Upstream from the cogito

by Terence MacNamee

It’s Descartes’ birthday. His 420th, to be precise. There is hardly a philosopher who has shaped our thinking and our assumptions more in the Western world than he has. He lived at the outset of the modern scientific era, and in order to make that era possible, he made a radical division between mind and everything else. “Everything else” meant the world “out there”, but also man’s own body. This was the tricky part. Consider the emotions, for example: do they belong to the mind or the body? Clearly both: we may feel anger or fear in our minds, but we also go white with fear or red in the face with anger, and our stomachs are likely to be churning. It is to Descartes’ great credit that he recognized the problem of the emotions, but he dealt with it by calling them “Passions in the Mind”. If they were felt in the mind, he reasoned, then they belonged there and nowhere else.

This iron division between mind and body is something we are still living with. It does not seem to matter that generations of philosophers and scientists have protested that this division does man no good, and in fact that mind and body are more of a continuum than anything else. We still go on thinking of ourselves as knowing subjects, observing with detachment a world “out there” that somehow includes our own bodies.

For Descartes, the cornerstone of everything was the thinking mind. Cogito, ergo sum, he said. If I am a thinking subject, therefore I can be sure of one thing – that I exist. Everything else follows from that. He needed the cogito as a cornerstone for philosophy and science, because he had resolutely gone back to square one in his thinking – he resolved to doubt anything he could not be sure of. He could not doubt his own existence as a thinking subject. So there was a start. That was square one, he thought. But was it?

Contemporary French philosopher and sinologist François Jullien has chosen to go beyond the limits of Western culture and explore Far Eastern philosophy too, so that he can get back to what he calls the impensé, the “unthought”, all the stuff that is never thought about in either culture because it is just assumed. With reference to Descartes and the cogito, he has remarked:

‘Taking a detour through the other [culture] inevitably brings us back upstream from the cogito. When I say “I think”, what is the “we” that thinks through this “I”?  – or, more to the point, does not think: the “we” of language, conceptual categories, ideology, and so on. Every culture now becomes problematic, profoundly foreign, exotically fascinating – ours too.’

As regards the systematic doubt, which Descartes used so he could be sure he was presupposing nothing, Jullien sceptically remarks from his new intercultural perspective:

‘What you doubt… keeps you dependent on it, in the nets of its “unthought”. You can doubt as much as you like, as Descartes heroically does – you are still doubting in your own language and in your own concepts. Doubting still leaves you at home.’

Jullien’s philosophical project is intriguing. He wants to go upstream from Western philosophy with the help of Asian thought, besides going upstream from Asian thought with the help of Western thought. If we could go far enough upstream from both, perhaps we might come to the source where both originate, and which is unknown to them both, as Heidegger and his Japanese philosopher friend were thinking. This is Jullien’s realm of the “unthought”. And this is stuff of which Descartes, four centuries ago, would not even have dreamed.

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