This article was last modified on March 25, 2005.


Descartes and Language: What is the Cogito?

Please note that the accuracy of this article has been disputed and the author takes no responsibliliy for the contents of the article until further notice. Feel free to contact the author with comments or questions.

Descartes is credited with the phrase, “Cogito ergo sum” – commonly translated as “I think, therefore I am.” But what was he saying? What is the “I”? Who is doing the thinking? And is “cogito ergo sum” what he truly intended, given that his original words were in French, not Latin. These questions and more will hopefully be answered.

Lee Reed: Thought and Existence not the Same

Lee Reed, an undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin in Green Bay, argues that “I think, therefore I am” linguistically translates to “There is thinking, and I am doing it.” If this is so, the existence of thought does not show the existence of the “I” – it only says “there is thought”, because Descartes does not explain what the “I” is. The I, as a separate entity from the thought, is never described or examined.

We can compare this to the way we use the word “my” in English. We can say something is mine, that it belongs to me. And as a social construction, this makes sense. But things become more complicated when we use “my” in a sense closer to the heart of the matter. Who or what owns “my” body? Some would argue the mind or soul is the keeper of the body [1]. But then we ask, who owns the mind or soul when we say “my soul” or “my mind”? This seems to suggest an entity outside of these two, and Descartes (according to Reed) falls into this trap.

Jessica Parins: Thought and Existence the Same

Jessica Parins, a colleague of Reed’s, makes the argument that Descartes has been poorly translated and misinterpreted by many students and scholars. She wishes to stress that we could mold his words into something closer to “there is thinking and therefore existence” – avoiding the issue of the self entirely. Given the constraints of language (which ultimately limit any philosophical discussion), this is an interesting interpretation. We could say that Descartes was then arguing merely that if thought exists, that existence in general exists (as this proves the existence of at least one thing).

The problem with truncating his words to avoid the issue is that this stops the flow from this point to Descartes’ other points. He wants to prove his body exists alongside his mind, as well as other external objects (res extensa). Much of this is accomplished through a debatable proof of God and assumption that God is caring (issues we will not discuss here). Yet, to get anywhere we must first establish the existence of the mental. Does the existence of thought equate to the existence of the mental, sidestepping the idea of “self”, or does Parins’ argument and interpretation only defeat Descartes’ argument before he really gets started?

The Original French

For the moment, let us not answer these questions and step back to what the phrasing in question was. Although language limits philosophy as we stated above, it is only through language that philosophy can be performed. With this in mind, what Descartes actually said is of the utmost importance – the semantics and grammar are as essential as the very argument in general. So, what did he say and how does it differ (if at all)?

We are taught to believe Descartes said “cogito ergo sum” (and numerous reliable textbooks use this as fact), when he actually stated, “Je pense, donc, je suis.” His native language was French, and his Meditations were written in this language. The translation is, of course, “I think, therefore, I am.” You might be saying now, how is this any different from what we originally claimed Descartes had said?

The difference lies in the boundaries language puts on thought. Different languages express themselves differently. Going from one language to another completely alters the connotations attached to the original language. I have enjoyed the usage of German and English examples in the past, and will restate them here. English, as a Germanic language, still cannot state what the Germans have said in their own mindset. The German term “Begriff” may mean in English “concept” or “Idea” or “understanding” or “term.” While there is not a major difference, variations exist in connotation (or else having four words would be extraneous). Similarly with “Mitleid” which can signify either “pity” or “compassion” – one concept in German, two very different concepts in English.

Returning to Descartes, we notice he uses the “Je” in his writing – Je meaning “I”. There is a strong self of self in the words he chose to use. There is a self thinking and a self existing. There is not merely a selfless thought (this would be expressed as “il y a une pensée, donc, il y a un être”). What does this mean? Without a third option, we must declare that Reed was correct – Descartes incorporates a self having a thought, without identifying the self. In essence, Descartes assumed the self was the owner of the thought, a declaration he could hardly prove and many have questioned.

Why Do We Use the Latin?

With this dispute settled, another issue remains. If Descartes wrote in French, and we read him in English, why bother having the Latin at all? Two possibilities exist, and likely the full answer is a combination of both.

First, philosophy is a field of traditions. Unlike other sciences that are overturned with paradigm shift after paradigm shift, philosophy continually relies on the beginning. Plato is as relevant now as he was two millennia ago. And traditionally, particularly in the Catholic world Descartes lived in, Latin was the primary tongue of the educated. It was older, more established, and also served to cross borders (while only the French spoke French, any educated man in the West could decipher Latin). Whether Descartes personally wrote in Latin or not I am unaware of, but any translations hoping to leave his homeland would be most accessible in Latin and were probably distributed in this manner.

