Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘Descartes’

Winter in Maine…We Go Dark

In Philosophy on February 28, 2013 at 6:00 am

Let’s fish deep today. As deep as 500 words (give or take) will allow.

First, pardon me if I’m about to wax too philosophical. It’s winter in Maine, and we retreat, hibernate, go dark. Come spring things will look up.

The Father of Modern Philosophy, Rene Descarte

The Father of Modern Philosophy, Rene Descartes

Suppose for a moment that you’re out and about on the town, and suddenly a degree of self-doubt washes over you such that you’ve never experienced before. So deep is this doubt, that, indeed, you’re not even certain you exist–you are so very, so profoundly, freaked out. You escape to your room trembling. You have one of those exquisite dark nights of the soul and by morning you have concluded that you only know one thing truly: that you are thinking. And, you assure yourself, if you are thinking, then you must in fact exist. With this knowledge you rest easy and nod off to sleep.

This is the foundation of modern western philosophy. Cogito Ergo Sum, said Descartes. I think, therefore I am.

Now, fast forward a few centuries. You’re extremely cool, sitting at a cafe on St-Germain-des-Prés, the west bank of the Seine, smoking black cigarettes, sipping wine and watching the world go by. You are feeling especially philosophical and it occurs to you: How

Sartre, the Father of Existentialism, as photographed by Cartier Bresson.

Sartre, the Father of Existentialism, as photographed by the great Cartier Bresson.

could you possibly even think if you didn’t first exist? Why, it’s not thinking that comes first, it is existence. I is not, I think therefore I am, but: I am, therefore I think. You have just erected the cornerstone to existentialism. You’ve turned Descartes inside out. You are a genius. But then you know that.

The most fundamental contribution of the existentialists is simple: existence comes first. Everything else follows.

And that, friends, is the briefest account of modern philosophy you will likely ever encounter.


But what can we really know?

There is a philosophical mind game that goes as follows: You are nothing but a brain under glass. There are tubes and wires coming and going from your brain and coursing through these tubes and wires are stimuli, thoughts, and emotions. This input is nothing more than the machinations of an evil scientist. You think you exist because the evil scientist has programmed your brain to believe it so…and so forth. How can you possibly prove this is not the case? If you’re a Cartesian, you’re stuck under the glass. You are thinking. Period. There is no: …therefore, I am. You really can’t prove anything. Robert Nozick put it this way: “How is it possible that we know anything, given the facts the skeptic enumerates, for example, that it is logically possible we are dreaming or floating in a tank with our brain being stimulated to give us exactly our current experiences and even all our past ones?”

I don’t have an answer for that. Perhaps you should read Nozick? Or maybe, you simply shrug your shoulders and just hold out until spring when you can take your canoe down the Dead River to Flagstaff Lake where you watch the sun set behind the Bigalows. That’s what I think I’ll do.


Want to read Sartre’s thoughts on existentialism, but not suffer through his magnum opus, Being and Nothingness? Consider his landmark essay, “Existentialism is a Humanism,” linked here. Or, perhaps you are feeling lighthearted. If that’s the case, then here you go–now for something completely different:

Thanks for reading.


Like a language disappearing

In Philosophy, The Examined Life, Writing on February 22, 2012 at 7:13 am

I keep a journal. Recently I’ve been using a large Moleskine with thick unlined pages made for sketching and drawing. Ink does not bleed through these pages. Sometimes I sketch in it, but mostly I jot down ideas, quotes and notions. I like the heavy paper. It feels substantial. I mistakenly sometimes think that my ideas are substantial too just by putting them down on such fine paper.

As I sit here at my writing desk I look across my little room and see about two dozen journals on the shelf, in all manner of shape and size, going back many years. Tucked away behind the shelf in storage boxes are yellow pads–the journals of my youth–dozens of them. Back then, thirty years ago and more, I wrote with a pencil and now the oldest pages are hardly discernible. I get a sense of comfort looking at those lost words, marks fading like a language disappearing. I wonder why, after all the words and years of record keeping their disappearance gives me satisfaction? That is obviously at odds with the nature of making a record.

