Khamis, 8 Oktober 2009

René Descartes and the rise and fall of modern scientific psychology discipline

René Descartes and the rise and fall of modern scientific psychology discipline[1]


Wan Ahmad Fayhsal bin Wan Ahmad Kamal[2]

Part 1[3]

The man himself, notably known as the father of modern philosophy.

My name is Rene Descartes, now a famous French philosopher that people labeled as “the Father of Modern Philosophy”. My works have influenced various scientists, and thinkers in formulating a new thought system that gave rise to modern scientific enterprise. I would like to share my life story that had given tremendous impact upon philosophy, science and psychology.

I was born in La Haye on March 31, 1596 to a lovely couple of Joachim Descartes and Jeanne Brochard. When I was 10 years old, my father sent me to a Jesuit college at La Flece.

At La Fleche, I completed various courses of study like ”verbal arts” that comprises of grammar, rhetoric, dialectic (logic) and “mathematical arts” comprised of arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy. At the end of my studies, I also learnt metaphysics, natural philosophy and ethics. I love mathematics very much. Other subjects that were are abstract in nature do not attract me much at the earlier stage of my life.

My next stage of education was at the University of Poitiers. There I gained my Baccalaureate and License in Canon & Civil Law in 1615. Three years later, in the summer of 1618, I went to the Netherlands to become a volunteer for the army of Maurice of Nassau as an engineer for the army’s Corps of Engineers. This particular division would have engaged in applied mathematics, designing a variety of structures and machines aimed at protecting and assisting soldiers in battle.

During my stationed at Bread, I met a brilliant mathematician named Isaac Beekman. He was an important individual that influenced my early adulthood and rekindle my interest in science , and opened my eyes to the possibility of applying mathematical techniques to other fields. Our relationship is like a teacher to a student where he played a significant role in exposing me to this natural sciences and mathematics. My fascination for knowledge had sent me travel through Germany to join the army of Maximilian of Bavaria.

It was during this year of 1619, when I was stationed at Ulm, I had experienced three dreams that inspired me to seek a new method for scientific inquiry and to envisage a unified science. I begin to feel uneasy towards the traditional way of understanding the world especially the knowledge system that being derived by the Ancient Greek. My skepticism grew stronger on each day. I begin to doubt everything that I have learnt before. I trust no one but myself.

It was an intellectual crisis. I doubted everything and doubt was the only thing I feel certain off. But on this occasion, one thing had to be true that I really doubted. When I doubted, I had to be thinking, and because of I was thinking, it had to be a certain that I was a thinking being. Thus I concluded my experience with this famous expression “ Cogiot, ergo sum” means “ I think, therefore I am”.

From this new experience, I wrote a lot of famous treatises like Discours de la Methode (Discourse on Method), Mediations and a psychological treatise called Passions de l'ame (Passion of the Souls), when I was having an affectionate and philosophically fruitful correspondence with Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia in 1643.

Part 2

Why Descartes?

Descartes is father of modern philosophy which also became the father of modern scientific thinking that become standard method in modern science epistemology.

Descartes concept of mind-body dualism influence greatly the way we understand about human-self that give repurcusion to other fields of knowledge especially psychology.

According to Bertrand Russel, “This had not happened since Aristotle, and a sign of the new self-confidence that resulted from the progress of science. There is freshness about his work that is not to be found in any eminent previous philosopher since Plato”[4]

His major break with the Scholastic Aristotelian tradition in was intended to replace their system based on final causal explanations with his system based on mechanistic principles. Since then psychology has totally being revolutionized into a “scientific” knowledge discipline.

The significant of Cartesian psychology

The strict division between res cogitans (thinking thing) and the res extensa (extended thing) that had been outlined by Descartes made it extremely difficult for them to understand how mind and body interacted with each other. Cartesian division as it being know in the scientific community created a confusion about the role and nature of the mind, as distinct from that of the brain.[5]

The sharp distinction between the impermanent human body and the indestructible soul that was made by Descartes also being extended into different methods of studying them where the soul, or mind should be studied by introspection while the body by the methods of natural science.

In the subsequent centuries, psychologists, even though understood and used Cartesian framework in their scientific endeavour did not follow Descartes’ suggestion in the method of studying those two main division of human being instead they adopted both methods for the study of the human psyche, thus creating two major schools of psychology which are the structuralists who studied the mind through introspection and tried to analyze consciousness into its basic elements; and the behaviourists who concentrated exclusively on the study of behaviour and so were led to ignore or deny the existence of mind altogether. Interestingly, both of these schools of psychological thoughts emerged at a time when scientific thought was dominated by the Newtonian model of reality, which of course an extension and more refined Cartesian model of reality. Both schools modeled themselves after classical physics, incorporating the basic concepts of Newtonian mechanics (also a continuation of Cartesian mechanics) into their theoretical frameworks.[6]

No doubt Descartes’ method which he outlined in his magnum opus Discourse on Method[7] had contributed immensely to modern science but overemphasis on the Cartesian method has led to the fragmentation that is characteristic of both our general thinking and our academic discipline and to the widespread attitude of reductionism[8] in science.[9]

In the words of Fritjof Capra:

“In his attempt to build a complete natural science, Descartes extended his mechanistic view of matter to living organisms. Plants and animal were considered simply machines; human beings were inhabited by a rational soul that was connected with the body through the pineal gland in the center of the brain. As far as the human body was concerned, it was indistinguishable from an animal-machine”[10]

After three centuries of domination in Western scientific arena and being exported (rather imposed) by colonial masters upon captive minded colonial societies especially in the Third World countries under the aegis of “scientific objectivity”[11], the Cartesian-Newtonian worldview itself has been challenged by Western thinkers and physicist who are aware of its shortcomings.