Another reason is that Descartes had a predecessor in his thoughts, rarely mentioned. Before Descartes made the groundbreaking assertion that thought proved existence, another man had already said the same thing. Centuries before, Saint Augustine had written in his book “City of God” the following: “Ac proinde haec cognitio, ego cogito, ergo sum, est omnium prima et certissima etc.” In English translation, he stated:

“I am certain that I am, that I know that I am, and that I love to be and to know. In the face of these truths, the quibbles of the skeptics lose their force. If they say: “What if you are mistaken?–well, if I am mistaken, I am. For, if one does not exist, he can by no means be mistaken. Therefore, I am, if I am mistaken. Because, therefore, I am, if I am mistaken, how can I be mistaken that I am, since it is certain that I am, if I am mistaken? And because, if I could be mistaken, I would have to be the one who is mistaken, therefore, I am most certainly not mistaken in knowing that I am. Nor, as a consequence, am I mistaken in knowing that I know. For, just as I know that I am, I also know that I know. And when I love both to be and to know, then I add to the things I know a third and equally important knowledge, the fact that I love. Nor am I mistaken that I love, since I am not mistaken concerning the objects of my love. For, even though these objects were false, it would still be true that I loved illusions.”

Astonishingly, Descartes had never come across this passage – so similar to his own observations – until they were presented to him in 1640 by the Dutch minister Adres Covius, well after he had written his “Meditations on First Philosophy”.

Could Descartes be commonly quoted in Latin because another man had already stated precisely that same thing – in Latin?

Conclusion

Whether or not Descartes was original in his thinking, we can now be fairly certain his thought process was flawed, thanks to the limits of language or at the very least his misuse of language. While allegedly providing solid evidence we can know our own existence, he had skipped over the proof of the self and only showed us that there was a thought existing – a thought which may or may not be our own. What is a thought if it is not our own? That is a matter for another time.

Notes

[1] For argument’s sake, we will stick with this “common sense” mode of thinking rather than getting into a debate between idealism, dualism, materialism or other ways of discussing the body and mind.

Please note that the accuracy of this article has been disputed and the author takes no responsibliliy for the contents of the article until further notice. Feel free to contact the author with comments or questions.

Sources

“Cogito ergo sum” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cogito_ergo_sum viewed March 24, 2005.

Hauptli, Bruce W. “Appendices to Lecture Supplements on Descartes’ Meditations” http://www.fiu.edu/~hauptli/AppendicestoDescartes’Meditations.html viewed March 24, 2005.

Reed, Lee and Jessica Parins. Discussion at UWGB Philosophy Forum. March 22, 2005.

Reed, Lee. “Time is a Magazine, But not a Container” presented at UWGB Philosophy Forum March 22, 2005.

Also try another article under Philosophical
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

26 Responses to “Descartes and Language: What is the Cogito?”

  1. Revised Says:

    Interesting article. I like the part about the language, very helpful for a paper I’m writing.

  2. Jarret Tanner Says:

    Recent revelations about something I thought was true have caused me to ponder the meaning of life and the Universe. I began to realize that everything I knew was wrong and that reminded me of a Philosophy class I took where we learned about Descartes. For a little while I thought, “Well, at least I have that one truth.” Then I realized that I was falling into my/his own trap. I remembered that everything I know is wrong, so why would “I think, therefore I am.” be any different? I concluded it must be wrong as well, so I did a little searching and found your article confirming my belief. It turns out I was right, after all. But how could I be right if everything I know is wrong? I have now learned the “meaning of life”:

    “Everything is wrong and everything is right.”

    By the way, that’s wrong, too. :) Thanks for your help.

  3. cal-sonal@cal.co.jp Says:

    nice one

  4. x Says:

    hey dawg, not fantastic, but a good try!

  5. ryan Says:

    Very good…I like it

  6. Carl Klapper Says:

    Augustine’s argument IS very similar to Descartes’ down to the analysis of a self-referential, self-negating statement. With Augustine, the phrase would be, implicitly from the argument, “I am mistaken that I am mistaken”. With Descartes, it was explicitly “I doubt that I doubt”. For both philosophers, the authority for the assertion or refutation of the statement rests upon the existence of “I”. There is an additional subtlety for Descartes in that what he considers unknowable is precisely what the sceptics seem to take on faith, that there is something other than himself that knows whether or not he doubts.

