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Descartes - the cogito

Updated on June 28, 2012
Descartes | Source

brief summary

In 17th century France many philosophers were growing sceptical; doubting if it were actually possible to know anything for certain. Rene Descartes though wanted to find what was certain and discard what was false or unsure in the hope of restoring some order in these matters. He wished to prove certain knowledge existed in order to both prove the sceptics wrong and to create boundaries for theories so as to prevent wild idea being considered possible truths. He realised that many things which he trusted as true relied on unstable foundations and so to discover certain truth he would first have to get rid of these ideas. He put his reviewed beliefs into three categories of certain truth, beliefs which are not entirely certain and indubitable from which he will withhold his assent and manifestly false beliefs which he fully believes are false. He recorded what he discovered in the form of his six mediations. These meditations covered a variety of topics including his views on the reliability of the senses and the existence of God. Religion had a great influence on Descartes writings and so he tried to accommodate the principle of God in all of his thinking.

The cogito in the first hypothesis in which Descartes discovers truth. His aim ha been to overcome scepticism by finding something certain. Descartes has so far doubted all sources of knowledge, reason and the sense, and then begins to doubt his own existence, how can he be certain that he is real? He goes so far as to state that perhaps nothing ever existed; “I have no senses at all; body, shape, extension, motion and place are unreal. Perhaps that is all there is, that there is nothing certain”. He seems to have bowed to the sceptics view that it is not possible to prove that anything is real and so therefore it may not be. He then realises that he must be real as even the evil demon cannot deceive him into believing he exists if he does not; existing is a necessary condition for being deceived. This is the secure point from which he begins to rebuild his knowledge. He recognises that if he is able to detect, wish, doubt, examine and imagine then he must exist as he would not be able to do any of these if he did not. This is the basis for the phrase “I think therefore I am”. He believes that the proposition is necessarily true whenever it is stated by himself or conceived in his own mind because that is him thinking he exists, which he could not do if he did not. This belief that he exists is certain and will be the first belief assigned to the category of certainty making it that basis for his firm and permanent structure of the sciences.

There are however problems with the cogito. A.J. Ayer argues that just because there is thinking going on does not mean that there is necessarily someone doing the thinking; there could be a mind but not a body. We are merely making the assumption that the effect/thought has a cause/thinker. He blames language for the confusion as the structure of our language implies thoughts must have a thinker. If language is the cause of our believing every thought has a thinker then it is very difficult to prove otherwise as it would be somewhat incomprehensible without altering the dialect. Nigel Warburton believes the cogito cannot be the foundation of anything because ‘I think therefore I am’ must be extended to ‘all thinking things exists’ but this cannot be done due to Descartes distrust of reason and logic which is what is required to make this conclusion. According to Descartes, the evil demon could be deceiving us into believing that all thinking things exist when it is not in fact the case. So it is only the basis of Descartes alone as it cannot be extended to another unless they themselves think it and so it doesn’t cover Animals and other things in existence. Another general problem with the theory is that nothing really follows from it. Descartes cannot prove that this thinker which definitely exists has a body or that there is any external world or even that there is anything out with the mind. This means that this certain and permanent discovery is irrelevant as it stands alone. Descartes does realise this and identifies the principle rules which make the cogito certain and attempts to apply it to other beliefs in order to find if they are certain or not.

Descartes found that it is certain that he exists because he is able to think and be deceived. He realised that even the evil demon cannot deceive anyone into believing they exist if they do not so if he thinks he exists then he must. From this idea the famous phrase “I think therefore I am” originated which sums up the concept of the cogito; that if he can think then he must exist. This is Descartes first certain hypothesis which he is then able to use as the principle foundation of the firm and permanent structure in the sciences. There are however problems such as that argued by Ayer and Warburton. I agree that Descartes is unable to prove that a body is connected to the thoughts which ensure our existence and I also agree that the theory has to be extended because if it is not then it can only be the basis for Descartes as he can only assure his own existence as he cannot logically assume it extends to the rest of us, only we ourselves can do that due to the possibility of deception by an evil deceiver. Even if Descartes could be certain of all other thinking things existence it would lead to nothing else as all that it could possibly guarantee has been summed up in the cogito as it is only about the certainty of ones own existence. I don’t think his plan to follow the same structure which found the cogito to be certain will be reliable in other cases. I believe that these rules which he finds may not be the ones which in fact made the cogito certain as there may be other hidden fundamental concepts which are actually what makes it a true belief.


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