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Rene Descartes: "I Think, Therefore I am"

Updated on October 16, 2017
Descartes' portrait
Descartes' portrait

The following table carries explanations of certain philosophical terminologies and epochs that are relevant to Descartes' doctrines and theories.

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Natural Philosophy
It was the philosophical study of nature and universe that was dominant before the development of modern science. From the ancint world of Aristotle, up to the 19th century, this term was used to descfibe the practice of studying nature.
A rationalist believes that one accumulates knowledge through the use of logic ("priori") and deductive reasoning. Hence, Rationalism "regards reason as the chief source and test of knowledge".
It is a theory stating that knowledge comes primarily from sensory experience (experimentation, observation, touch etc). Philosophical emperricists hold no knowledge to be properly inferred unless it is derived from one's sense based experience. They believe it to be fundemental that all hypothesis/theories must be tested against observation of the natural world, rather than being based solely on reasoning. This makes it the opposite of Rationalism.
The Enlightenment (The Century of Philosophy")
The Enlightenment was an intellectual and philosophical movement which dominated the sphere of ideas in Europe during the 18th century. These range of ideas laid great emphasis on reason as the primary source of authority, a scientific method for examining a phenomenon. The Enlightenment is strongly ssociated with with the scientific revolutions (1620), and thus, is influenced by the early philosophers who circulated their ideas through meetings at scientific academies, and continued to do so during the period of Enlightenment. Some of those influential philosophers were Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, and John Locke.
It is a division of philosophy that is concerned with the fundamental nature of reality and being (for e.g. How do we know?, How does are soul exist?). One important aspect of Metaphysics is epistemology.
It is a branch of philosophy that investigates the origin, methods, nature, and limits of human knowledge.

The historic years of past have seen many epochs, which have brought forth various philosophical movements. The philosophers belonging to these movements have given birth to distinct schools of thought, each significant and relevant in shaping world views and basis of modern thought. One such philosopher present at the latter end of Renaissance was Rene Descartes.

Rene Descartes (1590-1650) was a creative mathematician, an important scientific thinker or "natural philosopher", and an original meta physician.Co-framing the sine law of refraction, and proposing a naturalistic account of the formation of the earth and planets, are some of his achievements in natural philosophy. He also offered a new vision of the natural world, which is directly related to a human being's mind, and the subsequent mind-body problem, or dualism. In metaphysics, Descartes explored the essence matter and that of mind, as well as its connection with the existence of God. Moreover, Descartes made significant use of doubt and skepticism in his various occupations and discourses, which helped affirm his belief in his own existence. Descartes' calculative and theoretical approach to humans and thought alike makes him the first major figure in the philosophical movement known as "Rationalism" (his theories/hypothesis lay emphasis on acquiring knowledge through reason and logic). On the other hand, his rationalist and scientific philosophy laid the foundation for the Enlightenment Movement in the early 1600's, thus, explaining the movement's strong associations with scientific revolutions, and its alternate title as "The Century of Philosophy".

Life and General Background

Rene Descartes was born in Tours, France, in his maternal grandmother's house in the town of La Haye. In 1606/1607, Descartes became enrolled in the newly founded Jesuit College Royal in La Fleche, where he remained until 1614/1615. The college's education curriculum also consisted of three years of philosophy. It was through this rule that Descartes was introduced to and studied Aristotle's teachings and doctrines on morals, logic, physics and metaphysics. He was also introduced to the teachings of other ancient philosophers and atomists, such as Plato and Galileo. However, in his time, Aristotelian philosophy was considered mainstream and thus, was dominant. This explains the strong influence it had on Descartes' own line of reason and thought, which, along with his contradicting views on the value of the philosophical teachings of his college, may have led him to develop alternate views to that of Aristotle's philosophical and metaphysical beliefs.

In 1618, going against the family tradition of practicing law, Descartes moved to Breda to become a soldier, and later took part in the Thirty Years War. In Breda, Descartes met Isaac Beeckman (a natural philosopher). who asked him various metaphysical, existential, and mathematical questions, probing him to find alternatives and solutions for mathematical problems. For instance he discovered the technique for "describing lines of all sorts using mathematical equations involving ratios between lengths" (Hatfield, Summer 2016). Questions such as these, along with three significant dreams on the night of November 16, 1619, served as his final push into the field of philosophy, by providing him with a set goal in life, which was to reform all existing knowledge.