  7. Roberto Lawski Says:

    I’d Chime in, haven’t you people ever heard of? closing the god damn door, no?
    Its much better to face these kinds of things in sense of poise and rationality

  8. Carsten Says:

    When asking the awakened (Wei Wu Wei, Huang Po, Nissargardatta Maharej, Maharsi,Tony Parson, Meister Eckehart e.t.c.), you get a clear answer from them:

    There is no witness (no “I”), nothing witnessed, only witness-ing , see-ing, hear-ing, feel-ing: unexplainable functioning of the Absolute, Reality, of “What Is”

    But you don’t need to go to others for asking: Sapere aude!

    “A conclusion which builds on wrong assumptions is wrong”

    “Truth/Reality must be true/real in it self, independent from anything else”

    An “I” presupposes a separate unit, separated from the rest. (“I” and “not I”, the beginning of duality). But where is such an object? Furthermore it needs to be real/true, but there is nothing in this universe that is not dependent for it’s existence on the rest of the universe.

    Conclusion: There are no separate units in this universe. There is no “I”

    Descartes conclusion : “I think,therefore I am” is wrong because there is no think-er, only think-ing. Well don’t blame him: who likes to give up the idea of being something? (Who? :-) )

    There are more inconsistencies in our map of the world, “holes in the net of Maya” (Nissargardatta) leading to the same conclusion, it’s not difficult to see them when looking for them starts.

    Please note: Nothing of the above is, can be true……. :-)))

    May there be experinc-ing of A Merry Xmas and Happy New Year!

  9. Katrina Says:

    I would love the chance to get to know anyone with a passion for truth. In passing it being stated that It is known That I want to know .Please know that I is truth That I seek to meet and know those who are readily known here.please if you care to know more woodenkatrina@yahoo.com

  10. Tanya Z Says:

    What if somebody told you that whatever you focus your thoughts on come true? What if you attract what you fear and attract what you love. It has been noted that what Descartes could have meant is that you become your thoughts. That your thoughts manifest into existence. I think…. therefore I am.

    Further readings: Neal Donald Walsch, Esther & Jerry Hicks.

    Many new authors are tapping into the idea that our thoughts, words, and actions all work on different levels of vibrations. These vibrations attract like ones. The Law of Attraction states that “Like Attracts Like”. If you focus on a thought, you attract what you focus on. All is dependant on other factors but in a nutshell, you are what you think… I think, therefore I am…
    Get it?

  11. James Skemp Says:

    Isn’t Michael Crichton’s Sphere about that?

    Seriously, psychology, for years, has been stating the above. “Fear breeds fear,” and all that.

  12. Tanya Z Says:

    Agreed…

    Fear attracts those things to be feared. But fear is an emotion and the thought attached to it is what you attract.

    Napoloen Hill, “Think and Grow Rich”, mentions that there is a fomula to manifesting something. I read that emotion is one of the elements. The universe does not discriminate between fear and love… it just gives you what you put out there.

    For example, you might desire something, but that doesn’t mean you will get it. You might desire it in the way that you keep wanting it. To want something is to admit you don’t have it. Not having something may cause you to “feel” a certain way. The way you feel about something (like fear of not having it) may cause you to attract that very thougtht… to keep the wanting… to stop the “wanting” one must desire things by thinking about their potentiality, and to “feel” excited about it coming forth…. This good feeling helps to attract all that you finally “choose” to have… but it can be a real science- veering away from worry and fear.

    I think, therefore I am…
    There is now a movie/documentary out called “The Secret”… Do check it out. There was a panel on Larry King live speaking about it. It is sold out in most places- so if you find it, you are lucky… Attract it…!

  13. anonymous Says:

    You are all misinterpreting Descartes. He does not state that everything you think is wrong, but that you cannot KNOW what is wrong and what is right, except for the Cogito. So, in response to Carsten (#8), things other than oneself MAY exist, and therefore the universe MAY be divided into “separate units,” but oneself cannot know whether any particular object exists or any hypothesis is true or not

  14. Tanya Zakkour Says:

    Dear Anonymous,

    I personally am not trying to represent or interpret Descartes, more what his phrase means to me. And I have not mentioned that he states “everything you think is wrong”. I think that when we refer to something that exists, we reference what is in our reality. Of course there are things that we can truly know exists. I know I exist because I am aware of myself, my mind. Whether or not everything else is an illusion, I know that I exist. With that being said, to me, Descartes may have meant, that I think (have thoughts, and am aware), therefore I exist… Or, who knows, maybe like I previously mentioned… Going back to the power of the mind concept, my thinking creates all that I am. I think, therefore I am [everthing that my thoughts create]. This may be confusing to some people, but there is the hypothesis that the law of attraction manifests all that you think about. You attract into your existence, all the things that your thoughts truly focus on (and believe in).

