The Philosophy of Billie Eilish (and René Descartes)

“Therefore I am” — Billie Eilish

Bille Eilish’s new song ‘Therefore I am’ was released on November 12th 2020. Around about 380 years before that, René Descartes released the ‘Meditations on First Philosophy’, in which he eliminated all doubt about his own existence by recognising that he himself had to exist in order to be doubting or thinking at all: ‘I think, I exist’ or ‘I think therefore I am’.

Here, I’ll explore the Cartesian themes in Eilish’s new song. But first, it’s important to note that these two have a lot in common. They’re both rebellious souls (yes, souls). Descartes caused quite a stir when he rebelled from the Scholastic status quo. In 1643, a couple of years after the Meditations were published, Descartes’ philosophy was condemned by the University of Utrecht. Yep. Condemned. You might say, Descartes was a tough guy. You might even say he’s a like it really rough guy. Think you’re so criminal? Descartes was the real deal (okay, I’ll stop).

Eilish is, of course, the definitive rebel…stealing french fries from shopping malls and seducing your dad. This sort of behaviour speaks for itself. I would be really surprised if the University of Utrecht hasn’t already issued a condemnation.

Eilish steals fries in the ‘Therefore I am’ music video

Now, let’s talk about ‘Therefore I am’. The carefree and chaotic single is an honest expression of Eilish herself. In an interview with Apple Music’s Zane Lowe, Eilish talks about how she’s been “feeling like a parody” of herself. She describes a period of time where she would look at herself and think “I look like Billie Eilish” … “which was crazy and very weird and hard to manoeuvre”.

She says she doesn’t really know how she got out of this feeling, but I like to think that Descartes may have had something to do with it. ‘Therefore I am’, she says, “feels like me”.

The song captures an expression of individuality. She deliberately positions herself away from ‘the other’ — “I’m not your friend or anything”, “get my pretty name out of your mouth”, “we are not the same”, “don’t talk ‘bout me like how you might know how I feel” , “we’re on different lines” — and instead, comes back to herself at the end of each chorus — “I think therefore I am”.

She describes the world of ‘the other’ as an ‘ideal’:

Top of the world, but your world isn’t real
Your world’s an ideal

The only world that’s real to her is, of course, her own. The world of another — another’s conscious experience — is something that she can never access and, correspondingly, her individual world is one that cannot be accessed by another. Another’s world is just an ‘ideal’, an idea. We might represent the life of another to ourselves, but that representation is not immediate or ‘real’ in the same way that one’s own lived experience is. No one can know Billie like Billie knows Billie.

Rene Descartes 1596–1650

Descartes, similarly, recognised the immediate reality of one’s own thinking and consciousness. After he eliminates the doubts about his own existence, he thinks more about what he is:

I am, then, in a strict sense only a thing that thinks; that is, I am a mind, or intelligence, or intellect, or reason […] But for all that I am a thing which is real and which truly exists. But what kind of thing? As I have just said — a thinking thing.

A ‘thinking thing’ or a soul or consciousness. ‘Thought’, for Descartes, encompasses a great deal:

I use this term [thought] to include everything that is within us in such a way that we are immediately aware of it.

There’s an immediacy about our own conscious experiences — something that we cannot translate for others. In later writings, Descartes does discuss how we can know about the existence of other minds or souls. But the asymmetry between knowledge of ourselves and knowledge of others remains. We are certainly and immediately aware of our own thinking, and this marks our individuality.

Billie Eilish

Billie Eilish is truly an individual. ‘Therefore I am’ is a statement of her own individuality, just as Descartes’ Meditations was, in a sense, a statement of his.

Still, Descartes intended for his Meditations to be read and reflected upon by others, just as Eilish intends for her lyrics to be sung along to and interpreted by others. The point is, everyone’s individuality is there for them to seize.