I recently read a short biography of René Descartes. It’s in the book I’m currently reading, Examined Lives by James Miller. Descartes kept a journal at his side at all times. He gave it the name Olympia. He sought a quiet life and often lived like a fugitive, going from place to place, in an effort to escape his fame and pursue his thought-filled solitude. After moving to the Netherlands he wrote in his journal: “I have been able to lead a life as solitary and withdrawn as if I were in the most remote desert.”

I used to be obsessed with leaving evidence of my existence. That was part of what was behind the journals. That obsession, thankfully, no longer haunts me. To the contrary, I am hard at pursuing a course of singular autonomy which seems a lighter and looser obsession. Certainly it does not haunt me. The autonomy I seek feels the antithesis of my previous obsession, a sort of independence of history. But maybe that is just a hopeful imagination at work.

Here is a verse from a poem by Barton Sutter that captures the nuance of what I’m trying to convey. The poem is called TheThousand-foot Ore Boat.

To live until we die–

The job seems just impossible.

The great weight of the past

Pushing us forward, the long future

Thrust out before us, so little room to either side!

The autonomy I suggest is freedom from the weight of the past while avoiding the rush to the future. There is little about modern life that affords this notion of freedom. Perhaps that is the hook of my attention, being a simplistic contrarian. Regardless, one of the (few) benefits of maturation is coming to accept the inconsistencies of (my) life.


Just as a note: the words “singular autonomy,” used above, were pulled from my current notebook. The one with the thick pages. As a rebellious exercise against Cartesian methodology I choose not to give it a name.

Phase of Authenticity

In Philosophy, Photography, The Examined Life, Truth on March 1, 2010 at 7:17 pm

Is it just me, or do other people feel less authentic than they used to? It’s probably just me. I’m not even sure what I mean when I say authentic, but I know it when I feel it. (Kind of like Supreme Court Justice Stewart in 1964, writing about hard-core porn: “I shall not today attempt further to define…[b]ut I know it when I see it.”) I can’t define it, but I know it when I feel it.

But I am famous, in family circles, that is, of going through phases*. Going through a phase is something I have done all my life in an effort to avoid the static. Really, who wants to be static. Static is roadkill.

I was at dinner last week, a progressive dinner for The Telling Room here in Portland. I had my photographer’s bling around my neck. That would be my Leica MP with a short stubby sexy 28mm lens. (Yes, I am a camera geek/dork…) And the gentleman next to me, of all things, was a pin-hole camera hobbyist. We started talking photographer’s talk, film and f-stops and all that stuff, when someone across the table sort of demeaned the craft, specifically the film-photography craft in the day and age of digital. I said that I was in a life-phase going somewhat analogue, as best I could. Shooting film was a start. Are you, she asked, smiling bedevilingly, ready to stand in a bank queue at 6pm on a Friday night? (Well, for starters, I don’t get a paycheck on Fridays, but I sensed where she was coming from.) Do you remember, she continued, the days before ATMs and computer banking, when the banks stayed open late on Fridays so you could deposit your paycheck? Yes, I lied. I remembered. That was analogue, she said. Touché. Okay, Uncle. I give up. Analogue does not equal authentic. But is it closer? Is listening to vinyl more authentic than listening to my iPod. That’s silly. But…

I sense that the further I get from my origin the less precisely I feel I am living. (A friend, Vernon Hines, once proclaimed, We can never escape our biography.) I’m not sure I can explain that in a manner that warrants serious consideration. It is, after all, an intensely personal comment. But of this I can be sure: There are ways to think about living that are more genuine than other ways and I want to experience them. Again, intensely personal. In general, for starters, it is not about stuff. Despite my bling, stuff turns on you, and ends up owning you before you know it. Aspiring to stuff is aspiring to bondage. Believe me, I know. (“Possessions are a way of turning money into problems,” Brian Eno.) Stuff is not authentic. Style is. (But not the way you think.) Stay tuned.


*Phases: “Phase of Understanding” followed by “Phase of Existence (cogito ergo sum backward)” followed by “Phase of Being Present (my Zen phase)” followed by  current “Phase of Authenticity”