July 30, 2004
Dear Mr. Descartes,
I’ve wanted to write you for a long time, but I didn’t know it until just now at four in the morning. I awoke suddenly, my head thrashing with thoughts, and I began to think why I was thinking. I have turned on the light, grabbed my notebook and pen from the nightstand crowded with books, and propped myself up on my bed with three pillows in my Iowa House hotel room. As a student at the University of Iowa’s Summer Writing Festival, I went to bed last night thinking about my assignment for today—write a rant about something that has a humorous connotation. And now, you have come to mind, and I’ll tell you why.
First, I want to tell you that I enjoyed your comments about living in Sweden the last year of your life—1650—and noting that it was so cold in winter, compared to your years in France, that thoughts freeze there during winter. This, sadly, is not true for me living in Chicago that gets extremely cold in the winter. Even at thirty-day bouts of below freezing, I have thought attacks at least every twenty-five seconds twenty-five hours a day.
Did you know, or even care to know in your underground position, that I was essentially free of obsessive thinking before I became aware of you? Carefree automatic thoughts guided my life at the sandbox as a mom, at the bedside as a nurse, and at the podium as a teacher. Insomnia was a word in the dictionary. Obsessive thinking belonged to people living on the other side of the thought line.
Surely, you must realize, even though you’ve not been thinking yourself for some time, that you are the one who has caused me protracted angst over my inability to control the depth and width and height and rate of my excessive thinking. All because of your upsetting notion of Cogito ergo sum. “I think, therefore I am.”
I did not hear of your thoughtful little phrase until I was over forty and in a doctoral program taking a philosophy of science course. Now, my dear friend Rene, I’d never heard of you because my skip through academia skipped over you. Imagine my angst the first day when I had to sign up to present one of you fine fellows I’d never hear of before. (I’m still wondering why there were no women.) There was Aristotle, you, Hume, Hemple, Kant, Kuhn and others. I chose you because the date of the presentation fit best into my schedule. I pronounced your name as Des, rhyming with pez and wez, and Cartes, rhyming with darts.
My gut generated intractable spasms of immense proportions as I thought about preparing my presentation for my younger classy classmates whom I was sure had had at least twenty-seven courses in philosophy to my zero. In a fit of deepening angst, I called my philosophy colleagues at the college where I was teaching and begged for tutoring. Mistake. Every since I learned the implications of Cogito ergo sum, I’ve traveled down a slippery slope into an insomniac’s nightmare of obsessive, excessive, regressive, expansive thinking.
I think, for example, about the origin of knowledge. How does a person know? Can she think it to know it? Or does she need to experience it to know it? Your dilemma, also, as you wrestled with it in your Meditations on Philosophy. Ideas like this never used to awaken me or keep me awake. I may have had a thought occasionally about ageism, racism, and feminism, but certainly never about rationalism versus empiricism. Even now, years later, these added “isms” in my life cause my pulse to accelerate with carbonated thinking when I attempt to discern how I know, for example, that right now this pen in my hand is a pen because I think it is, that innate notion you spoke of coming from the mind, or because I can feel it in my hands, see its ink on the page, smell the ink, hear the scribble—experience a full and glorious and psychedelic blowup of the senses.
Another thing I think (translate, obsess) about is your notion of dualism of mind and body—that because the mind is a thinking substance and the body simply an extended substance, they are genuinely different. Now you’ve said that you hoped your reasoning would not be hurtful to anyone, that the nature of how people come to know was something you had to work out for yourself. But, unfortunately, I was taught in a psychiatric nursing master’s program, that it is just your musings on this dualistic notion that has fueled problems in our mental health field. For example, we, as a society, view illnesses of the body as more acceptable than those of the mind or brain. Physical illness gets sympathy; mental illness gets stigma. If you have Parkinson’s you get all kinds of well-wishers flocking to your side; if you have schizophrenia, people are likely to stay away out of fear and ignorance. If you have Parkinson’s, you’re likely to get unlimited health insurance; if you have schizophrenia, you’re likely to have long outlived any benefits, if, indeed, you ever had any. Achieving insurance parity between illnesses of the body and the brain is a battle we are constantly fighting. With a major difference between these two illnesses being the amount of dopamine in the body—not enough with Parkinson’s, too much with schizophrenia, which one would you rather have, my dear friend Rene? If you’d not fragmented human beings into non-extended and extended substances, persons suffering from illnesses of the brain would not need to battle feeling like outcasts and being overburdened with treatment bills.
