One of the definitive texts of modern Western culture, Descartes' Meditations, begins with the reflections of an isolated individual, secluded from the world. Solus secedo, says the meditator: "I withdraw on my own" - away from society, away from anything that might distract me from the individual task of reflecting on my essence and nature, and on the basis of my knowledge.
A few years earlier, in 1637, Descartes had published his Discourse, containing perhaps the most celebrated dictum in all of modern philosophy, Je pense donc je suis, "I am thinking, therefore I exist." It is no accident that this foundational premise of Descartes' philosophy is expressed in the first person. It is not a general social pronouncement, or an abstract scientific truth. Rather, it is an individual item of awareness. Each individual must see for his or herself that, so long as he or she is thinking, then there must exist an ego, a subject of consciousness. Reality is, from the start, mediated via a process of private, individual reflection. Probably about the same time as he was working on the Meditations, Descartes wrote a dramatic dialogue, never finished, La Recherche de la Vérité (The Search for Truth). Here, the individuality of his approach is underlined even more stridently. "A good man," Descartes tells us, "is not required to have read every book or diligently mastered every doctrine taught in the schools." On the contrary, he needs to purge himself of most if not all of what he has been taught if he is to develop a reliable system of knowledge.
There then follows an extraordinary manifesto: "I shall bring to light the true riches of our souls, opening up to each of us the means whereby we can find within ourselves, without any help from anyone else, all the knowledge we may need for the conduct of life and the means of using it in order to acquire all the most abstruse items of knowledge that human reason is capable of possessing."