the same time is the locus of such subjectivity. In a nutshell, the Self is both subject and object simultaneously…and therein lies a vexing problem. “What comprises the actual Self? How did it come into being in the first place?” While these appear to be straightforward questions, they come loaded with profundity and the stuff of heated discussions.

Descartes’ hard-nosed declaration of the ‘cogito’, ‘I think, therefore I am’, arguably introduces the notion of separateness by splitting mind from body. “I am” however, is a statement with a missing predicate: when completed, it defines the ‘I’ as apart — separate from the world. But Descartes’ ‘I’ is not a Self in the modern sense, but rather a ‘thinking Mind’. When it comes to the nature of selfhood, Cartesian dualism sidesteps the thorny problem of Self as both subject and object by falling back on the amorphous act of ‘thinking’. In other words, ‘thinking’ can be directed from one external object to another, inferring that such choices point to the existence of a directing, choice-making Self… a circuitous argument at best.

Descartes confounded ‘thinking’ with ‘emotions’ as a unitary process, thereby conflating the Mind with the Self. In all fairness to poor Descartes, he was in the midst of an existential-religious crisis at that crucial time in which the ‘cogito’ reinforced his own lagging self-efficacy and sense of agency. It may well be a seminal case of cognitive therapy by any other name, garnished perhaps with a literary device that roles off the tongue. The ‘therapeutic’ aphorism of ‘I think, therefore I am’ promises much, but reveals little about the true nature of the unseen Self, despite the familiar tropes.

William James7, a Harvard professor and one of the pioneers of twentieth century psychology, was intrigued by Descartes’ method of inwardness, adopting it for his own research on consciousness. Another depressive neurasthenic, James nevertheless refused any recourse to the ‘cogito’ aphorism which he also considered to be misleading. Confronted by his encounter with separateness, James was shaken to the core, much like Descartes before him, breaking off several times before embracing the abyss — the nothingness of the Self, stripped of all delusions — emerging in a benign state of peacefulness, lost in wonderment.

If James used Descartes’ method of introspection and experienced separateness, which is well documented and undoubtedly true, then it is more probable than not that Descartes had the same or similar experience, albeit recorded as a ‘dream’. It is likely both experiences, separateness and dreaming, were present at different times during the meditation process, as was the case with James.

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Well then, what actually happens when subjectivity continues to bear down upon the roots of its own Self, seeking something to grasp. It’s as if invoking the mere word, ‘Self’, acknowledges it to be a physical entity — giving it a bodily existence as in ‘myself’, a possessive pronoun… a fallacy called ‘reification’. It seems that there’s a name for everything — merely naming a thing makes it halfway certain, apparently, no longer unknown.

In this case, perceiving the Self in material terms is an everyday reaction: the modern mind, surrounded by cars, planes, and cellphones, is accustomed to think in such tangible ways. Now comes the tricky bit: there is no ‘solid thing’ to be examined, a realization at which the Cartesian division of ‘subject’ and ‘object’ collapses upon itself, plunging the individual into confusion, and possibly panic. Some describe the sensation as ‘an abyss’ or ‘black hole’ — ‘nobody’s home’, as one person quipped. In more serious reactions, the experience can precipitate a delusional rupture, or break with reality.

On the other hand, many individuals have adopted the term ‘save-me experience’ inasmuch as the unnerving sensation of separateness is falsely mistaken as self-rejection — a revelation which enabled them to embrace separateness positively as a life-changing rite of passage, free of rejection. As for self-rejection, it turns out to be a bogeyman, bluster with no substance — I’m reminded of that old therapeutic chestnut: “What others think of me is none of my business”. Whether couched in professional jargon as ‘Depth Analysis’, or ‘Philosophical Therapy’… an encounter with separateness is certainly not kid-stuff!

Lest it be believed that Descartes was of the dour, acerbic stereotype of a philosopher, closeted away in a garret, he fathered a girl-child — Francine — with a maidservant in 1634 while in Amsterdam. His correspondence reveals his deep love for her, and the joy she gave him, such domestic affection extending equally to the mother…though ‘Horrors!’, there is no apparent record of a marriage. It was the greatest sorrow of his life when both mother and child quickly fell victim to a scarlet fever epidemic, with Francine only five years old. Descartes threw himself all the more into his work, chastened but not embittered, offering gracious consolation to his friends for their own losses. For the rest of his life, he lived in the peaceful United Provinces of the free Netherlands settling at first into the small town of Franeker, thinking and writing…thereby avoiding the Thirty Years War convulsing the rest of Europe.

