Are Humans "Thinking Things"?
James K. A Smith criticizes modern philosophy for reducing humans to “brains-on-a-stick” (Smith 3). He particularly singles out Rene Descartes who famously said, “Cogito, ergo sum”, “I think, or I doubt, therefore I exist” (Allen and Springsted 132). Throughout his popular work, You Are What You Love, Smith endeavors to provide a well-rounded anthropology compared to what he sees as a reduction of the human person in Descartes. So how did Descartes understand human beings and has his project failed, as Smith so claims?
In his landmark work, Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes undertakes an ambitious philosophical project: find one certain truth upon which to base all knowledge. In order to do so, he seeks to disprove everything he knows (Descartes 13) until he finds a truth he cannot doubt (8).
Throughout his first meditation, Descartes demonstrates he cannot be sure about any information conveyed through his body. All he experiences bodily could be a dream and is always suspected to be such (14-15). Yet even as he asserts that everything he senses is false (17), he notices that if he can be deceived, he must exist. He can be certain that he does, in fact, exist, but what does it mean to exist (18)? He concludes the only way to be certain he does exist is to notice that he is thinking. Every thought is irrefutable evidence that he does exist. Therefore, he is essentially “a thinking thing” (19). After rooting himself in his mind, he then recognizes that his bodily senses are themselves thoughts (20). He can only understand the world around him through his mind (22). The body itself serves as an extension of the mind (Allen and Springsted 133).
It is Descartes’s definition of himself as “a thinking thing” which Smith takes particular issue with. If humans are primarily minds extended into a body, why does the mind not have more immediate influence over the actions of the body? Smith recounts a humorous anecdote about underlining in furious agreement Wendell Berry’s arguments on “good eating” in healthy and just ways while devouring a footlong hot dog in a Costco food court. Here Smith was thinking through the importance of eating local meat from “happy pigs” who had been treated humanely during their lives while eating a mass-produced hot dog made without thought and care for the pig (Smith 59-60). If the body is just an extension of the mind, why did Smith’s new knowledge for his mind fail to change the appetites of his body? In his own words, “New victual knowledge doesn’t simply translate into new habits of eating” (61). Changing his appetites would require practicing what he had learned, intentionally changing eating habits until the desire to eat in accord with his newfound knowledge became automatic (61-64).
Smith turns back to St. Augustine of Hippo’s language of desire to define human beings. “To be human is to be animated and oriented by some vision of the good life, some picture of what we think counts as ‘flourishing.’ And we wantthat. We crave it. We desire it” (11). Because humans are desiring creatures, a human is also “a liturgical animal, a creature whose loves are shaped by our worship” (Smith 23).
For Christians, the determining factor for which definition to subscribe to is Scripture. Who does God say human beings are? Scripture, in its own unique way, utilizes similar language of desire for human beings. The entire human project goes awry when the first humans “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise” (Genesis 3:6 NRSV) and ate of it in disobedience to God. They set their love and desire on the fruit rather than on God. Since then, St. Paul could say, “there is no one who seeks God” (Romans 3:11). Jesus says the greatest command of the Law is, “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). The entirety of the human being, including the mind, is called to be wrapped up in the task of loving God. The great promise of the New Covenant is that “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:33-34). The Christian story sees humans as desiring creatures whose hearts are set on lesser desires. The Gospel promises the transformation of individuals, from the heart through the mind and even the body to desire after the God who made them and set His own love on them.
Allen, Diogenes, and Eric O. Springsted. Philosophy for Understanding Theology. Second ed. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007.
Descartes, René. Meditations on First Philosophy. Translated by Donald A. Cress. Third ed. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1993.
Smith, James K. A. You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2016.