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cogito ergo cogito sum

23 Oct Posted by in Via Negativa | Comments

“But we have the mind of Christ.” 1 Corinthians 2.16


Meditation: “Meditation is like sinking up to your neck in quicksand with only a fistful of thought balloons to keep your ego afloat.”


Via Negativa

the-thinkerThere are few philosophical sayings that pass into everyday language. You might come up with ‘know thyself’ or in an exam if pushed ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ both from that gadly of Athens Socrates. There are even fewer popular sayings in Latin but ‘cogito ergo sum’ is universally recognised even if its author Descartes is not.

It is deceptively simple – one might say unarguable – yet simply deceptive and forms the cornerstone of modern philosophy and has a whole school of thought named after it – Cartesian duality.

Descartes strips away everything that we know with the paring knife of doubt to reduce knowledge to the core – I think therefore I am.

The senses are unreliable. The perceived material world can only be known through the senses. I may doubt everything but the one thing I cannot doubt is that I think and therefore I must exist – even as a doubting thinker. “He who doubts is a doubter” says St Paul helpfully.

In his ‘Discourse on Method’ and later in his ‘Meditations’ Descartes sought to apply the scientific method he derived from the geometry and algebra he learned at his Jesuit school at La Flèche to a universal method applicable to the whole tree of knowledge. His method is accessible to everyone:

  1. never accept anything as true that you do not know to be evidently so without prejudice
  2. divide each of the difficulties under examination into as many parts as might be possible and necessary in order to solve it
  3. begin with the simplest and easiest to know building to the complex
  4. review everything to omit nothing

It was the rigour of his method that led him to two surprising ‘certainties’ – that I exist and that God exists. In fact, in an earlier publication ‘The Rules for the Direction of the Mind’ he formulates this as ‘Sum ergo deus est’ – I am therefore God is. I say surprising because one would have thought that the father of the modern scientific method would have dispensed with the notion of God. On the contrary. with audacious logic he argues that if, as an imperfect limited human being he can conceive of the idea of perfection then it must have been put there by the only prime cause of perfection – God himself. Slam dunk.

His other surprising conclusion is that mind is a separate substance from the body and indeed all material forms hence the term ‘Cartesian duality’. All that can be said about the
human state is that ‘I am a thinking thing’ with attributes that cannot be measured unlike the ‘extensions’ of the material world – length, width, motion.

He strides like a Colossus across modern thought but you could argue he was straddling the divide between body and mind without reconciling them. An uncomfortable stride – like each foot on a different log on the river of life.

In my book his thinking does not go far enough. Who is this ‘I’ doing the thinking? If you can observe your thoughts who is the observer? If he is nothing more than ‘a thinking thing’ all he can truly say is ‘cogito ergo cogito sum’ – I think therefore I think I am. But this doesn’t address the possibility that this thinking ‘I’ is nothing but an illusion – a construct of thought.

What would have resolved the duality and stopped the straddling is to allow himself the more audacious thought – I am that which thought appears in. Sum. Enough said.

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