Some Remarks on the Notion of “Cartesian Dualism” in Continental Philosophy

In the beginning of the 20th century, Western philosophy split into two main schools, analytic and continental philosophy, that – barring exceptions – neither read nor understand each other. My own work and influences are mostly within, or closely affiliated with, the analytic school, but occasionally I read some continental philosophy (as well as some non-Western philosophy). One peculiar term I encountered several times in such reading across scholastic boundaries is “Cartesian dualism”, most recently in Saito Kohei’s Marx in the Anthropocene.1 To be more precise, it is not the term itself that struck me as peculiar – you’ll find the same two-word combination outside continental philosophy as well – but how it is used. In continental philosophy, “Cartesian dualism” apparently refers to a kind of absolute opposition or dichotomy between nature and society.2 That is weird, but also interesting, and since I like things that are weird and interesting, I thought it might be nice to write something about this.

So let’s start with Cartesian dualism. What is that really? According to Descartes,3 there are two different kind of “substances”, material substances, which are defined as having extension (i.e., they occupy a definite region of space), and mental substances, which are defined as having thought. Importantly, these two kinds of substances are mutually exclusive – something is one or the other; it cannot be both. Descartes published this idea (and many other ideas related to it) around 1640,4 and almost immediately objections were raised, among others by princess Elisabeth of Bohemia.5

According to Descartes, my mind (which is a mental substance) is what I am, while my body (which is a material substance) is merely something I have, and Elisabeth was probably the first to object to this idea and to make the important point that the mind is not merely present in the body (in the way a driver can be present in a car), but is closely connected to it. This became one of the cornerstones of feminist critique on Cartesianism in the 20th century, and it is equally valid as an objection to “neo-Cartesianism”. Neo-Cartesianism overtly rejects Descartes’s mind/body dualism, but then covertly replaces it with another dualism. It rejects mental substances and either identifies the mind with the brain or with something like software running on the brain (as hardware), but then assumes a similarly strong separation between the mind-thus-conceived and the body as Descartes did. Like Descartes, neo-Cartesians assume that I am my mind and merely have my body. This idea is extremely influential and widespread. The science fiction trope of mind-downloading and uploading (to a computer, or robot, or different body) is an expression of this idea, for example. In reality, Elisabeth was entirely right, however: mind and body are inseparable and I am both.6

Elisabeth was also one of the first (but probably not the first) who raised what is the most fundamental (and arguably fatal) objection to Cartesian dualism: if the mental and the material are fundamentally different substances, then they cannot possibly causally interact (or at least not without breaking the laws of physics). If they are fundamentally different substances, then a physical event (such as stepping on a sharp stone) cannot possibly cause a mental event (such as pain), and a mental event (such as my desire to relieve that pain) cannot possibly cause a physical event (such as moving my foot off the sharp stone). It is largely for this reason that the vast majority of philosophers consider Cartesian dualism to be incoherent.

Now, let us return to the notion of “Cartesian dualism” in Continental philosophy. To distinguish that notion from what the term normally refers to (which was sketched in the previous paragraphs), let’s italicize it and put it in between inward-pointing guillemets, like this: »Cartesian dualism«. So, in the following, when I say something about Cartesian dualism, I’m referring to Descartes’s views in the philosophy of mind, and when I say something about »Cartesian dualism«, I’m referring to the absolute separation of nature and society (and/or related ideas) in continental philosophy.

What I found weird and interesting about »Cartesian dualism« is threefold: first, calling »Cartesian dualism« (i.e., the absolute separation of nature and society) “Cartesian dualism” in the first place; second, the suggestion that »Cartesian dualism« is a very old, widespread, and/or even fundamental feature of Western thought (and perhaps, not or to a lesser extent of non-Western thought); and third, the suggestion that »Cartesian dualism« is to blame for pollution, environmental destruction, and the climate crisis. Notice that I don’t know how common these last two suggestions are and that I don’t have references for them either.7 I do remember having encountered either suggestion several times, but I didn’t make explicit notes of that, and I’m too lazy to dig for references now. So, for clarity, I’m not claiming that either suggestion is common in continental philosophy; merely that they occur, and that I find them interesting.

As mentioned, calling »Cartesian dualism« (i.e., the absolute separation of nature and society) “Cartesian dualism” is weird, because that’s just not what Descartes’s dualism (i.e., Cartesian dualism) is about. What makes it extra weird is that Cartesian dualism could not even be about the (conceptual) separation of nature and society, as the concept of society had not even been invented yet when Descartes was alive.

