Rene Descartes (1596-1650) — famous French Philosopher — shut himself up in an oven for 3 days to seek true knowledge. He believed that by removing himself from any sensory distractions he would arrive at certainty. Using skeptical doubt, he reduced each belief to a previous belief, and then to another belief and so on, until he came to the conclusion that the only thing that was certain was the awareness of his thought: cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I exist. By solitary thinking, Descartes believed that he could know his own nature as a conscious being better than that of any external objects. He thought thinking was too complex to be reduced to mere matter, and thus he conceived of the mind as a spiritual entity that is “entirely distinct from the body, and would not fail to be what it is even if the body did not exist”. This theory of mind has become known as the ‘ghost in the machine’.
For Descartes mind equates with soul and for classical Western Philosophy the words mind, soul and consciousness are interchangeable. I suspect confusion arose when the English language borrowed the Greek word Psyche as a root denoting anything mental (e.g. psych-ology, psych-iatric etc.). However, Psyche (after the name of a goddess) means soul, life and breath.
There are various interpretations to cogito ergo sum but primacy is given to the mind as the site of a privileged subjectivity. Many who came after Descartes thought that, simply by thinking, they could know the essential nature of beings and things. Jean Paul Sartre — the author of existentialism — followed Descartes by insisting that free subjectivity, as consciousness, was the ontological essence of being human. But modern and postmodern philosophers, such as Wittgenstein, Foucault and Derrida, reject notions of subjectivity, arguing that it is a construction of culture, politics and language. For them, there is no privileged subjectivity or locus of meaning — all knowledge is relativistic and the self and/or mind is a semiotic fiction, not a metaphysical reality. The latter, I think, rightly view the mind as an internalized mirror of the external world — but in denying subjectivity and the self, might they not be throwing the baby out with the bathwater?
Indeed, subjectivity still presents the ultimate obstacle in cognitive science, which aims to reduce the mental to the physical. Modern philosophers, e.g. Thomas Nagel, argue that the ‘what it is like’ description for subjective states of experience — e.g. joy, pain, hunger, pleasure, etc. — cannot be captured by physicalist accounts of the world.
The notion of subjectivity is being used, particularly in multicultural contexts, to highlight the importance of the personal perspective — the idea that everyone sees the world from his/her individual vantage point, determined in part by nature, by culture and by experience. So whilst postmodernity maintains there are no essences, no absolute truths, and no subjectivity that is privileged, there is a widespread adherence to the belief in subjective relativistic perspectives.
But it is a truth that human beings exist. We learn to think within the strictures of our culture and language. But without existence first, there is no thought. We are blessed with a brain which results in a consciousness able to differentiate itself from others and the world of things. We have life. We have breath. We have existence. These truths are indisputable but their reality needs to be experienced, rather than thought. The ‘I’, aside from its thoughts, is an ultimate potential for a locus of understanding. It is a potential for expressing gratitude, feeling joy, peace and fulfillment.
Philosophers ask whether one can ever escape one’s subjectivity and/or mind and what it would mean if one could do so. In Greek, philosophy means "love of wisdom" and that inimitable father of philosophy, Socrates, said “know thy Self’. I am fortunate to say that an especially wise man showed me that, not only can I escape my mind, but that it is wise to do so. He showed me that there is a Self and that to know it, I would need to extricate myself from the entanglements and belief structures of my mind. That true freedom lies in being able to divorce the self from its thoughts. Descartes got to the bottom of his beliefs but he did not get to the bottom of his thoughts. His thinking mind was the barrier to his ontological pursuit. With the help of the special techniques of Knowledge, Prem Rawat taught me what is thought, what is self, and what is fiction and truth. I suppose that is why he calls it Knowledge.
Illustration by Sara Shaffer.