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Descartes and Identity

 When we discussed the existence of God, we were talking about thinkers whose conception of identity was entirely caught up in their larger identity as Christians and priests and humans. It is difficult to think back into this mind because we have little access to it since Descartes changed everything. In this world identity was a derivative function of membership in a larger whole that was in many ways more real than the individual. Reason, the Church, the priesthood, one's village or family, these were the sources of identity. This does not mean that people lacked an inner life, that they did not possess individual consciousnesses that had individual perspectives. They did, but not exactly in our sense. The individual consciousness always already existed before God; one was never really alone in a religious world because God was always already in there with you, an endless and unavoidable witness to all that one thought or felt or dreamed. Nothing was secret from God, and in that sense nothing was ultimately privater. Whatever God knew about you the priest could also know through the sacrament of penance in which all the inner life of the individual was laid bare for judgment and forgiveness.

It is important to see this link between having an identity and seeking forgiveness. The individual was the site of transgression, of sin, and to be an individual meant that one had to be forgiven for something. It was only when one was entirely in agreement with God's and the Church's laws, that is when one had a minimum of identity, when one had become the vessel of God's will, that one was right. Increases in righteousness meant increases in personal emptiness.

Descartes changed the rules of this game. Instead of a self always in the presence of God, and a function of this relstionship, Descartes disocovers/ invents a self that defines itself without reference to God,  one that defines itself even as it doubts whether God is a deceiver. This self, the thinking thing or 'res cogitans', thinks, wills, desires, judges, reflects - does all the things we think of individual consciousness as doing --  and does so by itself, in privacy, without reference to anyone or anything else.

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