Of course, the word “society” wasn’t new – that word had been used widely for centuries in reference to small institutional units between the state and the household. Societies were social circles or (legally instituted) associations. From the middle of the 18th century onward, the term started to be used in combinations such as “political society” and “civil society” to refer to an understanding of the state and its people that was heavily indebted to social-contract theory. Only in the late 1790s started the term to be used to refer to something distinct from the state and distinct from its old meaning as “association” etcetera.8 So, for example, Karl Marx wrote in the winter of 1857–8 in the Grundrisse that “society does not consist of individuals, but expresses the sum of interrelations, the relations within which these individuals stand,”9 which is an idea that was (becoming) common at the time, but which would have been nearly incomprehensible a century earlier.

It is no coincidence that the modern concept of “society” was invented around this time. Northwestern Europe was in the middle of the industrial revolution and due to technological and socio-economic changes “societies” in the traditional sense (i.e., as social circles or associations) were growing rapidly. Hence, the term included ever larger groups of people. Nevertheless, this social change did not by itself lead to the invention of “society” as we now understand the term. Not even the conceptual/theoretical innovation of “civil society” by social-contract theorists was sufficient – a further catalyst was needed. That catalyst was the political change at the end of the 18th century in France, and its fallout throughout the rest of Europe.

The modern concept of “society” was not the only conceptual innovation in this period, moreover. The industrial revolution coincides with a revolution in European intellectual history, as well as various social, political, and economic revolutions. Reinhart Koselleck has called this period (which lasted from approximately 1750 to 1850 in Germany but started a bit earlier in France) the Sattelzeit.10 The German word Sattel refers to a saddle or pass in a mountain ridge. (Hence, Sattelzeit means “saddle time”.) A mountain pass is a connection or passage between two distinct areas separated by mountains. Since mountain ridges are geographical barriers, the two areas thus separated may have different climates, cultures, languages, ways of life, and so forth – a mountain pass or saddle, in such a case, is a passage from one world into another. Thomas Kuhn famously claimed that “after a revolution scientists are responding to a different world”,11 but after the Sattelzeit everyone in northwest Europe was living in a different world.

It is hard to overestimate the importance of this intellectual revolution. People before the Sattelzeit were lacking many of the abstract social concepts that we are used to now – concepts like “state”, “society”, “culture”, and so forth. Some of the words were already in use, but they did not mean (exactly) the same things. The concept of the “state” was one of the first to develop, and this development actually started before the Sattelzeit. The closest pre-modern equivalent of the state was the household of the king. There was no notion of the state as some kind of social abstraction or institution separate from the person of the king and his possessions and entitlements yet. But arguably the most important innovation was the development of the modern concept of “society” as something separate from the state or the household of the king and the individuals within a society and their associations. Without the invention of “society”, there would have been no social science, no social philosophy,12 and no political ideologies.13

Descartes died almost 150 years before the modern concept of “society” was invented, and for this reason, calling an absolute separation between society and nature (which appeals to “society” in this sense!) “Cartesian dualism” is absurd. Not even did his dualism have nothing to do with the separation between society and nature (i.e., the continental »Cartesian dualism«), it could not even involve anything remotely like that. So this is what is weird about »Cartesian dualism« – really, really weird. Now let’s turn to what’s interesting about it anyway. For that, we have to go back a bit further in time.14

Most cultures and societies organize core aspects of their social thought in pairs of opposites.15 Where this tendency of dualistic or binary thought comes from is not know exactly, but it is very old and very widespread. Anne Baring and Jules Cashford trace it to ancient Babylonia (18th-6th centuries BCE),16 which is a plausible source for the shared characteristics of binary/​dualistic thought in the ancient Greek, Persian, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic cultures and their successors, as well as other cultures, such as those of India, that were more indirectly influence by Babylonian thought and mythology, but not for cultures outside that sphere of influence.

The Babylonian binary opposites were related to a mother god who was associated with nature and who was ultimately subjugated by a conquering father god. From this pair of gods, a chain of conceptual associations followed, and many of these associations, as well a their mutual opposition, remain very influential in Western thought. The following table shows some of the main oppositions and their associations with the male and female. Vertically, the table groups concepts that are associated; horizontally, it shows opposites.

male/masculine female/feminine
spirit/mind body
order chaos
light dark
active passive
reason passion/emotion
culture/civilization nature

While this Babylonian dualism is extremely widespread, it is not universal. The Chinese developed another scheme of binary oppositions, and there undoubtedly are cultures that have other, independent basic classification schemes. The Chinese yin 陰 / yang 陽 dichotomy is very old, but originally these two characters just referred to the shady and sunny sides of a hill or mountain.17 From this contrast a north/south distinction developed, which survives in many place names. According to Joseph Needham, the philosophical use of the pair of characters dates to the 4th century BCE,18 and it is unlikely that some of the more “philosophical” or cosmological associations of the two terms are much older than that. Hence, while the Babylonian opposition started out as a male/female opposition, in case of yin/yang, the female/male opposition was appended much later. This innovation is also of a much later date than the Babylonian mother/father god myth (which dates to approximately the 20th century BCE). However, it is unlikely that the Chinese yin/yang scheme was influenced by the Babylonian scheme.

