In 1641, the father of modern philosophy, Rene Descartes, published Meditations on First Philosophy. A book is great when you quote from it without even knowing it exists. Ever heard or said the little phrase, “I think. Therefore I am?” The chances are, however, that you have never read the book and never will. Descartes happens to be one of those writers we despise, criticize, and idolize without ever having read any of their works. In the following conversation, I try to give you an idea of what Descartes is about and how he came up with the catchy little phrase that has captivated us for centuries. I got the idea of the Pumpkin Man from Descartes himself. In the first chapter of the book he passingly refers to “madmen whose brains are so damaged by vapors of melacholia that they firmly maintain…that they are pumpkins.”
FYI: IMAGINARY CONVERSATIONS is a series. It’s a modest attempt at having fun with philosophy.
Descartes and the Pumpkin Man
You are sitting in front of a beer parlor, thanking the mango tree for saving your bald head from the malicious sun. After a few sips of cold beer, the afternoon is looking far less bleak. Just about the same moment, you notice two men one table away from you. Their conversation is far more interesting than their appearance. So you perk up your ears and listen with shameless curiosity.
Descartes: What’s that?
Descartes: Life is all about making distinctions. Being careful not to mix things up.
Pumpkin Man: But mixing things up don’t mean you’re mixed up.
Descartes: Look, go home and try this. Doubt the existence of everything. In the comfort of your room, say to yourself: “Self, I don’t exist.”
Pumpkin Man: Would I just be pretending not to exist or is this for real?
Descartes: That’s the complicated part. But ignore that for now. Tell yourself you do not exist. These hands, these arms, this round face of yours, this blobby body of yours, these boxers, your groin and the heat making it sweaty. None exist. No sky. No world. Nada.
Pumpkin Man: This is some deep stuff.
Descartes: Are you following me?
Pumpkin Man: Hell yeah. I take off my body like it’s a t-shirt.
Descartes: Not quite the same thing but you get the picture.
Pumpkin Man: What next?
Descartes: The moment everything ceases to exist, you discover what truly exists.
Pumpkin Man: What’s that?
Descartes: Thinking! Your thought dude is the one fucking thing that cannot be separated from you. It remains no matter what.
Pumpkin Man: [no response]
Descartes: Look, bodies are a dime a dozen. Machines have them. Animals too. Even the dead have bodies.
Pumpkin Man: I have a body. It’s pumpkin.