Tag: René Descartes

Sex on the Beach with Montaigne and Descartes

In the second installment of our FS Bar series (see here for the first), philosophers Montaigne and Descartes discuss the utility of experience, what kind of knowledge we should seek, and sex on the beach. As always, they are attended by our intellectually curious bartender Kit.

The door to the FS Bar opens and Montaigne enters. He takes a seat at the bar as Kit finishes slicing a bucketful of limes. As Kit will tell us later, never, ever eat bar limes because no one ever washes them.

Montaigne: (Taking a seat) What a lovely evening.

Kit: That it is. I walked in today, and it was so great. What can I get you?

Montaigne: May I see a menu please?

(Kit hands him one)

Montaigne: It is truly amazing, the variety of drinks one can make. (After a bit of flipping) What do you recommend?

Kit: What do you like?

Montaigne: Something I’ve never had before. Something surprising.

Kit: (Smiles) How about a Sex on the Beach?

Montaigne: (Chuckles) If it’s anything like the real thing, then it’s likely a lot better in theory than in practice.

Kit: Aren’t most things? I make mine with blackcurrant liqueur. It’s gorgeous.

Montaigne: Let’s give it a whirl then.

(Pause while Kit begins to prepare the drink. Just as she’s placing it in front of Montaigne, the door opens and Descartes walks in. As he reaches the bar he notices Montaigne and quickly turns his head, hoping not to be noticed.)

Montaigne: Ah Rene, my old friend. What brings you out on this beautiful spring evening? Don’t tell me you felt the urge to enjoy the weather?

Descartes: (Resigning himself to sitting with Montaigne) Just taking a break. My brain needs a rest.

Kit: Evening. What can I get you to drink?

Descartes : A glass of red wine. A Merlot or a Syrah, please. Old vines. No tannins.

Montaigne: You should have what I’m having. It’s sublime.

Descartes: It’s lurid. How many colors are in that glass?

Montaigne: It’s sex on the beach.

Descartes: (Raises a brow) It’s not my thing.

Montaigne: Of course not. I imagine it would be quite difficult to ignore the sensations produced by all those grains of sand.

Descartes: (Rolls his eyes) You always deliberately misunderstand me. There is nothing wrong with experience, I just don’t pretend that my life should stand for the life.

Montaigne: I was just pointing out that the physical experience of sex on a beach might produce some knowledge. Certainly you would learn if there is any relation between one’s propensity to be amorous and the perceived comfort of the execution. Some grain of truth as it were. (Chuckles to himself)

Descartes: Truth only for me. Who am I to say what other people would enjoy? I have seen enough in my travels to think that there is little in sexual encounters that one could consider to be absolutely standard. At least I wouldn’t leave to posterity my ramblings about how my passions were affected by the rhythm of the waves or some such nonsense.

Montaigne: Ah, this is always where you and I disagree. Human experiences need not be universal to teach us something worth knowing.

Descartes: To give us ideas, maybe. But in terms of knowledge we can rely on, experiences are essentially useless.

(There is a pause. Descartes gulps down about a third of his wine while Montaigne continues to sip his drink.)

Montaigne: (To Kit) My friend here is quite famous. Have you ever heard “I think therefore I am?”

Kit: (Looks at Descartes) You said that?

Descartes: (A touch uncomfortable) Yes. I mean, it has a specific context. It was the one thing I could think that proved I existed. The only thing I could not doubt was that I could doubt.

Montaigne: Unfortunately he doubted away everything else, including his body. (Shakes his head)

Descartes: Which you think is ridiculous.

Montaigne: Which I think is nonsensical. You could be a brain in a vat, but to what end? It doesn’t stop you from feeling sadness, or make your farts smell any less.

Descartes: And is that really the point of philosophical inquiry? To validate the functions of the body?

Montaigne: No. It’s to make sense of ourselves, and through that to try to understand what we are a part of. But things don’t have to be unchanging in order to be true.

Descartes: (Looking more than a little wistful) All I wanted was to find the foundation. The things we know so that the rest could stand on something secure. What good is claiming knowledge if it can be easily torn down by logic or the next scientific discovery?

Montaigne: So if you can’t know everything you might as well know nothing?

