Your anti-Cartesian life

Dune near Santpoort, one of Rene Descartes addresses
Dune near Santpoort (Netherlands), one of Rene Descartes addresses

As I started writing this post, I decided to get my facts right and read up on René Descartes (1596 – 1650). I have been quietly blaming him for everything that is wrong in this world and I assumed that this annoying Frenchman had spent his days prancing around the French courts of trite, spouting his novel thoughts. You’ll understand my surprise when I learned that René Descartes fell in love with a Dutch woman and the Netherlands, and spent most of his life in that nation of unsophisticated pragmatists.

René Descartes was the ultimate dualist. Not only did he clearly establish the mind-body duality and separated God from his creation, he also made it clear that the external reality and the one that we can deduce are separated dualistically. Perception versus Deduction.

He is also the father of many fundamental branches in mathematics most notably of the Cartesian coordinate system which has allowed for much of the development in analysis and geometry.

How can you not love this guy?

He has singularly defined much of the western worldview with rock solid reasoning. I couldn’t have studied either mathematics or engineering if it wasn’t for René Descartes. My current issue with the legacy of this grandmaster is also dualistic. By establishing the Cartesian worldview, we have lost its alternative.

Let me take you shopping in New York. Starting with a caramel macchiato at the Starbucks on the corner of 6th Avenue and W 53rd Street, we walk one block down to 5th Avenue and then three blocks to the corner of W 56th Street.

Alternatively, we can walk three blocks along 6th Avenue first and then walk one block along W 56t Street. Either way, we find ourselves at Abercrombie & Fitch. This is where I leave you. I’m not going inside. It’s so dark inside this shop that you can’t see what you’re buying. The mutant androids working in this shop scare me as well.

Besides, I’d like to point out that if it wasn’t for René Descartes, New York would not have had a grid street system and there would only have been one obvious way to this shop of darkness. Not two.

This trick doesn’t work in Paris, for example. Once you’ve finished your café crème in Le Café Du Coin on Rue d’Anjou, you can walk two blocks down to  Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, walk one block east and you’ll arrive at a lovely Hermès boutique where Chinese is the principal trading language.  If instead on leaving Le Café du Coin you had walked one block along Rue de la Ville l’Évèque and then two blocks along Boulevard Malesherbes you would have arrived at the stunning Église de la Madeleine with its massive colonnade entrance. It’s cheaper and more rewarding than Hermès but they don’t speak Chinese. Latin yes, but not Chinese.

These confusing street plans are everywhere in Europe and that can’t have been the reason for René Descartes to move to the Netherlands.

Let me get to the point. The real world is not Cartesian.

I tried to explain in The Spectrum of Duality that dualism is a feature of the human mind and not of the world out there. Since René Descartes constructed his entire reality in the mind, it is hardly surprising that he ends up with his unshakeable dualistic beliefs.

But a dualistic mind is also a logical mind. If this, then that. Something is either this, or it is that. I am either here, or I’m there.

Right? Makes sense?

Sure, it makes sense because René Descartes told us that it makes sense.

But it doesn’t. We are rarely here or there. Mostly we are somewhere in between. Things are rarely – if ever – this or that. They are approximately this or approximately that. By conceptualising the world, René Descartes made us believe that reality is a grid with fixed notions.


It is not so bad to get lost in Paris when we mistakenly assume that the city is a grid. Getting lost in Paris is the best thing you can do.

But the world – and life – is more like Paris than it is like New York. When we take two different but symmetrical routes to do anything, we will not end up at the same result. If I have breakfast before going to work or if I go to work first and then have breakfast, it really isn’t the same outcome. It’s a different person. Both are fed and both are at work but if I were to write a novel about them, they could easily be each other’s antithesis.

When I was a young engineer, I often had to design complex systems. Invariably I would use some sort of design methodology and project planning approach. Highly structured, highly Cartesian and zero space for error. Exactly as you want it. Sadly, it never worked out. The design methodology never – and I mean never – led to the desired system. Somewhere along the line I had to change the methodology or ignore it. The project plans were typically off from the start and half way through I would either redraw the entire plan or simply do as I saw fit. These planning systems always break down.

The world isn’t Cartesian. Complex systems and projects are not a sequence of actions that neatly fit together and stack up to an award winning result. They are iterations of pieces of effort and creativity that evolve towards an envisoned result. To execute such projects, you need to follow the landscape as it evolves. When you dig foundations and you strike an unknown roman aqueduct, you have to stop and ring the archaeologists and perhaps start looking for a new site. The problem isn’t that you discovered some piece of history; the problem is that your Cartesian conceptual plan doesn’t match reality.

Life isn’t Cartesian. “When I grow up, I’m going to rich/beautiful/famous/powerful etc”. That’s a good plan, right? But we know that it doesn’t work like that, even if you take yourself seriously. Our life is a journey through uncharted territory. It takes us through hardship and luck. It will floor us with a broken leg or marry us to the worst partner ever born. We’ll get so close to our dreams that we can touch them, only to find that they are in another dimension. Planning life is an effective way of making sure it will never happen. Life must be lived, and yes, we do get lucky occasionally.

