Descartes Dream of Reason -or- Unified Philosophy and Wisdom
Philosophy and the School of Athens -or- The Philosophy of Science
Wilhelm Dilthey had a dream about Raphael's painting "School of Athens", Dilthey saw that Rene Descartes played a central philosophical role in the "schools of thought". Descartes changed camps in Dilthey's dream (read the dream interpretation "The School of Athens"). Ironically Descartes arrived at his science and philosophy via three dreams that he experienced November 10, 1619. The three dreams would provide a philosophical foundation for the modern "dream of reason" and philosophy of science.
Today's dream interpretation discusses aspects of Descartes three dreams.
There are reported variations of Descartes dreams, here is one;
Descartes is walking in an unknown street, when suddenly ghosts appear in front of him. Terrified, he wants to flee, but he feels a great weakness on his right side, and he is obliged to lean on his left to be able to advance. Ashamed of walking in this grotesque position, he makes an immense effort to stand upright, but an impetuous wind suddenly makes him spin three or four times on his left foot, like a top.
Then, he stops spinning and forces himself to continue to advance. But his body's position makes walking difficult, and he thinks that he is going to fall with each step that he takes. A college, whose door is open, then appears in his path. He enters it, thinking to find refuge there, and perhaps a remedy for what is ailing him. Then he sees the college church and wants to go there to pray, but he notices that he has passed a man whom he knows, without greeting him. So, he wants to turn back to say something agreeable to him. But he is violently pushed back by the wind which is blowing against the church and stopping him from advancing. At the same time, he sees, in the middle of the college courtyard, another person who calls him by his name and says to him:
"Would you be kind enough to carry something to one of our friends?"
Descartes asks what he is to carry. He receives no answer, but imagines, we don't know why, that it is a melon brought from some foreign country.
He continues walking, dragging himself along and tottering, while the people whom he meets are walking firmly on their feet, and the wind has dropped. He is so unhappy that he wakes up.
The dream, from which he emerges with difficulty, has anguished him so much that he thinks that a bad genie has come to torment him. So, he makes a long prayer to secure himself against the bad effects of his vision.
Descartes goes back to sleep. He is immediately transported into another dream where he hears a sharp, explosive noise, which he takes for thunder. Fear wakes him. Opening his eyes, he sees sparks from the fire scattered in his bedroom. But this doesn't worry him, for it has happened several times before. On some nights, the sparks are so bright that they allow him to see the objects around him.
After a short time, he goes back to sleep once more, and finds himself in a third dream. In front of him, on a table, is a book. Having opened it, he sees that it is a dictionary. Then he notices a second book. This one is a poetry anthology. He flicks through it and immediately comes upon the latin verse: "Quod vitae sectabor iter?": "Which path in life will I choose?".
At the same time, an unknown man appears and presents him with a poem which starts with Est et non (what is and is not). He adds that it is an excellent work. He says:
"I know. It is in this book of poems. Look!"
But he flicks through the anthology in vain. He can't find the poem. So, he takes up the dictionary and notices that some of the pages are missing. He is exchanging a few more words with the stranger when, suddenly, the books and the man disappear.
Philosophy of the Waking Ego -or- Logical Choises and Paths in the Cartesian Theatre
"The Dream of Reason" by Anthony Gottlieb traces the philosophy of reason and logic from the ancient Greeks to the Renaisance. Logic looks at the variety of forms arguments can take, and which arguments are true and which are fallacies. One of the key arguments that Descartes uses is known as the "dream argument", an idea that already existed dating back to the ancient Greeks.
In his essay "Rene Descartes and the Dream of Reason" (1) John H. Hanson discusses the first two dreams as ones having divine origin and relating to Descartes personal past. The third dream related to Descartes future and was viewed by Descartes as representing a prophesy of his future way of life. If the first two dreams are about the past, then the following passage of the first dream is significant;
"A college, whose door is open, then appears in his path. He enters it, thinking to find refuge there, and perhaps a remedy for what is ailing him. Then he sees the college church and wants to go there to pray, but he notices that he has passed a man whom he knows, without greeting him. So, he wants to turn back to say something agreeable to him. But he is violently pushed back by the wind which is blowing against the church and stopping him from advancing."
In the dream, Descartes seeks sanctuary, yet finds none. In fact Descartes is pushed back by the wind that is blowing against the church. There are two interpretive ideas here, first the awesome forces of nature act on Descartes body, causing fear and the search for security. The second idea, is that the wind was blowing against the church. If the "Reformation" had started with Luther, Zwingli and Calvin, then historically it drew to a close in 1648 and the "Treaty of Westfalia" which ended the religious wars in Europe. Descartes dream can be viewed as the beginnings of the rational path towards "secularization" in Europe and an end to the powerful influence of the "Church". To further reiforce such an interpretation, let us return to an earlier passage in the dream;
"Descartes is walking in an unknown street, when suddenly ghosts appear in front of him. Terrified, he wants to flee, but he feels a great weakness on his right side, and he is obliged to lean on his left to be able to advance. Ashamed of walking in this grotesque position, he makes an immense effort to stand upright, but an impetuous wind suddenly makes him spin three or four times on his left foot, like a top."
Ghosts appear, and Descartes becomes terrified and wants to escape, only to experience the right side of his body in great weakness, leaving him ashamed and walking in a grotesque way, can be read as a dreaming "ego psychological" conversion neurotic symptom.
Most likely the appearance of and the fear of ghosts in dreams was taken literally by Descartes and by those living in his time. Instead of being perceived as the memory of a person who had passed on, ghosts were taken as real entities. The ghost also reinforces the Cartesian belief in the religious dualism of mind and body. We can find modern Cartesian thinking in the dream interpretation "The Thinker".
Descartes third dream shows the Cartesian philosophers path of the future, not only for Descartes but also for his dream of a unified philosophy, poetry and science. Hanson tells the reader that; "Descartes judged that the Dictionary meant nothing but all the sciences assembled together; and the anthology of poems entitled Corpus Poetarum showed in particular and in a more distinct way Philosophy and Wisdom joined together." From my own perspective, the two books poetically represents the philosopher poets bibliophilia in search of literacy and wisdom.
In closing, if one of the central problems with Descartes philosophy of the narcissistic ego is his mind-body dualism, then the other is his privileging of the waking ego (over the dreaming ego) and consciousness (over the unconscious). Daniel Dennett has summarized the philosophical problem of the Cartesian ego in his idea of the "Cartesian Theatre". These and other philosophical problems will be reviewed in other dream interpretations planned in the future.
- 1. John H. Hanson, "Rene Descartes and the Dream of Reason", in Marie Coleman Nelson (ed), "The Narcissistic Condition".
- 2. Norman Malcolm, "Dreaming and Skepticism", in Willis Doney (ed), "Descartes: A Collection of Critical Essays"
- 3. Bertram Lewin, "The Dream and the Uses of Regression"