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Human Person in René Descartes Philosophy

Concept of Human Person in René Descartes Philosophy: An Exposé

BIOGRAPHY OF RENÉ DESCARTES

            René Descartes also known in Latin as Renatus Cartesius,was thirty-two years younger than Shakespeare and forty-six years older than Newton. He was born on March 31st, 1596 at the village of La-Haye in Touraine, France. This town is now called La Haye-Descartes. His mother died when he was a year old and ill with dry cough and pale Complexion that people expected him to die young.

            He was of a noble parentage. He was the third child of a councilor of the parliament of Brittany. In 1604, he was sent to the La Fleche a Jesuit college where he remained until 1612. There he studied logic, philosophy, and mathematics. Sequel to his sickly nature, he was dispensed from morning exercises and awarded a private room. This afforded him the opportunity of acquiring a lifelong habit of meditating in bed.

            Being tortured by the scholastic of his day, he recalled with respect the talents and devotion of his teachers there but with suspicion and contempt. He prefers mathematics to every other lesson he has learnt because of its certainty and clarity in reason. Having bagged degree in law at Poitiers, he abandoned his studies in favour of ‘the great book of the world’ in 1616. At the age of twenty-two, he willingly enrolled as a member of the army of Dutch prince Maurice of Orange. He later transferred to the army of the Duke of Bavaria who was warring against the Elector Frederick, son-in-law of king James 1 in1619. Soon afterward, he left the army but several years passed before he settled permanently to philosophical studies.

            Between 1620 and 1625, he traveled in Germany, Holland, and Italy. He returned to France for a period in 1622 to settle his property in such a way as to free him forever from the necessity of earning a living. From 1625 to 1627 he lived the life of a genteman in Paris, mixing in society, gambling, becoming involved in a duel over a love affair. In 1662, he intervened impressively in the discussion of a lecture before the papal Nuncio and was exhorted by cardinal Berulle, the founder of the French oratory, to devote himself to the reform of philosophy.

In 1628, he left for Holland where he lived till 1649. His choice of this country was informed by the tranquil nature of the environment, which he hoped to be free from the distractions of the city and in particular from the danger of early morning callers. He wrote nearly all his works during this period. During this twenty years, (although comfortable but not luxurious) in Holland, he lived in thirteen different houses and kept his address carefully secret from all but his close friends namely Friar Marin Mersenne et cetra, whom he wrote his correspondence that is substantially part of his corpus of philosophical writings.

            Descartes trusted experiment rather than learning, but more than either, he trusted his own philosophical reflection. While in Holland, he visited neighbouring universities such as university of Utrecht where he entertained members of their faculty namely Henri Reneri and Henri Regius who were attracted by his ideas.

            In 1632, he wrote a work entitled ‘The world’ but was prevented from its publication following the condemnation of Galileo by the inquisition. In that work he sought to explain the of light, sun, fixed stars, heavens, the planets, the comets and earth, all the terrestrial bodies and man that jettisoned Aristotelian notions of substantial form and natural movement.

            Descartes begot an illegitimate daughter in 1635 whom he christened Francine. Her death caused him great grief.

            In September 1649, through Pierre Chanut, an ambassador to Queen Christina of Sweden, the queen invited Descartes to Sweden. His move to Sweden was disastrous for him in the sense that he felt lonely and out of place. He was compelled to rise by five O’clock to instruct the queen on philosophy. This exposed him to the rigor of Swedish winter. While nursing a sick friend, he caught pneumonia and died on February 11, 1650. He was buried in Sweden, but later his body was transferred to France where it now rest in the church of Saint Grmain de Paris. His skull is exhibited in the Musee de L’ Homme in the Palais de chaivot in Paris.

            For Descartes, philosophy means studying and acquiring wisdom. He was regarded as the father of Modern Philosophy because he corroded with philosophical tradition of his day (Scholasticism) and developed method and raised new problems that points to the direction of modern philosophy. This he centered on ‘cogito’ in which He found his person and nature.

INTRODUCTION

The Cosmo-centric and Theo-centric focus of philosophy of ancient and medieval periods altered its direction with radical suddenness, which the 17th century continental rationalist René Descartes with his new agenda for philosophy initiated what is called today modern philosophy. Although this new plan for philosophy had already been attempted by medieval philosophers and by Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes; René Descartes, Leibniz and Spinoza fashioned a new vision of philosophy.

