Cogito ergo sum

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"Cogito ergo sum," Latin for "I think, therefore I am," is René Descartes' most famous catchphrase and one of the most famous statements in all of philosophy. Originally written in both Latin and French ("Je pense, donc je suis"),[1] his statement is emblematic of a turning point in the history of philosophy, making the certainty of individual consciousness the new foundation of knowledge. The precise meaning of the statement is a matter of considerable debate among philosophers. But one very common and basic observation is that "I think" expresses an action, while "I exist" expresses the being of a thing that exists, an actor; the obviousness of the statement seems to stem from the maxim that there cannot be an act without an actor.[2]

The cogito, as the statement is often called, occurs most famously in the Discourse on Method, Part 4, but not, as is sometimes thought, in the main text of the Meditations on First Philosophy.[3] Still, the more complete explanation of the meaning of the statement can be found in Meditation Two.

The general context of the statement is this: Descartes takes certain knowledge as his aim, and holds that knowledge is not certain unless it is "indubitable," or not capable of being doubted. In his quest for knowledge, then, he undertakes to doubt what he believes, in a radical way--what has been called "Cartesian doubt" or "hyperbolic doubt." He finds reasons to think it is possible (even if very improbable) that his sense-perception is misleading (he could be dreaming) and that his beliefs in the most basic truths of mathematics are wrong (he could be deceived by an evil genius or demon). Still, even if he doubts such obvious things, he cannot doubt that he exists:[4]

...am not I, at least, something? But I have just said that I have no senses and no body [i.e., I doubt that I have any]. This is the sticking point: what follows from this? Am I not so bound up with a body and with senses that I cannot exist without them? But I have convinced myself that there is absolutely nothing in the world, no sky, no earth, no minds, no bodies. Does it now follow that I too do not exist? No: if I convinced myself of something then I certainly existed. But [I posit, as part of my doubts] there is a deceiver of supreme power and cunning who is deliberately and constantly deceiving me. In that case I too undoubtedly exist, if he is deceiving me; and let him deceive me as much as he can, he will never bring it about that I am nothing so long as I think I am something. So after considering everything very thoroughly, I must finally conclude that this proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind.

Philosophers often debate whether the cogito is an argument, that is, whether "I think" is a premise, from which "I exist" is inferred as a conclusion. A careful reading of the above passage should make it clear why philosophers often say that the statement does not express an argument, even if (in the Discourse, published four years before the Meditations) Descartes' sentiment is expressed with the word "therefore" (ergo). He says that whenever he conceives of the proposition that he exists, it is "necessarily true"; merely conceiving of the proposition that he exists is enough to make him think that it must be true. This does not mean that he infers it from a prior proposition, that he thinks, and that he believes he knows that he thinks more certainly than that he exists. This is far from clear from the text, however. After all, Descartes uses all the earmarks of drawing a conclusion, here: "So after considering everything very thoroughly, I must finally conclude..." If that does not indicate a conclusion, what would?

Another reason for maintaining that the cogito, at least for Descartes, does not function as an argument, is that Descartes himself says so in the "Author's Replies to the Second Set of Objections" (i.e., Descartes' reply to Caterus, a Dutch theologian):[5]

Now awareness of first principles is not normally called "knowledge" by dialecticians. And when we become aware that we are thinking things, this is a primary notion which is not derived by means of any syllogism [an argument]. When someone says, "I am thinking, therefore I am, or I exist," he does not deduce existence from thought by means of a syllogism, but recognizes it as something self-evident by a simple intuition of the mind. This is clear from the fact that if he were deducing it by means of a syllogism, he would have to have had previous knowledge of the major premise, "Everything which thinks is, or exists"; yet in fact he learns it from experiencing in his own case that it is impossible that he should think without existing.

In fact, there is a long history of criticism and interpretation of this single statement. Among the earliest is by Thomas Hobbes, Descartes' contemporary, in the Third Set of Objections with Replies. Hobbes argues that the only reason that Descartes makes the inference (he interprets it as an inference) is that he must assume that an action (here, thinking) must have a subject (here, a thinker). But from this, Hobbes maintains, it immediately follows that Descartes has a body, since actors "can be understood only in terms of something corporeal or in terms of matter."[6] Needless to say, Descartes is not impressed by Hobbes' argument.

Notes

  1. Je pense, donc je suis appears in the Discourse on Method (Part IV; see below), which appeared in French in 1637. A Latin translation, with cogito ergo sum, did not appear until 1644, after the publication of the Meditations (from which the statement is missing, in the main text), in 1641.
  2. This itself is a point some philosophers have faulted Descartes for not doubting. David Hume, for example, thought that it was possible to conceive of a "bundle" of thoughts without an overarching self that as it were holds them all together.
  3. Though it does appear in one of the Second Replies. One might think it occurs in Meditation Two, since this is where he develops the argument described in the rest of this article, but it does not.
  4. AT VII 23-5. The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Vol. II, John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, Dugald Murdoch, trans. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), pp. 16-7.
  5. AT VII 140; Cottingham, et al., p. 100.
  6. AT VII 172-4; Cottingham, et al., pp. 122-3.