Similar to the table above, the following table shows the yin/yang opposition and its conceptual associations. And like the table above, the vertical dimension leads further and further away from the roots of the opposition. Hence, while the previous table started out with the male/female distinction, we find the same pair of concepts here at the bottom.

yin yang
shady side (of a mountain/hill) sunny side (of a mountain/hill)
north (of something) south (of something)
moon sun
dark/shady light
cool/cold warm
wet/damp dry
hidden/cover/secret open/overt
passive active
negative positive
feminine/female masculine/male

Despite this fundamental difference in orders of association between the two classifications schemes, there are some interesting similarities as well. Both associate the male with light and the female with darkness, for example. And both conceive of the male as active and the female as passive. Nevertheless, it is important to not let such similarities overshadow the differences. Despite these similarities, these are different conceptual schemes – they group and classify things differently (even if the difference is subtle).19 Furthermore, there also are cultural differences in the way these conceptual oppositions are treated.

Let’s ignore the Chinese yin/yang scheme for now, and focus on the Babylonian dualism. Notice that the opposition between spirit or mind at the one hand, and body on the other is mentioned in the second row of the first table. Indeed, this conceptual opposition or dualism is very old and very widespread. Hence, Descartes was by no means the first to make a strict separation between mind and body. He was (probably) the first to think of this separation in terms of two fundamentally different substances, however. In contrast, the ancient Greek philosopher Democritus and the Vaiśeṣika school of Indian philosophy claimed that the spirit or soul consists of a special kind of atoms, which is a much more subtle difference from other kinds of (material) stuff.

An early, and very influential philosopher who thought of the mind or soul as something fundamentally different from the body was Plato. Alfred North Whitehead once remarked that Western philosophy “consists of a series of footnotes to Plato,”20 and in this case at least, this claim is far less hyperbolic than it may sound. Ancient Jewish thought did not think of the soul, mind, or self as something separate from the body, and neither did Jesus (probably). For Jesus (and other believers in Jewish apocalypticism) resurrection would be bodily resurrection in this very body and in this very world. It was under the influence of Plato’s dualism of soul and body that early Christianity reinterpreted Jesus’s teachings and started conceiving of the soul as something immaterial and separate from the body, and of resurrection as a resurrection of the soul in some otherworldly sphere.21 So, yeah… Christianity is a footnote to Plato. And so is Cartesian dualism, and all other mind/body dualism.

However, as already mentioned, Plato’s mind/body dualism has even older roots, namely, in the Babylonian male/female (gods) dualism, and through those roots it is associated with several other influential binary oppositions or dualisms in Western thought. If you look back at the first table above, you’ll find the opposition between culture or civilization and nature on the bottom row. Culture or civilization is associated with mind and the masculine, and nature with body and the feminine. The society/​nature dualism is closely related to this opposition, and consequently, while this dualism is not Cartesian dualism, it most certainly shares the same roots and there are important associations and connotations connecting the two dualisms. Recall that Cartesian dualism (the real one; not »Cartesian dualism«) conceives of mind and body as fundamentally different substances. Hence, Cartesian dualism radicalizes the mind/body opposition – mind and body are not merely different, but radically separate. It is this aspect of Cartesian dualism that »Cartesian dualism« analogously applies to the society/nature dualism: it assumes society and nature to be of two fundamentally distinct and separate spheres.

Above I mentioned two suggestions about this »Cartesian dualism«: (1) that it is widespread, at least in the Western tradition, and (2) that this is an underlying cause of environmental destruction etcetera. Regardless of how common these ideas (or suggestions) really are, let’s look into their plausibility.

