…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!

…on unamuno’s tragic sense of life

library unamunoNotes on Miguel de Unamuno’s Tragic Sense of Life.

Unamuno’s 1912 book Tragic Sense of Life is an early expression of Spanish & European existentialism. Why do we propose Unamuno is an existentialist?—because he was concerned with existence, our corporeal existence. To conclude that a thinker is existentialist, we make the claim that their philosophy bases itself in the concerns of existence. If we are to come to an understanding of our lives as an existentialist, we must come to that understanding within the context of our own living & breathing existence.

In Unamuno’s 2nd chapter, he clearly defines what he means by the term a ‘tragic sense of life,’ “For living is one thing and knowing is another; and, as we shall see, perhaps there is such an opposition between the two that we may say that everything vital is anti-rational, not merely irrational, and that everything rational is anti-vital.”[1] This diagram separates Unamuno’s opposition with notes on what this must imply [my additions]:

unamuno tragic sense of life opposition

Now let’s unfold this seemingly simple proposition. On one hand we have that which is vital & anti-rational, life-force (indeed the life force named by Spinoza, a.k.a. conatus), existence, & the like. On the other hand, we have that which is rational which is not corporeal, it is objective, universal & timeless. Given these two polarities, we must not forget that they are opposed, they are in contradiction. If these two elements are in opposition, this opposition is Unamuno’s ‘tragic sense of life.’

The ever-present well-worn philosophical opposition between the mind & the body is where we should center our attention. This is Descartes’ dualism. The mind is separate from the body. As Unamuno demonstrates, Descartes “cogito ergo sum” is not so much a direction toward the ego, rather “I am thinking” first & foremost. I am thinking beyond the body when I am engaged in rational thought. Descartes’ certainty rests in rational thought, not in the body (since for Descartes, the two were distinctly separate, notwithstanding the complexity of trying to justify how the two intermix, that’s somewhere in another paper).

For Unamuno, we reason through an understanding of our existence something like this:

unamuno death Rational thought sets up a way of thinking about death whereby we find ourselves in a “tragic” bind between “irredeemable despair” or the redemption of dying otherwise. Perhaps this is the promise of an eternal afterlife? We cannot know either way & hence our mortal despair. Rational thought pulls us away from the body by way of such philosophical thinking, objective, mathematical & scientific ways of thinking.

Another way of thinking about this would be to posit that the thinking person wishes to sees her mind as beyond the body & at the time of death if that mind moves on through the soul into eternity then she should aspire to this aim throughout her life until her death. This is found in religious practice & also by way of philosophical thinking. Why wouldn’t we aspire for eternity? Nevertheless, our fallible bodies are flesh & blood & not eternal. Reason posits eternity & we want eternity with our corporeal bodies & cannot have it. This is Unamuno’s ‘tragic sense of life,’ a problem of our embodied existence with this strange admixture of conatus + the body vs. reason + eternity, without resolution, a contradiction, a problem of our existential finitude.

–aurelio madrid

[1] Miguel de Unamuno, Tragic Sense of Life, translated by J.E. Crawford Flitch (Sophia Omni, 2014), 47.