From this point on, Descartes began to study philosophy, researching upon both mainstream and recent innovators (those who rejected components of Aristotle's philosophy. Descartes worked on many books to bring forth his new doctrines and methods on mathematics, physics, metaphysics (the idea of existence, the nature of God and soul, and the former's connection to one's mind and body), and the method of acquiring knowledge through the use of doubt. the basis of all his natural philosophy was objective and theoretical reason, and logic.

In 1649, Descartes visited Sweden on the Queen's request, in order to compose the statutes of the Swedish Royal Academy. After completing his task however, he contracted pneumonia and died a year later on 11th February, 1650.


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"Principals on First Philosophy"
The "Method of Doubt" and accumulation of knowledge
"Meditations on First Philosophy"
"Principals of Philosophy"
Metaphysics and natural philosophy
"Passions of the Soul"
emotions and passions
Above are some of Descartes' important books, which briefly portray the range of his work and philosophical ideas

Descartes and Aristotle

Having extensively studied Aristotelian philosophy and the works of modern innovators to form his foundations, Descartes came up with opposing arguments for many of Aristotle's views on multiple aspects of natural philosophy and thought.

a) Aristotle: Aristotelian ontology states that prime matter cannot exist on its own and hence, must be informed by a "substantial form" (a form that acts as the very root basis for any object, rendering it into a substance). Aristotle's prime matter consists of prime elements, that are earth,air, fire and water. These have substantial forms and are combined with the basic qualities of hot, dry, cold, and wet. For example, earth is dry and cold, while fire is hot and dry. It is only with a form and these qualities that prime matter can serve as "matter" for higher substances, such as minerals or the human body. These higher substances then inherit the "basic qualities".

  • Descartes: On the other hand, Descartes concocted a different hypothesis of matter in his "Meteorology". In it he stated that water, air, fire, earth and all other such substances are composed of many small parts of various shapes and sizes which are not exactly joined together and hence, not many intervals or voids remain around them. Thus, he denied the atoms-and-void theory of ancient atomists. He also stated that all bodies, such as that of prime elements, are composed of only one type of matter, and hence, have no distinct "substantial forms" or "real/prime qualities", that other philosophers imagine to be in bodies.

b) Aristotle: According to Aristotelian philosophy, fundamental truths and knowledge, such as that of metaphysics and mathematics , arises from one's senses ("There is nothing in the intellect that was not previously in the senses"). Scholastic Aristotelian also believe that all intellectual knowledge is amassed from sensory images present in one's imagination, which are abstracted (in process) by one's mind or intellect, to bring forth intellectual ideas and thoughts. For example, mathematical objects, figures, and symbols are formed by abstraction of such sensory images. In this sense, the intellect grasps the essence of various things through these sensory images (preconceived notion, mental, understanding of our prime five senses), implying that neither can function fully without the other.

  • Descartes: The Rationalist denied this, stating that human intellect is able to attain fundamental truths and knowledge through a purely intellectual and theoretical perception, without the use of senses. In order to attain important truths of metaphysics, one must "withdraw the mind from the senses" (said by Descartes) and take into account the essence (core function, trait, quality, feature) of things, such as the essence of mind, and matter. According to Descartes, senses are not meant to provide knowledge of the "essential nature" of objects. Rather, they are adequate for simply detecting benefits and harm for the body (natural functions of senses in medical literature). In this sense, intellect operates independently in accumulating fundamental truths. Descartes called this "pure intellect".

c) Aristotle: Aristotle's doctrines of physics were divided into two parts: "general" and "special". General physics related to basic Aristotelian principles for analyzing natural substances (e.g: elements). These include form, matter, cause, place, time, and motion. Special physics was concerned with the actual existing entities (whose qualities are analyzed using principles of general physics). These entities were divided into "animate" and "inanimate" forms. Inanimate physics was further divided into the celestial and terrestrial. For instance, the earth, being terrestrial, was different from the heavens, moon, and everything beyond it, which is celestial. Animate physics, on the other hand, is concerned with living beings, and more precisely one's soul and powers. He believed soul to be "a principle of life", possessing vital and cognitive/mental powers. These powers included growth, nutrition, senses, motion, thought, and rationality

  • Descartes: He aimed to provide replacements for Aristotle's doctrines in physics. As opposed to having multiple type of matters and qualities for natural and higher substances, according to him, there is only one matter of no active form, of which all is made. This dissolved the boundary that brought about distinction between the terrestrial and celestial. His one type of matter only had the properties of size, shape, position and motion, as opposed to Aristotle's complex distinctions (animate, inanimate, different forms and qualities of entities). The motion of his type of matter was governed by the three laws of motion, which are bestowed and controlled by God and His activity. Hence, elements such as earth, air, fire, and water are simply "four among many natural kinds" (Hatfield, Summer 2016) and are differentiated simply by their sizes, shapes, positions, and motions (visible, surface differences, as opposed to internal and more intricate and deeper differences set by Aristotle).