          René Descartes spearheaded this new vision in corroboration with other continental rationalists. They, under the influence of science wanted to provide philosophy with the exactness of mathematics. They were very optimistic that given human reason appropriate method that it can discover the nature of the universe and basic truth upon which other truth can be deduced.

This end René Descartes found in his methodic doubt. He looked for it in former education but could not find anything certain without shaky foundation like mathematical axiom. He embarked upon traveling round the world in which he hope to study ‘the great book of the world.’ This travels were not for sightseen but an intellectual journey, an adventure in his quest for certainty in knowledge. This also failed him.

Now, he decided to make an inward journey like in the Socratic dictum ‘Man know thyself’ and that ‘unexamined life is not worth living.’ Also in the Augustinian advice ‘Return within yourself, in inward man dwells truth.’ This inward journey he made and like Archimedean ‘Eureka’ Descartes exclaimed ‘I think, therefore I exist.’

How certain is this aphorism in line with Descartes’ intention to philosophy? Is this dictum clear and distinct enough that he and others cannot doubt it? Is there no ground for falsification of this principle upon which Descartes deduced his other claimed indubitable principles like existence of himself, God, and certainty? Does human existence wholly consist in thought or consciousness as Descartes asserts in his axiom, ‘Cogito Ergo Sum?’ What are the components of this thinking thing? To what extent is this thinking thing is at the centre of philosophical enquiry?

            These and more formed the thrust of my exposition of human person in René Descartes’ philosophical – I think, therefore I exist.

In this work I adopted expository, analytic, critical and evaluative methods. The entire work is carried out in five chapters. Chapter one captures a general survey of the concept ‘personhood’ via its historical antecedent and other allied terms associated with personhood. Chapter two was devoted to literature review. Chapter three was an exposition and analytic approach to the philosophical corpus of René Descartes. Chapter four centers on the theory of personalism. The last chapter was a critical evaluation of my exposition so far. I made a critique of Descartes’ egocentric notion of human person with Igbo concept of the same human person. My conclusion was, an affirmation of Descartes legacy in human person, which is his discovery of consciousness as an exclusive and uniquely feature of the human person that made him most superior among other animals.

                                                 CHAPTER ONE

  • A GENERAL SURVEY OF THE IDEA OF PERSONHOOD
    • HISTORICAL ANTECEDENT TO PERSONHOOD

Aristotle in his opening statement in his metaphysics says ‘man by nature desire to know’.1 This inborn desire in man spurred the ancient philosophers – Thales, Empedocles, Heraclitus, et cetera to wonder about the basic stuff of which nature is made. For Thales, the basic unity that underlines all the multiplicity of things in our experience is water. Empedocles took up pluralism as against Thales monism and included in the water, air, earth and fire as the basic stuff of which nature is made. Love and strife he said is the principle of unity and individuation between them. Then Heraclitus went against the permanence of the basic stuff, says that change is the ultimate and that most of our experiences of stability and permanence are merely how things appear to be.

Socrates (470 – 399 B.C) shifted attention from the world to man when he called the latte to self-introspection thus ‘Man know thyself’ and in another place advised; ‘An unexamined life is not worth living.’2

This swift from cosmology to anthropology occasioned various ideas of man by philosophers of different races, cultures, and epoch. For some man is better known from his activities – personality. For others, man is known in his environment.

Having discovered man’s Thrownness in this world, he has continued to inquire into his nature and has not ceased from forming ideas both of himself and the world. Jacques Maritain captures this tendency of man when he states: “…every great period of civilization is dominated by a certain peculiar idea that man fashions of himself”3. This was in his bid to actualize his manifold aspirations in the world.

The term person was not in use during the Socratic era; however, the idea was sported in Platonic – Socratic answer to Crito’s question, if you die how can we bury you? Socrates answered: ‘…That is if you can catch me … when I have drunk the poison I shall remain with you no longer, but depart to a state of heavenly happiness …’4 This Socratic ‘I’ in the above quotation resides with the soul and not in the body. It departs immediately after the separation of the soul from the body has been affected. This ‘I’ is what later philosophers called ‘person.’

