Down with Descartes

THE SHAMAN Martín Prechtel once told me that back in his village, no one would say, “I am healthy but my child is sick.” A person would say, “My family is sick” or “My village is sick.” To think any one individual could be healthy when his or her family, village, or indeed the land, the water, or the planet were not would be as absurd as saying, “I’ve got a fatal liver disease, but that’s just my liver — I am healthy!” Just as my sense of self includes my liver, so theirs included their social and natural community.

The modern self is a discrete and separate subject in a universe that is other. It is the economic man of Adam Smith; it is the skin-encapsulated ego of Alan Watts; it is the embodied soul of religion; it is the selfish gene of biology.

It underlies the converging crises of our time, which are all permutations of the theme of separation — separation from nature, from community, from lost parts of ourselves. It is at the heart of all the usual culprits blamed for the ongoing destruction of ecology and polity, such as human greed and capitalism.

Our sense of self entails that more for me is less for you; hence we have an interest-based money system embodying precisely that principle. In older, gift-based societies, the opposite was true.

When we exclude the world from the self, the tiny, lonely identity that remains naturally seeks to grow and connect through acquisition, building a realm of me and mine to compensate for its lost beingness. Other separate selves do the same, so we live in a world of competition and omnipresent anxiety that is built into our self-definition.

Looking out upon the strip mines and the clearcuts and the dead zones and the genocides and the debased consumer culture, we ask, What is the origin of this monstrous machine that chews up beauty and spits out money? The discrete and separate self, surveying a universe that is fundamentally other, understandably and logically treats the natural and human world as a pile of instrumental, accidental stuff. The rest of the world is fundamentally not-self. Why should we care about it, beyond its potential to be useful to us? So it was that Descartes, a pioneering articulator of the modern sense of self, articulated as well the ambition to become the “lords and possessors” of nature. And so it was that we built the infernal machine.

As above, so below. Having made nature into an adversary, or at best a pile of “resources,” it is no surprise that we manifest the same relationship within our bodies. The defining diseases of our time — autism, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, asthma, arthritis, diabetes — are in whole or in part autoimmune diseases, the somatization of our self/other confusion. What we do to nature, we do to ourselves, inescapably. Just as the village, the forest, and the planet are inseparable parts of ourselves that we mistake as other, so our immune systems reject our own body tissues.

Our rigid, narrow self/other distinction is coming to an end, victim of its own premises. As the mystics have taught, the separate self can be maintained only temporarily, and at great cost. We have maintained it a long time, and built a civilization upon it that seeks the conquest of nature and human nature. The present convergence of crises has laid bare the futility of that goal. It portends the end of civilization as we know it, and the instauration of a new state of human beingness defined by a more fluid, more inclusive sense of self. This convergence of crises is a birth crisis, propelling us from an old world, an old self, into a new.

Charles Eisenstein is a writer and speaker, and the author of The Ascent of Humanity and other books.


  1. I think deeper understanding of the reality of inseparability would resolve the political left-right divide that’s an obstacle to sustaining human and planetary well-being. A post-Cartesian philosophy would heal the doctrinaire splits that define freedom based on the individual alone and, on the other side, freedom constrained for the sake of aggregates of the same separate individuals. I wonder what philosophies can help “birth” greater awareness of the wholeness, or oneness, concepts introduced in this article.

    Are Eastern spiritual traditions or the Christian mysticism of, say, a Meister Eckhart a path to learning more about reality that’s denied or contradicted by mainstream science, economics and the Western religious beliefs that present man as a creature whose self-definition is based on dominion and control?

    In the Ascent of Humanity, Eisenstein discusses the isolation and alienation of modern “man,” severed from older forms of family and community — from relationships that were essential in defining an individual’s identity, individuality. It’s interesting that etymology suggests the same truth: from L. individuus “indivisible,” from in- “not” + dividuus “divisible,” from dividere “divide.”

    This article and the Ascent of Humanity inspire hope and cautious optimism.

  2. It is common for people who haven’t read him to blame Descartes for all kinds of things. Descartes’s intuition about the self came to him in a moment of mystical insight, a cold night in November. He was looking for a way to warrant knowledge, not for a way to separate us from nature. This is something others have done after him, so we shouldn’t lay the blame at his feet.
    The split the article speaks of is more due to readings of the Genesis creation story in which God tells humans to “rule the earth.” Therein is a more solid root of the split, as Carolyne Merchant showed years ago in her book “The Death of Nature.”

  3. My Oklahoman Senators,Coburn and Inhofe have signed a petition stating we should not rush to do much to stop global warming…This is in response to many Fundamentalists concern about the issue..They say God made “man”
    as the Pinnacle of such we were given the responsibility to be Stewards of creation…How do you counter this??

  4. Certainly a critique of Descartes’ dualist philosophy is basic to moving beyond the interwoven crises of late modernity. But Descarte’s subject-object split(spiritual consciousness versus mechanistic extension)is simply his epistemological follow-through in philosophy on the atomistic or mechanistic cosmology adopted by many early modern scientists. In that sense, Cartesian dualism is a symptom of a still deeper problem, namely, the mechanistic root-metaphor that came to define the cosmological paradigm of modern science. It is there that the deepest critique needs to be focused.

  5. Louise, there is a philosophy of the inseparability and interdependence of humans and nature. It draws on indigenous and Eastern spiritual traditions, on science, on Christian mysticism, on Gandhi and Spinoza, and on the poetic intuitions of many individuals since the Romantic movement that first rebelled against industrialism. It also offers a thorough critique of mechanism, materialism, reductionism, anthropocentrism, and “dominion.” It was named “deep ecology” in 1972 by the Norwegian philosopher and mountaineer Arne Naess. Much has been written about it since then, and it has inspired some interesting controversies and movements.

    Mr. Eisenstein’s article on Descartes expresses this philosophy’s outlook quite well, though deep ecology doesn’t blame only Descartes for the dualism of our modern, dysfunctional worldview. It does, however, ask all of us to question the assumptions of that worldview, and that is what takes us “deep.” Deep ecology also encourages to open ourselves to our inherently profound intimacy and identity with the natural world, the source of our love for nature, which is what inspires us to protect it. Look it up!

  6. I have been reading the responses,trying to figure out how to be helpful in Oklahoma..I have considered that I should pretend to be Gandhi,looking inside…I find an unpleasent desire to DOMINATE Senators Inhofe/Coburn..Would Gandhi hope to change their minds?..I know them both a little and they have always been kind,friendly to me(even when I am dressed as Polar Bear).Jean

  7. Actually, I am not blaming Descartes, who as Ignacio points out was just the eloquent articulator of a concept that has been ambient in Western civilization (and to some extent Eastern) for thousands of years. The original title of the article was “The World of the Separate Self”.

    To Jean: There are other interpretations of the Bible that lead to the opposite of your senators’ conclusions. For example: It is a sacrilege to treat as trash the divine gift of the Creator. We are Creation’s stewards, not its owners. In one of the psalms it says, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof…”

  8. On the inside of every human pate, there is an attached manufacturer’s warning that says “Full operation of this vehicle is prohibited until the driver is sitting in front of the white line of unconditional love.” The big question,in deep ecology as I understand it,is: at what point does the spiritual life of the human merge with, or become aware of, the spiritual life of nature? There are many answers out there. Descartes’s is only one. I’m posting the methodology and fragments of mine at Where’s yours?

  9. “Deep” must be experienced, that’s the thing. One can have an intellectual understanding and a belief system that supports acknowledging “oneness”, and that’s great. But once you experience this, for real, however you do, then everything changes. Because your perspective has changed. If everything is alive and conscious and connected to everything else, including us; and has spirit (“standing” as Winona LaDuke has put it) it becomes more difficult to act in old ways. Patterns still have power, but the heart helps change them, not just the mind.

  10. Descartes was a latecomer to the split that began with humanity’s physical abstraction from the natural world (agriculture, fences, domestication, accumulation, hierarchy, civilization), our intellectual abstraction (alphabet, writing, theorizing, mechanizing, scientism) and the consequent emotional and spiritual abstraction both from authentic self-in-relation and from the larger ground of our being.

    We evolved (and lived for millennia in harmony) as nodes in the web of life. When we cease singing solo and rediscover our part in the symphony of the uni-verse, we will re-member the aboriginal harmony we have rejected and re-place ourselves in the web which sustains us.

  11. I guess that both Descartes, and the Genesis book vefore, have become manipulated as we humans tend to do: we narrow the landscape that books and thinkers and artists paint in front of us, and from there – hanging from one sentence – we use these as “culture”. As an Italian, I should know, having this suffocating presence from the Vatican over, around, inside, beneath the very fabric of our Italian imagination.
    This said, as a writer myself, I can only agree with “Down with Descartes”. That is precisely what I am trying to put across over here – and it is very, very difficult – but a growing number of persons are feeling uncomfortable with the homocentrici vision. Even extremes as animalists-integralists group, seen from this perspective, can be ascribed to this. When “The Future of Nature” was released I read it and wrote an essay, still unpublished (will be out in my new book soon) and it was precisely about this subject: this means that there are a lot of us across the world who wander the same landscape. A really exciting perspective in order to contribute and change some of the perceptions around us, but we should be prepared to face the biggest issue. We are too many on the planet: we have to find a way to use less resources, to become more animal-like. To only use what we need. To NOT accumulate. To return to the “small nature”. The other day I saw what a bear did here in my mountains: he took the honey, he left the eggs. He was only hungry. He did not want to capitalize on this natural resource. Life leads animals. Humans have more of a virus behaviour, and I guess we should seriously consider this without feeling threathened. I know we can make it. It will take a huge collective effort, though.