Obviously, »Cartesian dualism« cannot be temporarily widespread, because cultures before their Sattelzeit lacked a concept of “society” and, thus, could not have a society/​nature opposition as part of their worldview either.22 However, pre-Sattelzeit cultures do tend to have other (more or less) social or moral concepts and could contrast those to nature or nature-related concepts. Something like a society/​nature dualism might not necessarily depend on the concepts of “society” and “nature” if this dualism is interpreted sufficiently permissively. Even then, »Cartesian dualism« does not seem common outside the Western tradition. Notice that in the table contrasting the conceptual associations with yin and yang there is nothing like the culture/civilization versus nature opposition (or a society versus nature opposition) that is associated with the Babylonian male/female dualism.23 This cannot be attributed to the lack of a concept of “society” as there are no other (pre-modern) social or moral concepts contrasted to nature either. Indeed, in classical Chinese thought, the social and moral order is assumed to be part of the natural order: nature or “heaven” 天 tian subsumes both. Interestingly, something similar is the case for Indian thought. The Vedic concept of ṛta refers to something like the principle that guides the cosmic order, and like tian, ṛta subsumes both the natural and social/​moral order. Hence, even if we significantly relax the notion of “society” in the society/​nature dichotomy, such »Cartesian dualism« does not make much sense in classical Chinese or Indian thought. In those, nature and “society” are not fundamentally distinct, but rather, the social/​moral order is part of the natural order.

Furthermore, at least in Chinese thought, conceptual oppositions tend not to be as absolute as in case of Western thought. While Descartes conceived of mind and body as two fundamentally distinct substances and society and nature are equally fundamentally separate and opposed in »Cartesian dualism«, yin/yang thought takes a more fluid approach, as illustrated in the famous Taijitu (太極圖) symbol ☯︎. The two opposites flow or change into each other, and each contains a seed or kernel of the other. Hence, yin and yang, and whatever is associated with those, are never completely separate and distinct.

While the foregoing may show that »Cartesian dualism« is probably not widespread outside the Western tradition (and might even be rare), I haven’t said anything yet about how common or widespread it is within Western thought. The problem is that I’m not sure what to say about that either. To assess the pervasiveness of »Cartesian dualism« in Western thought, we’d need to know what exactly this term denotes, and that is far from clear. What does “society” here refer to? And what is “Cartesian” about this dualism?

Regarding the second question, it seems to make most sense if the term “Cartesian dualism” is used to emphasize some kind of structural similarity with (real) Cartesian dualism (i.e., the idea that was actually defended by Descartes – see above). Descartes thought of mind and matter as fundamentally different substances, but what would it mean to conceive of society and nature as two different “substances”? Certainly, the metaphysical term “substance”, which goes back to Aristotle, does not apply here. Neither society, nor nature is a “substance” in an Aristotelian or Cartesian sense of that term (or anything remotely similar). So instead, maybe the notion should be interpreted more as some kind of metaphor, but a metaphor for what?

Perhaps, the idea is that society and nature are considered to be mutually exclusive categories, or something like that? That would at least be somewhat “Cartesian” in spirit, as for Descartes the categories of mental substance and material substance were mutually exclusive. However, this suggestion doesn’t seem to help much either, as it’s far from clear what claiming that nature and society are mutually exclusive categories means or implies. It’s not entirely nonsensical either, albeit in a rather trivial way. “Nature” is an empty container term that becomes meaningful only in relation to whatever it is opposed to.24 Nature vs. culture; the natural vs. the supernatural; nature vs. spirit/​mind and/or its products; the natural vs. the man-made or the artificial; the natural vs. the sophisticated, non-spontaneous, or learned; nature vs. art or technology; and so forth. Contrast “nature” with something else and, by default (albeit within certain limits), “nature” will function as what that something else is not.25 That’s just how the concept of “nature” works. So, it’s rather unsurprising that if you contrast “nature” with “society” that these become more or less opposed categories. But in addition to unsurprising, this is also quite meaningless: what exactly is “nature” opposed to here, and what does that “opposition” amount to?

In a note to the first paragraph of this article, I quoted Saito’s description of »Cartesian dualism« as an “absolute separation between Society and Nature”, and this seems indeed a common way of describing the idea. But if that’s what »Cartesian dualism« is about, then I doubt that it was or is very widespread in Western thought. In the contrary, humans and their natural environment were rarely considered to be separate – let alone absolutely separate – in Western thought. In Greek Antiquity, Hippocrate and Aristotle believed that the characteristics and ways of life of a people are to a large extent determined by the physical geography of their natural environment.26 You can find similar ideas in the European Middles Ages,27 as well as in Medieval Islamic thought,28 and – a few centuries later – in Montesquieu and Herder.29 In the 19th century, a more extreme version of this idea – now often called “physical determinism” – became the main paradigm in the emerging science of geography. One of the founding fathers of physical determinism in geography was Carl Ritter, who wrote (in 1817) about the “most intimate inter-connection” (innigsten Zusammenhang) of the history of peoples and living nature surrounding them,30 and thus quite obviously did not consider society/man and nature to be “separate”.31 This non-separateness of society and nature became even more explicit in early 20th century geography. Alfred Hettner, for example, wrote that “nature and man belong to the peculiarity of the countries, in such a close connection that they cannot be separated from each other.”32, 33 Perhaps, it can be argued that in the second half of the 20th century, society and nature became more separate conceptually, but even if that is the case, this is a very late development. If »Cartesian dualism« is an “absolute separation between Society and Nature”, and there is such an “absolute separation” indeed, then this is a very recent idea.

