Cogito Ergo Sum: An Analysis of Rene Descartes’ Philosophical Inquiry
Rene Descartes, the infamous French philosopher, is usually credited as a person who ushered philosophical inquiry on to the modern era. And it is certainly not for nothing that the learned thinker is widely considered as the “Father of Modern Philosophy”. At the very least, the novelty which marks his philosophical methodology represents a successful attempt to drift against the major currents of Scholasticism which had dominantly defined the intellectual contours of the medieval epoch.
Yet the full weight of his novel philosophical inquiry lay not only in its ability to run against the Church-backed philosophies of his time. There are reasons to think that, beyond its penchant for confronting the intellectual futility of the late medieval Scholasticism, what makes Descartes’ philosophy revolutionary lays in the fact that it was able to jumpstart an intellectual inquiry which does not rest itself content with the desire to merely acquire knowledge of things as to weed out dangerous falsities that come with knowing things.
Rationale and Scope
This brief paper seeks to place Rene Descartes’ immortalized wisdom “Cogito Ergo Sum” (lit. I think therefore I am) within the larger frame of his quest to establish what he succinctly calls “the First Principle of Philosophy”. Descartes’ philosophical project, it needs to be cited, is called “the First Principle of Philosophy” on account of his desire to establish a doubt-proof paradigm from which all other inquiries take cue. It needs to be mentioned that Descartes has so passionately desired to build a philosophical system which appears to start from scratch. But the roadmap of this paper is chiefly concerned with establishing the philosophical context of Rene Descartes’ “Cogito Ergo Sum” so that one may be able to appreciate the tenability of such a philosophical position, as well as identify the ramifications ensuing from such an implicative conclusion.
The Methodic Doubt as the Philosophical Premise of his “Cogito Ergo Sum”
By “Cogito Ergo Sum”, Descartes believes that he has found the “absolutely certain, self-evident and indubitable first principle” (Lavine 97); for “from this,” Descartes contends, “I begin to know what I am with somewhat greater clearness and distinctness than heretofore” (Meditations 2, 10). Such philosophical stance is at the very least self-alluding; and surely, it invites more questions than it offers answers. Concretely it needs to be asked: how was Descartes able to arrive at zeroing in on himself, and as a consequence, began establishing his very act of thinking as the nucleic root of all philosophies? Herein it is necessary to see context of this philosophical project.
Descartes believes that in order to “commence anew the work of building from the foundation…a firm and abiding superstructure in the science”, it is imperative to firstly “overthrow all…former opinions and false beliefs” (Meditation 1, 1). This is because, the human mind is susceptible to gathering knowledge which can barely furnish the truth about things. Simply put, human knowledge is susceptible to errors. Descartes furthers that this is especially true for the kind of knowledge that come from human senses and material things. And since he believes that it is grossly erroneous for human persons to anchor the suppositions the different sciences – such as Physics, Astronomy or Medicine – on the dubitable character of human knowledge, Descartes then contends that it is necessary to “vow to suspend judgment about everything” so as not to misled by false assumptions (Broughton 1). Cites Descartes,
…even now my reason convinces me that I ought not the less carefully to withhold belief from what is not entirely certain and indubitable, than from what is manifestly false, it will be sufficient to justify the rejection of the whole if I shall find in each some ground for doubt…(for) as the removal from below of the foundation necessarily involves the downfall of the whole edifice, I will at once approach the criticism of the principles on which all my former beliefs rested. (Meditations 1, 2).
For this reason, Descartes’ intellectual inquiry must be considered as a judicious endeavor to subject everything into the purposeful examination of doubt. It is called ‘methodic’ precisely because it systematically places everything – one aspect after another – within the frame of doubt. To concretely exemplify, Descartes began his inquiry by examining the truthfulness of his beliefs coming from sense perception; and concluded outright that sense perception can deceive human persons. He furthered his scrutiny to examine the nature of beliefs of materials things and natural sciences; and therein too, he found out that they lacked sufficient certainty. Next, he subjected the principles of mathematics into the inquiry of doubt; and concluded thereafter that, while mathematics is a science which reflects the precise and universal laws of numbers (e.g. three and two always make five whether or one is awake or asleep), they can nevertheless be doubted on account of an evil genius which makes human persons believe that such laws are indubitably constant, nay certain (Meditation 2, 6; Lavine 97).