To recap, the seeking individual looking inwards, is confronted with an alarming prospect. That very thing, deeply ingrained, which the person holds to be true above all else — the core foundation of the subjective Self — is found to be unaccountably lacking, leaving she / he groping around forlornly. The notion of the solid Self is a commonplace idea…even among learned scholars like Descartes and James. Where once the Self was considered be as solid as the granite capstone of Mount Rushmore, empowered with a sense of agency, only now to find oneself wallowing in ontological quicksand, is a jarring shock — a gaping wound to the egotism of the Self.

Here lies the true experience of separateness, defined in all its stark unreality. It is understandable why some people, in the confusing aftermath of the experience, continue on their predetermined pathway regardless — a façade of the Self ‘remains granite-solid and I’m in total control’! In clinical terms, the black-and-white solidness of the ‘Cartesian Self’ fosters an overreaching sense of mastery or alternatively, a self-defeating masochism of avoidance and dependency. In both cases, the outcome diminishes the humanism of the person. It may regrettably take the individual many months, even years for consciousness to slowly absorb the truth of this private awakening.

The experience of separateness8 counters the mythology of an omnipotent ‘I’, in which all life situations are perceived in terms of ‘Either I will be master of my own destiny, or a mere slave of fate?’. “Absurdities!”, Camus9 would mutter with distain, chain-smoking his Gauloises, putting to rest the the popular notion of a solid ‘Cartesian Self’, everything the Self is not. This paper speaks to a different Self, not as commonly imagined — in place of a resolute ‘thingness’, lies a fluidity and permeability which is more flexible, thus adaptable, to different life situations. Life ceases to become an ‘either…or’ contest. The riddle of the Self has been compared to that ineffable question of, ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?’ which is to say, ‘looking for the answer when the problem is the question’!

Putting all squabbles aside, there is an empirical literature, enough to fill several library shelves, in which the encounter with separateness — aided by a qualified clinician — is shown to be transformative, though not without a certain irony. Embracing this inward, isolating, sometimes rejecting experience may lead to a sense of connectedness or openness: a prelude to an enriched appreciation of Self and Others. Here lies the patchwork Self again — a loose, flexible collectivity that functions with an increasing sense of agency and sophistication…until such subjectivity is ready to envelope the world from whence it came!

Descartes recorded his experiences in his ‘Meditations’, especially his stirring, sometimes wondrous ‘dreams’ and the pivotal role he attributes to them in the formulation of his philosophies10. To do so, requires a look at the man himself, though this is no simple thing. Descartes has come down to us as so fully imagined a subject — fixed in his allotted niche like a statute in our minds — that it demands an effort of will to conceive of him otherwise, to reimagine him as a multifaceted, flesh-and-blood character. Consider for example, the insouciant side of the budding scholar: a shrewd behind-the-scenes trickster who enjoys playing with his readers intellectually, hence the so-called ‘dreams’. Lastly, and crucially, there’s the give-away of his own personal motto — “He lives well who hides well” — which speaks to this curiously deceptive trait in his personality.

In his ‘Mediations’ for example, he astutely interleaves his original thinking into the various storylines of his dreams — concocted for this very purpose? Largely unknown at this stage of his career, he sought a wider base of readers, realizing that dry-bones philosophy does not have the same gripping appeal as a well-told tale, albeit in the guise of a dream; actually, three consecutive dreams, each with a unique narrative. The medium of ‘dreams’ perhaps gave him the license to invent all manner of apocryphal scenarios which would not be credible or acceptable in everyday life — while at the same time, he remained the stolid, objective philosopher.

For Descartes, the clincher in promoting his ideas and ‘wild’ reveries under cover of ‘dreams’ was also an historical one. To do otherwise, runs the risk of being accused as a sorcerer spinning occult visions — the church was burning heretics at the stake for similar writings at odds with the orthodoxy of Aristotelianism. Galileo, a contemporary of Descartes, was hauled before the Inquisition, saved only by his connections with the Pope! This at a time when ‘philosophy’ as we presently know it — sanitized as ‘metaphysics’ — had not yet firmly emerged from the swirling mists of alchemy and esoterica. Professor Grayling11 goes a step further, documenting the mysterious if not surprising possibility that during those troubled years the illustrious scholar was also an occasional undercover spy, primarily as a means of self-protection. Galileo’s plight was uppermost in his mind.

