Presented by Vili Lähteenmäki (University of Helsinki)

Several influential commentators at least since Ryle have interpreted the Cartesian mind as enjoying an impressive scope of knowledge concerning itself on which other species of knowledge may be grounded. In this reception consciousness is commonly identified as the source of self-knowledge by virtue of providing the mind an unmediated access to itself. And since consciousness is assigned such fundamental epistemic role, it is ipso facto granted a metaphysical status to effectively constitute the essence of mind. This line of thought has been forcefully challenged in the recent scholarship.

It is pointed out that Descartes is deeply involved in metaphysics in the sense of “sharing with his scholastic predecessors the basic tenet that cognition involves a common reality, form, or structure existing both in the mind (“objectively”) and in the world (“formally”), even at the level of sensory cognition” (Carriero 2009). Seeing Descartes’ project along these lines means that on the most fundamental level he does not understand thinking as independent from the world but rather as firmly ingrained in it. This means that it becomes questionable whether Descartes could really regard something as thoroughly subjective as consciousness the essence of mind.

The traditional view has been questioned also in terms of the epistemic achievements credited to consciousness. If consciousness is taken to allow a direct access to the mind, it seems that by virtue of consciousness a mind gets to be furnished with knowledge of acts of thought, contents of thought, and of itself as that which hosts the thoughts. Consequently, the only type of self-knowledge that would fall outside the direct scope of consciousness is self-knowledge resulting from explicit reflection. But on a closer reading it is not at all clear whether self-ascriptions of the type “I certainly seem to undergo a particular sort of mental act (to see, hear, feel, etc.) with some particular object or quality (light, noise, warmth, etc.)” could result from consciousness alone. Namely, while it seems that Descartes’ claim that we are always conscious of our thoughts entails that we are necessarily aware of what is represented to us in those thoughts, it does not commit him to a view that we thereby have knowledge of what kinds of thoughts we are having or ourselves as the subjects of those thoughts, for such knowledge arguably presupposes judgments about the thoughts.

Both of these ways of challenging the traditional view help to highlight the questions about consciousness and self-knowledge this paper attempts to answer. It follows the suit of the critical approaches in rejecting subjective transparency as the explanandum concerning the Cartesian mind and, accordingly, that consciousness could exhaust the nature of the Cartesian mind. However, it proceeds from the conviction that although consciousness alone is not definitive, grasping its exact place and function is no less essential to our understanding of the Cartesian mind. The key questions derived from the critical approaches can be expressed thus: If consciousness does not constitute the essence of the mind, how should we understand it instead?; If consciousness only acquaints minds with contents, how do minds come to have the comprehensive self-knowledge Descartes believes they nonetheless have?