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Descartes Mediations the Nature of Human Mind
While evaluating the nature of human body and mind, many theorists and philosophers have introduced their personal visions and outlooks on the concept of “Self”. Perceiving the identity concept is different because of divergence in individual outlooks on facts and their connection to existing system of knowledge.
More importantly, some of the theoretical frameworks and conceptions have been worked out on the basis of personal experiences, which also implies the possibility of discrepancies in theories. Within these perspectives, various schools of thought rely on the accepted system of knowledge. Understanding the concept of self can be carried out from different dimensions.
As such, Descartes, an acknowledged philosopher, introduced his own outlook on the human nature through the concepts of something and nothing. His conception of human existence is based on the assumption on certainty. More importantly, because the philosopher supports a rational approach to considering self-concept, his conception of human being correlates with thinking process. I believe that self should be associated with the individual identity and human mind that differs from the collective perceptions.
Descartes Definition of “Self”
Descartes believed that thought could not exist separately from an individual. Alternatively, the thought can be turned to nothing. Therefore, thought become the proof of existence of a human. Finally, Descartes concludes that a person is a “thinking thing”; as a person thinks, all thoughts are immediately conceived by his/her mind. In other words, humans are beings who perceive their bodies through senses. In addition, Descartes’ saying, “I think, therefore I am” is necessary to pronounce so as to be perceived by the conscious mind.
Human consciousness is a necessary proof of existence. Such an outlook on the human existence is quite justified from a rational viewpoint because it is impossible to imagine a human who stops thinking process at least for a moment.
Therefore, a thinking process is always a conscious process; it can also be carried at sub-conscious level because all the processes, body movements, and perceptions cannot go beyond the thinking process. Descartes’s “self” concept has a number of contradictions. In particular, in case a human is a thinking being, sensation and imagination are insignificant because it excludes clearness and certainty.
Therefore, Descartes believes that the self is a thinking self that is confined solely to a will and intellection. In this case, much concern has risen in terms of the existence of the material world because some material things can also be imagined and sensed. Understanding a human as a thinking being, however, distorts the concept of representing individuals with unique belief system because thinking process itself is often stereotyped.
According to the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy compiled by Blackburn, self is defined as “the elusive ‘I’ that shows an alarming tendency to disappear when we try to introspect it” (332). In addition, Blackburn also provides definition within the context of Bundle
Theory of the Mind or Self. In this context, self “survives through life’s normal changes of experience and personality” and “seems to be highly metaphysical” (Blackburn 49). The definition implies direct reference to the concept of personal identity and permanent phenomena that stand apart from the materialistic perception.
Other philosophers, including Carl Jung and John Locke, have considered the existential view on the self-concept. In this respect, Jung offers definition of self through understanding of the consciousness. In simplistic terms, humans have awareness of their existence.
Locke’s understanding of the self is partially identical to the one presented by Descartes. His views were confined to representing the self through personal identification and private nature of human beings. Such a conception is opposed to the public view on the self that can cause perceptual contradictions.
Similar to Descartes, Locke associates self with the consciousness and its continuity, which means that self cannot be identified by other people, because they cannot possess consciousness of a particular self. With regard to this definition, the unity of presented explanation can stipulate that self is a set of personal attitudes, beliefs, perceptions that shape private identity. More importantly, self characterizes also characterizes individuals’ unique mechanism for acting.
Apart from existential views, there are other dimensions of self-identification. From socio-psychological perspective, self can be defined as “…a person or thing referred to with respect to complete individuality” (Coter and Levine 69). It also reflects individuals’ nature and character.
The definition, however, does not involve experience as an inherent component of thinking and knowledge acquisition of the self. Nevertheless, it still emphasizes the private approach to the self-identification. Awareness of the possibility to accept individuality from different angles explains why identity is hard to identify.
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With regard to the above-represented dimensions of the self, certain controversies arise about personal analysis of the self. I am especially concerned with the idea of self, which can only be represented through conscious mind and thinking process. However, other aspects of identity formation must relate to public or collective awareness of the conscious mind. Unconsciousness is also another dimension that should be considered in defining the concept of the self.
In addition, self and identity are closely connected because both concepts derive from individual activities and perceptions. However, self is much broader definition because it involves such common characteristics as self-knowledge, outlook on traditions, and experience. In contract, identity as a more specific concept reflects a unique interpretation of traditions, experiences and thoughts. Individualized ideas therefore can create a group of individuals adhering to narrow-focused goals.
Because self is a set of experiences, attitudes, and perceptions, it is necessary to consider the concept as an activity. Therefore, self as an abstract notion cannot act separately its bodily experience, which proves the interconnection between mind and body. Because self is identified with personal perception, it can also be changed in the course of time. The more experience and knowledge a person acquires, the more changes can occur to this perception.
However, an individual remains the same despite the experience he/she receives because of unique methods and features that an individual uses for gaining experience. In other words, people act differently in various situations, which identify their selves and identities. The presented argument corresponds to the views of David Hume:
“whatever changes he endures, his several parts are still connected by the relation of causation. And in this view our identity with regard to the passions serves to corroborate that with regard to imagination, by the making our distant perceptions influence each other” (Hume 332).
Personal qualities, mechanisms of perception, and established attitudes play an important role in acquiring knowledge and gaining experience. In this respect, an individual is identical to self; it is a unique reflection of the external environment.
Existence of certain things stands in opposition to non-existence of certain things. In other words, there are mechanisms that allow individuals to identify whether a specific concept, idea, or thing exists or not.
In order to understand this antagonism, definition of nothing and something should be given in an existential context. Such an opposition can be solved in case the known and the unknown are clearly identified. Individuals should know for sure that something exists or does not exist. Truthfulness or falseness should be defined by the degree of certainty.
Therefore, people’s perceptions of their selves could also undergo doubts and uncertainty because understanding personal self is a unique phenomenon. It does not provide evidence to the verity of these perceptions. The only thing that is certain is the existence of perception mechanism, which could not come from nothing. Consequently, nothing can be regarded as a concept which exists beyond human thinking and perception.
Sometimes people mistakenly believe that self is a set of experiences and knowledge they have acquired across time. However, though these aspects contribute to identification of the self concept, they cannot be considered inherent components of the self. Rather, self is an abstract notion, a unique conscious that reflects specific reactions to specific knowledge and experience.
According to Descartes, people’s perception of the self is a possible through a thinking process. Therefore, self can be identified with the conscious mind. This means that everything that a person sees or hears is true because it is perceived by mind.
For instance, in case a person sees a piece of chalk, he identifies chalk on the basis of personal knowledge and experience. However, there is no evidence that this is a piece of chalk indeed. However, the very fact of identification of various materials provides evidence of existence of the self. Therefore, in case a person perceives an object by using desire or imagination, there is no certainty that their perception is actually right.
Accepting the imagined for certainty means being wrong about the perception of the self. In fact, people strive to be confident and certain, which is explained by their desire to feel right, rather than to be right. They perceive things from the angle that seems the most appropriate for them. However, accepting the desired thing for reality does not justify individual perception.
With regard to these deliberations on the components of the self, the “I” concept is a complex set of beliefs, experiences, intellection, and memories. Although human mind has the capability of being enriched with new knowledge and recollections, it remains unchanged in terms of character, reactions, and thinking mechanisms.
Conception of “Other” within the concept of “Self”
Much controversy arises concerning the difference in the perception of ourselves and perception of ourselves by others. In this respect, Hampson concludes, “[…]we perceive ourselves as we think others see us, even though this view may not always correspond to how others actually see us” (175).
People obtain this knowledge through private information which is available to them only. However, this information can sometimes be misleading or unavailable. When both sources are inappropriate, references to self-observation of behavior should be made. The created disparity between self and others is complicated in “our fascination with obtaining other people’s perceptions of ourselves” (Hampson 175).
Due to the fact that individuals can never perceive the object of their selves, they could see themselves as others perceive them. Our perceptions of ourselves, as well as those of others, are represented through our own eyes. The disparity between self and other allows individuals to appraise their personality from a different perspective. Therefore, it is natural for people to be fascinated by impossibility to perceive beyond the self.
