The Cartesian virus has infected what is now known as philosophy of mind since the great mathematician first appeared on the scene in the seventeenth century. Westerners are typically either Cartesians, if we catch the virus (or were born with it), or Materialists, if we resist it. The resistance started immediately after Descartes’s philosophy first reached the reading public when Hobbes argued against the Meditations.
Hobbes writes in his Second Objection On Meditation II, “‘I am a conscious being (sum res cogitans)’, he says; quite correctly. From the fact that I experience (cogito), or have a phantasm, whether I am awake or dreaming, it is to be inferred that I am something that experiences (sum cogitans); for I experience (cogito) and I am something that experiences (sum cogitans) have the same meaning. But when he adds: that is, a mind, a soul (animus), an intellect, a reason, there arises doubt. It seems not to be a valid argument to say ‘I am conscious (cogito)’, or ‘I am intelligent, therefore I am an intellect’. For I might as well say ‘I am walking, therefore I am a walk’.”
Hobbes was the first modern Materialist to resist this virus. But since then we have had many critics of Cartesianism: Gilbert Ryle, Strawson, Place, Smart, Feyerabend, and many more come to mind (!) up to Dennett, who (at least in his earlier books) admitted that he didn’t think minds existed at all. Searle fought back with his book The Rediscovery of the Mind, but never succeeded (to the satisfaction of this reader) in placing his finger on how the obvious fact of minds could be squared with a naturalistic explanation of our place in the world. In his 2007 book on the subject (Freedom & Neurobiology) Searle resorts to quantum mechanics for an explanation; not promising.
These days we tend to think that Descartes invented the mind/body “problem”, but actually, the notion that the mind, self or soul exists and is an independent entity from the body goes back at least to Augustine, who first maintained that this independent soul couldn’t possibly be mistaken about the existence of itself. In his book, Self, Richard Sorabji maintains that the argument probably goes back further, to Plotinus. Sorabji mostly traces the roots of this argument in Western thinking back to the pre-classical through Hellenistic period of Greek philosophy: Plato, Aristotle and Aristotle’s commentators, the Stoics, Epicurus, Sextus, Porphyry, Plotinus, Augustine, Avicenna, and many more. But he doesn’t stop there. There is good discussion of Parfit’s Reasons and Persons. He even gives a brief survey of Indian philosophy: the Buddhists Nagasena, Vasabandhu, Nagarjuna, Candrakirti and Santideva; and the Hindu philosophers of the Nyaya school. But for a continuation of this story one really needs to follow the path of Sorabji’s University of London and Oxford student Jonardon Garneri in his books The Concealed Art of the Soul and the more recent book of the same name as Sorabji’s, Self. Of which more later.
Sorabji’s answer to the question of the self? He is no Cartesian. But he resists the formidable attacks of the Materialists. He is an embodied self man: “By a ‘person’ I mean someone who has psychological states and does things, by a ‘thinker’ someone who has thoughts. This having and doing can be summed up by saying that a person owns psychological states and actions. He or she also owns a body and bodily characteristics. A person is not just a stream of experiences and actions, but the owner of experiences and actions . . .” I find his argument generally convincing, but the finer details of the story are better developed (I think) in his student’s book of the same name. What better tribute.