Plato’s (C – 428-348 B.C) treatment of man is dualistic. Man, for him, is made up of two disparate elements, that is, body and soul joined together through an unhappy fellowship.5 Plato made this vivid in his Law where he notes;

…so too we must believe him when he asserts that the soul is wholly superior to the body and that in actual life what makes each of us to be what he is, is nothing else than the soul, while the body is a semblance which attends on each of us, …but that which is the real self of each of us, and which we term the immortal soul, depends to the presence of other gods6

Here, Plato implies that the human soul uses the body for the exercise of its earthly activities and the soul gets liberated from its prison-house (body) at death.                                 Aristotle (384 – 322 B.C) in his De Anima did not propagate the dualistic theory of man. He located man in the Western Scheme of definition. In this he saw the body and the soul of man as matter and form. This he says is the constituent of the entity called man. He further said that, the soul cannot act or be acted upon without the body and even thinking itself requires a body as a condition for its exercise. If the reverse becomes the case, then, soul will have a separate existence. In a situation whereby it cannot, then, its separate existence is impossible. In his concluding remarks on this he said; ‘The probability seems that all the affections of the soul involves a body and as the pupil plus the power of sight constitutes the eye, so the soul plus the body constitutes the animal.’7

           The schools of thought that flourished after Aristotle in the Hellenistic world were the Cynicism, Skepticism and Epicureanism. They have various concepts about human person. The cynics could not find any good in this world. This indifference of theirs about the world made nonsense of the value of the human person because they abolished sympathy and feelings of affection. For the skeptics, there is no possibility of any knowledge. So, we cannot know what constitutes the human person. Epicurus championed pleasure as the goal of life. The above notions formed the basis of the contemporary materialism which caused the degradation of the human person.

Moreover, it should be noted that upon till this stage in the human history the term ‘person’ was alien. It was introduced by medieval Christian philosopher – St. Augustine, on his bid to describe the doctrine of Holy Trinity with a term that will maintain the undividedness of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit without distorting their individuality. This he found in the Latin word ‘persona’ and Greek word ‘hypostasis’ meaning person. Battista Mondin guarantees the Christian origin of the term ‘person’ when he opines: ‘The singularity of the person, unique and unrepeatable… is a truth carried, affirmed and diffused by Christianity…’8 The truth affirmed and diffused here with person is that the ‘True God is one Trinity and a Trinity in one God.’ This is the fruit of reflection and meditation on the mystery of Incarnation and Holy Trinity.

Modern period corroded the Cosmo-centric and Theo-centric studies of man and inaugurated the anthropocentric perspective in the study of man. This new alteration in philosophy was the brainchild of the continental rationalist René Descartes who sought to give philosophy the exactness of mathematics. To do this, he employed the approach of methodic doubt. The process of methodic doubt was halted when Descartes declared:

But immediately afterward, I notice that, while I wanted thus to think that everything was false; it necessarily had to be the case that I, who was thinking this was something. And noticing that this truth – I think, therefore I am – was so firm and so assured that all the most extravagant suppositions of the skeptics were incapable of shaking it, I judge that I could accept it without scruple as the first principle of the philosophy I was seeking9

Descartes having discovered his person as an existent entity (sum), he equally discovered his nature as a thinking thing, – ‘Sum Res Cogitans’ and he cannot think without existing. Hence his axiom – ‘Cogito Ergo Sum’ – I think, therefore I am. He proceeded from this axiom to deduce the existence of other bodies.

This corroding of the past and inauguration of anthropocentric study of man initiated what is called today modern philosophy.

In the contemporary period, this anthropocentric bent led to the eruption of many fields of studies such as psychology, psychoanalysis, sociology, cybernetics, cultural anthropology etc all aiming at a better understanding of man. Despite all the information given by the above disciplines about man, Mondin says: ‘nothing about the true nature of man taken globally or about his prime origin and ultimate destiny.’10 In conclusion Mondin recommends that: ‘‘The study of man needs to again be undertaken from the beginning: …a method that will guarantee success in this difficult endeavour.’11 The difficult endeavour therein is the study of man. On this note Martin Heidegger aptly summarized the futility therein in the study of man both in the past and the probability of same in the present era when he writes:

No epoch has had as ours has had, notions so numerous and varied of man. No epoch has succeeded as ours in presenting its knowledge about man in such a fascinating and effective way, in communicating this knowledge in so rapid and easy a way. Yet, it is also true that no epoch has known less than ours what man is. Never has man assumed so problematic an appearance as he has in our times

The above assertion affirms the enigma in the study and knowledge of man. This should be of no surprise to anybody since man assumes the position of both subject and object of his own knowledge.