So did René Descartes get it all wrong?

No, I don’t actually think so. I think he was perfectly spot on. He was seeking a model of reality that would allow the human kind to evolve and grow. He used Phaedrus’ knife to cut the world up into a system of dualities which he spread out on a Cartesian grid. Consequently we have been able to develop compartmentalized and conceptualized thinking that has led to all of the scientific and technological advancements we see around us.

I’m quite sure that René Descartes was acutely aware that his Cartesian philosophy was a model of reality, not reality itself. He was an accomplished mathematician and would have known that even the best model is just that, a model. But unlike that master, we have integrated that model into our perception of reality and firmly believe that duality and Cartesian thinking are the best way to approach it all.

The world isn’t Cartesian but a Cartesian viewpoint helps when you want to make sense the world.

Those failed design methodologies and project plans only failed because I thought they were an image of reality and would lead me by the hand to a desired result. I have since learned that such tools are indispensable for analysing complexity, for understanding what needs to be done and when. When it comes to “doing”, a whole different system has to kick in: an action system.

Action is about movement. It is fluid and allows for the entire spectrum of options. It is not built around Cartesian choices “I can do A or I can do B”. What you do is entirely determined by the situation you are in and which direction the landscape is tilting. This doesn’t mean we can always follow the easy path. We do have a vision of where want to go and if that happens to be the spiky peak of the Matterhorn, then we’ll follow the next best path there.

Sticking to a (Cartesian) plan is ignoring the landscape. It means digging through a roman aqueduct come what may.

Sadly we have substituted our world for our Cartesian world view. We will declare war based on Cartesian logic. We destroy our environment because it gets in the way of a Cartesian plan we crafted 10’000 miles away. We drive our colleagues to exhaustion and depression because the plan said so. We destroy our own relationships because the person we love(d) doesn’t do as we planned.

Wakey, wakey!

Have a good look. If reality doesn’t match the plan, who’s wrong?

René Descartes must have been a very interesting guy. He most definitely did not plan his life. He followed his heart and moved around a lot and sought out chance encounters to advance his thinking. He lived in insignificant Dutch towns and he must have been quite down to earth.

I’d love to write: The best way to avoid getting stuck in a Cartesian mindset is to live like René Descartes. But that would be too easy and as I haven’t met him, it might not even be good advice.

So instead I will say this. Go for a walk in the park. Write poetry. Love, or remember loving. Seek out the anti-Cartesian side of life. It is easy to do – just let your senses do the work. Give deduction and reason a rest.

Chances are that your faculties for deduction and reason have been mildly mangled by this post so right now would be an excellent time to give way to the senses.



16 thoughts on “Your anti-Cartesian life

  1. “I have been quietly blaming him for everything that is wrong in this world…”
    LOL! I put it all down to a shadowy figure named, Eric.

    Masterfully written. I think I’ve said it before, but you are one hell of a good wordsmith!

  2. Great post!
    I always suspected that New York wasn’t real somehow, although I know lots of people who claim to have been there. Some even came back with pictures, but I’m still sceptical. The grid of Amsterdam is as organised as real life can get, I imagine. (It looks like a spider’s web, but torn in half.)
    I think you make an important point when you say that there’s more to Descartes than the bits and pieces that somehow made it into our collective imagination. We often cheat ourselves when we judge people too soon, positively or negatively. A bit of evolutionary programming that shouldn’t be followed blindly, I guess.

    1. Thanks Pipteinpteron! When I try to ‘re-incarnate’ René Descartes and imagine coming up with all those impressive philosophical and mathematical notions, when I imagine why I did that and what else I’d like to work out, I realise that not only could he have told us so much more if life hadn’t cut him short at 55, I would also know that of all people he would have been the first and the best to tell us about all the limitations of his philosophy. He was a genius.

      I have this image in my head of René – let’s get personal – walking along a canal or on the beach perhaps, talking to himself, muttering in dutch: “Cogito ergo sum, hmm, that sounds about right. It doesn’t say it all but perhaps they’ll get it.”

      1. I honestly think we should all do that more often: ‘re-incarnate’ people that we would have liked to know in person.
        I remember David Yerle saying something along those lines. He talked about friends, fellow bloggers and scientists and philosophers that were equally real to him. I often read stuff that really makes me happy, as much as I would enjoy a letter from a close friend. In that sense, time certainly isn’t linear.

  3. I’ve been very busy lately – my latest post, inspired by your previous post on dualism has been many weeks in the making. I don’t mention Descartes, but he’s an interesting case. I honestly wonder if he was an under-cover atheist. His proofs of God are old hat and he draws out implausible implications from dualism: There are two parallel universes in perfect synch. I intend to move my arm and my arm moves. There’s no causal connection, just perfect timing as God planned it. He’s also credited with saying that a life well lived is a life lived well hidden. That’s my crackpot theory anyway.

    1. I suspect you are right. He had a very lucid mind and if he lived today, he’d be well beyond atheism. When he formulated his dualities, he set in motion the demise of God.

      Looking forward your post 🙂 No rush – it’s summer. Well, here anyway.

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