    In any philosophical discussion, the subject of God comes up. And you are on the right track when it is said that we cannot truly know if anything is truth (exists). Maybe some people have to see things to believe in them. But for those who do believe in God, maybe they observed with tests such as, “If this, then that”. For example, one might state to God, if you exist, prove it to me with some kind of a sign etc… They would deduce “if I am shown a sign, then God exists”, even if they may not be shown God him[/her]self.

    Well anyways, this could go on, but I think we can all agree on the fact that you must re-word your last point of “one cannot know whether any particular object exists”… alternatively to “one cannot know whether any particular unobserved/unexperienced objects exists” (unless proven otherwise).

  15. Anonymous Says:

    Dear Tanya Zakkour,
    How do you know that what you experience, by any method other than pure thought alone, is true? Your senses could be decieving you. Take lunatics as an example-assuming that lunatics exist, of course! I can’t deduce other peoples’ existence by pure thought alone.
    Anyway, I was mostly talking to Jarret Tanner and Carsten (who might not exist).

  16. Anonymous Says:

    What you believe will be true in your mind, and therefore, in a very tangible sense, exist. However, it will do so only if you know it beyond all doubt. Therefore nobody posting on this board knows that anything else exists, because they use the method of systematic doubt, but many people who have never heard of the cogito can.

  17. Tanya Zakkour Says:

    I guess we can all say that none of us can really know the answer to your inquery… and I want to remind you that we are clearly speculating about all of this. If you are asking me personally, and would like my personal opinion about my personal experiences, I can merely say that all my experiences exist. My thoughts exist (in my reality), my dreams exist, I exist, my friends exist, my beautiful family exists, “Anonymous” person exists. And, in terms of lunatics, I am assuming that you have diagnosed that some of them experience senses that decieve them. Perhaps you are speaking about hallucinations of some sort? In my opinion, the hallucinations may be real experiences (in terms of paranoid thoughts…etc)… but the “lunatic” may think that the hallucinations are in physical form in front of them… The one interesting thing is whatever “they” are experiencing is truth to them (i assume). They are the ones experiencing it.

    Now, we can go a different route. We could talk about spirituality or the subconscious mind. There is much information out there that can try to explain all sides to every inquery you may have. One explaination may be that the “lunatic” is experiencing something that is brought out by chemical reactions in the brain, or brought about by the subconscious mind. When I think of hypnosis, I think about how a person can regress under hypnosis to the mental state of when they were a child etc as research has shown. My point is, we can never really generalize all lunatics’ experiences… Some may even suggest that the “lunatic” is possessed. Some say that schizophrenics are actually caught between realms… Mind you, I really don’t know what to think about all the above personally… not without doing my own research, but the above is some of which has been put out there… I have no observation or opinion about that, more of a curiousity like you.

    To the comment #16… you say that [everybody] posting on this board…use[s] the method of systematic doubt. Can you please not speak for us all and not deduce what methods we use? We are merely putting out opinions asked of us… but this does not display what methods are in play or what we personally use. I regret when people make assumptions and convey them as if their assumptions are fact. These are all observations and opinions, or even theories that we may have heard of but not neccissarily follow ourselves… Just a bunch of info…

  18. Riisager, Tove Says:

    The length of the discussion seams to be Very long compared to the fact that – when I learned latin at age 15, when we had to learn latin in order to be accepted for language studies at high school, we learned that the “o”-ending in verbs means “I”. Since this is similar to italian and spanish, why then discuss if Descartes means I, when he translated his french to latin, – as far as I know it has been very common to be thaught latin until recently all over Europe, I mean, I was one of us, learning latin, Perhaps we were 20 girls in one single class back in 1973, without conting thousand nd thousands of others learning all the same latin. Two years earlier it was common to learn ancient greak too, now the latin knowledge pops up beeing modern to read again. I’m just so happy to see, that a precise language very good for use in several “fields”, more than just medicin-related or philosophic items/jobrelated in some way or other, and I look forward to the more common knowledge about the ending “o” to the verbs beeing I. It can even be looked upon as uncorrect to put the “ego” befor the verb to underline/dubbelstate that I mean I, as far as I have learned in italian, french, norvegian, danish…..
    Kind regards from Tove Riisager……Perhaps it was just as normal back then as it often seems to be nowadays to trnslate into latin to make more common? Why is it a fact that sentences in both latin and other languages figures as a rather great part of “good, big and interesting” dictionarys? (-:

  19. Anonymous Says:

    Well, everybody who is posting here seems to agree with the page’s author!