  • OTHER ALLIED TERMS TO PERSONHOOD

Person, personality and individuality are three correlated concepts that always involve in the study of man. Man is a person, he is an individual and he has personality. The question then is what is the difference between these three concepts?

1.2.1    PERSON

The word ‘person’ in its ordinary usage is an individual (human) being.’13 In its grammatical usage, it is used to clarify classes of pronoun and verb forms of the speaker, the spoken to and spoken of in their singularity and plurality. This is apparent in the conjugation of the verb ‘To be’ I am, you are, he/she/it is; first, second and third persons’ singular respectively. In addition, the plural forms of persons are; we are, you are and they are respectively. The above categorization is meant for intelligible communication.

Meanwhile, the meaning of the word ‘persona’ in its etymological and historical underpinning has stirred up clouds of controversy since its emergence in the theological and philosophical fields.

The first group in this debate traced the word persona (Latin) to the Greek word ‘prosopon’ as used by actors of Grecian stage of the mask, and later to the Roman actor –

Roscius Gallus.14 Some critics objected to this on the ground that the word ‘persona’ has undergone great changes. They claimed that ‘Persona’ is derived from per soma (around the body) and per sonare.15 Nedoncelle also rejected the translation of the Greek word ‘prosopon’ as person instead of the Etruscan word ‘pherusus’16

However, the ontological approach to person by Severin Beothius allotted rational nature to person. Psychological analysis of man find person in the cognitive ability such as self-consciousness. Dialogical perspective placed person at the interpersonal relationship. Global approach combined rationality, self-consciousness, interpersonal relationship and self-transcendence to form a person. Taking person as a being entity or thing incorporates plants, stone, animals and other concrete entities.

Nevertheless, the term person as used here is exclusive for human being in his entire reality as against plants and animals, which are beings of a different category. Personhood is, therefore, the condition of being a person which include; rationality, self-consciousness and inter-personal relationship. What then becomes of a person who lacks all these properties? This has been the anchor of the supporters of abortion, euthanasia, infanticide other forms of discrimination and crimes against individual persons and humanity.

It is obvious that every human life begins with parents’ life seeds. These seeds turn into foetus at fertilization. Foetus matures into a child, a child into adolescence. Adolescence matures into early, later, and late (aged) adulthood. No normal human person has ever made a jump of these developmental stages in human nature.

The life expressed thus is a three dimensional mutual symbiotic relationship. That is to say, that adults parents nurture the foetus to childhood, childhood to adolescence and to early and later adulthood. Then the adult child takes charge of his/her aged parent.

It is only those who are alive are rational, conscious and relate to one another. Assuming that you are not alive, what will happen to those properties in you? That those properties are latent in foetus, and not utilized in the aged is not a guarantee for their outright annihilation. Hence, whoever aborts foetus or kill a child or aged on the reasons of the above properties in human person, is doing injustice not only to human nature and natural law but also to oneself. Death is a natural phenomenon that is inescapable by all. It should not be induced because it will surely come when it will come.

  • PERSONALITY:

The New Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language; International Edition described person as ‘The totality of the psychological, intellectual, emotional and physical especially as others see him’17

Some scholars use personality as a synonym for ‘person’ and sometimes for ‘character’. But it is quite erroneous to use personality as synonym for ‘person’ because that a person has the potentialities of understanding, of making choice, behaviour, self-identity and personal relations is different from the habit the person formed to actualized and stabilize these potentialities. It is in the habit of a person that the personality of the person lies. Personality as the character of a person marks the person out among others as abstracted from his behaviour, internal inference such as genetic, biological propensities, social experiences, and changing environmental circumstances. Those account for consistent patterns of behaviour and continuity within a person18

Then again, rationality has been discovered as one of the characteristics of a person. For this reason, man became subject to moral law with responsibility and freedom that follows it. On this count, Omeregbe J. observes ‘The fact that the concept of personality is inseparably linked with that of rationality makes it also inseparably linked with the concept of morality. Only a rational being can be a moral being, just as only a rational being can be a person.’19

From the foregoing, one can validly infer that personality connotes rationality, morality, responsibility, and freedom. Since this is the case of personhood, it makes sense to ask: when does then a person attain this personhood? These properties of a person created a fertile ground for the supporters of abortion to argue for their crime against humanity.

