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Cartesian theater

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Objects experienced are represented within the mind of the observer

"Cartesian theater" is a derisive term by philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett, made known in his 1991 book Consciousness Explained, to refer pointedly to a defining aspect of what he calls Cartesian materialism, which he considers to be the often unacknowledged remnants of Cartesian dualism in modern materialist theories of the mind.

Dennett's former teacher Gilbert Ryle, in his book The Concept of Mind (1949), had also ridiculed the conception of the mind as a "private theater" or "second theater" in Cartesian dualism.[1]



Descartes originally claimed that consciousness requires an immaterial soul, which interacts with the body via the pineal gland of the brain. Dennett says that, when the dualism is removed, what remains of Descartes' original model amounts to imagining a tiny theater in the brain where a homunculus (small person), now physical, performs the task of observing all the sensory data projected on a screen at a particular instant, making the decisions and sending out commands (see Homunculus argument).

The term "Cartesian theater" was brought up in the context of the multiple drafts model that Dennett posits in Consciousness Explained (1991):

Cartesian materialism is the view that there is a crucial finish line or boundary somewhere in the brain, marking a place where the order of arrival equals the order of "presentation" in experience because what happens there is what you are conscious of. ... Many theorists would insist that they have explicitly rejected such an obviously bad idea. But ... the persuasive imagery of the Cartesian Theater keeps coming back to haunt us—laypeople and scientists alike—even after its ghostly dualism has been denounced and exorcized.[2]

See also



  1. ^ Caston, Victor (2021). "Aristotle and the Cartesian theatre" (PDF). In Gregoric, Pavel; Fink, Jakob Leth (eds.). Encounters with Aristotelian Philosophy of Mind. New York: Routledge. pp. 169–220 (footnote 1). doi:10.4324/9781003008484-11. ISBN 9780367439132. OCLC 1223014825.
  2. ^ Dennett, Daniel C. (1991). Consciousness Explained. New York: Little, Brown & Co. p. 107. ISBN 0-316-18065-3. OCLC 36182395.

Further reading