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Strawson's critique of Descartes view of the self


To: Sean K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Strawson's critique of Descartes' view of the self
Date: 10th December 2008 12:44

Dear Sean,

Thank you for your email of 1 December, with your essay for the University of London 'Introduction to Philosophy' module, entitled, 'Strawson's Critique of Immaterial Minds.'

I think that you have got the main thrust of Strawson's argument, which concerns the 'cardinality' (as you term it) of the Cartesian 'thinking substance'.

This is not Strawson's only argument, however, and you start off by citing Strawson's 'prima facie' criticisms of substance dualism on the basis of the way we ordinarily speak about persons. We do not speak about two entities and their different properties, and indeed language would be hard pressed to do this.

I don't agree that Strawson is invoking Wittgenstein's argument against a private language here. Indeed, Strawson is one of the critics of Wittgenstein (see his argument against the 'no-ownership view' of the self in 'Individuals' which many have taken as a response to Wittgenstein). That's why I called his argument 'prima facie'. It is not a knock down argument. If Descartes is right about dualism, then it is incumbent on us to develop the necessary terminology which our current language lacks.

Nor does Strawson's main argument, the argument from cardinality, depend on Wittgenstein's private language argument. Strawson's argument is dialectical: it takes assumptions made by the Cartesian and shows them to be incoherent on their own terms, without the introduction of any external principle other than the logical formula which drives the critique: 'No entity without identity.' It is pretty hard to dispute this claim, although there are cases (e.g. the 'identity' of clouds) where we might want to relax our simple, logical view of objects of reference somewhat.

The argument regarding the identity of the self over time is in fact not Strawson's. Kant put forward essentially the same argument in the section of the 'Critique of Pure Reason' entitled 'The Paralogisms of Pure Reason'. In that section Kant remarks that the 'identity over time' of the Cartesian soul is conceptually indistinguishable from the picture of a series of momentary souls which communicating its states (e.g. memory) to the next like a line of colliding pool balls.

Your example of delivering newspapers in Alaska doesn't quite succeed in getting this idea across. You say, 'Either the feeling that these events are not concurrent is manufactured somehow or they did actually not occur concurrently and I am able to discern veridically that they did not occur concurrently.' Strawson is not challenging the truth of the memory claim that 'Newspapers were delivered in Alaska and I remember that this was so.' What he is challenging is the validity of the claim that 'Newspapers were delivered by *me* in Alaska and I remember that this was so.' If 'I' refers to a momentary 'pool ball' of consciousness, then 'my' memory can be factually correct but false as a memory of something *I* did.

This isn't scepticism, but rather the semantic point that there is no discernible difference between these two hypotheses, on the Cartesian theory.

You raise an issue which is not directly related to Strawson but which is of intrinsic interest. 'How does something without location and extension attach itself to a body?' On the face of it, there are two questions here: First, given that a soul is not located 'in' a body, what kind of fact is it, by virtue of which my soul is attached to my body, rather than the body of someone else? Second, how is it possible that something without location and extension is able to causally interact with the particular body that it interacts with? However, one only has to formulate the questions to realize that in fact the second question answers the first. The only remaining question is that of the 'locus of interaction', and along with that, the seemingly insoluble problem of reconciling the claim of interaction with conservation principles in physics.

The finesse here is that Cartesian physics differs at a crucial point from Newtonian physics. For Descartes, momentum rather than energy is the thing which is conserved. As a consequence, animal spirits as they pass through the pineal gland get an energy-less 'kick' from the soul which changes their direction without violating physical laws.

You also raise the question of how we should think of the self, if not in Cartesian dualist terms. Although you refer to the problems facing the various materialist alternatives which have been proposed, you neglect to mention that Strawson, in 'Individuals' has his own original response to this challenge: Persons and material objects are two metaphysically distinct classes of particular. A 'person' is defined as an entity to which both 'M-' and 'P-' predicates applies, while a material object is an entity to which only 'M-' predicates apply. The beauty of this solution is its steadfast anti-reductionism. But it begs the question, to which Strawson has no answer, 'How can there be such a thing as a person?'

It doesn't seem a very satisfactory answer to say, 'I am only describing our conceptual scheme.' Strawson later regretted the emphasis which others had placed on his claim about 'descriptive metaphysics'. That's not what is important, and indeed ground breaking, about his book. He would agree that mere description is impossible without critique, and, where, necessary, explanation. (I had the very good fortune to be supervised by Strawson for a term when I was doing my graduate studies on Kant at Oxford.) The claim that 'the concept of a person is primitive' is one that needs defence, and it is not acceptable to say, 'That's just how we use the term 'person'.'

All the best,