Descartes: No. But the subjective distracts us. We can’t hope to know anything if we don’t put some objective rigour around it. (Pause) Didn’t you notice, when you were in school, that eventually everything seemed to contradict something else you’d learned? Look at all those ridiculous aphorisms people are always throwing out there. One day they’ll tell you that ‘slow and steady wins the race’ then the next it’s ‘the early bird gets the worm’. It’s empty, situation-specific nonsense. And people fall for it. Every damn day. Wouldn’t it be amazing to have a few bits of knowledge that, no matter who you were or what situation you were faced with, you could always count on to be true?

Montaigne: (Sighs) Maybe Socrates is the only one who got it right when he hinted that the only thing he knew was that he knew nothing.

Descartes: (Shakes his head) I don’t accept that. We come into this world vulnerable and ignorant, dependent on the needs of our bodies and the teachings of those around us. But at some point, surely we can turn our brains to filtering what we have taken in, being honest about the junk, and letting go of needing anything other than knowledge.

Montaigne: Ah my friend, this I’m not sure we can do. We are not only shaped by our experiences, we are our experiences. We contemplate love through the lenses of our hurts, and life through the lenses of our losses.

Kit: It’s an amazing idea though. To be able to understand life the same way as math. To know that one plus one will always equal two.

Descartes: (Running his finger around the rim of his glass) That is the goal.

Montaigne: Well, you proved your own existence. That is something.

Kit: So, if we know we’re alive, at least we know we’re all going through it together.

Descartes: (Looks miserable) Actually, I only know that I exist. You could be a robot.

Kit: But if you know you exist, can’t I use the same logic to know that I exist?

Descartes: Yes. But we can only know this about ourselves. Not those around us.

Kit: It sounds lonely.

Montaigne: And no way to live. Imagine that your lover, your best friend, your children, are robots. When I do I feel only a profound isolation—and seriously question the point of living.

Descartes: Like I said, the goal was to get on a foundation that couldn’t be shaken. No matter what.

Montaigne: But what good is a foundation if you can’t build anything on it?

Descartes: (Looking like he doesn’t really want to get into it) Why don’t you enlighten us with one of your pithy observations? You can tell our lovely bartender here your theory about the effects of reducing drunkenness.

Montaigne: It is a good theory. (He turns to Kit) We drink less, which according to health professionals and moral arbitrators, is a social victory. But the effect of this is more sex. We obviously can’t get by without any vices, so the less we drink the more we lust.

Kit: (Looking a little surprised) I’ve never thought of it that way.

Montaigne: (Shrugs) We seek pleasure. There is nothing surprising about that. And as far as pleasures go, good sex is infinitely preferable to good wine. Drunkenness, really, is not so great. In extreme, you lose knowledge and control of yourself.

Descartes: Sex doesn’t exactly lead to clarity of mind. As Shakespeare said of lust, “enjoyed no sooner but despised straight.” Getting it doesn’t stop the wanting.

Montaigne: Which is why it’s so important to be just as careful in choosing your vices as anything else. But although they are equally vices, they are not equal vices [i].

Descartes: And you think I’m nuts for wanting some knowledge that I can count on every day.

Montaigne: (Raises his glass) Cheers then, to trying to figure it out. Regardless of the outcome, it is certainly something worth striving for.

(Descartes smiles and accepts the salute. Fade out.)

[i] Montaigne, Michel. The Complete Essays (Penguin Classics). M. A. Screech, tr. London: Penguin UK, 2004.

Epistemology: How do you know that you know what you know?

There is no definite way to confirm that we know anything at all. Only from our direct experience can we claim any knowledge about the world. 


The role of perception in knowledge

It is hard to imagine a world that exists outside of what we can perceive. In the effort to get through each day without crashing our cars or some other calamity, we make assumptions about the objects in our physical world. Their continuity, their behavior.

Some of these assumptions are based on our own experience, some on the knowledge imparted by others of their experience, and some on inferences of logic.

Experience, however, comes through the lens of perception. How things look, how they feel, how they sound.

Our understanding of, and interaction with, the world comes through particular constructs of the human body – eyes, ears, fingers, etc. Most people intuitively understand the subjectivity of some of our perceptions.

Colors look ‘different’ to people who are color blind. Our feeling of temperature is impacted by immediate contrast – People stepping outside the doors of an airport will have a different impression of the temperature if they have just come from Moose Jaw or Cancun.

