'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 year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Lena Dunham posing for an official portrait at Sundance 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Under the skin: Sarah Kane in May 1998
theatreThe story behind a new season of Sarah Kane plays
Arts and Entertainment
Preening: Johnny Depp in 'Mortdecai'
filmMortdecai becomes actor's fifth consecutive box office bomb
Bradford City's reward for their memorable win over Chelsea is a trip to face either Sunderland or Fulham (Getty)
Lars Andersen took up archery in his mid thirties
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

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operations & Logistics Manager

£38000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's best performing...

Recruitment Genius: GeoDatabase Specialist - Hazard Modelling

£35000 - £43000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our award-winning client is one...

Recruitment Genius: Compressed Air Pipework Installation Engineer

£15000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of Atlas ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Coordinator - Pallet Network

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Opportunity to join established...

Day In a Page

Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea