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Understanding The Self- A Comparison Of Descartes And Augustine

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Descartes and Augustine, in their respective examinations of the mind and God, come to the conclusion that the true understanding of all things derives from the withdrawal of the self from foreign influence and the necessity to look inward. Although each thinker’s journey or course of understanding was different, and at times rather contrasting, their ultimate realizations about knowledge are very coherent.

Doubt is one of the primary focuses and a central aspect in examining the self for both Descartes and Augustine that stems from mistrust in the senses. The difference between these philosophers is the extent to which they believe removal from the senses is necessary. Descartes is more of a radical in this aspect as he feels that all things should be doubted until proven to be reliable and true. This rejection of all things leads Descartes to only trust in the knowledge obtained through looking at the self and his individual mind. In the second part of Descartes Discourse on Method, he states, “I could not do better than to reject them (the opinions which I had been receiving since my birth), completely for once in my lifetime, and to resume them afterwards, or perhaps accept better ones in their place, when I had determined how they fitted into a rational scheme.” (Pg. 12) He rejects all outside influence so that the only answers he obtains are from his personal rational. With that being said, he understands that there are things that he might have been taught that are actually reliable, but until proven rationally by himself, they are false. This thought process is designed to put reason and rational of the self above any other source of knowledge. Augustine would agree that inward rational and personal reasoning is the main source of knowledge, but in contrast to Descartes, he would argue that personal experiences do play a role in understanding the world. Augustine believes that knowledge does not stem directly from the senses, but rather the senses assist the mind in terms of rationalization and greater understanding. In a book entitled The Doctrine of the Self in St. Augustine and in Descartes, by Marguerite Witmer Kehr, Augustine is quoted saying, “Whatever the eyes can see, they see truly” (Pg. 588). Unlike Descartes who believes that the senses deceive the mind, Augustine believes that all experiences in some way or another can assist the mind to reliable rational. Ultimately for both philosophers, whether the senses are completely useless or not, they are merely a means for getting through life, not understanding it. Reliable and rational conclusions can only be drawn from within. Both Augustine and Descartes specifically doubted the things they learned from supposedly, “educated” professors in an attempt to find the answers they were being taught for themselves. Descartes sums up the understanding of knowledge in the eyes of himself and Augustine in the first part of his discourse; “I resolved to seek no other knowledge than that which I might find within myself, or perhaps in the great book of nature,” (Pg. 8).

The inward nature introduced to Augustine through his studies in Neo-Platonism and that of Descartes, presents the distinction between what Descartes refers to as Res Extensa and Res Cogitans. Res Extensa refers to that which is “extended,” but in a more practical sense it refers to the physical aspect of the world. Res Cogitans, on the other hand, refers to thought and the mind of the being. Descartes most famous line is, cogito ergo sum, when translated means, “I think, therefore I am.” Notice that the thought comes first and it is not the other way around. The mind gives purpose to the self, which explains why it is not, “I am, therefore I think.” The physical aspects of our being and as Augustine defines it, things that are external and transient, cloud the mind and inhibit our ability to seek reliable truths. Augustine often finds himself putting his dependence and trust in transient things and it takes him away from the necessary inward journey to seek answers and ultimately God. Unlike Descartes who seems to understand rather quickly that it is necessary to erase all physical things from the mind, it is a journey that involves some struggle and perseverance for Augustine. It is important to note that Descartes was influenced in several aspects of his philosophy by studying Augustine himself and this could explain why Descartes was able to come to the realization quicker. For Augustine, the journey is complete when turns to himself in search for understanding and answers, rather than the transient things around him, like the death of his close from in Book IV of The Confessions. Descartes understands that because he has the ability to think and doubt he exists, he has the ability to reason regardless of any physical influence. Augustine has a similar understanding in relation to God which results in his ultimate conversion and understanding of himself and God.

Augustine and Descartes seek to explain and recognize the existence of God by understanding and acknowledging themselves as finite beings. They would both agree that in order to understand God, one must first understand what it means exist. This can only be achieved by examining the self. Descartes reasons that humans are certainly not infinite and perfect, so where else could the idea of infinite and perfect come from other than some thing that possesses those qualities; God. The aspect that Augustine and Descartes are most coherent is their ability to understand the existence of God by understanding themselves. Just like Descartes is able to understand God to be perfect based on the lack of perfection of finite humans (himself), Augustine is able to find God without seeing or feeling him. Like Descartes, he reasons

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