…on descartes’ “cogito ergo sum”

Rätselhafter Patient/ Sinus Osteoma
FigureSix CT views of Descartes’ skull, showing the ethmoidal sinus osteoma (grey)

Question: I was reading about Descartes and I don’t really understand what he means by “I think, therefore I am.” Could you explain this to me?

Reply: René Descartes’ Latin grounding for rationalist certainty is “cogito ergo sum,” otherwise known as “I think, therefore I am.” This deceptively simple conclusion is identified as a distillation of rational truth away from the confines of perceptual experience. Descartes got going in philosophy by way of mathematics and science. He was particularly interested in the apodictic certainty of mathematics and by extension how this type of necessary truth certainty governs the laws of science. Descartes was inspired to this goal due to the previous lack of identifying a whole and reliable basis for certainty with Scholastic (Aristotelian empiricism). All of this is to point out that if one desires to ground mathematical-like certainty, we must ground such certainty within the conscious way in which we get going with mathematics and science. To be clear, when we seek the whole of rational certainty, we must work to locate certainty in our thinking that is often partially obscured by perception.

To get to this aim of certainty, Descartes developed a mode of skepticism that deployed doubt as a way to clear the path away from perceptual knowledge alone. If the senses cannot be trusted, then Descartes must make absent all perceptual doubt to achieve the goal of finding and locating pure rational certainty (the very core of how we presently constitute and identify certainty in our investigations of truth). To get to the basis of rational truth, we must locate the presence of our understanding of rational truth within the individual manner of conscious thought by which our understanding of rational and universal truth is absolutely grounded. This manner of conscious thought is his “cogito ergo sum.” This is the manner of conscious by which we can ground truth. “I think, therefore I am” is what is presently left over after all perceptual doubt is put aside and made absent. This was true for Descartes, as it is present to my consciousness as I write this. Likewise, we must consider this to be a grounding for our acquisition of certainty—rational certainty. If the whole of rational thought is identified from the certainty of the “cogito ergo sum” then this indicates an ego that is thinking. If I am the one who is doing the thinking, this has within it the rational necessity of a being who consciously alive (an ego) that is thinking. Existence must be present to me in order to think rationally. This makes rational sense given that we cannot identify certain thought outside of our existing consciousness (certain truth for Descartes cannot be identified in perception alone). Rationally, the ego also is a presently centered point not only for me, but it also must be presently centered for every other rational creature who seeks certainty.

Descartes’ “cogito ergo sum” locates rational certainty to be found when perception is eliminated as a candidate for the source of rational truth. Descartes’ skepticism has the aim of clearing the way for rational certainty to become a ground for philosophic inquiry inspired by the necessary certainty of mathematics. Let me know if this helps!

…what is intentionality?

What is intentionality in terms of Husserl’s phenomenology? To understand intentionality is to also understand phenomenology at its most fundamental level. Generally, intentionality is the way in which phenomena appear to consciousness. Yet, this is not clear enough because we might not know what it means for phenomena to appear to consciousness. One way to consider intentionality is to consider consciousness as a means of apprehending the world as it is given to consciousness. The word given and the word appear are meant to be combined and expanded into the realization that this is beyond a Cartesian/rationalist way of knowing the world. Now to examine how it can be the case that Cartesian rationalism is too much of a limitation on lived experience to be phenomenological, while comparing this to the importance of Husserl’s intentionality.

To review, a rationalist like Descartes prioritizes rational thought, above and beyond perceptual experience. Once we cut the importance of perceptual experience out of how we know the world, there is a ‘pure’ rational way in which come to know the world. It is with this pure distillation of experience away from the confines of perceptual experience, where we have a type of experience that is universally applicable. To be sure, we must not ignore the simple fact that Descartes still considered empirical perception as the manner in which we apprehend the world and experience, yet rational thought has an essential certainty (like that of math) that Descartes wanted to locate and thus prioritize. Given all this, we are left with a rational distillation of experience away from the confines of perception. This is a problem for the rationalist because it limits experience into rational priority. On the other hand, Husserl wanted phenomenology to be much more philosophically holistic. This indicates the crucial point of intentionality. Let us diagram the above consideration with regard to Cartesian rationality in comparison to Husserl’s intentionality.  

intentionality and descartes

The diagram then should make it clear that the aims between the two philosophers are slightly different, while not in total opposition. Husserl’s aim is getting to know the ‘life-world’ by way of phenomenological understanding is likewise, getting to know the way in which intentionality operates for conscious experience. This indicates that we need to get clear on the way in which conscious experience is intended. What is intended is how we are conscious of phenomena—getting to know how phenomena appear to consciousness is the primary is the goal of the phenomenologist. While taking this into consideration, we must also recognize that the three formal structures of phenomenology (parts and whole, identity in a manifold, and presence and absence) are the means by which phenomena appear to us consciously (i.e. how experience is intended as consciousness). The three formal structures are both empirically evident and rationally evident in the appearance of phenomena for consciousness. This rational component of intentional experience must not be ignored. Husserl’s phenomenology is an eidetic philosophy, it is a search for essences. To reveal the essence of phenomena is to know how phenomena appears to consciousness—to know how phenomena is intended. The search for essences is akin to finding what is a priori while at the same time going beyond the a priori to expose the lived experience of the life-world.

