Origins of “I think therefore I am”

If we ask someone, who in no way (professionally) deals with philosophy or the history of philosophical thought, does he knows about Rene Descartes, and the answer is positive, we can rightly assume that what this person knows about Descartes will be his famous, „I think therefore I am“, which has been uttered so many times in so many different cases that we can rightly ask ourselves – does it have any explanation and meaning, and can it be properly argued and supported?

What is behind it and how did Descartes get to it in the first place?

What virtues and what weaknesses does this philosophical statement hide?

Descartes came to it by questioning all things. In his opinion, there is not a single thing that would be free of methodical skepticism.

Descartes, therefore, in a way, stands on the position of skepticism.

However, is Descartes a skeptic?

Although many have accused him of being, such an understanding of Descartes’ position can only follow from essential misunderstanding of his philosophy.

In fact, it is a matter of mixing method and goal.

For Descartes, methodical doubt is nothing but a path, a way to reach the truth with the safest possible steps. Methodical doubt is simply not the goal of Descartes.

Descartes himself confirms the same in several places.

So, things should be brought to a clearing – methodical doubt is not an end in itself, but serves exclusively as a means by which the path to the truth itself will be clearly paved.

Descartes applied methodological doubt in order to find out if there were any undoubted truth.

And whoever knows at least something about his philosophy, knows that he found such a truth in the statement „Cogito, ergo sum“ – „I think therefore I am”

Descartes’ basic methodological tool is methodical doubt. With it, Descartes, therefore, decided to first suspect everything in order to come up with something that would prove to be certain and undoubted.

In his „Meditations“, he says that there is nothing that cannot be questioned.

First it seemed to him that it was certain that he was sitting by the warm fireplace, that there were arms, legs, body, paper on which he wrote, etc.

However, what if there is some kind of demon, he says, who tries his best to deceive me and who deliberately, in order to deceive me, puts in front of me certain images that I usually believe are reflections of some real existing matter. And considering that there is a possibility that it really is so, then reality could not be distinguished in any way from a dream, in which I can also see various things that do not really exist in any way. And since I don’t know if there is a demon or not – Descartes says roughly – I can’t be sure of anything that seemed true to me before.

… ..So, if we follow Descartes’ line of thought, it really turns out that “on the basis of valid reasons”, and not out of mere whim, we can question everything.

However, if that is really the case, the question rightly arises, what is it that is undoubtedly true?

In the Principles of Philosophy, Descartes says “..we can assume that there is no God, no heaven, and no body – even that we ourselves have no hands, feet, or body at all. However, this does not dare us to assume that we who think such things (ourselves) are nothing, because it is contradictory to believe that something that thinks at the same time does not exist. So, „I think, therefore I am“, is the first and most important cognitive act that everyone will accept if they philosophize in the right way. “

In the „Discourse on the Method“, Descartes says almost the same thing: …and noticing that it is true: „I think, therefore, I am“, this being so sure that even the most exaggerated assumptions of skeptics are unable to shake it, I have concluded that I can adopt it without the slightest scrupulousness as the first principle of philosophy I have sought. “

What, in fact, does all this mean?

Although in some places Descartes expresses himself quite confusingly, the basic idea he has in mind is the following – when I think something, the very fact that I think implies that I am because it is impossible to think (something) without being (something).

Even if I doubt in the very existence of myself, who is doing the doubting? To be able to doubt, one must exist.

And Descartes immediately asks himself – what am I? “I am the thing that thinks (Res cogitans).“

If we look for the roots of this famous Descartes’ attitude, we can’t help but go back to the period of the early Middle Ages, to Augustine’s formulation „Si fallor, sum“ – „If I’m wrong, I am“.

Because, as Coppleston says, “being wrong is a form of thinking.”

 So, these two phrases are not essentially different, but Descartes made it a cornerstone on which he based his philosophy launching it mainstream.  

Leave a Comment