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Cogito Ergo Sum - The Philosophy of Rene Descartes

Updated on May 23, 2015
Cogito Ergo Sum - Rene Descartes
Cogito Ergo Sum - Rene Descartes | Source

Rene Descartes' philosophy

The following is an attempt to introduce French philosopher René Descartes' cogito ergo sum and general philosophical ideas in an easy-to-understand way as well as an inspiration to dig even deeper into the philosophy of Descartes and Western Philosophy in general.

In 1641, René Descartes (1596-1650) wrote "Medidations", in which he asks himself: How can a human being be sure that the world is identical to his perception of it? This question is not just a personal question, but a general philosophical question regarding everyone. How can a human being be sure of the experience about the world that the senses convey? Descartes way of reasoning is: "Whatever I have accepted until now as most true has come to me through my senses. But occasionally I have found that they have deceived me, and it is unwise to trust completely those who have deceived us even once."

The underlying argument to support Descartes argument is presented by himself as the "dream argument" in which he explains how dreams present a "reality" to the senses that the human, while it is dreaming, is not capable of distinguishing from the actual reality.
If we are deceived in our dreams, how can we ever be fully sure of what our senses convey to us? The deception that occurs in our dreams is reason enough not to trust our senses. These arguments are the core of Descartes' philosophy.

It's not possible to just assume that things are what they are, and due to this uncertainty, Descartes chose to focus on mathematics as a solid area of knowledge: We are sure what numbers are, and what they are capable of, so to speak. Mathematics operates with a method widely known as "The Correspondence Theory of Truth" meaning that there is consistency between numbers and results, as long as the method is the same. Similarly, we can be sure about our own properties as physical objects in time and space - however anything else than the categories of math and the human as a certain object in the world remains uncertain. The question Descartes asks is a very valid and concrete question of knowledge: How can I be sure what things really are, and that I have understood them correctly?

Portrait of Rene Descartes
Portrait of Rene Descartes | Source

"Cogito ergo sum" and the method of doubt

Descartes then proceeds to claim, that one thing he is certainly sure of, is that he reflects upon these questions, meaning that he can be sure of his own thinking process. He knows, that he is present as a someone or something that thinks: "Cogito, ergo sum". The human ability of thinking is an ievitable circumstance in human life. This thinking, however, did not exclude, that it was possible to reach a proof of gods existence merely through this kind of rationalization. This was something that Descartes attempted to do and he also claimed to have done so, while other philosophers such as Kant was convinced that Descartes had a little too much faith in what could be reached with rationalization alone.

Descartes used his so-called "method of doubt" to reject any knowledge he, until then, had assumed to be true. From there on, he accepted only the knowledge that could be derived using his methods of rationalization and arguments of Gods existence.
In other words, Descartes method was very strict, and he began building his own "certain knowledge" upon an almost non-existent foundation and with very limited tools. Only knowledge that had been derived through his own rational thinking was to be accepted. It had to comply with the basic ideas of mathematical knowledge et cetera. A thing such as empirical methods of obtaining knowledge was rejected in his approach, because assuming the existence of something merely based on the observation would be against his own method.

Many philosophers were inspired by Rene Descartes contributions. He is considered by many to be "the Father of Modern Philosophy".


Rene Descartes contribution to math

Rene Descartes contributions were not only philosophical - he was also a brilliant mathematician. He developed the coordinate system, the graph as we know it with x and y axes. He also pioneered the superscript system we use to indicate powers or exponents as a standard mathematical notation which is still in use today.


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