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Earth, air, fire and water have substantial forms, combined with basic qualities. (hot, dry, etc.)
All bodies are composed of small parts of various shapes and sizes (same matter) and there is no need for substantial forms and real qualities.
All knowledge arises from senses and sensory/mental image in the mind
Knowledge can be procured with the withdrawal of mind from senses and imagination.
Aristotle’s physics was divided into two parts; ‘general’ and ‘special’, which highlighted the intricate differences in the natural substances/entities.
Only one matter with no active forms consisting the properties of size, shape, position and motion.
The table above summarizes the differences between Aristotle's and Descartes' philosophy in different subjects.

It is in these ways that Descartes' philosophy, especially metaphysics, and epistemology differs from that of Aristotle's. We shall now take a deeper look at his philosophical doctrines.

Descartes' Philosophy

Descartes' philosophy is often divided into two eras. One, when mathematics provided the basis for his developments, and the second being the period after the "metaphysical turn" in 1629. His metaphysics brought forth the importance of intellect in acquiring knowledge and fundamental truths, as well as the use of skeptical arguments as a cognitive tool, doubt, and a theoretical mind, in grasping the basic truths of cause and existence. Metaphysics played a large role in his natural philosophy, for he aimed to "establish a new natural philosophy based on a new metaphysics" (Hatfield, Summer 2016). His metaphysics, which, to a great extent was concerned with one's soul, body, and the boundaries of obtaining knowledge, explored questions such as: How does the human mind acquire knowledge?, What is the mark of truth?, How are our experiences related to body and brain?. While insight to his general philosophy, aims, and beliefs has been obtained through a comparison with Aristotle's doctrines, we shall now explore the aforementioned questions and concerns by looking deeper into Descartes individual theories and doctrines itself.


Cartesian Dualism, which has been revised and reevaluated multiple times by Descartes in his different books, is an important aspect of his philosophy, setting a basis for many future developments. According to Descartes, the mind and body are two distinct substances. The essence of mind is thought, which includes both, intellect and will. Intellect includes the modes of imagination and sense perception. Whilst will includes modes of desire, doubt, denial, aversion and assertion. Will requires some intellectual content to operate, hence both these aspects of mind do not function independently. The essence of body, which, like any other physical substance is matter, is extension in length, breadth and depth. This was known as the Cartesian Dualism. He stated that mind, being a thinking thing is “unextended”, while saying that matter (such as body), with extension as its prime essence becomes an unthinking thing. This sets a clear distinction and dualism of mind and body. However, this doctrine lead to the question of mind and body interaction. This is because according to some philosophers and meta physicians, the mind and body must have some relation, for when one decides to pick up a pencil (mind), the arm (body) moves to perform this act. This lead Descartes (or his followers) to adopt the position that while mind and body do not affect one another of their own accord, it is God that gives the mind appropriate sensation at the right moment and makes the body move to pick the pencil by putting it in the correct brain state.


During Renaissance, many people had become skeptical (in a negative sense) about science and knowledge in general. This lead Descartes to write the “Meditations on the First Philosophy” in order to remove annoyance of “skepticism” (which means doubt, making it different from the attitude of the aforementioned people) from sciences once and for all. This was Descartes’ “most rigorous and most accomplished work of metaphysics and epistemology” (Buckingham, 2011), as he aimed to prove that knowledge and fundamental truths can be gained even from the most skeptical and doubtful positions and thus, was able to establish a firm foundation for the sciences. Skepticism became an important tool in Descartes’ further metaphysical developments ( theories about his own existence, solid foundation for his beliefs etc.) “Meditations” is written in the first person form – “I think……” because he wanted to lead the reader along his pathway and make them agree with his standpoint. This could only be done by thinking and discovering the truth just as Descartes had done. Hence, explaining his method.