But is there even such an “absolute separation” in 20th century Western thought? There might be in continental philosophy itself, but I don’t see much evidence for an absolute separation between society and nature in Western thought as a whole, except if the “society” pole in that dualism is stretched beyond breaking (more about that below). And in case of continental philosophy, that “absolute separation” mainly takes the form of an exclusion of nature as “other”.

Continental philosophy is a rather heterogeneous family of philosophies with a number of different roots including varieties of phenomenology, (post-) structuralism, Western Marxism, and more, with different strands of continental philosophy emphasizing different roots or influences. In some of these roots, the society/​nature separation is obvious; in others less so, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

»Cartesian dualism« is most conspicuous in Western Marxism, which is largely due to a desired divergence from the orthodox Marxism-Leninism of the Soviet Union and its allies. To bring about this divergence, Western Marxists inflated the differences between Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, suggested that Marx was really only interested in society (and thus that Marxism only concerns the social), and claimed that Engels’s application of (Hegelian) dialectics to nature in the Anti-Dühring and the Dialectics of Nature deviated significantly from Marx’s thought and provided the foundation for Lenin’s thought and subsequent Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy. This ideological separation required ignoring or downplaying Marx’s extensive research in natural science and his repeated expression of agreement with Engels’s ideas in letters. More important here, however, is that this intellectual wedge between Western Marxism and Marxism-Leninism simultaneously drove a wedge between (thought about) society and nature. “Real” Marxism only concerned society, and any application of Marxist ideas to nature – and thus any kind of “Marxist” concern with nature – was considered part of the Engels-Lenin-Stalin-etcetera corruption of Marx’s thought. (By the way, one of the aims of Saito’s aforementioned book is to set the record straight in this respect.34)

In case of the many varieties of phenomenology and related ideas, the story is a bit more complicated and starts with another “Cartesian dualism” that I haven’t mentioned yet, and that isn’t really Cartesian dualism either, namely, subject/​object dualism. What exactly this dualism is about is rarely made clear, but the basic idea seems to be something like the following: Descartes assumed an absolute separation between the cognizing/​experiencing subject and the cognized/​experienced object, but this absolute separation is illegitimate, because the experience of the object is not independent from the experiencer (i.e., the subject), and therefore, the object is always – in some sense − already subjective (or something like that). While Descartes indeed assumed a separation between subject and object, it is hardly fair to blame him for that, as this separation is much more widespread and might even be the default way humans think about the relation between themselves and the things that surround them. Objecting against this separation on grounds like those hastily sketched above isn’t unique to continental philosophy either, but can also be found in Yogācāra Buddhist philosophy (and elsewhere), for example.

Anyway, the rejection of this subject/​object dualism is kind of a big thing in continental philosophy, although it comes in many guises and isn’t always as easily recognized. It is a cornerstone of most varieties of phenomenology, which aim to study the structures and contents of consciousness as those are experienced from a first-person point of view. However, it is much more widespread than that. In his review of Lee Braver’s history of continental anti-realism,35 Graham Harman adds a seventh kind of anti-realism to the six that Braver himself distinguished. According to that seventh, “A7”, philosophy has nothing “to tell us about the collision of two inanimate objects if this collision is not somehow encountered by humans”,36 or in other words, philosophy is exclusively concerned with human experience, the human sphere, etcetera. Significantly, Harman claims (correctly, I think) that “the A7 privilege of human-world interplay […] is the central unspoken dogma of continental philosophy”.37

