David Sylvester  I notice that you have been saying ‘more real’ rather than ‘more realist’ or ‘more realistic’.
Francis Bacon  Well, ‘real’ is surely only a way of talking about realism, isn’t it?[1]


I have two aims in what follows:

I will begin with an attempt to interpret what seems at first glance to be a rather prosaic assertion made by Anscombe about the exact difference between her solution for the philosophical problem concerning the first person and Descartes’s solution. I hope that my remarks will make clear that her assertion about this specific difference represents, in her philosophic view, more than an obiter dictum. I claim that this thought constitutes the underlying theme of what I shall call her materialism. 

 My second aim is to not only make the difference between Anscombe’s materialism and Descartes’s dualism explicit, but also to determine a common thread between them in an effort to understand metaphysical realism.

Finally, this argument will imply an anachronism. However, it is my belief that this anachronism does nothing to obscure the course of argument.





1. After presenting what Anscombe calls real propositions, propositions such as ‘I am this thing here’, she addresses what had been the initial motivation of her essay:


My way is the very opposite of Descartes’. These are the very propositions he would have considered, and the others were a difficulty for him. But what were most difficult for him are most easy for me.[2]


The propositions she mentions as being easy for Descartes are such propositions as ‘I see a variety of colors’ or ‘I have a toothache’, that is, the very sort of propositions that will exhibit what Wittgenstein famously called asymmetry. These are notoriously difficult, since they have to be verified by the person uttering them. However, and I shall for now only mention this in passing, Anscombe never says anything about why these latter propositions would have been easy for Descartes.


2. Elsewhere she does consider that Descartes expanded the realm of the mental (supposedly after Hobbes pressed him to do so).[3] This expansion was responsible for a new meaning behind the word penser. Now, beneath this term we find a ragbag of philosophical notions – indeed, everything from toothaches to thoughts about individual objects or general ideas. One may feel tempted to say: everything that may be present to the mind. As is well known, Anscombe does address this issue, maintaining that none of these ideas are safe from corrosion when subjected to the method of doubt. And this matters greatly to the argument we find in “The First Person”.


3. One reason for this is that Anscombe’s materialism, exemplified by her real propositions, depends on the reality of thoughts, such as ‘I am standing now’, that ought to be verified about that thing over there, namely her, who should be standing. And her verification of this thought would not differ from the one I could proceed to do of her doings, if she was within my field of vision. Of course, this avoids the kind of asymmetry already mentioned, but it does not avoid a reflective posture – a posture very familiar to Descartes and very unfamiliar to most of us at least most of the time. Anscombe guarantees that she does have some of these kinds of thoughts – hyperbole, of course – and I believe it safe to assume that this, even if strange, is more palatable than Descartes’s doubts about the existence of toothaches. But her guarantee incurs the price of reflexiveness, which is not to be confused with introspection (downgraded by her to nothing but one of many methods, and a very shaky one at that). Neither is it to be confused with the posture envisioned by Coleridge when he spoke of the percipient and the perceived colliding; for the intent of this remark was to bring out the culmination of a discovery. “This I call I[4] meant transformation, perhaps that historically, and narratively, I have discovered my true self; or, spatially, that my external I has finally attained my interior I; or, poetically, that my present I has finally imagined my true I. All of these suggest a process that goes beyond the method of verification of true propositions.


4. Unlike Coleridge, neither Anscombe nor Descartes seem to be interested in such an active process of discovery, but rather in settling the question of a definite reality about the first person.


5. What I intend with this remark is to bring out the following metaphysical necessity: to establish a general identity for the first person or to generally deny its existence simpliciter. Or alternatively, to really establish that there is such a thing as a first person or that there really isn’t such a thing. In either case, the presumption is a form of realism.




6. What a real proposition represents is a possibility of apprehending my reality – that I stand still, walk and stand still again; that I jump up and down, sit down, intend to get up, do so later on, because I have done so before, in spite of also having failed at it in the past with little to no consequence. And this entire trivia is only rescued from indifference by the fact that it does remind us of our dependence on a world. Therefore, I am as real as the world is, while I am present in it. And if I need any confirmation of this, I may simply pause and consider some of the thoughts we have just rehearsed, proceeding to their verification, during which time any of you may be of great assistance: in Anscombe’s realism there is no point beyond that of my presence in the world and hence no doubt of the world.


7. Therefore, if anything, I am my dependence on the world. And this idea is rather contorted, for it does something Anscombe really wished to avoid: it establishes identity between two distinct things. But what exactly am I supposed to be verifying when I do verify real propositions? Well, even if nothing in particular – for example, that I am really walking somewhere – I would definitely be verifying a world.