Even more substantial understandings come to us through the lens of our senses. We can see the shape of a tree, or we could close our eyes and infer the shape through touch, but in either case, or even combining the two, we are relying on our senses to impart an understanding of the physical world.

The question of what objectively ‘is’, is something that has long been one of the subjects of philosophy. Philosophers from Descartes to Kant have tried to describe our existence in such a way as to arrive at understanding of the physical world in which things can be conclusively known.

Descartes introduces the idea in his Meditations: “Surely whatever I had admitted until now as most true I received either from the senses or through the senses. However, I have noticed that the senses are sometimes deceptive; and it is a mark of prudence never to place our complete trust in those who have deceived us even once.”

Descartes famously employed systematic doubt, questioning all knowledge conveyed by his experience in the world until the only knowledge he couldn’t doubt was the fact that he could doubt.

Therefore I suppose that everything I see is false. I believe that none of what my deceitful memory represents ever existed. I have no sense whatever. Body, shape, extension, movement, and place are all chimeras. What then will be true? … Thus, after everything has been most carefully weighed, it must finally be established that this pronouncement “I am, I exist” is necessarily true every time I utter it or conceive it in my mind. (Descartes, Meditations)

Descartes confirmed we have a self. Unfortunately this self could be the one we see in the mirror each morning or a brain in a vat. If the only thing we cannot doubt is that we can doubt, essentially that guarantees us having only the mechanism to doubt. No body. We could therefore be isolated brains, being manipulated by things unknown, our entire world a mirage.

How then can we hope to claim knowledge about the physical world?

For Locke, our understanding of the world comes from our experience of it. It is this experience that provides knowledge. He says, in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding:

Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas: – How comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast store with the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted on it with an almost endless variety Whence has it all the materials or reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, from EXPERIENCE. In that all our knowledge is founded; and from that it ultimately derives itself.

He wrote that there were two types of qualities, ones that existed innately in an object or series of objects, such as size, number, or motion, and those that are wholly dependent on our perception of them, such as color or smell.

The particular bulk, number, figure, and motion of the parts of fire or snow are really in them, whether one’s senses perceive them or no: and therefore they may be called real qualities, because they really exist in those bodies. But light, heat, whiteness, or coldness are not more really in them than sickness or pain is in manna. (Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding)

Experience then, as long as we have an understanding of the limitations of our perception, will confer certain truths about the physical world we inhabit. For example, through experience we can claim knowledge of how many crows are perched on a telephone wire, but not how many of them have ‘black’’ as an intrinsic property of their feathers.

Quite in opposition to this was George Berkeley (pronounced Bar-clay), for whom ‘to be’ was ‘to be perceived’. Berkeley wrote in A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge:

Besides all that endless variety of ideas or objects of knowledge, there is likewise something which knows or perceives them and exercised divers operations, as willing, imagining, remembering, about them. This perceiving … does not denote any one of my ideas, but a thing entirely distinct from them, wherein they exist or, which is the same thing, whereby they are perceived – for the existence of an idea consists in being perceived.

Because our knowledge of the world comes from our perception of it, it is impossible to conclusively know the existence of anything independent of our perception. Berkeley, wrote:

Hence, as it is impossible for me to see or feel anything without an actual sensation of that thing, so it is impossible for me to conceive in my thoughts any sensible thing or object distinct from the sensation or perception of it.

This line of inquiry ultimately results in the entire physical world being called into question, as Berkeley observed:

If we have any knowledge at all of external things, it must be by reason, inferring their existence from what is immediately perceived by sense. {However} it is granted on all hands (and what happens in dreams, frenzies, and the like, puts it beyond dispute) that it is possible we might be affected with all the ideas we have now, though no bodies existed without resembling them.

If we can not know things outside of perception, and our perceptions are entirely unreliable, where does that leave us? It certainly isn’t useful to imagine your existence as the sum total of your knowledge, or that our experiences are inherently mistrustful.

What these philosophies can be useful for understanding though, is that often what we consider knowledge is more of a general social agreement on a somewhat consistent comprehension of the things before us. For example, we appreciate that the color green can be perceived differently by various people, but we organize our language based on a general understanding of the color green without worrying about the particular experience of green that any individual may have.