In 2006, Quentin Meillassoux made a splash in continental philosophy with his book Après la Finitude (After Finitude) in which he argued against what he called “correlationism”.38 This correlationism is the idea that reality as it is studied by philosophy only appears as the correlate of human thought, and thus, that the independently real is outside the scope of philosophy. Correlationism rejects the idea that subject and object can be considered independently from each other. The latter idea is, of course, exactly the subject/object dualism that phenomenologists attribute to Descartes. Hence, correlationism is the phenomenological/​continental response to (i.e., rejection of) (“Cartesian”) subject/​object dualism and its exclusion of things-in-themselves – and thereby, nature – from the scope of philosophy. Correlationism is Harman’s “A7” anti-realism. (And Harman is, not coincidentally, one of Meillassoux’s biggest fans in the English speaking world, as evinced by his 2011 book about him.39) Meillassoux sees correlationism everywhere in “post-Kantian philosophy”, but that may be largely due to colored lenses and selective ignorance. David Golumbia has quite convincingly shown that correlationism isn’t nearly as widespread as Meillassoux thinks.40 More important here, however, is that Meillassoux is probably right that something like correlationism has been very widespread in continental philosophy (until very recently, largely due to his and Harman’s influence). Indeed, almost all continental philosophy has been founded on a rejection of something like subject/​object dualism and the (consequent) exclusion of independent objects, things-in-themselves, and nature (which is non-subject(ive) by definition) from the scope of philosophy. Meillassoux’s main error is to mistake this bias of the school of philosophy he belongs to for a universal (or Western) bias.41

Two things should be noted about this kind of continental »Cartesian dualism«. First, it is an absolute separation by exclusion. It constructs nature and independent reality as the non-human other, as not-us, drawing a sharp boundary line between us, humans, and that other, excluding it, and dismissing it as the irrelevant absolutely alien. Second, it does not really posit society opposite to nature, but humanity or everything that is in some sense human; and this brings us to the stretching beyond breaking of the “society” pole in »Cartesian dualism« I mentioned a few paragraphs back. If “society” in the idea of an “absolute separation between society and nature” really stands for anything human, and thus, »Cartesian dualism« really is an opposition of the human versus the non-human, then we have moved well outside the Cartesian/Babylonian connotational sphere. That is, the human/​non-human dualism has nothing to do with the Babylonian dualism and its various forms and associations mentioned above. Notice that the first table above opposes culture or civilization to nature, but not humanity or the human in general. That idea has different roots, and it is because of those different roots that some kind of of human/​non-human dualism may indeed be universal, at least on a cultural level (in the sense that it is present in every culture).

In The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker argued that humans (as well as other animals) need an instinctive fear of death, but that we need to control this fear to avoid being consumed by it.42 The “terror” of death is a potentially debilitating fear and our primary tools to control or suppress that terror are our belief systems. Becker’s ideas lead three social psychologists, Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszcynski, and Sheldon Solomon, to develop Terror Management Theory (TMT) in the early 1980s. TMT is mostly a more systematic and testable version of (most of) Becker’s ideas, and many of the central hypotheses of TMT (and thus of Becker’s theory) have been tested extensively and confirmed repeatedly. In 2015 the three published a book reviewing almost three decades of research. In that book they summarized the core idea of Becker and TMT as follows: “the awareness of death gives rise to potentially debilitating terror that humans manage by perceiving themselves to be significant contributors to an ongoing cultural drama,” and “reminders of death increase devotion to one’s cultural scheme of things”.43

One key aspect of Becker’s denial of death and TMT is the denial or repression of what Becker calls our “creatureliness”. Bodies die, animals (i.e., creatures) die, so we want to believe that we are something special – not mere bodies, not mere animals. We want to believe that we have spirits or minds that set us apart from the rest of the world. We want to believe that we are not animals, that we are different, that we are special. In an interview with Sam Keen, a few days before his death, Becker explained that “all humanly caused evil is based on man’s attempt to deny his creatureliness, to overcome his insignificance. All the missiles, all the bombs, all human edifices, are attempts to defy eternity by proclaiming that one is not a creature, that one is something special.”44 And this desire to set ourselves apart from animals, from nature, from the non-human, may indeed be universal (although it can take very many different forms in different cultures and different circumstances). But, again, this has nothing to with Descartes, or with the Babylonian male/​female (gods) dualism at the root of Cartesian dualism and various associated dualisms.

The second suggestion about »Cartesian dualism« (in addition to it being widespread) that I wanted to discuss here is that it is an underlying cause of environmental destruction etcetera. (As mentioned, I don’t know how common this idea is, but I have encountered it a number of times.) Right of the bat, it needs to be pointed out that this suggestion is meaningless for the very reason that the whole idea of »Cartesian dualism« is meaningless. If there is one thing that the foregoing should have made clear, it is that. The idea of »Cartesian dualism« is insufficiently precise to explain anything. “Insufficiently precise” is, in fact, an understatement – the continental “idea” of »Cartesian dualism« is not even a single idea; it is a jumble of vague and vaguely related pseudo-ideas. But, perhaps, some of those (pseudo-) ideas could explain some aspects of environmental destruction?