Now it becomes easier to isolate how Cartesian rationalism (the way in which we access the truth) is limited with regard to phenomenology. If we with Descartes, only cherish that which is rational, we must, under his guidelines extract perceptual experience from our findings of the world. Once this is done we are left with a purely rational experience—cogito ergo sum! Yet cogito ergo sum is bought at the expense of perception, otherwise known as the primary way in which phenomena appears to consciousness. Rational thought is simply not the only way phenomena is intended.


…note on socrates’ ‘negative wisdom’


Michael Weißköppel, nichts, 2012, Acryl auf Leinwand

…& yes, we covered the ‘negative wisdom’ of Socrates when we read Plato’s Apology. Recall that Socrates’ ‘negative wisdom’ is considered in the abstract. His wisdom is one of becoming wise to that which we do not know. Keep in mind, it is not enough to simply state this without more specific qualification. Socrates never claimed to know anything, this is typically (within the context of common opinion) looked at as a lack of wisdom. However, upon rational inspection we conclude that his ‘negative wisdom’ is the result of acknowledging the limits of our knowledge, thus enabling us to expose the limitations of what we really know.

Traditionally and shortsightedly, we consider a person wise when they possess knowledge of many things, to be wise is to know as much as possible. Rationally, when we are in the position to claim knowledge of something, we had better be clear on what we claim to be true knowledge. For Plato and Socrates true knowledge is to be distinguished from mere opinion. Do not be fooled, philosophy and common opinion deal in abstract generality, the distinction is that common opinion often goes unquestioned. This unquestioned opinion becomes easily mistaken for the truth. Therefore, the use of negative wisdom accounts for what is not known—this is how we should examine our lives and our common opinions.

Once we recognize this as a way to living a virtuous life, we also recognize the ethical components of negative wisdom. Once we allow for the gaps in our own knowing, we likewise allow for the gaps is other’s thinking. The virtue of humility before our knowledge and the knowledge of other’s is worth more than a moment’s thought.

…note on parts & wholes with kant, & presence & absence with aristotle


A. How does Kant’s categorical imperative connect to the whole? How is Kant’s categorical imperative a part of the whole?

…okay, let us give a provisional first look into Kant’s practical philosophy by way of a metaphysical account of parts and wholes. Immediately we need to ask: what is a ‘whole’ and what is a part of the whole in terms of Kant’s practical/moral philosophy? With a question of the whole, we have a number considerations, of chief importance is the whole of ethical life. In this sense Kant’s ethical philosophy is connected to the whole of ethical life in terms of the reasoning that the categorical imperative is universal (i.e. theoretically it is able to be applied rationally all the time and in all cases by all rational autonomous agents). Kant’s categorical imperative is a normative principle by which we aim to govern all our ethical life—the whole of ethical life.  

What is a something that is a ‘part’ within the above mentioned ‘whole’ of ethical life? If Kant’s practical/moral philosophy is aimed at encompassing the whole of ethical life, then we as autonomous agents are rationally taking part within the whole as a way to express our freedom whenever we deploy the categorical imperative. Likewise freedom can only be partial and never complete. This should not only be considered as a restriction of freedom, this should also be considered in the light of what is possible within the guidelines of rational thought & rational experience. Rational freedom in this sense is considered to be positive: we are free within the rules and standards of our reason and by extension our community. If we as autonomous agents are a part of the whole, this must be an aspect of how our free will is partly expressed.

B. How does Aristotle’s virtue ethics connect to presence? How does Aristotle’s virtue ethics connect to absence?

…okay, now let us also give a provisional first look into Aristotle’s virtue ethics connection to a metaphysical account of presence and absence? Immediately we ask: what is present and what is absent within Aristotle’s virtue ethics? To consider what is present would obviously have to be rational thought. Yet, how is rational thought present in Aristotle’s virtue ethics? Rational thought is intrinsically present within every rational agent. Rational thought is present within the recognition that we are rational agents that aim for the goodness and Eudaimonia (εὐδαιμονία = the good life). To have this present in our lives is to be virtuous of character. To be virtuous is to strike the ‘golden mean’ between the extremes of privation or excess. Virtue is what is made present in the character of the good person who is aiming for happiness and the good life. For virtue to become present, one has to rationally make such behavior into a habit of virtue. To have such virtuous habits requires wisdom, to recognize this is to consider the ‘golden mean’ as a clear and rational distinction, each situation will require a rational evaluation of the ‘golden mean’ enough to know where to place any of our specific moral actions as virtuous behavior.

The question of absence surely must account for vice. This signifies a distortion and deviation from the virtuous life. Going to the extremes of ethical life is an absence of virtue. If immoral actions are departures from virtue, then we must also conclude that immorality is often lacking in rationality (i.e. rationality is absent). A rational accounting of our conscientious behavior must take into account all that it stands in contrast with it—virtue. All the things that pull us away from virtuous action are privations of reason, as they are privations of virtue. The lack of virtue must then be accounted for within the presence of virtue. To know what is virtuous is also to know what it is not.