A Curious Miscellany of Items Philosophical, Historical, and Literary

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Saturday, March 14, 2009

Of the Existence of Self

Below is another letter from our esteemed eighteenth-century correspondent, Joseph Darlington, Esq. I am beginning, now, to get a handle on this gentleman’s particular character. He seems to take pride in fancying himself a man of free thought, always letting us know that he has read his Bayle and his Hume. However, when backed into a corner, he will unfailingly be found to be a fierce defender of the vox populi, and of sturdy common sense. I would find this sort of hypocrisy annoying in most people, but in Darlington I simply find it charming. But I shall let the reader judge for herself.

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March 14, 1755

In yours of yesterday, you brought before the Publick some very interesting Ruminations upon personal Identity, the existence of an enduring Self, and the Nature of the human Understanding. I find myself, sir, in complete Agreement with your Sentiments, and I only wish to add an Observation or two of my own.

You rightly observ’d, sir, that if there be anything to the Mind above mere occurrent Thoughts, Beliefs, and Passions; I say, if the Mind be anything more than a bare Bundle of these, then it must consist of the History of the Agent in which these are embedded, acquired, and developed.

Monsieur DES CARTES, in his Meditations upon the First Philosophy, hath attended to this Question, but he comes to a very different, and I must say a very mysterious, Solution. When, saith he, a Man thinks, whatever may be the Doubts he harbours concerning the Veracity of what he thinks, there is at least one thing of which he cannot reasonably doubt, which is that there is an “I” that thinketh. In brief, cogito, ergo sum.

But in what does this cogito, this I think, consist? Where you and I, sir, would look for it in the very life History and particular Organism [Darlington here means “organization” – Ed.] of the Thinker’s Mind, Des Cartes makes of it an utter Mystery, an I-know-not-what.

Of Monsieur Des Cartes’ supposed Proof of an existent Self, my Lord SHAFTESBURY hath correctly observ’d that it begs the Question, for as this noble Author wittily has it, “the EGO or I, being establish’d in the first part of the Proposition, the Ergo, no doubt, must hold good in the latter”(Characteristicks, Vol. III, p. 193). It will not speak to the Point to assert: I think; therefore I think. A shifting of Emphasis does not a Conclusion make.

The noble Lord Shaftesbury elsewhere notes that when we are active, we cannot doubt that we exist. Our very actions give the Lie to whatever idle Doubts we may express. It is only in the uttermost reaches of speculative Philosophy, in the idle Musings of the Philosopher in his Closet, that Doubt may be given a Handle to lay hold of: “We do not,” says he, “scruple to act as resolutely upon the mere Supposition that we are, as if we had effectually prov’d it a thousand times”.

Mr. JOHNSON, in one of his Rambler Papers [No. 43 (14 August 1750) – Ed.], makes much the same Observation, for, says he, “Des Cartes has kindly shewn how a Man may prove to himself his own Existence, if once he can be prevail’d upon to question it.” The Genius of Des Cartes’ Meditation lies not in the Proof that we exist, but in the getting us to doubt of it in the first Place. Once this latter Obstacle is overcome, any “Solution” to the “Problem” must sound ingenious indeed! To follow such Speculations is insanire paret certa ratione modoque – Horat. Sat. II.iii.271 [“to go mad by fixed rule and method” – Ed.].

I am, sir,
Your Servant, etc.

Jos. Darlington, Esq.
Darlington Close,
Horton-cum-Studley, Oxfordshire

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