  20. Carl Klapper Says:

    In reference to comment #18, the Latin word here is “ergo”, meaning “therefore”, not “ego”. “Cogito” means “I think” and “sum” means “I am”. I had been under the impression, having read, some years back, a translation of Descartes’ writings that “Dubito”, meaning “I doubt”, was used instead of “Cogito”. That would have made the argument more classically a refutation by elimination and then contradiction of the skeptic’s claim and, from that refutation, comes a proof of the certainty of individual existence using the tool of the skeptics, namely “doubt”, as a key component.

    Proposition: I always doubt (that is, we are trying to determine whether that is true or false. That is, whether one can logically doubt everything, as the skeptics claim.)
    Case 1: I do not doubt that I always doubt
    Then here is a case where “I” does not doubt. So “I” does not always doubt in this case. The case is either empty(impossible) or contradicts the proposition.
    Case 2: I doubt that I always doubt.
    2a: I doubt there is doubt
    Then “I” is admitting that “certainty” exists, rather than “doubt”
    2b: I doubt I can “always” doubt
    Then “I” believes that there is a case where “I” doubts. (see Case 1)
    2c: I doubt “I”
    So if the skeptic mantra “I always doubt” is true, then “I” must doubt “I”. However, asserting “I doubt” asserts that there is an “I” that is doubting. Therefore “I always doubt” is false.

    Further, Case 2c shows that one thing that cannot be doubted ( the grand counterexample to the “always”) is that there is an “I” if “I doubt”. If “I doubt”, then “I am”. Dubito ergo sum.

    Of course, the last argument can be applied to anything which we accept as doubting, or thinking or drinking (as Monty Python had it). The focus on doubt was because of the skeptics (Hume et al).

  21. Tove Riisager Says:

    Dear Karl, I do know, that ergo means therefore, that is why I commented the ending in the word “cogit-O”, the -o – ending beeing used both in spanish(first derived language from latin, then in italian, italian beeing the second derived language from latin, amongst those two languages) as first person, i.e. “I”, in the article it could appear as if one does not quite understand that first, simple grammar. My comment does not at all go into the fact about – or discussion, I would rather call it – wether to doubt or not, or if the doubt is in the sentence at all. Since Descartes – as far as I know, and I do not know much about THAT theme, first of all wrote in french, he expressed the sentence with thinking, i.e.: “Je pense, donc, je suis”, that is: “I think, therefore, I am”, I couldnot possibly find any ¤doubt” in that sentence, could you? Kindly from Tove(-:

  22. Je pense, donc je suis « The journey of one girl, one brain tumo(u)r and perhaps a bit more Says:

    […] Me? I had completely forgot about my TOK classes, but had Ulf talked about the above and not mentioned Cogito, ergo sum or Dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum, which (the latter is Latin for ”I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am”), I would probably have payed more attention. If you really want to dig into this, you can supposedly read Principles of Philosophy, Part 1, article 7: “Ac proinde hæc cognitio, ego cogito, ergo sum, est omnium prima & certissima, quæ cuilibet ordine philosophanti occurrat” or like me click here. […]

  23. gavin Says:

    This page also referenced here, though in a much more prosaic and beautiful way.

  24. Katelyn Brady Says:

    I apologize for not having finished reading the comments, but I have always interpreted Descartes as meaning that one can verify their existence by having the ability to think. Logically, something which does not exist cannot think. In this way, Descartes creates a nice little circular argument for the existence of self. Contrary to the above conclusions that Descartes has completely ruined his argument by not defining the self, I believe that Descartes is defining the self as thought/cognition. It wasn’t really a new concept at the time, and it is worth noting that philosophers even before St. Augustine have tackled the problem. It’s kind of a chicken and egg scenario.

    Personally, I’ve read up on vibrations and the like, and I am relatively well versed in many things ‘occult.’ I would like to point out that while everything creates measurable vibrations, there is no reason to believe that these vibrations do anything to attract. In fact, it is only the occult world that believes like attracts like. In most science, it is opposites that attract. Like repels. Certainly, one can find examples of like attracting like. I hardly think there has been enough research on the topic to develop a philosophy around it.

  25. Robert Shumake Says:

    Your blog is so informative … ..I just bookmarked you….keep up the good work!!!!

    Hey, I found your blog in a new directory of blogs. I dont know how your blog came up, must have been a typo, anyway cool blog, I bookmarked you. :)

    Robert Shumake Paul Nicoletti

  26. Hollowell Says:

    barkod dedi?imizde bundan birka? y?l ?nce akl?m?za sadece ?izgiler ve bo?lukar gelirdi. Zaten t?rk?eye de ?izgi kod olarak uyarland?. Ama ?uanda teknolojinin geli?mesine paralel olarak, bir?ok barkod g?rseli varyasyonu ?retildi.

Leave a Reply