8. Anscombe hints at the kind of distraction a thought like this leads to, because now we are thinking about a kind of dispersion, of course. And the problem with thinking about a kind of dispersion is that it exerts pressure on our intuition that we are one thing, in one place at one time and not everything, everywhere, all of the time.


9. We avoid this by completely giving up on the idea of a correspondence for an I. But not by giving up dependence, if by dependence we only understand those conditions necessary for this thing here, this human animal to have a couple of those thoughts that it really can verify about itself. If we do this, then we will have achieved more than reducing ourselves to animality or even objecthood: we will have achieved a kind of materialism that limits our knowledge of reality.


10. Materialism as the ne plus ultra of reality is a form of realism. And this is why these kinds of thoughts were difficult for Descartes. His realism implies a different conception of dependence altogether. He focused on the thoughts that only I can verify for no other reason than the fact that those thoughts inspire a kind of solitude. I can tell you about my thoughts about a golden mountain, even though I may be silent about these for all of my life. And now this does give us pause, because we do know what it is to be silent about something for a very long time. And also, we do know how silence is defining of who we become.


11. Solitude is certainly not a method, and doubt is hardly a method. Perhaps for that reason, and in spite of hermeneutical preconceptions, we should briefly consider the mode of presentation of methodic doubt – namely, dreams. But still, we should bear in mind that the spring of doubt is, for Descartes, a way of rescuing the notion of dependence from the conception we find in Anscombe.



12. A Cartesian dream exhibits a pictorial nature. It is mimetic and composed, as Descartes says; it is like a painting.[5] His suggestion is that in a dream, all of my I-thoughts, which supposedly correspond to a real proposition, become indiscernible. Suppose I am walking with my eyes open and clapping the tempo of my pace, this is verifiable within the dream, for nothing in the dream has any reality. The hypermnesic demon creating the dream world knows all the details I might have ever noticed.[6] And this latter thought is very important for Descartes: this particular dream has a particular dreamer.


13. Now, dependence in the Anscombian sense has vanished. In the dream, while it is true that there are things that seem like real propositions, these are now hopelessly useless. Solitude is the real end of the hypermnesic demon. For in a Freudian dream I am saved from solitude by condensation. In the Freudian dream, the tempo of my pace is perhaps my will, my will thus my anxiety, my anxiety thus my past, my past thus my present fears. And all of this would be meaningful to me, but only with assistance. On the one hand, the Freudian dream is, by nature, dialogical; its meaning is public, even if only therapeutically for the dreamer. On the other hand, the Cartesian dream has me alone with my world with the all-important difference that that world has now vanished.


14. I am a prisoner in the dream and, as Descartes suggests, I dread waking up and finding out that there is nothing knowable.[7] The Cartesian dreamer is persistent in his dream. (We find this bit of Descartes’ presentation a rhetorical stubbornness that keeps the reader at an arm’s-length, and it keeps the reader from feeling at home in his opinions – that is, in his world. I dream up my world just as I dream up my dependence and my materialism.)


15. Descartes is aware of the hyperbole here (he himself denounces it). But he is equally certain of its necessity. Rescuing the notion of dependence will turn out to be an assertion of that which is more real.[8]




16.  One advantage of not having a world is that I can finally focus. I can avoid being blinded by the senses.[9] I can relegate the world to the periphery of my mental vision.


17. To focus my mental vision, to make use of my mental eye, will be crucial for Descartes, insofar as the truth perceived by this eye and through this kind of hyperbole will release me from my prison and my solitude. And, as it turns out in the Third Meditation, I will be with God – that is, dependent on God.


18. My path to attain this knowledge will be grounded on an unempirical foundation; it will rely on an intuition that will prove my existence as dependent on the existence of God. And here we have left the human animal behind. Not even paternity is considered, let alone trivial thoughts about standing upright, for any and all of these things are perceived as an animal, a certain kind of animal that I am, but an animal nonetheless.


19. The generation of a periphery of knowledge is, if we follow Descartes, a noumenal reflex of our mind, in the same way that to close one’s eyes after being scared is a phenomenal reflex. The hyperbole is an aid to vision, as much as the marginalia we wished to consider was an impediment. Once this periphery is constituted, we can finally understand our genuine dependence: “That is, when I turn my mind’s eye upon myself, I understand that I am a thing which is incomplete and dependent on another.”[10]


20. This is a delayed understanding of the sort of thing I am, and one that I could have hardly attained when surrounded by everything and everyone. And thinking about everything and everyone. The animal that I am represents an obstacle to the apprehension of what I really am – that is, not what I shall be one day when I die, nor what I used to be, but what I really am.


21. So the thing that I really am, in spite of whatever marginal thoughts it might hold about walking and standing, is defined by its incompleteness and dependence on some other. And now, unlike Anscombe’s argument, no thoughts about dispersion arise. No such thoughts intrude, for we really are just one thing: a thing with a maker, and a particular kind of thing.


