Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Incompleteness of the Cogito

Why am I always hung up on Descartes? I’m not exactly sure. I have a few ideas, but they are only suppositions. Well, here I am again, ready to make a quick comment about our famous Catholic Frenchman.

I realized last night, as I was drifting off to sleep, that I actually disagree with the Cogito. Now, I’ve said time and time again that I disagree with where the Cogito takes us, or at least where Descartes and others think it does – and where it has brought us today. But I think I actually disagree with the statement itself.

Let’s recap: 1) I will try and doubt everything. 2) Can I doubt that I exist? 3) Well, if I doubt that, then something must be doing the doubting; therefore, 4) that something is me. This doubting, a form of thinking, has helped proved that I exist. Hence, I think, therefore I am. However, that’s not entirely true.

Really, the cogito should go something more along these lines: “I think, therefore, I know that I exist.” Without this little interlude, we assume that the thinking is what makes me exist, instead of the thinking being the means by which I know that I exist. It sounds like it’s splitting hairs, but I think it’s immeasurably important hairsplitting.

My self-reflection right at this very moment, my doubting of my own existence, can help prove that I exist. (What good this does, I’m not so sure.) But if I were spending this same moment not involved in the Cartesian doubt, my existence would be the same. My thinking has not caused my existence; my thinking has not helped my actual existence; my thinking hasn't helped prolong my existence. All my thinking has done has helped me prove that I can’t not exist while at the same time that I doubt that I do.

Why is this important? Because the Cartesian fallacy too closely aligns cognition with existence, which is not what Descartes proved. Suddenly our minds, the workings of thought, holds primacy. Suddenly thought becomes necessary to existence. But Descartes hasn’t proved this, and it can’t be proved via his hyperbolic doubt.

I’m not sure if Descartes wrote his cogito this way in order to make it short and snappy. I’m also not sure if, after the translation and cultural shifts, I’m interpreting correctly. Regardless, though, to simply say, “I think, therefore I am” isn’t true according to modern linguistics, and I thought I’d point it out.

1 comment:

  1. Quite. In terms of causality, "I am [and am a something with the capacity for thinking], therefore I can think".

    But in terms of doing logic, I think we still talk like Descartes. For example, let's say I know that my friend's dog has been painted either all green or all red. I find the two paint cans, and I see that the red is empty, the green unopened. I then say, "The dog is either all red or all green. The red paint has been used, while the green hasn't. Therefore the dog is red."
    Like the Cogito, this 'therefore' needs qualifying to express more clearly, "therefore I know." But you are quite right: grammatically, the adverbial "therefore" does not modify the being verb; it modifies "know."