I Think, Therefore I Am – An Individual

How the modern ideal of individuality can leave us adrift in a value-free world

One of the definitive texts of modern Western culture, Descartes’ Meditations, begins with the reflections of an isolated individual, secluded from the world. Solus secedo, says the meditator: “I withdraw on my own” – away from society, away from anything that might distract me from the individual task of reflecting on my essence and nature, and on the basis of my knowledge.

A few years earlier, in 1637, Descartes had published his Discourse, containing perhaps the most celebrated dictum in all of modern philosophy, Je pense donc je suis, “I am thinking, therefore I exist.” It is no accident that this foundational premise of Descartes’ philosophy is expressed in the first person. It is not a general social pronouncement, or an abstract scientific truth. Rather, it is an individual item of awareness. Each individual must see for his or herself that, so long as he or she is thinking, then there must exist an ego, a subject of consciousness. Reality is, from the start, mediated via a process of private, individual reflection. Probably about the same time as he was working on the Meditations, Descartes wrote a dramatic dialogue, never finished, La Recherche de la Vérité (The Search for Truth). Here, the individuality of his approach is underlined even more stridently. “A good man,” Descartes tells us, “is not required to have read every book or diligently mastered every doctrine taught in the schools.” On the contrary, he needs to purge himself of most if not all of what he has been taught if he is to develop a reliable system of knowledge.

There then follows an extraordinary manifesto: “I shall bring to light the true riches of our souls, opening up to each of us the means whereby we can find within ourselves, without any help from anyone else, all the knowledge we may need for the conduct of life and the means of using it in order to acquire all the most abstruse items of knowledge that human reason is capable of possessing.”

It sounds impossible, arrogant, exaggerated – particularly the vaunted self-sufficiency of that phrase “without any help from anyone else”. Nevertheless, it captures something crucial about what has since become modernity’s conception of independent rational inquiry. According to this modern conception, the authentic search for truth always requires a preparedness to set aside received wisdom or the authority of the past. Each of us is in one sense on our own, in the struggle to achieve a rationally secure understanding of what we can know, how we should live, and what is our human place in the scheme of things.

Descartes does not use the word “autonomy”. But as we move from the early?modern period forward to the Enlightenment, the message of Cartesian individualism gathers momentum. Not just in the abstract search for knowledge, but in our ethics and our whole worldview, it begins to be felt that each of us must strike out on our own, deciding for ourselves what is or is not acceptable. For Immanuel Kant, “the basis of the dignity of human nature and of every rational nature” is that aspect of our will whereby it must be considered as selbstgesetzgebend (“giving the law to itself”). No longer do we subordinate ourselves to a supposed higher reality: no longer do we say with Dante, E’n la sua volontade è nostra pace (“and in His will is our peace”). Instead, we are individual, self-determining, self-deciding, autonomous agents.

How do things stand today? It is often said (indeed it is almost a cliché to say) that we now live in a “post-Enlightenment” or a “post-modernist” age. It has become fashionable in many academic circles to challenge some of the assumptions of the Enlightenment (and some of those challenges may be valuable); but in many respects I think it is clear that the Enlightenment value of individual autonomy still exerts a powerful hold on us. But what exactly does the ideal of individual autonomy amount to; and would we really be better off jettisoning it?

Autonomy was originally a classical Greek concept, applied in the ancient world to the power of a city state to enact its own laws and customs (as opposed to being ruled from outside). Such self-determination seems a pretty good thing. It can’t have been very nice when the royal Danish messenger sailed into Reykjavik in the mid-16th century and announced to the devout Catholic population of Iceland that, like it or not, from now on they were going to be Protestants. Whatever our sympathies towards the Reformation, we are inclined to think that people should be allowed to decide such issues for themselves. Our awareness of global interdependence has perhaps altered this a bit in recent years. It’s arguably a good thing for the French to decide their energy policy for themselves, but if they want to build nuclear power stations all along their remote and sparsely populated northern coast (which just happens to be the other side of the English channel), we may not be so keen on national autonomy.

But national autonomy is one thing, individual autonomy another. What exactly does it mean to say that an individual should enjoy personal autonomy? Going back to Kant for a moment, what he regards as important about the autonomous agent is the ability to make decisions independently of the arbitrary will of another, acting in the full light of reason, free from internal or external interference with one’s rational processes. Hence to be autonomous I must be free from external tyranny, and also from the internal interference of unruly passions, raw appetites or fleeting inclinations.

That seems fairly sensible and uncontroversial. Essentially, it is the idea of a protected space of freedom. In the first place I want freedom from external interference: I need to be free of the threat of being bullied by others. And in the second place, I need to take my decisions, according to my lights, on the basis of rational evaluation, rather than being buffeted about by passions I cannot fully understand or control. Both these ideas, freedom from external threat and from internal disorder, are ancient themes in philosophy, and have long been regarded as essential ingredients of the good life. So far then, Kantian individual autonomy seems a straightforward and benign concept.

But there is another, more suspect, conception of individual autonomy, sometimes associated with the progressive secularisation of our culture. This is the fantasy of humanity as somehow “self-creating”, in the sense that we should be able to generate our own values by an act of will. In this fantasy, there are no objective values, merely projections by human beings of their own individual preferences. Friedrich Nietzsche, who is perhaps the most significant promoter of this idea, seems to have supposed that humans (of an exalted type) could somehow create meaning and value for themselves by a grand volitional act – a notion that involves serious confusion. I cannot, of course, make something valuable by choosing or willing it (as if I could make cardboard nutritious by deciding to eat it). Indeed, this idea precisely puts the cart before the horse, since in reality my choices or acts of will can be worthwhile only in so far as their objects already have independent value.