In order to ensure that his beliefs and theoretical, or derived conclusions have stability and endurance (two important marks of knowledge), Descartes developed “The Method of Doubt”. In this method, the meditator (himself) would set aside any belief whose truth could be doubted, even in the slightest. This is because Descartes believed and aimed to show that by starting from most skeptical positions and doubting everything, knowledge can be gained, a point already established in the “Meditations on First Philosophy”. This is known as “hyperbolic” or exaggerated doubt. Thus, he started by applying his beliefs to a series of skeptical arguments, questioning how we can be sure about the existence of anything at all. For instance, he would say that we are dreaming and exist in a dream world. According to him, this was possible, because there are no sure signs between being awake and asleep. He also said that God could deceive us by making us believe that some truths, such as mathematical axioms could be known. He emphasized on purely making use of the rational intellect. In order to prevent himself from slipping back into preconceived notions, he came up with a supposedly powerful and evil demon, marking it as the ultimate symbol of deception. Whenever he considered a belief, Descartes would ask the demon whether it was making him believe. If the answer was yes, then those beliefs were open to doubt.

A most popular visual example of this method is an "optical illusion" (pictured below), which Descartes used to further emphasize upon his devised method. For this he stated that the parallel lines which appear bent to one's eye is a result of our preconceived notion about the image's illusion-like nature. According to him, this is simply a play with our senses. Hence, one should not accept this as true, but rather, strip away all that we have come to believe about such illusions and start anew, in order to attain true knowledge. It is in this way that he employed his method of doubt.

Optical Illusion
Optical Illusion

The First Certainty

However, at this point, Descartes was in an impossible position, for he had entangled himself in ropes of never ending doubt, with no firm footing available for him to even begin his journey back to knowledge and truth. At this point Descartes realized that the one belief he could not doubt was the belief in his own existence. Each one of us can say or think: “I am, I exist” and while we are saying it, we cannot be wrong about it. This led him to realize the very basis on which all his hyperbolic doubt and skepticism was based; he cannot doubt his existence unless he exists to do the very doubting. This formed Descartes “First Certainty”. In the Discourse on The Method, he presented it as “I think, therefore I am”, but removed the word “therefore” in the Meditations. This is because he wanted the reader to understand that as soon he realized the fact that he existed, he knew it to be true. Thus, this realization was a “direst intuition, not a conclusion to an argument” (Buckingham, 2011). This saved him from the ropes of doubt he was trapped in and provided a firm footing for him to start his journey back from skepticism to knowledge.


The statement "I think, therefore I am" involves the use of both, the intellect and the will. The intellect perceives the content of the judgement, while the will affirms or denies that content. This explains the functioning of the mind in context with Cartesian Dualism.




Descartes realized that knowledge could be gained from the First Certainty itself. This is because the knowledge of him thinking is bound up with the knowledge of his existence, for only if he can exist, can he also think.“Thus, “thinking” is something that he cannot doubt, for doubting is a kind of thinking, so to doubt that he is thinking is to be thinking” (Buckingham 2011). Hence, he now also knows that he is a “thinking thing”. However, this is as only far that he reason with the first certainty, for he has no way of knowing what more he might be.


Whilst spending a great deal pondering over the truth of all knowledge and his existence, Descartes also turned his attention to God and His relation with our erroneous nature. According to Descartes, human intellect is generally reliable because it was created by God. Moreover, God enables the mind and body to interact in such a manner so as to produce sensations (senses) that are generally good for the body. However, errors can occur. For instance, one may make false judgments about sensory conditions, which may as well led one into making immoral choices (by will/intellect). At other times, our sense perceptions may misrepresent the nature of certain things, leading to incorrect decisions, For instance, amputees may feel pain in their fingers when they have none.

Descartes countered this arguments by stating that cognitive and moral errors result from human freedom. God provides human with free will, which means there is no difference in the degree of freedom between God and man. However, humans have limited intellect. This, along with our free will, leads us to choose or judge situations for which we do not have a clear understanding of the true or good, causing us to err. Our senses too, play a role in such situations. The senses often depend on media, sense organs and nerves, as well as one's environment. While God has set upon efficient system for our sensations, sometimes the media may be poor (dim light), circumstances may be unusual, or the nerves damaged (an amputee). This brought forth the argument of holding God accountable for such misrepresentations. Descartes instead pointed out that God was working with the "finite mechanisms of the human body" (Hatfield, Summer 2016), and thus, did the best He could with parts (e.g; limbs) that might easily break or be perturbed.