For David Hume, there definitely was a physical world, our perception of which was ultimately responsible for all of our ideas, no matter how complex or abstract. He wrote in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:

When we analyze our thoughts or ideas, however compounded or sublime, we always find that they resolve themselves into such simple ideas as were copied from a precedent feeling or sentiment. Even those ideas, which, at first view, seem the most wide of this origin, are found, upon a nearer scrutiny, to be derived from it.

Furthermore, since all of our perceptions of the physical world are coming from the same physical world, and the nature of perceiving works more or less the same in each person, we can achieve a consistency in our understanding.

So although it may not be possible to know things with the same certainty as knowing oneself, or to be able to really describe the construct of the world outside of our perception of it, at least we can get along with each other because of a general consistency of experience.

However, this experience still admits to a certain fragility. There is no guarantee that past experiences will be consistent with future ones. In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume observes:

Being determined by custom to transfer the past to the future, in all our inferences; where the past has been entirely regular and uniform, we expect the event with the greatest assurance and leave no room for any contrary supposition. But where different effects have been found to follow from causes, which are to appearance exactly similar, all these various effects must occur to the mind in transferring the past to the future, and enter into our consideration, when we determine the probability of the event.

To simultaneously understand all effects when considering an event in the future is not necessarily a limitation, thanks to our amazingly sophisticated brains. Immanuel Kant thought that the way we process the information provided by our senses was an important component of knowledge. Kant wrote in the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics:

The difference between truth and dreaming is not ascertained by the nature of the representations which are referred to objects (for they are the same in both cases), but by their connection according to those rules which determine the coherence of the representation in the concept of an object, and by ascertaining whether they can subsist together in experience or not.

Kant did not support the view that the existence of objects was called into question because of the subjectivity of the perceptions by which we must experience them, but neither that all knowledge of the physical world comes from experience. Kant argued:

Experience teaches us what exists and how it exists, but never that it must necessarily exist so and not otherwise. Experience therefore can never teach us the nature of things in themselves.

Knowledge then, is made up of things we infer, things we experience, and the way our brain processes both. The great metaphysical question of ‘Why it is all this way?’ may always be out of our reach.

Understanding some of this metaphysical uncertainty in knowledge does not mean that we have to give up on knowing anything. It simply points to a certain subjectivity, an allowance for different conceptions of the world. And hopefully it offers a set of tools with which to evaluate or build claims of knowledge.

Daily Routines of Famous Creatives: Artists, Writers, Composers

What can we learn from the working habits of famous writers, artists, and composers? And how did they find time each day to do their work?

After reading Mason Currey’s fantastic book, Daily Rituals, the answer is lots.

But if you’re looking for some insight into what makes an ideal daily routine, you’re out of luck. One big insight to the book is that there is no one way to do things. What works for one won’t work for another.

However, whether you’re looking to be more productive or find better distractions, the book is full of useful advice.

Stuck in a creative rut? Try these tips.

Know when to stop.
Kingsley Amis recommends you stop writing when you know what comes next. This, he argues, makes it easier to begin the next day. His son, Martin Amis, recommends you only work for two hours, commenting, “I think most writers would be very happy with two hours of concentrated work.

Meditation, Chocolate, and Coffee
David Lynch recommends meditation. “I have never missed a meditation in thirty-three years,” he wrote in his 2006 book, Catching the Big Fish. Lynch told a reporter in 1990 that he also loves chocolate and coffee.

For seven years I ate at Bob’s Big Boy. I would go at 2:30, after the lunch rush. I ate a chocolate shake and four, five, six, seven cups of coffee—with lots of sugar. And there’s lots of sugar in that chocolate shake. It’s a thick shake. In a silver goblet. I would get a rush from all this sugar, and I would get so many ideas! I would write them on these napkins. It was like I had a desk with paper. All I had to do was remember to bring my pen, but a waitress would give me one if I remembered to return it at the end of my stay. I got a lot of ideas at Bob’s.

Write. Stop. Copy.
In Daily Rituals, Currey writes on Morton Feldman:

When he did find the time to compose, Feldman employed a strategy that John Cage taught him—it was “the most important advice anybody ever gave me,” Feldman told a lecture audience in 1984. “He said that it’s a very good idea that after you write a little bit, stop and then copy it. Because while you’re copying it, you’re thinking about it, and it’s giving you other ideas. And that’s the way I work. And it’s marvelous, just wonderful, the relationship between working and copying.”

