Discarding Descartes

by Adebayo Akomolafe

‘Western culture’ has always had – at its heart – a program of dis-enchantment, in which the layered world of appearances gradually gives way to a static world beyond appearances, a state of prosaic essences that are a substructure for all that we see. Hence, the reductionism of science, the quantification of social relations, and the insistence that anomalous, mystical experiences can be explained away as epiphenomena of the brain. Rene Descartes arguably began this modern march towards essences. He asked the questions: What can I know with absolute certainty? What is impossible to doubt? And with a deft swing of Ockham’s Razor and every other weapon in the arsenal of rational contemplation, Descartes started to do away with the premises upon which culture was founded. He denied the heavens, God and the angels, demons, the firmaments, the stars, the earth, colours, flowers and his breakfast.

Nothing was absolutely certain. Who could tell that all the experiences he attributed to an objective cosmos weren’t merely the tinkering tricks of a nameless devil that sought to deceive him or blind him to the true nature of things? What if there were no colours, no shapes, no air, no people, no relationships – just illusions wrapped in delusions? Descartes figured that there was no way to argue against the fact that he could be a dreaming brain in a twisted laboratory – utterly convinced that its experiences were ‘real’. But in that moment, Descartes realized that the one thing he couldn’t doubt was doubt itself. He had hit rock-bottom. And in those incipient moments of alchemical brilliance, Descartes weaved what has since become the silent shibboleth and official creed of the individuated Western notion of ‘self’: Cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I am.

And after anonymous hours of strenuous contemplation, Descartes would have dusted his hands, adjusted his black frock, smirked at his mirrored reflection in a haughty moment of French self-indulgence, and walked out of his quarters – fully convinced that he had solved the problem of knowledge. At that very same moment, worlds away in the East, towards the yawning sun, a nameless man sitting under a humble tree suddenly opens his eyes, pauses and then proceeds to scribble in the sand a profound series of words, the translation of which is this: “What is I?”


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