The notion of dependence

Beethoven’s death mask by Josef Dannhauser

Alberto Arruda was a participant in our 2017 Summer Seminar “Virtue, Happiness, and Self-Transcendence” and is a postdoctoral researcher in philosophy at the University of Lisbon.

During the various sessions of our seminar, the notion of dependence was often mentioned in one way or another. I have decided to write a brief note on this notion in the hope that it might spark a discussion amongst philosophers, theologians and psychologists alike. This note assumes the form of a reflection on a text; and author, that is, I think, a very unlikely candidate in the context of our sessions: Descartes. Perhaps for this reason, and given our prevalent Aristotelianism, I thought this exercise would be interesting, since it challenges some of our dearest assumptions.


A brief note on dependence


“I am not an animal!” protested Spartacus, the very same thought that famously puzzled Descartes in his Meditations. And even though both men were protesting in a similar way, they were not protesting about the same thing at all. While Descartes was complaining about the fact that he couldn’t possibly be reduced to the animal begotten by his parents, the slave was complaining about the fact that he could not be reduced to an animal just because someone had decided to treat him like one. But where the slave might have pointed to the fact that, much like his owner, he also had parents, and perhaps even siblings, who worried about him, Descartes would have maintained that the dependence exhibited by his animal nature did nothing more than conceal his real dependence on God. Now, this is a genuine difference. Although both complain about being reduced to something they know they are not, the nature of Descartes’ complaint is about concealment, while the slave’s is about what is, for him, painfully manifest.


If Descartes had lived to encounter, say, Beethoven’s death mask, perhaps he would have maintained, much like Aristotle, that the mask was not the likeness of Beethoven at all. But, where for Aristotle the now dead Beethoven was no longer Beethoven, I mean, that particular depiction was merely the depiction of a Beethoven now missing a part, Descartes would have maintained that the mask of the dead Beethoven was certainly not the likeness of the real Beethoven, but then again, no mask could ever have been – dead or alive.


So, an alive and well Beethoven, that is, an intact Beethoven as Aristotle would say, really never was ab initio Beethoven. And now, I can’t quiet imagine what privation meant for Descartes, nor what a status quo ante could have meant for Descartes in relation to both the deterioration and the many privations our bodies do suffer. But I do understand one, I suppose, fundamental aspect of his argument – namely, that the real Beethoven may very well still be somewhere (that is, if he, or it, is still somehow able to think). And this is not exactly the same as saying that the real Beethoven has only now genuinely come to be, I mean, now after the death of his animal part.  For if we were really thinking about Beethoven’s soul, we would have to be thinking about the Beethoven who sinned, the one who sinned through that body, the body now depicted in that death mask. So this Beethoven, the dead Beethoven, was, even for Aristotle, who certainly did not puzzle about the salvation of his soul, not necessarily the Beethoven who used to sin and repent, but certainly the one who did all of those actions and composed all that music, the music that somehow many of us grow up with. But still, what about the question: who was the real Beethoven for Descartes? He was not the body depicted in his death mask – and we do have this intuition, especially when we miss someone who has died – so who was he?


And now we know that the reply is challenging and difficult, for he never was that body, nor his thoughts, and certainly not his actions. And so he was not part of the history we inherited. He was always, genuinely, his thinking, but not the falsity he sometimes thought about. Beethoven was, like I am, and so are you, his thinking when it was true. So the evil genius could have robbed him of a world, he could have robbed him of his acting, and I suppose of his sins and redemption, but he could not have robbed him of the faculty that God created, the faculty of proper thinking. And so, Descartes argued he was his thinking; he argued that he was his dependence on God, and now I say dependence, because he could not have created truth, for he was far from perfect, and also, because he could not exist without truth. So Descartes, and Beethoven, and you, and I are our dependence on God; we are, if you want, the faculty we exercise but have not begotten, and so we are all equal before God. Therefore, when any of us takes drugs, we are, for Descartes, so it seems to me, giving the biggest offence we can. We are polluting the very gift we received from God, destroying our election, and really, genuinely, destroying ourselves.








Another thought: Descartes somehow had the intuition that he was somewhere in his body, but not like a pilot is in a vessel. This takes away any hope we might have of putting matters in a way that is as clean and simple as talk about separable glassy essences, ghosts in machines and otherwise. And I think there is a lot in this that can be used to somehow detach his theory from an official doctrine of Cartesianism, although I do not dare to dispute that there is a great deal of merit in what has been achieved under this rubric.

But still, what about the thought concerning pilots and vessels? The Descartes of the Meditations never thought about something like occupying more than one body. I suppose such a thought experiment did not seem necessary to him, as it does to a lot of us nowadays. The uniqueness of occupying only one body seemed, perhaps, trivial to him. He did not argue much for it, and so he did not argue much against it. Given his hyperbole, he could have never conclusively known that he had occupied only one body; and I think that there would not be much advantage to doing so, since truly knowing what one is would not be improved by a putative change of body. So Descartes’ argument mentioned uniqueness of body, but not, as we would be tempted to think, in the service of some kind of uniqueness of experience. And now, I have to admit, that at least I do believe in such uniqueness of experience. And as I hinted at before, I do not find this uniqueness entirely void of theological significance either.

However, if we think about it, his metaphor is near perfect for his purpose. Any pilot is far more dependent on his or her vessel than Descartes thought he was on his body (at least this is what he wished to establish with his argument). No pilot is yet a pilot if he or she has never had a vessel, or at least the chance to pilot one. And the pilot who now lacks a vessel is certainly not half a pilot, although he or she is in danger of, perhaps, never again doing what a pilot does. And now we see that for Descartes what I truly am, my thinking, would still be possible even if I did not have a body, as long as God, who I truly depend on for my conservation, would grant me some true thoughts. And so, it seems, I am less dependent on my body for being me than a pilot is on a vessel for being a pilot, even though we are both equally dependent on God for existing at all.