Try a dirty hotel.
Maya Angelou likes to work in dirty hotel rooms. “I try to keep home very pretty and I can’t work in a pretty surrounding. It throws me.”

“(J.M.) Coetzee,” says the writer Rian Malan, “is a man of almost monkish self-discipline and dedication. He does not drink, smoke or eat meat. He cycles vast distances to keep fit and spends at least an hour at his writing-desk each morning, seven days a week.

Lie down.
Truman Capote liked to lie down. He told the Paris Review in 1957

I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis. No, I don’t use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand (pencil). Then I do a complete revision, also in longhand. Essentially I think of myself as a stylist, and stylists can become notoriously obsessed with the placing of a comma, the weight of a semicolon. Obsessions of this sort, and the time I take over them, irritate me beyond endurance.

He isn’t the only one.

Marcel Proust, Currey writes …

wrote exclusively in bed, lying with his body almost completely horizontal and his head propped up by his two pillows. … If he felt too tired to concentrate, Proust would take a caffeine tablet, and when he was finally ready to sleep, he would counteract the caffeine with Veronal, a barbital sedative.” One of his friends, warned him “You’re putting your foot on the brakes and the accelerator at the same time.

Turn off the TV
Television drove Joseph Heller back to writing. “I couldn’t,” he says, “imagine what Americans did at night when they weren’t writing novels.”

Err, if you’re really stuck
Thomas Wolfe, Mason writes, “had been unconsciously fondling his genitals, a habit from childhood that, while not exactly sexual … fostered “such a good male feeling” that it had stoked his creative energies. From then on, Wolfe regularly used this method to inspire his writing sessions, dreamingly exploring his “male configurations” until the “sensuous elements in every domain of life became more immediate, real, and beautiful.”

Take a rest
Carl Jung, says “I’ve realized that somebody who’s tired and needs a rest, and goes on working all the same is a fool.”

Use a routine.
Haruki Murakami, speaks to the value of his routine in this 2004 Paris Review interview:

When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. But to hold to such repetition for so long—six months to a year—requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.

In his memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Murakami updated us on his routine.

early mornings spent writing, afternoons running increasingly long distances and doing housework, admin and spending time with family

Leo Tolstoy was a firm believer in routine as well. “I must write each day without fail,” he wrote, “not so much for the success of the work, as in order not to get out of my routine.”

Change the routine.
Nicholson Baker, “What I’ve found with daily routines, is that the useful thing is to have one that feels new. It can almost be arbitrary. You know you could say to yourself, ‘from now on, I’m only going to write on the back porch in flip flops starting at four o’clock in the afternoon.’ And if it feels novel and fresh, it will have a placebo effect and it will help you work. Maybe that’s not completely true. But there’s something to just the excitement of coming up with a slightly different routine.”

Avoid email.
John Adams, on concentration (from Daily Rituals)

Often after an hour of working I’ll yield to the temptation to read my email or things like that. The problem is that you do get run out of concentration energy and sometimes you just want to take a mental break. But if you get tangled up into some complicated communication with somebody, the next thing you know you look up and you’ve lost forty-five minutes of time.

I think René Descartes might have the best advice. Currey writes he believed that “idleness was essential to good mental work, and he made sure not to overexert himself. After an early lunch, he would take a walk or meet friends for conversation; after supper, he dealt with his correspondence.”

So, to recap some of the ideas to stimulate your creative juices: turn off email and the TV; go for a long walk in the woods; grab a coffee; read a book; don’t overexert yourself. Oh, and, subscribe to Brain Food.

The long chains of reasonings …

The long chains of reasonings, simple and easy, by which geometricians are wont to achieve their most complex proofs, had led me to suppose that all things, the knowledge of which man may achieve, are strung together in the same way, and that there is nothing so distant as ultimately to be beyond our mental grasp, or so hidden that we cannot uncover it, provided only we avoid accepting falsehoods as true, and always preserve in our thoughts the discipline essential for the deduction of one truth from another.

René Descartes, Le Discours de la méthode pt 2 (1637)(S.H. transl.)