The Cartesian marathoner: Philosophy and intentionality

Posted by Ian on Oct 28, 2008 in blog | No Comments

A few years ago, Prof. Michael Shanks at Stanford hit with some hard criticism about my PhD in my viva. Although, I had tried to illustrate in my thesis that ‘modernity’ or modern philosophy was flawed and did not work, all the examples I had used (e.g. using cultural objects to manifest group identities, creating abstract systems, social mechanics, etc.) proved the exact opposite. ‘Modnerism’ or modern thought ‘works’ really well. The question I should have been looking to answer was probably something more Machiavellian – ‘works’ well to what end?

Case study… In my PhD thesis, I spent a lot of ink trying to sink the modern philosophy of René Descartes, saying generally that the mind/body schism or ‘Cartesianism‘ was the root of many intellectual problems and social inequalities today (e.g. that people abstract their minds from enmeshed ecologies of existence, thus making apologies for emotive or intellectual abuse of the world around them).In revisiting my thesis after my viva, I’ve found that Prof. Shanks was right in that my studies thus far had really shown that Cartesianism works really well – in certain contexts.

This was never more true than yesterday when I ran the Dublin Marathon. It’s an old mantra – mind over matter – but the marathon was a situation when I relied heavily on every bit of modernist heritage of the mind/body schism to get myself round the 26.2 miles of the course.

Now, I still feel that Cartesian thought has flaws, but I know feel that it is more in the application (the living of the thought) rather than in the thought itself. What I learned through the criticism of my thesis and subsequent redevelopment of my thought was that philosophy isn’t only a series of utilitarian tools or an analytical matrix. It’s about how you live life and how you make choices within the living of life.

Philosophical intentionality is something that isn’t discussed much these days. In academia, philosophies are generally batted around in a utilitarian struggle for intellectual power (career advancement, grant proposals, etc.). You find feminist thought being used to create airs of political correctness in academic texts but that the life of the academic writing said texts leaving much to be desired in enacting a social revolution.
Philosophers such as Heidegger or Benjamin didn’t just come up with clever ideas to sell books. They actually lived out the philosophies they designed. And I propose that there’s something of a practice/theory divide in many lives today. Euphemistically, people aren’t practicing what they are ‘preaching’.

To avoid an extended intellectual rant, I will close with a reading recommendation:
Haruki Murakami’s ‘What I talk about when I talk about running’

This book isn’t a philosophy or an intellectual treatise. It’s a meditation on the living of life, but in that, I think it’s an example of a strong place to begin to articulate new philosophies about how one lives in the world.
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