The Cartesian “Myth of the Ego” and the Analytic/Continental Divide; CFP deadline

Conference: The Cartesian “Myth of the Ego” and the Analytic/Continental Divide, Nijmegen (The Netherlands), 3-4 September 2010

Cees Leijenhorst & Marc Slors (Department of Philosophy, Radboud University Nijmegen)

Themes and Objectives
The philosophical scene has been dominated for many years by the analytic/continental divide. This protracted history of antagonism has tended to obscure the fact that at least on one point the two traditions seem to be remarkably close, if not convergent. Despite all the differences in style and choice of topics, both traditions have been strongly shaped by a profound discussion with “Cartesianism”. Obviously, the term “Cartesianism” here does not necessarily refer to the historical positions defended by René Descartes. Quite to the contrary, both traditions seem to battle against a certain image of Cartesianism, broadly understood as the cluster of philosophical convictions grounded upon the supposition that philosophy should start from “the immediate data of consciousness” and not, for example, from human behaviour or man’s practical relation to reality as the existentialists and pragmatists would have it.    

One of the Cartesian doctrines that both analytic and continental philosophers generally found most unacceptable was that of the supposition of a pure Self, a pure Ego.  What we could call the Cartesian “Myth of the pure Ego” stands for a number of theses:  These roughly include two groups of convictions:

1) the metaphysical and epistemological claim that the conscious mind is an inner realm, connected to the outside world via the senses, to which only the ego has privileged access and about which it has incorrigible knowledge.

2) the methodological idea that this self forms the self-evident starting point of a philosophical system.

Cartesian philosophy of mind has been a favourite target for analytic philosophers from the very beginning. Think only of Ryle’s critique of substance dualism as a category mistake. In recent days, Dennett’s use of the term “Cartesian Theater” is a prototypical example of the strawman-like position labelled ‘Cartesianism’. The term is used to denounce the view that consciousness is an inner space in which an ego, homunculus or other fictitious entity watches the data coming in from the ourside world. For its part, the continental tradition only became obsessed with combatting “Cartesianism” after Husserl revived the Cartesian ego in the shape of his transcendental phenomenology. In this sense, Husserl’s “Cartesianism” became profoundly influential exactly because it was so unacceptable to most of his followers. Continental philosophers have portrayed Descartes’s/Husserl’s “pure self” as a “phantastical invention” (Heidegger) or as a linguistic fiction (Derrida).

This colloquium aims at a critical evaluation of the hidden anti-Cartesian consensus between analytic and continental philosophy. In this context, the colloquium will ask both historiographical and philosophical questions. Examples of historiographical questions include: to what extent did Descartes actually defend the “myth of the pure ego”? In other words, to what extent is “Cartesianism” a twentieth-century construction? What philosophical purposes does this construction serve? Is the rift between analytical and continental philosophy as deep as many have portrayed it? Philosophical questions include: which elements of the Cartesian tradition now still seem worth defending? Which ones should definitively be rejected, be it on the basis of insights gathered in analytic or on the basis of continental philosophy? Can philosophy really do without a “pure self”? Are there viable alternatives for a “pure self”? The organizers of this colloqium do not take an a apriori stand on these questions but invite participants to come to terms with “Cartesianism”, both from historical and contemporary philosophical perspectives. It is the hope of the organizers that in this fashion a fruitful dialogue not only between historical and systematic scholarship, but also between analytic and continental perspectives may result.

Confirmed speakers
Tom Sorell, Kathalin Farkas, Dan Zahavi, Shaun Gallagher


Papers are invited on any topic related to the theme of the conference. Please send us a brief summary of your paper (maximum 500 words) and a short CV. Submission deadline: 1 April, 2010. Decisions will be reported by 1 May, 2010. Inquiries and submissions should be directed to: leijenhorst(at) Costs for travel and accomodation will be covered by the organizers. There is no conference fee.