22. Thus concentration on the inner vision, of my mind’s eye upon myself, reveals a thing, a concentrated thing, with one idea at its foundation: that through its thought of a perfection it knows, in spite of its imperfection, that its creator exists. And in the beauty of this immense light it knows that the disappearance of the world is but a minor inconvenience. This is Descartes’s realism.


To prescind


23. Anscombe’s realism implies a different theology than the one Descartes uses. But this topic lies outside the scope of the present work. I shall mention it only briefly, without much discussion.


24. So we imagine that we really are in the world, here and now, in spite of the world. This is a thought we are accustomed, for good reason, to see as unacceptable. To prescind from a body and a world is neither to miss it ab initio because of a defect, nor by privation. There is no loss of any kind and so there should be no identity without these – a thought that did concern Anscombe.


25. At the end of her essay, Anscombe considers a man who, after falling out of a carriage, lost his sense of identity.[11] He presumably showed signs of having a consciousness (for example, he asked about who fell out of the carriage), but exhibited no sign of self-consciousness – that is, that he was the one who had fallen out. This example allowed Anscombe to produce an important qualification for her previous argument: the difference between consciousness and self-consciousness is not exclusively evident to the person experiencing the loss of self-consciousness.


26. By falling out of the carriage, the man lost himself, at least temporarily, and did so without having lost his body. This is a difficult thought, for it is not obvious that the man did not have some unmediated thoughts about the world. Anscombe assures us that the man does not have any thoughts regarding his falling out, and we are allowed to assume that this would have counted as thoughts about his posture. But still, that identity broke; or, to put it in a different way, he lost continuity with himself. And he did so without the world having to disappear.


27. What I mean by this is that the man was lost and confused while being in possession of a certain kind of immediacy – an immediacy I find valuable for the understanding of Anscombe’s argument (that is rooted in a famous Wittgensteinian thought) as the kind we would expect from an integral body. And the difficulty of this thought conceals an important aspect of the materialism Anscombe defends in “The First Person”: a mind is not safe from any attack on it (a thought Descartes tried at the very end of his Meditations to stave off).


28. Thus the dependence of a mind, and myself, on my world may be a dramatic one. Descartes’s prescindability is a matter of metaphysical choice, perhaps an item of the philosophical life well led or a matter of faith. Whatever it may be, prescindability means the absence of a threat.


29. This is, indeed, the kind of threat we see befalling the man in Anscombe’s example. His falling out of the carriage meant, in her terms, the end of his self-consciousness. His mind was not unaffected by what happened to him; something had been taken away from the mind.


30. Descartes made sure that over against the divisibility of our bodies, over against that which makes us more like a thing, nothing that can be cut or lost can affect the mind. Whatever happens to my body “nothing has thereby been taken away from the mind.”[12] And because Descartes could not suppose he did not have a body, or even that he was in his body like a pilot in a vessel, he attributed to the goodness of God the tidy union between body and mind. However, and upon his clarification that identity with a mind is not conflation with a faculty, he did postulate that he really was a thinking substance. As a result of his dualism, Descartes’s realism is faceless.


31. In the case of Anscombe’s realism, and in spite of the absence of prescindability, that the man lost his self-consciousness couldn’t mean that he became another distinct animal. Thus something was taken away from the mind, but it was nothing that could make a difference to his identity or prove the existence of a first person. The man in Anscombe’s example is now a deprived man, deprived of an organ, some organ, that is not indivisible and bodily. And even though he still is an animal, he is less the animal he was before and so no longer the same.

[1] David Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, third edition (London: Thames & Hudson, 2016), 193.

[2] G. E. M. Anscombe, “The First Person” in Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Mind (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1981), 35.

[3] ‘Events in the mind’ in Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Mind (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1981), 60.

[4] See, for example, Northrop Frye’s exposition on this point in “The Drunken Boat: The revolutionary element in Romanticism” in Romanticism Reconsidered (Columbia: Columbia University Press, 1963), pp. 1-25.

[5] René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, Second Edition, Edited and Translated by John Cottingham (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 17.

[6] With the expression ‘hypermnesic demon” I intend to invoke Freud’s considerations regarding the representational details of dreams and the possibility that these details may exceed in complexity those details readily available to self-conscious thought. However, I shall not argue in depth for its connection and importance for an understanding of Cartesian dreams. I refer the reader to Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, translated by Joyce Crick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 12-20.

[7] Descartes, First Meditation, 19.

[8] Descartes, Third Meditation, 33.

[9] Descartes, Third Meditation, 38.

[10] Descartes, Third Meditation, 41.

[11] “The First Person” in Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Mind (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1981), 36.

[12] Descartes, Sixth Meditation, 68.

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