Another note on the cogito

Here’s how I read the cogito argument in the Meditations: Descartes is looking for something certain, and he understands certainty to be what does not admit the slightest doubt. He then turns to his own doubt, which he sees as an instance of his own thought, which he sees as an activity of his own existence. All the way through, Descartes is speaking about the same experience, in other words, the very same inner crisis of his doubt is seen first as “my doubt”, then as “my thought”, then as “mine”. The bones of the argument are:

What admits of no doubt is certain
My own existence admits of no doubt.
therefore, etc.

The argument is perfectly true, but it is the next step that is the critical one: what kind of argument is it? Specifically, what is the nature of the middle term: “admits of no doubt”? Anyone can admit that what admits of no doubt is certain, but is something certain because it admits of no doubt? Does Descartes intend for us to see him as giving the proper cause of why his own existence is certain, or is he merely involved in a kind of dialectical process that is manifesting why “my existence is certain” is in fact something known in itself (most things that are known in themselves, or self evident, require a certain amount of dialectic to see; for “the self evident” is known to all in the sense of being immediately known to those who know what the terms mean).

The argument boils down to this: what does the word certainty mean? Certainty does not mean everything that is true about certainty just as “man” doesn’t mean everything that is true about man- otherwise the word man would mean “sometimes skilled at playing Backgammon” or “eater of ice cream”. We simply don’t experience certainty as a kind of lack or emptiness, namely the lack of doubt. (it’s hard to even understand what “lack of doubt” means, properly speaking, for doubt itself is kind of emptiness or falling short, so what could it mean to “lack a lack” or “fall short of a falling short”? All this only opens the door for meaningless chatter and infinite regress: can we lack the lacking of lack, too? How about falling short of the falling short of falling short, and so ad infinitum?)

In other words, if one takes the cogito argument as a demonstration in the proper sense of the term: i.e. as giving a cause, then the argument is simply false. Read most charitably, then, Descartes is simply trying to manifest something that is known in itself by a certain dialectical movement. But we also need to note this: to deny that the argument is demonstrative also amounts to a denial of the primacy of doubt, it would solve the problem of doubt in a elegant and simple manner to say that doubt presupposes certainty, just as any privation is only understood in relation to the positive state. Doubt about anything presupposes certainty about something.

2 Comments

  1. Jeff G said,

    November 19, 2006 at 1:20 am

    Here is my take on Descartes. He looks for basic beliefs which are known to be true but are not justified by any appeal to other beliefs. These are instead justified by their infallible, not indubitable nature.

    From these he attempt to justify all other knowledge by way of deductive entailment. What is deductively entailed, is justified and therefore known.

    Thus, I see his use of the word “certain” to be grounded firmly in logical necessity.

  2. NorDog said,

    November 19, 2006 at 7:50 pm

    Doubt presupposes certainty.

    Exactly so.


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