The dilapidated state of Cartesian-Newtonian model in various sciences that being influenced by it including psychology had been caused by the deconstruction and contesting theories in sciences especially in physics whereby the quantum physics of Heinsenberg[12]’s uncertainty principle, Einstein[13]’s Relativity theory and the influence of Eastern Mysticism upon physicists like Bohm[14] and Schrödinger[15] had confirmed the need to revoke the Cartesian way of doing sciences.

Cartesian psychological model that used to be a powerful worldview system has been the foundation of modern scientific psychology that churned out structuralism, functionalism, behaviorism where all of these major psychological schools shared a common view of denying soul, metaphysics, and radical interpretation duality of mind-body that gave birth to a mechanistic conception of living system which of course laid the ground for more serious problems of materialism, deism and atheism.

Cartesian psychology and engineering

Cartesian duck. Living machine?

Is it really matter for an engineering student to bother about Descartes and its psychological system? I think it does as engineering students lived and work under Cartesian worldview when it comes to conducting their engineering work. All the theories that made up engineering discipline were the product of Cartesian scientific method.

In a more discrete way to understand the impact of Cartesian psychological thought upon engineering student, we ought to see it under the rubric of mind-body dualism. This powerful and unconscious concept has invaded the life of science and technical based students whereby they view the world in mechanistic way which lead to rigid determinism in comprehending the universe and its phenomena. This prevalent psychological trend had made engineering students more materialistic in nature as they view themselves and the life that surrounds them merely in terms of machinery-kind of life system. Materialist considers that a person is his body, nothing else but that, and what we understand as mind is nothing but bodily phenomena.

By having this kind of conception, the way they view happiness will be based on utilitarian concept of “pain” and “pleasure” only rather than try to understand the inner spiritual potential of human being that significantly influenced our mind and body in integrative manner as being outlined in most of eastern psychological tradition.[16]

Thus whenever they learn things, engineering students tend to overemphasis on the use of reason in understanding the structure of the subjects that being studied without ever configure to understand the underlying meaning of those learning subjects. All things, according to the worldview of an engineering student, could be “mathematicized” just like what being promoted by Descartes himself three centuries ago. Intuition that used to be one of the important ways in attaining knowledge has been neglected as modern science that shaped up engineering field of knowledge is being constructed through the foundation of logical positivistic framework that deny the metaphysical dimension of human thoughts.[17] It is time to reform our psychological understanding of ourselves as well the ecosystem that we are currently living in.

[1] Written assignment for General Psychology (HBB 2063), submitted on the 1st of September 2009.

[2] Final Year, Final Semester Chemical Engineering student, Universiti Teknologi PETRONAS (UTP)

[3] This autobiographical fictionalized essay was written based on biography of Rene Descartes entitled Descartes’s Life and Works in online version of Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (, accessed at 30 August 2009, 9.00 pm) and also an article entitled Rene Descartes (1596-1650): Overview from The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (, accessed at 30 August 2009, 9.31pm). For further reference, refer to A.C Grayling, Descartes: The life and times of a Genius ( London: Walker & Company, 2006) and Russel Shorto, Descartes’Bones: A skeletal history of conflict between faith and reason (New York: Vintage, 2009)

[4] Bertrand Russel, History of Western Philosophy. ( London: Allen & Unwin, 1961)

[5] Fritjoc Capra, The Turning Point: Science, Society and the Rising Culture, p.164, Hereafter cited as The Turning Point.

[6] The Turning Point, p.164

[7] Interestingly, many thought it is a treatise on philosophy whereas Descartes originally proposed it to be the introductory text to science as evidently projected in its full title as Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conductiing One’s Reason and Searching the Truth in the Sciences.

[8] Reductionism is the belief that all aspectcs of complex phenomena can be understood by reducing them to their constitutes parts.

[9] The Turning Point, p.59

[10] Ibid, p.61

[11] For further discussion on the problem of “scientific objectivity” refer to Paul Fayerabend, Against Method (London: Verso,1986); Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge (London: Routledge, 1998); Brian Martin, The Bias of Science (Canberra: Society for Social Responsibility in Science, 1979); Thomas Kuhn, The Sturcture of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962).

[12] Werner Heisenberg Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2007)

[13] Albert Einstein, "Kosmologische Betrachtungen zur allgemeinen Relativitätstheorie (Cosmological Considerations in the General Theory of Relativity)" (1917a)

[14] David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order (London: Routledge, 1980)

[15] Erwin Schrödinger, What is Life? Mind and Matter (Cambridge University Press, 1944)

[16] For an insight on Islamic psychological system, refer to Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas, The Nature of Man and the Psychology of the Human Soul: A brief outline and framework for an Islamic psychology and epistemology. (Kuala Lumpur: ISTAC, 1990)

[17] For an insight on the subject of intuition, refer to Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas The Intuition of Existence ( Kuala Lumpur: ISTAC, 1990).

3 ulasan:

Mohd Faizal berkata...

Ini present kat mana ni bro..bagus nih

Mohd Faizal berkata...

Ini present kat mana ni bro..bagus ni

Rausyanfikir berkata...

Oh ni assignment kelas psikologi saya kat UTP. Simple je.