'I' is a tyrant. You are what you eat

Faith & Reason: Peter Mullen is in no mood to celebrate the quatercente nary of the birth of Rene Descartes. Descartes was absurd and wrong, he argues; our identity has its origin in objective values.

In France they are celebrating the 400th anniversary of the birth of Descartes, "the founder of modern philosophy". It is true that Descartes is the most influential of the modern philosophers but his influence has been disastrous. This is because, as Bertrand Russell said, "It was Descartes who founded modern philosophy by demonstrating that it is subjective things which are the most certain."

Descartes famously began by enquiring whether there is any knowledge so certain that no reasonable person can doubt it. And his celebrated answer to this central question was to say that at least he could not doubt that he doubted; and if he doubts then he must think; and if he thinks he must exist. Cogito, ergo sum. What could be more reasonable than that?

What could be sillier? Descartes' conclusion is absurd, though it took Wittgenstein to demonstrate this. When Descartes says, "I think therefore I am", he must be using a language. But a private language - one that is spoken and understood by only one person - is a contradiction in terms. The concept of meaning is a public concept. And language is a public phenomenon.

But the Cogito was only the bottom of the garden path so to speak. The tradition of subjectivism and transcendental egotism based on Descartes' philosophy has been perpetuated over four centuries, corrupting not only our epistemology but our moral thought and social understanding. Descartes' "cogito" had a thoroughly technical meaning that was neither "thinking" nor "feeling"; a better translation might be, "Something is doubting that anything exists. Therefore something exists." But this would not fit so well on a T-shirt; and as his influence grew, "cogito" changed to mean something like: "I feel, therefore I am real."

In this form, Cartesian subjectivism was consolidated by Rousseau and the Romantic Movements. Its religious expression was found in such as Wesley whose criterion for redemption was to have one's individual heart "strangely warmed" - an ominous pre-echo of the nauseating consumerist revivalism of our own times which advertises Jesus Christ as my personal saviour, as if the dynamics of the forgiveness of sins were the business of insurance companies.

The "I" in "I think therefore I am" is a tyrant. This romantic individual is not only the demonic artist of 19th-century concert platforms and countless embarrassing Hollywood movies about artistic geniuses: he is also the supposedly omniscient personality inside each one of us.

Descartes' faulty epistemology lies behind the moral relativism which plagues modern societies and renders impotent all efforts at ethical consensus. It is not even as though Descartes had delivered to us an unpalatable truth - that the individual personality is sovereign and we must somehow learn as a society to cope with this fact. For the individual constructed on Descartes' model and subsequently elaborated to ever more sickening effect is, as Wittgenstein pointed out, a logical and a grammatical fiction.

There is another slogan, one that may be trusted: you are what you eat. But we have failed to understand that this truth applies not only to the body but to the mind and morals. The subjectivist view that everyone's opinion is equally valid leads to the relativism which claims that the Sex Pistols are as good as Bach. This is a judgement which could only be made by one who had imbibed the culture of the Sex Pistols but not the culture of Bach.

Once the individual has been accepted as an indivisible, unchallengable whole, set apart from everything else in the world, we lose the ability to judge between individual preferences. We must rediscover the pre-Cartesian knowledge that tradition preserves objective beliefs which are more certain than our poor subjectivities. It is futile to say that everyone has a right to their own opinions, as if this means that all opinions, however unschooled and ill-considered, are equally likely to express the truth.

We are what we eat. We form our judgements out of the stuff of which we are constituted. If therefore a child is filled up with the moral and aesthetic equivalent of junk food then we must expect him to develop a junk mind. The most appropriate way to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Descartes is to begin again his quest for understanding but to begin with the realisation that our identity is not something to be deduced absurdly from our own thoughts. The "I" is not something conjectured into existence: it is given and created out of whole worlds of objective values. And it is the choice of values which is crucial. As Ezra Pound said, "Show me what you value and I'll tell you what you're worth."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
Ed Miliband and David Cameron are neck and neck in the polls
election 2015Armando Iannucci: on how British politics is broken
Life and Style
Great minds like Einstein don't think alike
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: IT Support Engineer - Leeds

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Support Engineer - Leeds This i...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Bristol

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment C...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment C...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power