ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel
  • »
  • Books, Literature, and Writing»
  • Literature

Descartes: Cogito ergo sum; I think therefore I am ... what does it mean?

Updated on June 29, 2011
rene descartes
rene descartes

Cogito or Cogito ergo sum, is the Latin translation for Descartes famous claim ‘I think therefore I am.’ This is a pivotal part of the argument for existence that he gives in the Meditations. It is the first thing he says we can know for definite after doubting the existence of everything else. He says we must doubt everything because there is a chance that we are all being deceived by an evil demon so everything we believe to be true could just be an illusion. But it doesn’t make sense to say that we could be deceived about the way we think. The fact that we can have thoughts about the state of the world (regardless of what we doubt) means that there is some ‘I’ that exists. Perhaps there is an evil demon making us believe in a false reality, but there must be something in existence that the demon is manipulating. This is the thinking thing that Descartes calls ‘I.’ The claim ‘I think,’ or ‘I am thinking’ does not require us to have any knowledge or evidence of the world. It is not based on anything else; therefore it does not rely on the truth of a claim that could turn out to be false. From here, Descartes goes on to affirm the existence of God, as he knows his beliefs and thoughts are real (even if they are not true).

discourse on method and meditations
discourse on method and meditations

The Cogito can only assure Descartes of his own existence, not the existence of anyone else, and we can only use it to know of our own individual existence. This is because we can doubt the minds of other people and the existence of their thoughts. Similarly it can only verify our existence at the point in time when we declare ‘I think’ because anything in the past ‘I was thinking’ or the present, could be something the evil demon has deceived us on. There has been much debate over what Descartes means when he uses the word ‘think.’ Many people question whether this means understanding, reason, intellect etc and think that if it includes these then there is a problem with Descartes reasoning. Personally I think that when Descartes says ‘I think therefore I am’ he is referring to anything that we do that does not involve the existence of something else. For example, we can use reason and intellect a priori; without having to learn anything first or relying on some other concept. I think he also means anything that we can believe without implying a contradiction. It cannot for example, apply to memories, as they rely on an event in the past which we could be being deceived about.

Many people argue that ‘I think therefore I am’ is analogous to saying ‘I am walking therefore I am’ but I disagree with this. My interpretation of it is that Descartes is saying I think therefore I am a thinking thing. From saying that ‘I am walking …’ I can only claim the existence of a walking thing, not a thinking thing and even that can be called into doubt. You cannot claim to exist on the basis of walking because you could be being deceived into believing you had legs or you could be dreaming that you were walking. The only things you can be sure about are events that do not require any interactions to have taken place.

People also claim that Descartes is making a jump between thinking taking place and the existence of ‘I.’ They say that just because there is the existence of thought that does not mean he can conclude that it is he doing the thinking. I am inclined to disagree with this argument. Surely, as I have just said “he can conclude …” it has implied that there is some ‘I’ in Descartes that has allowed him to make this conclusion. The critics affirm Descartes existence whilst at the same time try to argue that he cannot be sure that he exists. A response to this would perhaps be that in the premise of the argument; ‘I think,’ Descartes refers to ‘I’ which he then proves in the conclusion. This is what is known as a circular argument as he uses what he is trying to prove in the premise. It is a fallacy that often occurs in arguments to proving the existence of God. Many would say that this makes the whole argument invalid.

So, to sum up: the Cogito (I think therefore I am) is the first piece of knowledge that Descartes can be certain of. It is highly important in the formulation of the rest of the Meditations. There are interpretation issues over pretty much every part of the Cogito; the use of ‘I’ in the premise and the scope of ‘I think’ being the main ones. I like the Cogito and to me it seems to make a lot of sense and appears fairly self-evident. When I think about things, or I put my thoughts into this hub I am convinced that it is my own capacity and ability to think that is allowing me to do so. However, I do wonder about the usefulness of the Cogito. All it can tell any one person is that they exist at one specific moment in time. It cannot relate to a third person and it cannot relate to the past or the future.

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • profile image

      Rayonna 3 years ago

      These pieces really set a standard in the insutdry.

    • HeavyDosage profile image

      Jason Link 5 years ago from Madrid, Spain

      Sorry.. to elaborate:

      I've always been interested in this notion by Descartes. I really get troubled when people refer to the Matrix to communicate this idea, because I worry that people will have a very limited understanding as to what it means "to be." However, if anyone is interested in watching other movies about the veil of reality, and the possibility for deception, you can watch (as well as "The Matrix"): "eXistenZ" (1999) and "Inception" (2010).

      Now, the reason that it bothers me how people reference these movies is that it gives others a liminal understanding - they lose touch with the idea of Dualism. Certainly this idea can hold water as an interesting notion if you consider our deception to be a matter of "what reality we really are perceiving" (a la Matrix's cyberpunk reality being a world that physically exists, but we are unaware of it because of our senses being manipulated). However, people lose touch with the fact that the 'real world' in this case is really a similar notion to that infinite and Eternal "I AM" that is God.

      The point is that Descartes' statement in no way ratifies the existence of a physical reality, but only confirms the very existence of oneself. It is totally separate from any notion of a physical reality. Interestingly this idea is often ignored by those who advocate the absence of an existing God - namely because they consider 'physical' proof and not epistemological proof to be the basis for this kind of argument. This discussion further limits itself in the constraints of a "Christian God" or any popular manifestation of one, as opposed to the idea of spirituality in itself.

    • HeavyDosage profile image

      Jason Link 5 years ago from Madrid, Spain

      "And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you."

      Exodus. 3:14 (King James Bible)

    • jenblacksheep profile image
      Author

      jenblacksheep 7 years ago from England

      But if we were in the Matrix then you would "think" that it was real, you would be convinced that it was real. But if you were taken out of it and then given the option of being plugged back in (and forgetting it wasn't real) or living in a 'less good' real world, which would you choose?

    • profile image

      Park, Jae Kyung 7 years ago

      In my opinion, the reality is that we are living. It means we can hear, smell, touch, taste, see, and think. If we are thinking, we are living. If this is not real, then I will ask to myself "What is real? What will happen if we discovered the truth?". I believe we can live even if it's not real because we "think" we are real.

    • profile image

      lar and asr 7 years ago from Cathedral city, CA

      You think therefore you are, for there to be thought there neeeds to be one thinker(minumum) and you can create new ideas so you are at least one of the thinkers there might be no others but you though according to me you are a possible illusion

    working

    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, hubpages.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: "https://hubpages.com/privacy-policy#gdpr"

    Show Details
    Necessary
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Features
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Marketing
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Statistics
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)