The idea that we should create our own values was associated by Nietzsche with the death of God. Once human beings abandon the idea of an objective and eternal guarantor of value, there is no recourse but to do the job ourselves. Each of us has to tread the lonely path of the “new philosopher”, as Nietzsche puts it in Beyond Good and Evil (1886), someone with a spirit “strong enough to revalue and invert eternal values”.

Apart from the arrogance, the near-insanity, of this fantasy, there is the logical problem I’ve already referred to: it simply can’t be done. We are not gods (and arguably even if we were, we could not create value by some kind of fiat of the will).

Could society fill the gap that the isolated individual cannot plug? This brings me back to Descartes and the meditator pursuing his lonely, isolated search for truth. Much of philosophy in the last 60 years has been engaged in a sustained attack on this Cartesian idea of a solipsistic, individual quest for knowledge. Ludwig Wittgenstein was the most prominent champion of the attack when he lambasted the “Cartesian privacy”. Thought and language, for Wittgenstein, are inherently public, socially mediated phenomena. So it is a radical confusion to suppose that an isolated individual could construct knowledge from the inside outwards. Even in the supposed starting point, the Cogito, even in thinking and reflecting and doubting, the very fact of my using thoughts and concepts already implies that I am part of a public, language-using community.

Wittgenstein’s emphasis on the social dimension of language harks back to an interpersonal strand in Kant’s philosophy. Despite Kant’s emphasis on autonomy, my individual rational will is, for Kant, constrained by the fact that I am in a community of similarly rational agents: it is only rational for me to will a certain course of action on the assumption that everyone has similar authority to exercise their own will in a like manner. So Kant’s project implicitly rejects Cartesian “privacy”. What Kant calls the “tribunal, which will assure to reason its lawful claims” is from the start a public tribunal. Modern philosophy comes of age as the Cartesian “I” gives way to the Kantian “we”.

Let us draw the threads together, before seeing how far this Kantian line can get us. First, we have the Cartesian ideal, that each of us should try to use the powers of reason to seek the truth according to our own lights, free from the burden of preconceived opinion or received doctrine. This is a noble ideal, which defines much that is precious in the emergence of modern Western culture. Second, and flowing from this, we have the Enlightenment ideal of autonomy. This also deserves to be respected, in so far as it upholds the significance of individual choice, free from external bullying and the internal tyranny of irrational emotion. So despite the current fashionable denigration of modernity and the Enlightenment, its core values of individuality and independence still have much to teach us. But, third, that exalting of the individual carries serious risks, if it degenerates into the Nietzschean fantasy that anyone can create value for themselves by an act of individual choice. Individual choice is valuable only if it is directed to an object that is independently good.

But how do we decide what is independently and objectively good? Descartes was a sincere religious believer, a devout Catholic, who never doubted that his individual reason was illuminated by the eternal divine source of truth and goodness, whose spark was innate in all of us. Whether such resonant, theistically-based objectivism is tenable is far too big a topic to embark on here. Suffice it to say that the so-called post-modernist climate of our own age is highly suspicious of grand claims of ethical objectivity, preferring instead to stress the contingency of various forms of local discourse, each with its own criteria for value. But that seems to leave us in a kind of limbo – a fluctuating ebbing and flowing of different competing currents, with nothing to rescue the individual from being carried away by whatever eddy or flow happens to drag him about from moment to moment.

Does the Kantian idea of interpersonal rationality offer a way out? Can I start with the beliefs and desires I have as an individual, and by subjecting them to the rational constraint of debate with individuals like myself, arrive at a consensus that we all can accept? Is something like the Kantian “kingdom of ends” possible, a society where each of us is respected in his individual autonomy precisely because, and in so far as, he affords similar respect to the autonomy of others?

To end on a negative and perhaps controversial note, I doubt it. Or rather, I doubt if this can be the whole story. For the Kantian apparatus of rational social debate offers us only negative constraints: it prohibits courses of action that cannot be chosen by all, but it does not in itself provide substantive positive values and goals for a worthwhile human life. We are back with the problem that values cannot be conjured out of nothing. The autonomous individual will on its own, even when socially constrained by rational debate with other individuals, cannot determine the right path without a substantive vision of the good to guide it.

For Descartes, the requisite kind of moral vision was generated by Christian metaphysics, the objectivity of whose value system, for all his vaunted programme of doubt, he never seriously questioned. As understood by Descartes, the physical world is one that we can understand and scientifically control as a result of the God-given power of reason. But that same power of reason also enables us to perceive what is objectively good. Despite our many flaws and weaknesses, a benevolent creator has given every single human being the power to dispose their will so as to resolve to pursue that good. This secure metaphysical underpinning for his ethics perhaps accounts, more than anything else, for the pervasive optimism we find in Descartes’s moral writings, and his sense that true “tranquillity of soul” was within the grasp of all. Whether our own contemporary worldview, cut adrift from such a sustaining metaphysics, can find a basis for recovering that tranquillity is something that remains to be seen.

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