This year I will appear on stage on occasion of “The Night of Philosophy” 2016 (“Die Nacht der Philosophie”, in Vienna’s “zur rezeption”, Sperlgasse 6, 1020 Vienna, at 19:00 o’clock.
The title of my performance is “I (do not) think (my own thoughts), therefore I am (not)” (“Ich denke (nicht meine Gedanken), also bin ich (nicht)”).
This title is, of course, a critique of Descartes’ famous saying “I think, therefore I am”. Let me say some words about Descartes: I have never taken Descartes’ philosophy seriously, because its outcome seems to aim at only one goal: to confirm the dominating beliefs of his epoque. Thus from “I think, therefore I am.” follows the idea of God, because it is an clear idea which, because of its clarity, also has to exist in reality. And God, vice versa, guarantees the reality of the outer world (that is: outside of the thinking subject). From the first moment on, when I came into contact with Descartes’ philosophy, I had the impression of assisting at a foul sleight of hand, and I was never able to take it seriously. On the other hand, I was surprised when I found out that Analytic philosophers take it very seriously, so seriously indeed that they have invented the “brain in the vat”-mind experiment. (But that only shows that I am not too concerned with proofing the reality of the outer world.)
Only recently, however, it came to my mind that also the basic idea of Descartes (which I had taken for granted), is flawed: I just need to compare “I think, therefore I am” with my own experience to understand that it is not true. E.g. after some hard days of work I do need at least one full day (if not more) to come to myself again. It is just not true that I am able to beware the conscience of the fact that I am thinking this when I am thinking thoughts that are not mine and do not evolve from my own motivation.
Anyway, the topic of my “evening” during the “Night of Philosophy” will not just be that Descartes is wrong, but the truth lies in the opposite direction. I will argue that the conscience of your existence is not just something that cannot be lost whatever you think, but that you have to work hard and permanently on your thinking in order to regain it sometimes. Writing a diary regularly is a good means for that end to start with. It also helps if you have a friend with whom you can discuss your ideas in order to develop them further, and who will not stop you after the first words you utter.
By the way, how did I arrive at my criticism of Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am.” A necessary prerequisite for that idea was a series of 6 texts which I wrote for my book “Twisting With the Mind” (“Twisten mit dem Verstand”), tredition, Hamburg 2015, titled: “How will it be when we will have forgotten entirely what ideas are?”
In this series of texts I have tried to describe phenomenologically the following experience: When you try to discuss your ideas with other persons, it happens nowadays quite often – and even more in the case when your discussion partners have an earned an academic degree – that your interlocutors just cut your words by saying something disappointing like: “That’s not true.” The feeling you will have then is that they did not even bother to try to understand the problem you are working on. Instead of that they pulled your statements out into a public world, where of scientific or political assertions and qualified them as “not true in this world”.
This phenomenon I labelled as “oblivion of the concept of the “idea”” for, basically, an idea is “your idea” and to understand an idea that you utter means to understand you, to understand the problem how you see it, and to understand the solution the way you have worked it out. My conclusion in those series of texts therefore was that studies at the university (and not only those in the subject of philosophy) make us forget the concept of what an idea is by forcing us to understand ourselves as living in an objective/scientific/logical world where something like personal ideas does not even exist. In this world all our ideas have to lose their attribute of being our ideas if they want to be considered as valid arguments by ours. In other words, in acadamy and in science we are trained to cultivate a way of thinking which is not our thinking or where thinking is not an activity of ours.
The consequence of this training are conflicts and crashes in interpersonal communication because academics are not longer able to imagine themselves in the shoes of the other person and lack empathy.
Another prerequisite for my ability to understand that Descartes’ Claim “I think, therefore I am.” was a story I once read in a book by José Ortega y Gasset. Gasset related that he was in the zoo observing the monkeys. Those monkeys moved around quickly with all attention directed towards their surroundings in a way, that Ortega fatigued by just watching their constant tension. He concluded that the capacity of thinking must be something that allows you to look into yourself, to be at home in yourself, without beeing forced to watch your environment all the time.
I do not know anything about monkeys (and I suppose that Ortega did not either), but this thought is really inspiring. Its consequences are that thinking does not mean to be focused on something (because the monkeys are focused all the time) thinking it through logically, but that in reality it is completely the other way round. The capacity of thinking means that you are able to refrain from focusing on some problem and look into yourself instead. It means that you are able to daydream, to think wishful thoughts, to listen and wait for the new thoughts that are coming to your mind – in one word, the capacity of thinking means that your are able to think what you want to think and not what your environment forces upon you to think (because this is just what happened to the monkeys in the zoo).
Now compare this to how we learn in school what thinking is: The teacher places a problem in front of us that has nothing to do with us and orders us to think in order to resolve it. In this situation it is the problem of the “good student” that he or she is docile and accepts that order together with the concept of thinking that accompanies it. By doing that, the good student “makes the monkey”, that is he or she is passively focused on the theoretical problem without any capacity to gain mental distance from it and to find his/her own point of view. The bad student preserves his/her own thinking by thinking: “Just leave me alone with that crap!”
The same thing happens with philosophy: In the subject of Philosophy the students taught ideas of famous philosophers which are alien and unrelated to them instead of presenting those philosophers to them as examples of human beings who have thought by themselves. The opposition against and indignation of many people at philosophy is all too undertandable: It is a sign of mental health when you defend yourself against the social requirement of studying things you are not interested in and thinking about thoughts that do not have anything in common with you just because they are important in the History of Philosophy.
In science it is unavoidable to think thoughts that are not yours; let the differencia specifica between science and philosophy be that philosophizing means thinking your thoughts, or finding out which thoughts among all of them are your thoughts. Otherwise it will not only be impossible for the human individual to think indepently, it also will not really exist – because if you always only think the thoughts of others, you are not.