I think, therefore I am

The statement “I think, therefore I am” is a declaration made by the philosopher cum mathematician, Rene Descartes, in his “Discourse” first published in 1637, and later amplified in his Meditations on First Philosophy . There are many interpretations of this statement, some profound and philosophical, others, profane and flimsy, according to the predilections of the interpreter. A discussion of some of these interpretations forms the subject matter of this paper. In explaining the implications of this proposition, it is considered necessary to have an idea about the philosophical underpinnings of the statement as propounded by Descartes.

Rene Descartes

Descartes was born at La Haye in Touraine on, March 31, 1596. He was the son of a nobleman and belonged to a landed family which had produced a number of learned men. When he was eight years of age he was admitted in the Jesuit school of La Flèche in Anjou, where he was instructed in mathematics and Scholastic philosophy. After leaving the school eight years later, he graduated in law in 1616 from the University of Poitiers. In 1618 he entered the military service of Prince Maurice of Nassau’ and during subsequent years he served in other armies. However, it was to the problems of mathematics and philosophy to which he had already been attracted that he devoted the rest of his life. He made a pilgrimage to Italy in 1623 and spent the next four years in France during which time he immersed himself in studying philosophy and experimenting in the science of optics. He moved to the Netherlands in 1628, where he spent the rest of his life. “It was during his stay in the Netherlands that Descartes wrote his first major work, Philosophical Essays, published in 1637. The work contained four parts: an essay on geometry, another on optics, a third on meteors, and Discourse on Method, which described his philosophical speculations. This was followed by other philosophical works, among them Meditations on First Philosophy, 1641; revised 1642 and The Principles of Philosophy, 1644. In 1649 Descartes was invited to the court of Queen Christina of Sweden in Stockholm to give the queen instruction in philosophy; in this year he also published the work called The Passions of the Soul. The next year, however, the rigors of the northern winter brought on the pneumonia that caused his death on February 11, 1650” (René Descartes).

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An Overview of Descartes Philosophy

Descartes was deeply impressed by the power of mathematics as a very potent tool in the service of science. His belief in the power of mathematics as an instrument of science deeply influenced his philosophical system. He sought to apply its inductive method to the study and understanding of philosophy. Philosophical discourse before him had been carried on in the tradition of ‘the scholastic method’ which could be said in a simplified way, to have been argumentative “based on comparing and contrasting the views of recognized authorities”. Descartes rejected this method, saying that “In our search for the direct road to truth, we should busy ourselves with no object about which we cannot attain certitude equal to that of the demonstration of arithmetic and geometry.”

Certainty implied for him that one has to accept only those propositions that appear to one “clearly and distinctly” to be true. That is to say, propositions should have the property of convincing everyone of their truth by the “natural light” of reason. In Part 1 of his Meditations Descartes recalls that his senses have deceived him before; then he may be deceived even now, “and it is prudent never to trust completely those who have deceived us even once.” His senses might deceive him if he were mad or dreaming. So too, he would he would be deceived if there were a powerful ‘evil genius’ deceiving him. In order to verify which of his earlier beliefs could meet the test of certainty, he applied what he called the test of “methodical doubt” to these beliefs (explained in the Discourse on Method and in the Meditations). “For example, he asked himself whether physical objects around him really existed. He reasoned that although he felt certain that at a particular moment he was seeing and feeling various physical objects, he had on many occasions felt just as certain of such things when later it had turned out that he had been dreaming, and all the things around him had been illusions. He could even doubt that he himself had a body, since his body was just another physical object among others. But not even an evil genius could deceive someone into believing falsely that he existed, because he has the capacity of thinking; he thinks. “I think, therefore I am” (“Cogito, ergo sum”) is thus beyond skeptical doubt. Thus he has proved his existence as a thinking being (or res cogitans), as he puts it a substance whose essential attribute is that of thought” (René Descartes).

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The important ideas of Descartes in relation to scientific thinking are found in his Discourse on Method. He has developed a completely new structure for a philosophical system on the basis of doubt and logical reasoning. Starting with his method of casting doubt upon the results of our reasoning based on our senses he formulated his famous dictum: “I think, therefore I am” (‘cogito ergo sum’). “After establishing the existence of the ‘I’ in this way he proceeds to prove the existence of God essentially on the lines of scholastic philosophy. Finally the existence of the world follows from the fact that God had given me a strong inclination to believe in the existence of the world, and it is simply impossible that God should have deceived me”.

Heisenberg says that “This basis of the philosophy of Descartes is radically different from that of the ancient Greek philosophers. Here the starting point is not a fundamental principle or substance, but the attempt of a fundamental knowledge. And Descartes realises that what we know about our mind is more certain than what we know about the outer world. But already his starting point with the ‘triangle’ God – Word – I simplifies in a dangerous way the basis for further reasoning. The division between matter and mind or between soul and body, which had started in Plato’s philosophy, is now complete. God is separated both from the I and from the world. God in fast is raised so high above the world and men that He finally appears in the philosophy of Descartes only as a common point of reference that establishes the relation between the I and the world” (Heisenberg).

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