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Given the circumstances of his cabin isolation in the winter of 1619 and the intensive nature of his meditations, it seems probable that Descartes encountered a bizarre range of emotions consistent with the experience of separateness. If so, then this experience likely played a seminal role in his philosophies, including the ‘cogito’.

It is strangely revealing that he goes on to write a lengthy treatise on the ways in which dreaming and waking states are readily confused (thereby confounding his invented storylines with his real encounters of separateness), such that supposedly one can not always tell one from the other! The reader is left wondering did Descartes really dream those tales or — never lacking in arrogance — did he crafty construct them to suit his purposes? Do the storyline dreams stand as metaphors in place of his actual experiences…as well as providing the means of disseminating his ideas, themselves stemming from those same experiences?

Furthermore, Descartes in his later years, now the esteemed elder statesman of philosophy, cannily attributed all his many contributions as being the result of step-by-step ratiocination, tying up loose ends as he went — significantly, with hardly a single mention of dreams! Arguably, dreams had served their instrumental purpose at that time, as a socially acceptable means of rewriting his fervid, yet insightful experiences of separateness and the groundbreaking ideas that emerged from these experiences. With his intellectual legacy in mind, Descartes was busy culling anything that hinted of uncertainty, knowing that history would have a reckoning: dreams can’t be measured, much less separateness as an altered state of Being. The very foundation of the ‘hard sciences’ was at hand: if in doubt, throw it out! A qualitative study, you say — it’s nothing but a slippery-slide into ‘magical thinking’ — don’t let the door hit you on the way out!

The present article makes a plausible enquiry into the mediating role that separateness played in Descartes’s early corpus of ideas, augmenting the so-called ‘dream’ sequences perhaps…which takes nothing away from the greatness of his achievements…and if anything, only adds to his luster. Besides, there’s always a place for an outsider who swims against the tide, whether him or me, sturgeon or minnow.

After all, isn’t life just a dream?

Descartes died of pneumonia, aged 53, while visiting the winter court of Queen Christina in Sweden in 1650. His tomb, however, lies within the vault beneath the side chapel of Saint-Benoit in the oldest church in Paris, Saint Germain des Pres, as a mark of honor to a native son.

Fittingly, for one so focused on the mind and thinking, his skull resides — separately, of course — in the Musee de l’Homme in Paris.

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Paul B. Donovan is a humanist writer, forensic psychologist in Santa Fe and Denver, and the author most recently, of "EPICURUS IN LOVE: A Novel of Mythos and Desire in Ancient Greece" (2023, The Euphorion Press).    Https://www.epicurusinlove.com

Pamela S. Pease has painted and exhibited her art in Santa Fe and Maine, as well as internationally in France and Australia. Inspired by the shapes of Nature and the geometry of objects, she embraces an artistic style that is both impressionistic and abstract. She recently authored and illustrated a childrens' book, "EL JOFFE: Poodle de Santa Fe" (2024, The Euphorion Press).

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NOTES

1 John R. Cole, ‘The Olympian Dreams and Youthful Rebellion of Rene Descartes’, University of Illinois, 1992.

2 A.C. Grayling, ‘Descartes: The Life and Times of a Genius’, Walker & Company, 2005.

3 For more on Separateness, see ‘Philosophia’, Professor Lasch-Quinn, TMR October 2021.

4 Soren Kierkegaard, ‘Fear and Trembling’, 1843.

5 Gary Cox, “Existentialism and Excess: The Life and Times of Jean-Paul Sartre”, Bloomsbury Press, 2016.

6 Sue Prideaux, “I am Dynamite: A Life of Friedrich Nietzsche”, Faber & Faber, 2018.

7 Robert D. Richardson, “William James in the maelstrom of American Modernism”, Mariner Books, 2007.

8 Ilham Dilman, ‘Love and Human Separateness’, Wiley-Blackwell, 1987

9 Albert Camus, ‘The Stranger’, Penguin Books,1942

10 For more detail on the dreams themselves, see ‘Descartes’s Dreams’, Dr P. N. Lawton, TMR, February 2024.

11 A.C. Grayling, ‘Descartes: The Life and Times of a Genius’, Walker & Company, 2005

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