Descartes on Selfhood, Conscientia, the First Person and Beyond

From Firenze University Press Book: Reading Descartes

University of Florence
4 min readFeb 5, 2024

Andrea Christofidou, University of Oxford

Concern with the metaphysics of selfhood is concern with the metaphysics of conscientia and the relation between two distinct but non-independent elements of first-person thoughts: self-identification and self-ascription. First-person thoughts, or “I”-thoughts, “give rise to the most challenging philosophical questions, which have exercised the most considerable philosophers” (Evans 1981, 300) through the centuries. Here, I examine Descartes’ conception of selfhood and its essential connection to conscientia, and some parts of contemporary philosophy on the first person. I argue that an important part of an answer to the question concerning the peculiarities of the first person — self-identification and self-ascription — is to be found in the notion of conscientia, as used by Descartes, which presupposes and forces into the centre of our thought and enquiries the notion of the self. A striking aspect of Descartes’ lasting legacy is his celebrated first and most indubitable truth, Ego sum, ego existo, “I am, I exist” (Second Meditation, AT 7, 25; CSM 2, 17), which still prompts us to reflect deeply on a number of issues regarding the self, conscientia, and the first person. The metaphysical status of and the relations between all three remain a serious challenge of our times: the cogito is ahistorical. Descartes writes: “I devoted as much effort [to the Second Meditation] as to anything I have ever written” (Second Set of Replies, AT 7, 137; CSM 2, 98). This is unsurprising, since it grapples with one of the most recalcitrant philosophical problems — that of the self — which involves “some of the profoundest philosophy” (Evans 1981, 300). The I of the Meditations is not a mere logical/formal self; logical/formal selves cannot think, act, judge, or synthesise. The logical self is implied by the real self, a subject of thought and activity, or “whatever it is about which a thinker thinks when he thinks about himself” (Evans 1982, 259, n. 2). The self is neither an appendage to personhood — added or subtracted according to our theories — nor supernatural. The self, a natural real and true entity, is the metaphysical and explanatory ground, a source of a unified notion of personhood. Drawing on Descartes’ statement: “my whole self […] can be affected by various […] bodies that surround it” (AT 7, 81; CSM 2, 56), I demonstrate that the “whole self” is the embodied self: a person. I am “a single person with both body and thought [mind]” (letter to Elisabeth of Bohemia, 18 June 1643, AT 3, 694; CSMK, 228).1 It is Descartes’ conception of selfhood that informs his conception of personhood. Once our understanding is freed from intellectual habits that persist in current debates concerning Descartes’ metaphysics (see par. 4 below), his views offer an opportunity to draw important insights.

2. The Structure of Reasoning

Examining Descartes’ metaphysics of conscientia, the aim is not to give a general account of the notion, given its long history, but to offer an elucidation in two inextricably related parts. The first, in par. 5, elucidates conscientia as selfknowledge in a dual sense — not in our modern sense of self-knowledge of immediate access to one’s mental states, “given free by introspection”; conscientia is a hard-won achievement, as we shall see. The second part, in par. 6, elucidates conscientia as self-consciousness, since only a self-conscious being is capable of embarking on self-knowledge and self-scrutiny. Drawing on this, in par. 7, I examine the relation between cogitatio and conscientia and consider the view that Descartes defines cogitatio in terms of conscientia, or treats them as equivalent, labelled “Descartes’ definition of thought” (henceforth, the controversy). In par. 8 I demonstrate Descartes’ significant turn in the metaphysics of mind, and in par. 9 I argue that Descartes anticipates Frege’s subjective/objective distinction. Finally, in par. 10 I turn to the two elements — self-identification and self-ascription — leading from selfhood to personhood. Ultimately, the aim is to develop a basis for a unified account of selfhood, conscientia, the first person, and personhood anchored in the idea of the self’s authority of reason and autonomy of freedom exemplified in Descartes’ works. Such an account, if successful, would resolve the controversy and be philosophically the closest to Descartes’ metaphysics. But first, in par. 3 I offer a preliminary elucidation of Descartes’ conception and use of conscientia. This enables me, in par. 4, to begin clearing the ground of some misconceptions of and misattributions to Descartes’ philosophical commitments. This task is necessary if I am to proceed in an orderly way and demonstrate conscientia’s centrality to his metaphysics.

DOI: 10.36253/979–12–215–0169–8.03

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