Actually, even this seems doubtful. The human/​non-human dualism is probably universal, but environmental destruction by humans is not. Some kind of »Cartesian dualism« is probably strongest in Western countries among continental philosophers and those influenced by them, but the people in charge of the companies that cause most environmental destruction and pollution tend to have rather different intellectual backgrounds and there is no plausible causal connection here. Furthermore, I see little reason to believe that any of the binaries associated with the Babylonian dualism play a significant explanatory role. If variants of the Babylonian dualism would matter in this respect, one would expect that more feminine cultures have better environmental records than more masculine cultures, for example, but while there are many studies suggesting a link between aspects of culture and environmental policy, the masculine/​feminine cultural dimension never seems to play any important role.45

A more fundamental reason to doubt the idea is that vague cultural ideas or intellectual fashions like this rarely play such important roles. (Especially if they are as vague as this.) Of course, we kill each other for all kinds of ideas, and this has much to do with terror management or death-denial in the Beckerian sense, but we don’t destroy the world around us for similar reasons. Rather, humans – both now and in previous historical episodes – destroy the natural environment they depend on (and that they are part of) because their economic systems and institutions compel them to do so, and because they are unable to change those economic systems and institutions in time (due to social inertia). The power and influence of ideas is negligible in comparison to the power and influence of systems and institutions – especially economic systems and institutions – and more often than not dominant ideas reflect those systems and institutions and the interests embedded in them. It is capitalism that is destroying the world, not »Cartesian dualism«, if there even would be such a thing as »Cartesian dualism«.

