It's Time to Break Up With Descartes

We are so much more than our intellect.

Posted Sep 30, 2018

Tero Vesalainen
Source: PIxabay

The Cartesian split between mind and body, and rejection of the spirit, is one of the primary pillars of the worldview of most secular North Americans. It was Rene Descarte who wrote, "I think therefore I am," placing the rational intellect at the centre of our conceptions of self. And this primacy of place given to the intellect has been a feature of mainstream Western culture ever since.

Prior to the Enlightenment period, starting in the 17th century, the typical understanding of the human person was a religious one and this mapping included mind, emotions, body and soul. The cascade of effects from the adoption of this Cartesian worldview was the disenchantment of nature, animals and a focus on the strictly rational and quantifiable. As a result the human body and mind has largely been understood using the metaphor of a machine.

It is generally taken for granted by many that a rational, analytical, empiricist view is the only proper way to grapple with reality. However, this approach is, in fact, an extremely limited understanding of the human person. Swiss psychologist Carl Jung was one of the few of the twentieth century psychologists to insist that, in fact there were many modes of perception with all being of value. According to his model human beings partake of four functions—feeling, thinking, sensing and intuition (von Franz 2). The highly influential Meyer’s-Briggs test is based upon these insights. This model recognizes that there are many forms of knowing and an individuated person has access to all of them.

The fact that we continue to believe that we can think our way out of the various issues facing us today is part of our larger misapprehension. We continue to be shocked that “someone so intelligent” can be caught up in addiction, have relationships that are in turmoil or seem to make bad decisions over and over again. On a societal level we lurch towards a variety of human created disasters while blindly believing that somehow our intellect via technology will solve our problems.

The twentieth century clearly demonstrated that being highly intelligent is no guarantee of sound action. In fact, a highly intelligent person lacking a ethical core centre is extremely dangerous to society. Just to take one example, the majority of the members of the Nazi killing units called the Einsatzengruppen had doctorates. Neither education not a sharp intellect in any way ensures that we will make moral decisions.

 Both the feeling and spiritual life has been radically marginalized by the Cartesian model and associated with women, children and non-literate peoples. It is interesting to see that the coming together of these two is the subject of a number of recent books. In the collection Religion and Emotion Christian notes that in medieval Spain weeping and other displays of emotion were tightly linked with morality and the spiritual life. In his recent book, Why We Need Religion, Stephen T. Asma argues that religion serves a variety of vital functions including the regulation of emotion. These expanded ideas of the human person have been lost within the larger secularization process. This has resulted in, as Erich Fromm  puts it, that we now live in a society where we have produced "machines which act like men and produce men who act like machines."

The call for the rejection of this limited view is coming from a variety of quarters. Like, Jung, The new animists are calling for a recognition of many forms of sentience as can be found in Indigenous cultures and many of the world’s spiritual traditions.  We urgently need to replace the machine metaphor which has re-shaped how we see both the human body and the human mind. We need to break up with Rene Descartes. The letter might go something like this:

Dear Rene,

It has been an eventful 500 years and we have been through a lot together. As exhilarating as it has been it is time for us to go our separate ways.

Sincerely, the Western World


Hilary Earl. 2009. The Nuremberg SS-Einsatzgruppen Trial. 1945-1958.Atrocity, Law and History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

William A. Christian Jr. 2004. "Provoked Religious Weeping in Early Modern Spain." Religion and Emotion. Edited by John Corrigan. 

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 33-50.

Erich Fromm. 1955. The Sane Society. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Marie-Louise von Franz. 1971.  Lectures on Jung’s Typology.  Dallas: Spring Publications, Inc.

 Why We Need Religion (2018)