From here Descartes arrives at the apex of his passionate search for absolute certitude. After all things have been subjected into the purposeful scrutiny of doubt, Descartes proceeds to inquire whether or not he can doubt his very existence as a thinking being. To this, Descartes triumphantly declares: “for as often as I think…I am, I exist.” And even if a malicious evil had deceived him into believing that he exists, Descartes surmises, the fact he was being deceived, makes him an existing thinking thing (Meditations 2, 6). He even states: “let him deceive me as he may, he can never bring it about that I am nothing, so long as I shall be conscious that I am something” (Meditations 2, 3).
Herein lays for Descartes the irreducible and indubitable fact of reality; for even if all the beliefs which persons hold were proven to be false, one fact remains to be true – at any moment that one is conscious of thinking, “or of any mental act such as being conscious of doubting or willing,” one exists as a thinking thing (Lavine 97). All things considered therefore, Descartes methodic doubt acts as the methodological premise which leads to his “Cogito Ergo Sum”.
Philosophical Implications of “Cogito Ergo Sum”
Two salient themes therefore constitute the crux of the first two Meditations of Descartes; that on the one hand, Descartes’ first principle of philosophy is essentially about the quest to discover an absolutely certain type of knowledge, and that on the other hand, such an inquiry is incurably anchored on very existence of the human person as a rational being. With these in mind, it would be insightful to look into at least two logical implications of his novel approach to philosophical inquiry.
First, it is interesting to see whether or not Descartes was in fact successful in fulfilling the ends for which his philosophical endeavor was firstly conceived by resorting to the truthfulness of his “Cogito Ergo Sum”. At the very least, it needs to be unraveled whether or not the “Cogito” satisfies Descartes desire to arrive at a principle of philosophy which presumes nothing from what the past had long taught, and therefore stands absolutely independent in relation to any other truth. To this end, there are reasons to think that Descartes may be met with difficulties; for at the heart of his “Cogito” lies the plain assumption that the thinking person in question is in the very first place an existing substance. This is because the act of thinking is in itself untenable without firstly affirming the existence of the very person from which such rational activity can be – i.e., secondarily – predicated. If this is the case, Lavine contends that Descartes “borrows” the very concept of substances from the medieval Scholastics, in that “his philosophy is no less based upon the existence of substances and their states…or attributes” (98).
Second it is likewise important to cite that Descartes’ philosophy suggests a very subjectivist leaning to doing philosophy. This means that the resulting standpoint of his “Cogito Ergo Sum” is philosophical subjectivism – i.e., it gives an impression that human consciousness is the nucleic point of origin from where certitude can be inferred. Surely, this was – at least during Descartes time – a very radical position to take. But by providing philosophy with this new methodological framework, Descartes has consequentially welcomed the entrance of fresh insights which would greatly shape the nature of philosophical inquiry from that time on.
Hence, this paper briefly concludes that “Cogito Ergo Sum” is the reasonable derivative of Descartes’ impassioned desire to establish the “First Principle of Philosophy”. It too represents the crux of the first two expositions contained in Descartes’ Six Meditations on the First Philosophy. In the discussions which were developed, it was learned that Descartes’ philosophical endeavor was aimed at weeding out all dubitable beliefs in the hope of establishing an irreducible and doubt-proof knowledge. And Descartes believes one can establish such kind knowledge by looking at the irrefutability of one’s personal existence – i.e., by arguing that, insofar as one thinks, one necessarily has to exist. In the final analysis, it must be acknowledged that Descartes’ contribution to the progressive development of human thought lays in his unique desire to purify human knowledge with erroneous assumptions of many sorts.
Descartes, R. Meditations on First Philosophy. 05 November 2008. <http://www.classicallibrary.org/descartes/meditations/1.htm>.
Lavine, T. From Socrates to Sartre. New York: Bantam Books, 1982.
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Cogito Ergo Sum: An Analysis of Rene Descartes’ Philosophical Inquiry. (2016, Sep 23). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/cogito-ergo-sum-an-analysis-of-rene-descartes-philosophical-inquiry/