  12. As much as I agree with any critique of the hyper-individualism and acquisitiveness of modern, Western culture, I also think we need to take an honest look at the history. Some now admit that Descartes was not merely an evil, ego driven dualist, but rather a very learned articulator of an important step in human evolution. I believe we need to view the ambivalence of the individual and the communal, the integrative and transcendent nature of people and Nature.

    Shamanistic, indigenous peoples were not the high point of culture and a great deal of good has come from taking objective views of reality with the subjective. Anyone typing on a computer or reading this on the internet is benefitting from the industrial stage of Earth’s story. The world will evolve again beyond this once we can show that a return to “oneness” is more inspiring than taking the SUV to the mall for an OrangeJulius run. If you can’t convince a 6th grader to spend more time in a garden than in a mall, then maybe you need to stop blaming Descarte and agriculture and religion and start being a better gardener.

  13. I think that Descartes has taken a bum rap as well. But I do think that the Eastern,Christian, Native American, Sufi,and Orthodox spiritual disciplines (among others) do shed light on “letting the fly out of the bottle”.

    One of my favorite passages from Thomas Merton has this to say on the matter:

    “When your tongue is silent, you can rest in the silence of the forest.When your imagination is silent, the forest speaks to you, tells you of it’s unreality and the Reality of God. But when your mind is silent, then the forest becomes magnificently real and blazes transparently with the Reality of God. For now I know that the Creation, which first seems to reveal Him in concepts, then seems to hide Him by the same concepts, finally is revealed in Him, in the Holy Spirit. And we who are in God find ourselves united in Him with all that springs from Him. This is prayer…”

    Eisenstein’s article is delightful.

  14. The Cartesian Ontology was useful, as a tool. Tools can take us to a level of sophistication and then new tools can take us to another level. I think the Cartesian Ontology has hung about a bit too long as a tool and is overdue for a replacement in human evolution. Quantum physics, to name only one contemporaneous area of human striving for meaning, points to a holographic model of the universe – very non-Cartesian.

    “Thank God our time is now, when wrong comes up to meet us everywhere, never to leave us until we take the greatest stride of Soul folk ever took.” Christopher Fry from The Prisoner

    Those familiar with The Prisoner will understand the context, but let us say that new frameworks are developing all about us, as they must in response to our changing physical environment.

    To Jean let me say that at the same time that I hold no beliefs, I also hold no doubts. In an infinite universe all conceptions of God and no conception of god are equally probable. It is a very liberating, holographic concept. Hail Eris! Hail Discordia!

  15. I have a quote on my desk by the other Einstein–Albert–who in 1921 stated, ” A human being is part of a whole, called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task ust be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

  16. For all our generations of labouring under the delusions of Cartesian dualism, becoming ever more fractured and dis-eased by our conceptual fragmentation, the fact remains that we ARE, and always have been, an integral part of life on Earth. It’s tempting to suggest that it’s still our extraordinary hubris and species chauvanism that remains firmly in the driving seat of even the most passionate advocate for a more ecological, holistic and non-linear viewpoint on existence. If we are merely cells in the body of the Earth, responding to the evolutionary imperative of the planet as an integrated life-system, then we are doing no more than playing our allotted part.

  17. thanks for ur valuable support on the net..its very beneficial for people like forester……
    thus hope sir /madam would add up some tips to conserve forest in a terrain ,rough topographical site

  18. I am life.
    I am beauty in the deep of noon, Mountain mirroring in water blue.
    I whistle birdly in the after-even, When the tender core
    Of my human part
    Listens in wonderment.
    I am life, and the earth sees me
    Sunsetting and sunrising
    And dangling a moon-jewel round her.
    And the earth loves me
    And is me.
    The human loves me and might be me.
    But loves, more than me,
    The thought of me
    And the dream of me,
    Which is not what I am,
    For I am not dreaming.
    I am heavening and earthing
    And treeing & clouding & humaning,
    But I am not dreaming,
    And I am not imaging me
    Other than I AM.
    Be true O Man,
    O Woman be true,
    And I shall be your truth.
    Be lovely, child of God,
    And I shall be your love.
    For I am life,
    And I am you,
    And I am all.

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