My last post discussed the philosophy of Francis Bacon, an empiricist – that is someone who subscribes to the view that genuine knowledge can only originate or be tested through experience of the world using the senses. However, the subject of this post is Bacon’s contemporary, Rene Descartes, a rationalist – that is one who believes that knowledge can only be acquired through reason – through inferring from first principles, using clear foundations and self-evident truths. His book entitled Meditations on First Philosophy earned him the ‘father of modern philosophy’ title.

Descartes employed a sceptical approach, and pushed elements of doubt to their limits, requiring that the starting point of his thinking should be unquestionably certain and then each subsequent idea should develop in small steps. – a method of doubt. This approach led him to his famous words ‘cognito, ergo sum: I think, therefore I am.’ – of which he was sure.  As long as you have thought then it is possible to infer you exist.

Descartes also believed that a good god exists on the basis that the idea of god proves God’s existence. He argued further that God must exist as he has implanted the idea in our minds.

After many years of thinking Descartes concluded that the world must exist pretty much in the way we experience it although we can make mistakes in what we perceive. Descartes get out of jail card was to find a way that a good god exists and in doing so avoided complete scepticism. However, his critics remained sceptical . . .

Descartes second major thinking was the mind/body relationship.   What is mind and how does it relate to the rest of the external world. As Grayling questions:

“How should we best understand such mental phenomena as belief, desire, intention, emotion and memory? How does the grey matter of the brain give rise to conscious experience and to the vivid phenomenology of colour, sound, texture, taste and smell?” (Grayling 2019: 204).

Descartes argued that everything that exists in the world is either a material substance or a mental substance. As Grayling summarises:

“Descartes defined the essence of matter as extension (that is, occupancy of space), and the essence of mind as thought. Matter is thus extended substance, mind is thinking substance.” (Grayling 2019: 205).

What does Descartes have to offer us as photographers? I find the sceptical approach he takes tortuous and requires a level and degree of thinking way beyond my capability. I feel that in order to enjoy life, one has to take some things as given and for this reason prefer the empiricist approach.

However, what is of interest to me is the mind/body dualism. I am thinking about my time spent with my camera, where my experience of the world is affected by both physical and mental responses to nature and the natural environment. I am affected by a combination of light, luminosity, colour, textures and shapes in a conscious way, but my mind interprets what I see in many ways and triggers many more responses. For example, I recall a similar day by the loch, I remember a similar scene at the same time last year, I remember my mood on that day. I then recall other experiences in my life that are revealed through a non-conscious process. Those thoughts in turn affect whether I am in tune with the landscape and whether the essence of Skye is revealed.



 GRAYLING, A C. 2019. The History of Philosophy. London: Viking.

WARBURTON, Nigel. 2011. A Little History of Philosophy. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Alison Price

Alison Price

My name is Alison Price and for the past ten years I have travelled the world photographing wildlife, including Alaska, Antarctica, Borneo, Botswana, the Canadian Arctic, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
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