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  1. Saito Kohei (2023), Marx in the Anthropocene: Towards the Idea of Degrowth Communism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
  2. For example, Saito writes in his discussion of Lukács that “ontological dualism is founded upon the absolute separation between Society and Nature – so-called Cartesian dualism”. (p. 89)
  3. In case you didn’t realize, “Cartesian” is the adjectival form of the name “Descartes” in the same way that “Aristotelian” is the adjectival form of “Aristotle”. The “des” part of Descartes’s name means “of the” and is omitted in the adjectival form.
  4. In his Discourse on the Method (1637) and Meditations on First Philosophy (1641).
  5. See, for example: Jacqueline Broad (2003), Woman Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
  6. I wrote about this before in Technological Immortality. See also: Moheb Costandi (2022), Body Am I: The New Science of Self-Consciousness (Cambridge: MIT Press).
  7. I don’t remember Saito (see earlier notes) saying anything like this.
  8. Manfred Riedel (1975), “Gesellschaft, bürgerliche”, in: Brunner, Conze, & Koselleck (eds.), Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe: Historisches Lexikon zur politisch-sozialen Sprache in Deutschland (Stuttgart: Klett Cotta), Vol. 2: 719–800. Manfred Riedel (1975), “Gesellschaft, Gemeinschaft”, in: Idem, Vol. 2: 801–62. Johan Heilbron, Lars Magnusson, & Björn Wittrock (eds.) (1998), The Rise of the Social Sciences and the Formation of Modernity: Conceptual Change in Context, 1750–1850 (Dordrecht: Kluwer). Peter Wagner (2001), A history and theory of the social science: not all that is solid melts into air (London: Sage).
  9. “Die Gesellschaft besteht nicht aus Individuen, sondern drückt die Summe der Beziehungen, Verhältnisse aus, worin diese Individuen zueinander stehn.” — Karl Marx (1957–8), Grundrisse der Kritik der politischen Ökonomie, MEW42.
  10. Reinhart Koselleck (1979), “Einleitung”, in: Otto Brunner, Werner Conze, & Reinhart Koselleck (eds.), Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe, Vol. 1: xiii–xxvii, p. xv.
  11. Thomas Kuhn (1962), The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), p. 111.
  12. There would be and was political philosophy (as the branch of philosophy that is concerned with the legitimacy and organization of the state), but there could be no philosophical inquiry into questions about the good society. Most of the core concerns of social philosophy – justice, equality, liberty, distribution of wealth and power, and so forth – depend on the concept of the “social” as a sphere of life.
  13. Because political ideologies are collections of ideas about what society should be like and how to realize those idea(l)s.
  14. The following paragraphs are an abridged version of the section “Gender and binary thought” from Death, Masculinity, and Hegemony.
  15. David Maybury-Lewis (1989). “The Quest for Harmony”, in: David Maybury-Lewis & Uri Almagor (eds.), The Attraction of Opposites: Thought and Society in the Dualistic Mode (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press), 1-17.
  16. Anne Baring & Jules Cashford (1991), The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image (London: Viking).
  17. This etymology is also shown in the characters themselves. Both have the radical for “hill”, 阝, on the left. The right part of yin, 侌, means something like “shady” or “cloudy”, and the right part of yang, 昜, means “sun” or “something in/under the sun”.
  18. Joseph Needham (1956). Science and Civilisation in China. Volume 2. History of Scientific Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 273.
  19. The text from two paragraphs above the first table until here is an abridged and slightly edited version of the section “Gender and binary thought” from Death, Masculinity, and Hegemony.
  20. A.N. Whitehead (1929), Process and Reality, corr. edn. (New York: Free Press, 1978), p. 39.
  21. Bart Ehrman (2020), Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife (London: One World).
  22. Before their Sattelzeit, because different cultures experienced something like the Northwest-European Sattelzeit at different times and under different circumstances. The Japanese 峠の時代 tōge no jidai (Sattelzeit in Japanese), for example, took place at the end of the 19th century (during the Meiji era). See: Lajos Brons (2010), “Concepts in Theoretical Thought: An Introductory Essay”, CARLS Series of Advanced Study of Logic and Sensibility 3: 293–8. On the introduction of the concept of “society” (社会) in Japanese, see: 柳父章 Yanabu Akira (1982), 『翻訳語成立事情』 (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten).
  23. But it should also be noted that in the Western tradition, this specific conceptual opposition dates to the 19th century.
  24. e.g., Heinrich Schipperes (1978), “Natur”, in: Brunner, Conze, & Koselleck (eds.), Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe, Vol. 4: 215–244.
  25. Concerning those limits: this only works if you contrast “nature” to something that is (conceptually) related to something that has been contrasted to “nature” before.
  26. See Hippocrate’s Airs, Waters and Places and Aristotle’s Politics, respectively.
  27. See, for example, Isidore of Sevile’s Etymologiae (7th century) or Albertus Magnus’s De Natura Locorum (13th century).
  28. In the thought of Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Kaldun, for example.
  29. De l’Esprit des Lois (1748) and Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit (1784-91), respectively.
  30. Carl Ritter (1817), Die Erdkunde im Verhältnis zur Natur und zur Geschichte des Menschen, oder algemein vergleichende Geographie als sichere Grundlage des Studiums und Unterrichts in physikalischen und historischen Wissenschaften (Berlin: Reimer), vol. 1, p. 18.
  31. Furthermore, Ritter and other geographers were also well aware that the influence of nature on man is not a one-way street, but that humans also strongly affect their natural environment. Especially in the second half of the 19th century, when the effects of industrial pollution became ever more clear, this became an important theme.
  32. “Zur Eigenart der Länder gehören Natur und Mensch, und zwar in so enger Verbindung, daß sie nicht von einander getrennt werden können.” — Alfred Hettner (1927), Die Geographie, ihre Geschichte, ihr Wesen und ihre Methoden (Breslau: Ferdinand Hirt), p. 126.
  33. Similar ideas were expressed by other influential geographers from this era such as Paul Vidal de la Blache in France and Carl Sauer in the US.
  34. Saito Kohei (2023), Marx in the Anthropocene.
  35. Lee Braver (2007), A Thing of This World: A History of Continental Anti-Realism (Evanston: Northwestern University Press).
  36. Graham Harman (2008), “A Festival of Anti-Realism: Braver’s History of Continental Thought”, Philosophy Today 52.2: 197–210, pp. 198–9.
  37. Ibid., p. 209.
  38. Quentin Meillassoux (2006), Après la finitude: Essai sur la nécessité de la contingence (Paris: Seuil).
  39. Graham Harman (2011), Quentin Meillassoux: Philosophy in the Making (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press).
  40. David Golumbia (2016), “‘Correlationism’: The Dogma that Never Was”, Boundary 2 (43:2).
  41. But this is a mistake that seems rather common among continental philosophers. At least, I have stopped reading books by continental philosophers on several occasions because of assumptions like this. That is, the authors were arguing against biases they assumed to be widespread or even universal, but that really just are their own biases or misunderstandings.
  42. Ernest Becker (1973). The Denial of Death (New York: Simon & Schuster).
  43. Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, & Tom Pyszczynski (2015). The Worm at the Core: on the Role of Death in Life (New York: Random House), 211.
  44. Sam Keen (1974). “The Heroics of Everyday Life: A Theorist of Death Confronts His Own End”, Psychology Today, April 1974: 71-80, p. 71.
  45. I won’t list any references here, but if you do a Google Scholar search for “environmental policy”, “masculinity”, “cultural dimensions”, “Hofstede” or similar terms, you can find many relevant papers. “Hofstede”, by the way, refers to Geert Hofstede, who first conceived of the masculine/​feminine cultural dimension in his Culture’s Consequences (1984, Sage).

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