Descartes’ stove: Philosophers and place

Descartes is considered to be the father of modern philosophy. No wonder we’re in such a mess! You’re probably familiar with his theory, but to recap: Descartes considered the possibility that some very powerful, cunning and malicious demon might be deceiving him. He reasons that there is only one attribute which indubitably “does belong to me”, and that is thinking (Descartes, 1640). Thus, he concludes, “I think, therefore I am”.

Descartes' disembodied head

Most of us are aware that we are embodied, and Descartes’ ability to doubt that is profoundly telling.

Some years ago I got chatting to an academic colleague about spiritual experience. By way of a personal example I described a sensual moonlit swim in a woodland pool. He looked at me rather sadly. “That sounds wonderful”, he said, “but I sometimes wonder if I have a body at all”.

Some academic fields seem to encourage such disembodiment, notably perhaps. philosophy.

How did Descartes lose his sense of being embodied? Places can have a profound impact on our thinking, and it’s significant that Descartes reports that he had made an effort to “live as solitary and withdrawn as I would in the most remote of deserts”. This alone would have disturbed his mind, but I note that he finally came to his odd conclusion while spending a “whole day shut up in a room healed by an enclosed stove” (Descartes, 1640).

One moral of this story is that philosophers really should get out more.