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Cogito, sum objectum: Descartes in a Buddhist perspective

Date:01 February 2019
Author:Andrea Sangiacomo
From Dorian Gray (2009)
From Dorian Gray (2009)

Second Meditation. The meditator just reflected that even if there is an evil demon who deceives him or her, then s/he necessarily exists in order to be deceived. Well known argument. Just after this famous statement of the Cogito, Descartes writes:

But I do not yet have a sufficient understanding of what this ‘I’ is, that now necessarily exists. So I must be on my guard against carelessly taking something else to be this ‘I’, and so making a mistake in the very item of knowledge that I maintain is the most certain and evident of all. [CMS II.17]

 The answer comes a bit later, and it’s famous as well:

But what then am I? A thing that thinks. What is that? A thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, is willing, is unwilling, and also imagines and has sensory perceptions. [CSM II.19]

Descartes thus proves that the I is a res cogitans. This will be the basis to further prove that God exists and that mind and body are really distinct substances. Well known again.


Descartes’s overall argumentation has been challenged in many ways. Different people advanced different arguments and counter arguments. And yet, nobody (if I’m missing someone, please comment on that!) argued that Descartes made a mistake concerning the method he was following in deriving his conclusions. By ‘method’ here I don’t mean ‘analytical’ vs. ‘synthetic’ (see Descartes’s Second replies). I mean the method indicated in the title of Descartes’s book: Meditationes. Nobody, as far as I can tell, ever challenged Descartes by claiming that he did not meditate correctly or, at least, deeply enough*. This is surprising, since Descartes constantly refers to his meditation practice in the Meditations. Sometimes I wonder if anyone ever took the title of Descartes’s work seriously (I, for one, hadn’t, until a year ago).

Let’s take the title seriously. Let’s meditate on the ‘I’ that appears as the main character in ‘my thoughts’. Descartes concludes that this ‘I’ is the subject of all the affections and actions ascribed to (or based on) thinking. I am the thing (res) that thinks. But is this so? For sure, in order to be an ‘I’, thinking is needed. Without thinking, the thought ‘I am a thinking thing’ cannot arise. And yet, this does not entail that I am the thing that thinks. This only shows that there is an ongoing, unfolding thinking process (i.e. there is ‘thinking’ here), in which the thought ‘I am a thinking thing’ arises at some point. In fact, this process entails that I am an object that arises in the thinking**. You ask: please give an argument for this claim. Argument? No argument. Look for yourself. Look at the I, pay attention to it. Be mindful of how it works.

It looks like a subject (it appears as the ‘character’). But it is the subject of a tale, and in this sense, it is the object (i.e. one of the contents, among others, of what arises in the thinking). In the same way, Dorian Gray is the ‘object’ of the novel written by Oscar Wilde (i.e. the novel is about Dorian Gray; Dorian Gray is the ideatum of the novel, to use scholastic jargon). You reply: but I feel very real! Yes, this ‘I’ feels very real, in the same way in which Dorian Gray (the novel, and its character, Dorian) may feel very real. A movie may feel very real. Why? Because of identification with the story: one forgets the margins, one forgets it’s a novel, or a movie, one just watches and enjoys. Enjoyment is the main business of the I, that’s why it feels so real. It’s very enjoyable, even when it feels pain. So this I is not a subject of thought (the thing doing the thinking), but rather one of the objects that arise in the thinking.***

This claim is what in the old strata of the Buddhist canon (the Pali canon) is called anatta: non-self. It’s not a metaphysical claim (i.e. something about ultimate reality), it’s more a psychological claim (i.e. something about how we understand the phenomenon of ‘thinking’) about identification with the thinking process and its contents.

I (who?) don’t want to elaborate on this here, but use it to draw two methodological points, that may be interesting for thinking about ‘cross-cultural’ philosophy (we’re running a reading group on that in Groningen—if you’re around, come and join!):

1) [Most] early modern scholars (and even contemporary philosophers) did not take seriously the fact that Descartes’s Meditations are a form of meditation. I suspect that this happened because (a) they don’t have a clear idea of what ‘meditation’ is supposed to be (that’s not clear indeed!) and/or (b) they look for what today constitutes the currency in philosophical discussions, i.e. ‘arguments’ (meditation is definitely not about ‘arguments’ in the sense meant in today’s analytical philosophy – hence it has no philosophical currency). From this point of view, a cross-cultural perspective allows us to practice some mental stretching. Descartes was doing and writing meditations****, we forgot what ‘meditation’ means, then we look at Buddhism, where meditation is all over the place, and we come to realize that Descartes was doing his own ‘meditation’, and this has consequences for how we understand his project, and perhaps it allows us to formulate new critical assessments of that project. That’s some cross-cultural yoga! (Btw, ‘yoga’ mostly means ‘discipline’ or ‘method’).

2) Ironically, today’s Buddhist analysis on the ‘non-self’ (anatta/anatman), especially written by Western philosophers, tend to understand anatta as mostly concerned with metaphysics and epistemology. The ‘non-self’ would thus be the denial of a permanent, enduring entity, the denial of a res cogitans. Of course, this is not mistaken. Buddhists do deny that there is anything like a Cartesian res cogitans. But is this the point of anatta? Perhaps Buddhists (maybe the Buddha himself) realized very early on that when we think, we tend to be Cartesian and quickly slip from ‘there is thinking’ (i.e. simple awareness of what there is) to ‘I am thinking’ (i.e. grasping of the content that appears there). Anatta is a caveat against this tendency (with much broader ramifications and consequences). From a methodological point of view, making anatta a metaphysical or epistemological point seems to make Buddhist thought more relevant for a Western audience. And yet, at the same time, it risks making it much too familiar and innocuous. The West colonized the East. Today, surely with the best intentions, one may try to show that the East has a lot to say to the West in a way that can even use the terminology so dear to the West. That may be right and good. But isn’t this another (subtler?) way of colonizing—based on the craving to hear what interests us? And, after all, didn’t we have Locke and Hume (and Spinoza!) who also denied a substantial ‘I’? But anatta is not just that. It’s more. How much more? Meditate—you’ll see!


* This does not entail that there is just one way of meditating. But it us up for reflection which way is better to achieve certain goals. However, insofar as meditation is understood as a cultivation (bhavana) of awareness of what appears in direct experience, it is not too far fetched to say that Descartes was engaged in the same activity that is at the core of the Buddhist practice (although the means of doing this, the goals and the results are different).

** Thinking is an intentional act, in the sense that it is thinking of x: this x is the object of thought. The term ‘object’ used here is understood in this sense.

*** When Spinoza will argue that thought is an attribute of God and that the human mind is just a mode of thought, the implication is the same: ‘my’ finite thinking experience is not the subject of thinking. ‘I’ is an object of thought.

**** One may further inquire why Descartes chose to use meditation as the way of developing his metaphysical project. One may claim that Descartes had purely scientific and metaphysical goals in mind, not psychological ones. But is this so? Isn’t all the stuff about childhood prejudices, sense-deception etc., a relevant psychological problem? Isn’t the idea of larvatus prodeo (i.e. thinking of the Meditations as the Trojan horse to overthrow Aristotelianism) a psychological strategy? We too often forget that arguments, even about metaphysics, rely on psychological mechanisms. We’re afraid of psychology...that’s not philosophy. Perhaps we’re wrong (about both what philosophy and psychology are)!

About the author

Andrea Sangiacomo


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