Having a distinct idea of personal qualities, perceptions, and attitudes, people start shaping similar attitudes to other people, which justify the assumption about behavior being prior to attitude. Before shaping personal appraisal of self-definition, individuals often refer to external behavioral patterns. In case some of their experiences obtained from the external environment are not adequate, people can face challenges to adjusting to these experiences and inventing protective mechanisms.
As it has been mentioned previously, perception of the self is possible only through intellection and sensing and, therefore, imagination and desire could not be regarded as certain sources of cognition. Such a conception contradicts the possibility of experiencing the external process through feelings because it goes in disaccord with common sense. However, in case a thought is an activity the latter often provokes certain feelings, which could not arise from nothing.
As a result, feeling could also be the proof of existence because it is produced through acting. Absence of feelings would signify the absence of action. For instance, people can feel happier when they smile, or they can express anger when they are insulted, or be in love when they smile to a person they like. Feelings are induced by actions and vice versa.
Inconsistency and Lack of Knowledge on “Self” Concept
Descartes has managed to successfully to define the boundaries of the self-concept through which it is logical to believe that thinking is evidence of existence. However, the knowledge of self is limited to the questions ‘What is actually the self’? A person can prove its existence, but cannot exactly answer what kind a person he/she is because this image is based on both the external attitudes and self-perception.
Further, the thinking process is always conscious, but there is no evidence that the unconscious mind is not capable of carrying thinking activities. As soon as we cease thinking, our existence is over. Therefore, the thinking process indicates the connection between soul and body.
In this respect, Descartes argues, “And event though the spirit is of the essence of man, it is not correct to speck of the essence of the spirit that it be joined to the human body” (Vial and Valahu 5). However, such an assumption shows that mind is not confined to body and, therefore, people cannot assert that their physical being is justified by the mind. Descartes also asserts that mind can exist beyond brain.
Descartes strongly believed that the actual presence of the ideas is proved by the conscious mind. Thought and idea, therefore, cannot come from the unconscious. Mind is considered a constant generator of ideas because the thinking process cannot be interrupted. In this respect, soul can be regarded as a thinking substance.
However, some of the assumption contradicts the presence of the unconscious that are responsible for other physical processes in the organism, which also induce certain actions. Lack of knowledge about the unconscious makes Descartes’ theory inconsistent because the presence of the unconscious is verified by the existence of its opposition – the conscious. As something is opposed to nothing, consciousness should oppose unconsciousness.
In Socrates’ view, the knowledge of the self should not be regarded as given, but an objective that should be accomplished. In other words, self-development is much more important than material welfare.
The more people are concerned about selves, the more changes to achieve all desirable goals. Focus on self-perception and self-knowledge, therefore, can provide answers to the perception of others, which also should be reflected through personal vision. Such a conception allows people to self-cognize and develop, unlike Descartes’ vision of the self concept.
The concept of the self has long been debated among historians because of different views on human nature, as well as the connection between mind and body. The arguments introduced by Descartes are of existential character.
In particular, the philosopher asserts that human existent can be proved by the existence of mind and thinking process. A person exists as long as it thinks and, therefore, all bodily experiences are justified by thinking mechanisms. Only thought and idea can occur from the mind, which creates the opposition between something and nothing.
Other evidence of existence is uncertain. Therefore, the world cannot be conceived from beyond, but by means of self-perception activities. Moreover, self-perception is also used while cognizing others. In addition, the thinking process should be conscious because the unconscious cannot produce ideas. However, the lack of knowledge on the unconscious creates inconsistency concerning the possibility of introducing thinking processes at the unconscious level.
Blackburn, Simon. The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, UK: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.
Coter, James and Charles Levine. Identity, Formation, Agency, and Culture: A Social Psychological Synthesis. New York, Routledge, 2002, Print.
Hampson, Sarah. The Construction of Personality: An Introduction. US: Routledge, 1988. Print.
Hume David. The Philosophical Works of David Hume. A. Black and W. Tait, 1826, Print.
Vial Fernard, and Dan T Valahu. The Unconscious in Philosophy, and French and European Literature: Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century. US: Rodopi, 2009. Print.