Are the ideas of Cartesian philosophy (example of an old and well known ideology that clearly hasn't impact just because people read it) really so spead throughout the present-day Western culture, that it actually does play a role in the present-day thinking?

I encountered this attitude while reading an essay about enviromentalism and the roots of the anthropocentrism.

I'm counting in the ideas we have from the second hand, the subconscious attitude and linguistic aspects as well.

The point of the question is to examine the preservation of the philosophical movements.


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    For sure, the mind-body dualism had a quite big "success" in the last five centuries... Also the "mechanical" vorldview was mainly due to Descartes' Physics and philosophy. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Apr 14 '16 at 6:16
  • Some of the details in your question confuse me (especially "the example of an old ideology" which makes the choice of Cartesianism seem willy-nilly ), but Cartesianism is in very many ways a predecessor of much current thought. It's also a boogeyman used in some fields (oddly this include some of the same fields that depend on his ideas). But what exactly are you hoping for in an answer here? – virmaior Apr 14 '16 at 6:51

Today, the impact of Descartes’ doctrines like the doctrine of most other philosophers is restricted to academic philosophy. Outside of the academic world philosophical doctrines from epistemology do not play any role – different than thoughts from ethics and political philosophy.

Nevertheless Descartes has a certain impact on present academic philosophy:

  • Nearly every textbook on cognitive science deals with the mind-body problem and recalls Descartes’s dualist view on res extensa versus res cogitans. Not to praise his solution but to show the difficulty of the problem.

  • Concerning the history of philosophy, Descartes was educated in Scholastic thinking but made a fresh start to free himself from Scholastic theories and to follow the paradigm of mathematics. One can discuss whether this change was even a revolution in the sense of Kuhn. Nevertheless one can easily find passages where Descartes stays in the realm of scholastic thinking, e.g., emphazising the importance of God in his epistemology.

  • Part II of Descartes’ Discours de la Mèthode (1637) contains a short introduction to academic research and writing which is still valid today.

  • "Outside of the academic world philosophical doctrines from epistemology do not play any role" - I disagree. Empiricism, an epistemic doctrine, has definitely had an effect on modern culture. – Alexander S King Apr 14 '16 at 20:34
  • @Alexander S King I would change the term "empiricism" to the term "natural science". Then I agree, of course. – Jo Wehler Apr 14 '16 at 20:55
  • @Mauro ALLEGRANZA What is your point? Because I agree concerning the impact of "natural science". - I consider much lesser the impact of the scientific worldview. - But with all courtesy to the group of academic philosophers making research in epistemology I consider their impact on our culture quite marginal. - Of course one can discuss these points because they seem a bit dependent on one's own opinion. – Jo Wehler Apr 15 '16 at 11:12

This answer is informal, but too long to put as a comment:

  • Cartesian coordinates are definitely part of everyday culture, and taught to middle school and high school students every where. That would a be a definite case of Descartes thinking influencing present day culture, even if its in the area of math, not philosophy per se.
  • As others have mentioned, most lay people subscribe to a Cartesian dualism with regards to the mind body problem. John Searle mentions in his lectures that "The man on the street is a Cartesian". More important however is not Cartesian dualism in itself, but the way he framed the mind-body problem which has been most influential and has had a long lasting effect on modern culture. His framing of the mind body question pretty much drives all of modern philosophy of mind, even if his answer to it (i.e. substance dualism) isn't really accepted by anyone anymore.
  • I've read somewhere that Sartre's ontology is Cartesian, but I can't tell you the exact reference nor do I know enough about Sartre to elaborate any further.
  • Hm...that's a good point, that Cartesianism didn't have to affect any of our attituedes or ideas we share, but the way we question the problem. Thanks. – Probably Apr 14 '16 at 19:37

I am not sure it is always Cartesian in flavor, as the core of these ideas goes back farther into our religious history, but mind-body dualism and what Daniel Dennett calls the 'Cartesian Theater of the Mind' is a very hard thing to escape in our culture. Descartes did not really invent the aspects of his philosophy that are still with us everywhere, but he captured them clearly for all time. And we have a great deal of difficulty escaping them.

We rely heavily on the idea that there is an 'observer within' and that the body is just a device of the 'underlying soul' in many ways in common speech, in our religious thinking, and in other more subtle ways. For instance, our medical thinking about euthanasia is infected with the odd notion that a suffering human is unlike a suffering dog or other animal -- and that traces directly back to the doctrine of dualism and the separate soul.

Our attachment to the soul doctrine, and thus implicitly to Descartes' mediated dualism, makes it hard to imagine how the mind might have evolved, how the parts of our logic develop in babies and do not all come into being together in a single package, how perception and thought are integrated in situ and not serialized (neither comes first), how our language production processes are not mediated in the same way as our internal dialogue, etc., etc., etc.

We know these things are facts from physiological investigations -- reaction timing data in particular. But we find it very hard to elaborate models that allow for them because we cannot escape the biases captured and formalized by Descartes.

Dennett's "Consciousness, Explained" enumerates a lot of arguments against the "Cartesian Theater" and the whole book explicitly tries to give good alternatives for the Cartesian explanations that are tied too strongly to it.

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