I digress. But, you see, that illustrates my problem. I am again thinking too much. Like you in your Meditation, “I am a thing that thinks too much.” I was going to tell you about my problem with your thoughtful cogito ergo sum phrase. When I think of it, I think of Latin, then I think of high school, then I think of amo te, then I think of senior boys with tight jeans, collar up on white shirt, greased back D-A haircut swaying to You Ain’t Nothing but a Hound Dog, then I think of dogs, which leads me to Bria and Brandy, my grand-dog pugs…
Help! I simply can’t stop thinking. I may have to find a Thinker’s Anonymous meeting. “Hi, my name is Lois. I am a thinker. I am powerless over my thinking.”
Back to my point. I’ve obsessed for years now thinking about your cogito notion. I need you to know that if what you say is true, then I am, I am, I really am. I really am in an animated state of existence, because I’m thinking all the time. I’m truly and sincerely powerless over my thinking; I’m unable to quit. And that is why at four this morning—it is now six, when I woke up I started to think about my thinking. I thought I should think about the origin of my obsession with thinking. It has been over the last laborious wakeful two hours, while listening to suspect duck sounds (what are they doing during the night?) from the Iowa River flowing outside my hotel window, that I recalled that doctoral program assignment and realized that I’ve wanted to write you for a long time.
It is almost time for me to get up and get to the computer lab to type this so I can make twelve copies for my classmates and workshop leader. I do wonder if any of them will confess to a thinking problem. So, my dear friend Rene, I want to thank you for calling to my attention that I am because I think. As long as I am thinking, then I know I am alive. And that is a good thing; it is a useful consolation for my sleepless nights.
One last thing—I’d appreciate it if you would come back to life awhile to clarify your notion of dualism. You said you knew the mind and body were interwined in their actions, but we need to hear more on that from you. You could make us in the mental health field happy. And our patients. You could lobby my congressmen with me on insurance parity. You could stay at my house. My husband would love to meet you. He is weary of my thinking and needing to share my thoughts in bed just when he is trying to drift off. He might need to take you aside and have a word with you. I’m sure you wouldn’t mind. You seemed to like words—your Meditations were a challenge to decipher.
Oh, while you are here, I’d like to take you to Starbucks for a simple hot chocolate, not my usual sugar-free-chocolate decaf not-fat mocha grande and a biscotti—you can tell it’s my breakfast time—and discuss your concept of the existence of God. If I remember correctly, we don’t even have to worry about us being thinking beings, if we don’t first accept that there is a God that created us as such. I have to know clearly and distinctly, your words for describing the absolute certainty with which we must know something for it to serve as a basis for knowledge, how God fits in with my obsessive need to think. And I’d like to be relieved—at least somewhat—from my bottomless and topless and endless angst over thinking. So don’t get too much into any details I don’t need to know. It would only give me more to think about—like your four rules of doubt…
There I go again. I must get control of myself. So, please, come again. Soon! Meanwhile, I am what I am, and I am, for the most part, happy. Amo te, my dear friend Rene!
Lois Roelofs, PhD, RN
Professor Emerita of Nursing
I prefer “I love, therefor I act.”
I actually read DesCartes my first year of college when I was at College of the Holy Names, now known as Holy Names University after it went coed, many years after my time. The school at the time had a general education curriculum that required us to take, simultaneously, Greek and Roman literature, Greek and Roman philosophy, and Greek and Roman history, then Medieval to Enlightenment, ditto. The philosophy class ended with DesCartes. The next year the Catholic students had to take religion courses instead of philosophy. I never got to the second year. I dropped out as the school was literally too cloistered for me.
Nonetheless those courses from that year stuck to my ribs and I quoted from some of the readings on one of my comprehensive exams for my PhD in mass communications more than 25 years later.
Understanding Cartesian logic is key to understanding the wounds in the world.
In contrast there is the 13th century mystic Meister Eckhardt, who wrote such things as
“God is at home. It is we who have gone out for a walk.”
Lois Roelofs said:
I like your final quote. How true. I wrote more about my Descarte experience in my book. I so wish I’d had more philosophy in my basic education, but that was not be be that many years ago in nursing education. I’m making up a bit for it now with attending the Basic Studies Program at the University of Chicago. But what a marvelous knowledge base you have from all those courses years ago. Thanks for enlightening me!
Lois, could we get in touch privately? I don’t want to post my email because of the web crawlers that harvest email addy’s for spam. You can send your email to me using my contact form (left navigation on my page) & just put any old thing for the required (but not relevant to you) questions. I may be in Chicago in early August.
Lois Roelofs said:
I tried to get connected, but I don’t think it worked. See my contact info on my blog’s sidebar. It would be nice to meet up!