To such obnoxious person(s) I would say that they should be on the known that rationality, morality, responsibility and freedom are just judgment we make of a person at a certain age as an ‘Imago Dei’ bound by natural and human laws. Therefore, to distort or eliminate human life based on the above artificially is to nip life from the bud and such individual(s) is/are liable to natural and human laws.

  • INDIVIDUALITY

In its ordinary meaning, it is the characteristics that belongs to a particular person or thing and that makes them different from others. Individuality here is the same as particularity, that is, the concrete existent reality as against universality which is abstracted from the particulars. Individuality here also could be individual existent being or collective entities like society. Jacques Maritain puts it thus:

Individuality is opposed to the state of universality, which things have in the mind. It designates that concrete state of unity and indivision, required by existence, in virtue of which every actually or possible existing nature can posit itself in existence as distinct from other being20

Evident in the above passage is that individuality is the principle of distinction, identity, uniqueness, singularity, and particularity proper to the existence of subsistent existent.

The angelic Doctor – Thomas Aquinas – distinguished individual from individuum when he described individual as ‘An entity that spurns all universality by reason of its intrinsic individuality and exclusivity” and individum as ‘that which is in itself an undivided unit, and is distinguished from all other thing’. 21This description entails principle of individuation that marks a person as an individual singular and unique person.

Man as a composite being is composed of matter and form that form two

substantial co-principles of the same being. orporeal being is individual because of matter. Their specific form is not individual by reason of their own entity, but by reason of their extraordinary relation to matter. In the case of pure spirit or form like Angels, they are individual by reason of that which constitutes their substantial intelligibility.

Against this backdrop, man, stone, plant, dog, Angel are each individual. Individual is, therefore, an entity, which exists undivided and distinct from every other. Thus, individuality excludes from oneself all that other ones are and includes in oneself all that other ones are not.

Finally, a person is a subsistent reality with rationality as against irrational creature. Personality we understood as those qualities in a person in which he fully realizes his personhood. Individuality as we have seen is the principle of unit, particular, unique as opposed to universality. J.E. Royce succinctly summarized this thus:

A person is a person-to-be achieved: integration of the personality is a lifelong self-constituting process. Man’s complex nature is not fixed, static, and universal. He is an individual, not merely evolving but developing himself by his own active encounter with the rest of being22

That is to say that person, individuality and personality are thus bound up in a natural unity in man. This is because, it is in one singular man that the terms, ‘person’ ‘individuality’ and ‘personality’ are used to described him as an entity different from other beings, different from himself and has peculiar character. Thus reviewed one can say that man is as old as his own history. And man consists in person, personality and individuality

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Collection of Philosophy and Religion Projects

1 Aristotle, Metaphysics, Bk 1 Ch. 1., 980a

2 Plato, Apology ,38a

3 J. Evan & L. Ward (eds), The Social and Political Philosophy of Jacques Maritain, Selected Readings. (Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1976), 165

4 Plato, Phaedo, 115C, D.

5 Plato, Republic, 611b– C.

6 Plato, Laws, 959, cf. Phaedrus, 248C – 246A

7 Aristotle, De Anima, Book I. Ch. I., 403a.

8 Battista Mondin, Philosophical Anthropology , (Rome: Urbaniana University Press 1985), 244

9 René Descartes, Discourse on Method and Meditation on First Philosophy, trans. Donald A. Cress (Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Co., 1998), 18.

10 Battista Mondin, Philosophical Anthropology, 8

11 Ibid.

13 Dictionary, Oxford Advanced Learner’s 5th ed.

14 Colonbus N. Ogbujah, The Idea of Personhood, (Enugu: Snap press Ltd., 2006), 56.

15 Ibid.

16 Ejioku E. Amaku, The Philosophical Foundations of Human Dignity in the Thought of Thomas Aquinas, (Lagos: Victojo production surveyed), 39.

17 Dictionary. The New Webster’s Dictionary of The English Language; International Edition.

18 Columbus N. Ogbujah, The Idea of Personhood, 63

19 Joseph Omoregbe, Metaphysics Without Tears: A Systematic and Historical Study, (Nigeria: Joja Press Ltd, 1996), 36

20 Jacques Maritain, Person and Common Good, (Indianas: Notre Dame press 1966), 38

21 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica,.I, E. 29, a – 4

22 Royce, Man and Meaning , (New York: McGrew – Hill Book Co. 1969), 211

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