Cogito Ergo Sum: The Birth of Modern Art?

I’ll just say it: I deplore humidity. Even more when it is hot AND humid. And for the past two weeks, the summer weather has been like living in my own personal hell. Quite frankly, I find it difficult to feel curious about much of anything when the Devil is breathing on me.

After a week of vacation from writing, I’ve found myself a bit of time and a bit of air-conditioning. The article that last snagged my attention was written by Sam McNerney and entitled “Modern Art is Indebted to Descartes.” The author does not really discuss the theories that inspired his article, however, so I’ll give you a brief intro on the philosophies mentioned.


Descartes was not only a philosopher; he championed the arenas of anatomy, cognitive science, optics, and mathematics as well. In all of his work, however, Descartes’ methodology reflects the strong sense of logic and certainty that accompanies the subject of mathematics. Despite his unwavering religious beliefs, the man was a true rationalist.

I should mention that he didn’t go around poo-pooing everything; he was actually fighting skepticism. Here is an important distinction: in philosophy, skepticism is a belief that humans do not and cannot know anything. From what I gather, true philosophical skeptics incessantly doubt everything. Yikes.

Descartes, on the other hand, had a goal and a method.

He attempted an “unprejudiced search for the truth,”2 an irrefutable truth that would act as the foundation for all further research. He believed that in order to have such knowledge of what is true, one must also have objective certainty. Thus, he considered the basis of his beliefs systematically, questioning any belief that he thought subject to doubt. Descartes did not assume that the human experience of the world was enough to provide a concrete foundation upon which to build knowledge. Many beliefs we acquire through the senses, and so he investigated the senses. We cannot be certain that the information from our senses is true. Surely your senses have tricked you before? There is fallibility there.

Therefore, if we cannot rely on sensations, how can we rely on our knowledge of objects and events in the world? Even our own bodies and sense organs are called into question.

In the end, Descartes found something he could not doubt: his own existence. He could not doubt that he was doubting. Indeed, he must exist if he is capable of doubting his existence. “But does the supposed falsehood of this belief [in sensations] mean that I do not exist? No, for if I convinced myself that my beliefs are false, then surely there must be an “I” that was convinced.”2 Even if some evil demon is the deceiving him into doubting everything, he can be certain that he exists, because “I must exist in order to be deceived at all.”2 Descartes concludes that “…the proposition, ‘I am,’ ‘I exist,’ is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind.”3

The act of thinking proves existence because you have to exist in order to think; thus, Descartes’ famous line: “Cogito ergo sum” or “I think, therefore I am.”


Ok. You exist. But what are you?
“But what then am I? A thing that thinks. What is that? A thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, is willing, is unwilling, and also imagines and has sensory experiences.”1

Here enters a new kind of Cartesian Dualism: the mind-body problem for modern times. He explores the relationship between the ontologically separate mind and matter.

mind = nonphysical, responsible for consciousness and self-awareness.
brain = physical, responsible for intelligence.

[Discussing the nuances of Descartes’ dualist theory is not really necessary here, so let’s skip it. But here’s a little sum-up from Action Philosophers!]

descartes comic


This sort of thinking was kind of a big deal back then. During Descartes’ time (1596-1650), Scholastic philosophies and teaching styles were all the rage, and academics spent much of their time harmonizing the classical philosophies of Aristotle with Roman Catholic Church theology.

His work definitely affected the course of philosophy, but McNerney attempts to highlight how Descartes influenced modern art.

First of all, Descartes shifted the focus of questioning in philosophy from outside to inside, from “God to the individual.”1 He brought the notion of inner self to the forefront of philosophy. Descartes pondered distinct individuality and what made a person separate from the rest of the world. Furthermore, Descartes believed that to gain knowledge of the self one must participate in introspective self-awareness, in self-reflection.

“Through critical introspection, Descartes spawned the notion of the inner self – the idea that each of us possesses a unique core distinct from objects in the world and that self-knowledge is gained through self-scrutiny. This sounds obvious to us moderns, but it was not back then. There was no need to self-consult because God explained everything.”1

Secondly, Descartes’ method of systematic doubt and skepticism, influenced Art.

“The erudite French philosopher sparked our metaphysical and epistemological urges to wonder about the Truth and Reality with intense skepticism, setting the stage for filmmakers, writers and artists of the last 150 years to explore this craving with a more creative lens.”1

“If we take a clue from modern artists, it is to sustain that wonder, to explore it, but not solve it. Skepticism, after all, is Descartes’ legacy.”1

Here are a few of the works mentioned by the author:

Overall, McNerney’s article shares in interesting perspective on the evolution of Modern Art. Yes, Descartes’ theories had their questionable parts, and his pious spin on some philosophies will not sit well with many folk these days. However, he did indeed influence the progression of modern philosophy, and so I cannot imagine that his theories did not trickle down and influence modern worldviews. I tend to think that many modern artists took that skeptical bit and ran. Far far away.

But that’s a post for another day.

1. McNerney, Sam. “Modern Art Is Indebted to Descartes.” 12 June 2013. Web. 8 July 2013 <>
2. Skirry, Justin. “Rene Descartes.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ISSN 2161-0002. Web. 8 July 2013 <>
3. Descartes, Rene. Second Meditation: AT VII 25: CSM II.


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