Criticism and Counter-arguments

Descartes garnered many followers for his beliefs and views, but being the period of rumbling scientific and philosophical developments led to some extent of criticism by thinkers of that time, who took issue with some aspects of his doctrines and its validity.

Following are some of these criticisms and Descartes counter-arguments to defend the sound rationality of his beliefs.

  • Criticism

    Many critics took issue with the use of the term "I" in "I am, I exist", which also makes him a thinking person, i.e someone who exists. While Descartes may not be wrong that in saying that thinking is occurring, he cannot be sure that there is a thinker (a single, unified consciousness). In this sense, he cannot really prove his own existence,or that of anyone, or anything else.


    Descartes declared the claim (thoughts exists without the certainty of the thinker's existence) by critics impossible.He stated that if there were to be a world of thought with no thinkers, he would never have reached his First Certainty. Having thoughts simply float around without a thinker would make reasoning an impossible task. Hence, since it is important to relate thoughts and make them relevant to one another, which Descartes spent a large part of his life doing, he can conclude that he exists as a thinker

  • Criticism

    According to critics, the First Certainty is a direct intuition, not an argument, Moreover, being highly individualistic, it lacks a major premise which could add more depth and sound to it. That being that "anything that is thinking exists". They used the example of Hamlet, who thought a great deal but did not exist in reality. This, according to critics means that each and everything that thinks does not necessarily exist. Thus implying that the First Certainty lacks sound depth and validity.


    Descartes counters this criticism by pointing out fault with the very example of Hamlet. Hamlet thought in the fictional world of the play, where he existed in that fictional world and not the real world. Hence, his "reality" or existence and thinking are linked to same world Thus, the critics cannot presume a lack of depth and generality based on this thread of example.

  • Criticism

    Critics repeatedly portrayed skepticism towards Descartes' First Certainty (As seen above). This time they stated that knowing someone, such as Descartes, is thinking, is not enough to prove their existence in the real world. They once again related Hamlet to Descartes' situation, by stating that while Hamlet was always thinking, he did not exist in the real world.


The answer to this criticism lies in the first person nature of the "Meditations", where Descartes'use of the "I" becomes clear. While I (Descartes) might be unsure whether Hamlet was thinking and thus existed in the fictional or real world, I cannot be unsure about my own existence. The use of "I" proves this with great assurance.

While he may not wrong in saying that thinking is occurring, he cannot know for certain that a thinker exists.
Descartes declared this notion as impossible for if there was a world without thinkers, he would fail to reach his First Certainty. Absence of thinker would make reasoning impossible., which is extremely necessary.
The first certainty is missing a major premise. It needs another premise such as “anything that is thinking exists”. Used ‘Hamlet’ as an example who thought a great deal but did not exist.
Hamlet thought in a fictional world of a play, where he existed in that fictional world. His reality and thinking are linked to the same world
The act of thinking alone cannot determine a person's existence in the real world. Once again used Hamlet as an example.
The answer lies in the first person nature of the ‘meditations’. While I (Descartes) might be unsure of Hamlet's existence in the real or fictional world, I cannot be unsure about myself
The table above summarizes the criticism and their counter arguments

“Descartes was known in his day as a top mathematician, as the developer of a comprehensive physics or theory of nature (including living things), and as the proposer of a new metaphysics” (Hatfield, Summer, 2016). He is also often described as the father of modern philosophy, as he established a firm, rational foundation for knowledge. His First Certainty and Method of Doubt marked the beginning of a new metaphysics, while the latter, along with the idea of knowledge being independent of the senses allowed people to view and understand all aspects of the universe, material, or immaterial, in a more open and alert manner. His Cartesian Dualism, along with his alternate approach to physics and matter provide an intriguing view of the nature of all things and that of their existence, as well as the workings of the human body and mind. Regardless, its effectiveness and validity is still highly debated to this day. Descartes' rigorous workings on providing reasons for errors of function in humans, and its link to God, helped prove God's existence to many people of his time. Most importantly however, his rigor of thought and rejection of any reliance on authority or preconceived notions and beliefs is his most important legacy, which, along with the rest of his doctrines, garnered many followers who developed his ideas further.


    • Hatfield, Gary, “Rene Descartes”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.), http=/, 2014), (Summer 2016 Edition).
    • Buckingham, Will, “Rene Descartes”, The Philosophy Book”, Published by DK publishing (United States), Published by Dorling Kindersley Limited (Great Britain), 2011, (First American Edition 2011).


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