Descartes, Tolle and Merton

My worldview can be summed up as follows:

1) The personal, inter-personal, social, economic and political troubles we face cannot be solved by the fragmented domains of knowledge production that has developed in the last 200 years of the modern university. What more is needed is the holistic thinking of a philosophical awareness and modes of questioning. (Academic philosophers and new age philosophers would agree).

2) The necessary holistic thinking of philosophy requires a broadening and synthesis of out understanding of philosophy itself. In particular, it requires to bring into harmony the intellectual and logical thinking of academic philosophy with the spiritual and intuitive thinking of new age philosophy. (This many academic philosophers would deny for being too spiritual, and many spiritual philosophers would deny for being too intellectual.)

I am a man in between worlds. Between east and west. But also between academic philosophy and spiritual philosophy.

I love both academic philosophy and spiritual philosophy. I admire Kant, Russell, Cavell and Anscombe. And also Vivekananda, Aurobindo, Thomas Merton and Eckhart Tolle.

But, alas, the two sides I like rarely ever talk about each other. And even when they do, it is was suspicion and a crude sense that the other is a kind of limited philosophy. For academics, new age philosophy is woo-woo mysticism. For new age philosophers, academic philosophy is intellectual, logic chopping.

Both sides are right. And yet both are wrong. If philosophy cannot itself find harmony within its many dimensions, how can it bring harmony to the splintering of dimensions in the world? We need a broader consciousness which solves, dissolves, overcomes and transcends the intellectual-spiritual dichotomy which has paralyzed much of the public discourse.

As a step in this direction, in this post I will begin by critiquing a standard trope on the spiritualist’s critique of the intellectual philosophers.

Like Heidegger and Dreyfus, often spiritual philosophers find their target in Descartes:

The philosopher Descartes believed he had found the most fundamental truth when he made his famous statement: “I think, therefore I am.” He had, in fact, given expression to the most basic error: to equate thinking with Being and identity with thinking. The compulsive thinker, which means almost everyone, lives in a state of apparent separateness. (Eckhart Tolle)

Nothing could be more alien to contemplation than the cogito ergo sum of Descartes. “I think, therefore I am.” This is the declaration of an alienated being, in exile from his own spiritual depths, compelled to seek some comfort in a proof for his own existence (!) based on the observation that he “thinks.” If his thought is necessary as a medium through which he arrives at the concept of his existence, then he is in fact only moving further away from his true being. (Thomas Merton)

Tolle and Merton are of course right that identifying with our thoughts is a main obstacle to a broader awareness. Most basically, what they are criticizing is what the Buddha was gesturing at when he said:

“He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me.” Those who harbor such thoughts do not still their hatred.

“He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me.” Those who do not harbor such thoughts still their hatred.

Identifying with our mind, understood as identifying with the ego stream of consciousness of “I want …”, “I fear…”., “I hate…” and so on is the root grip of the ego on us. Tolle’s compulsive thinker and Merton’s alienated being are people who are unable to get out of the grip of the stream of consciousness of thinking which is often the majority of our thinking.

When Descartes said of himself that he is a thinking being, is this what he meant?

Of course not. Anyone who has felt the excitement of reading Descartes’ Meditations can tell that Descartes’ identification with the mind was not an affirmation of the ordinary consciousness, but rather a move towards self-reflection and radically questioning one’s whole view of life. When I obsess about how my neighbor took my parking spot or how he drives a better car, that is not what Descartes is talking about.

In fact, there are many different things going in with Descartes. He is creating a framework for critiquing the Church’s scientific views. He is trying to articulate a vision of the mind which can make sense in the modern, scientific worldview he wants to put in place of the scholastic views. He is channeling ancient skeptical methods to enable oneself to break down one’s own habits and to see things afresh.

In doing all this, does he make mistakes? Of course. I think Ryle, Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Dreyfus are right that the Cartesian, dualistic view of the mind is basically mechanistic – that the dualism actually hides how much the view has in common with reductive materialism. Similarly, Descartes’ view of the mind makes no reference to the higher modes of consciousness that are not mathematical or scientific – no reference to poetry, literature and yes – this is Tolle’s and Merton’s point also – no reference to spiritual consciousness.

But these limits in Descartes’ view is no reason to make him the symbol of the egoistic thinking which is the mode of awareness which is Tolle’s and Merton’s real concern. It is as bad as when academic philosophers dismiss someone like Tolle as “just a self-help guru.”

In developing a more holistic consciousness, we have to be mindful of the easy dichotomies we draw and then pin the bad guy label onto one of the heroes of the perceived “other side”.

Tolle and Merton’s objection to Descartes is not historically grounded. But the real problem is deeper than that: the way they make the objection highlights the force of the egoistic thinking in their views.

Imagine if you are a scholar of Descartes, or someone who loves and admires Descartes’ philosophy and saw it as enabling you to explore new modes of questioning and thinking. What are the chances that you will see in Tolle’s objection to Descartes the Descartes that you love and admire? No chance at all.

Tolle and Merton speak as if it is just a fact of the world that Descartes made this gigantic mistake, which then had vast implications for European modernity. As if in making this point they are doing nothing but, in Rorty’s phrase, “mirroring the world.”

But, of course, that is not what they are doing. They are not just mirroring the world. They are meaning to point out that there is this whole way that modernity has gone wrong, and yes, that the mistake can traced to the father of modern philosophy. They are telling a historical narrative, with the good guys and the bad guys, the ones who got it right and those who messed up. And they assume that their listeners or readers will assent to this way of carving up the landscape of ideas and histories.

At bottom, this kind of throw away criticism of a major thinker in a different age and a different context than ours in a paragraph is the kind of crude, fragmentary thinking which spiritual consciousness is meant to move us beyond.

By saying that Tolle and Merton get Descartes wrong, I am not thereby just reaffirming Descartes scholarship in academic philosophy, as if the philosophy professors get it right. I don’t think the Decartes scholars get it right. I think they miss the spiritual dimension of Descartes’ thinking as much as Tolle and Merton miss it in Descartes.

But the crux of the point isn’t who gets Descartes right. It’s about how we can speak so that we don’t essentialize good and bad in a way which alienates those who see things differently than us.

In making their criticism of Descartes in the flat-footed way they do, Tolle and Merton are setting themselves against any reader who admires Descartes. And so they are creating a fork in the road moment, saying as it were, “If you want to engage with us, you need to follow our take on this issue.” But – and this is the main point – the unfolding of the non-egoistic, spiritual consciousness means not creating or not reenforcing these “you are with me or with them” kind of dichotomies.

But if Tolle is so spiritually advanced, why is he making this mistake?

As Tolle himself says, his skill, if we want to call it that, is that he doesn’t identify with his thoughts. It’s not in the fact that he has the right thoughts. The spiritual consciousness that Tolle is talking about and which I believe he possesses doesn’t require that his ideas about Descartes are right. He has ideas about Descartes just the way anybody does. And like anybody, those ideas can be wrong.

Nothing in Tolle’s philosophy requires the idea that Descartes set humanity on a wrong path. So that makes Tolle’s criticism of Descartes doubly off. It gets Descartes wrong, and that criticism of Descartes is not even needed for Tolle’s positive view.

This is symptomatic of the gulf between academic and spiritual philosophy. There is no gulf in reality. All there is are people trying to better understand themselves in a holistic way and to expand their consciousness. But all these little contrasts and digs on both sides which we normally look past create the illusion of the gulf. So overcoming the gulf requires simply giving up and rooting out of oneself all these little contrasts and digs which we use to prop up one side at the cost of the other.

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