Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Monday 1 October 2012

Imagine if Descartes were Wrong.

It’s four hundred years since the man said, “I think therefore I am”, and, since we’re still saying it, as if it justifies something, as if it were some sort of mantra, as if it explained everything, or damned near everything, it would appear that no one’s come up with anything better... Or it would appear that no one’s come up with anything more memorable or pithier to say, at least.

Is that it?

Do we believe the things that we believe, take them for granted, even, for the simple reason that the reasoning trips off the tongue in easy to digest gobbets? I’m beginning to wonder. That sentence, “I think therefore I am” is just about bloody perfect, isn’t it? It requires no explanation whatsoever. It absolutely describes a philosophy and explains its central tenet in one easy to digest phrase that anyone with a basic understanding of the language can comprehend and repeat. It requires no paraphrasing. If you can’t remember that phrase on hearing it once, if you have to fumble for it, you’d fumble for anything. A child could remember it.

Descartes wins... by default.

I was, very recently, and I do mean VERY recently, introduced to a sort of meditation, a way to experience the void, a kind of... I don’t know... an experiment in self-awareness, in which I was invited to take three steps towards dis-identification.

It went something like this.

1. Disengage from the body. Suppose or remember that while  one inhabits the body one is not defined by it.

2. Disengage from the emotional past. Suppose or remember that while one lived through it and has memories of it and feelings about it one is not defined by it.

3. Disengage from the intellect. Suppose or remember that while one has thoughts, while those thoughts pass through one’s mind one is not defined by them.

I have meditated before in various ways. I have indulged in, practised and otherwise made use of forms of yoga, cognitive therapy, prayer and meditation, so the first couple of steps were pretty straightforward to achieve with a thought; and yes I do say ‘thought’ advisedly. When I was introduced to the third step I could not help declaring, “Descartes will be spinning in his grave.”

We smiled at that, my companion and I. 

Then, just for a moment, I let go of something, and I let myself feel a moment of still and calm and silence.

We take stuff for granted. We stop thinking about what we believe in and what we believe and the whys and wherefores of all of that, especially as we get older, especially when there is rarely anyone around to shake those things up.

I learned some things in taking those three little steps, and one of those things was that Descartes had a great line,  and was a lucky man.

Here’s the thing, though: For all Descartes had a great line, and for all it’s universal; for all you can all quote his line, and regularly do... Me to; I bet you can also sing a whole host of pretty nifty advertising jingles, and I bet you wouldn’t claim they were art or philosophy or even really good tunes... You know you wouldn’t... Right?


  1. There was a comment here a moment ago from, I believe big_cheddars. It has since disappeared. Perhaps Descartes is more powerful than I realised... I'm tempted to take it all back.

    Show yourself big-cheddars for all our sakes!

  2. That would be me, but I haven't commented on this post. However if I was going to, I would say that this was an intriguing and thoughtful blog post, and props for making me think about Descartes's little phrase :)