Fresh approach to the cogito

We never find Descartes saying “I think, therefore I am” in the second meditation. What he claims is that the claim “I exist” is something unable to be doubted, at least when thought by him. So what difference does this make?

1.) The “cogito” formulation makes existence an inference or conclusion while Descartes is speaking of a first principle or insight. A conclusion is something that requires something less known than a premise, since if it were better known or just as well known, then a conclusion wouldn’t need to be a conclusion, i.e. follow from something else. But Descartes isn’t saying that thought is immediately known to him and can be used to prove something (as Russell claimed he was), but that “I exist” is immediately known and any attempt to call it into doubt is impossible. Making “I exist” a conclusion would vitiate Descartes’ whole enterprise, which was to look for a belief that could not be doubted.

2.) What Descartes is doing is better understood when compared to a proposition like “The assignment for tonight is pages 65-70” when said by the teacher, or “I take you for my husband” when said by the bride. These propositions are also indubitable, not because of some sort of inferential claim but because the speaker is responsible for the truth of the proposition.

3.) Descartes is making a claim far more radical than an inferential cogito he gets credited with – he’s in fact saying that a rational self is responsible for the truth of his own existence. This is simply what it means to be rational, i.e. you are responsible for making yourself what you are, or you are what you choose to become. This is inter alia why a thinking thing is a moral thing.

4.) Descartes is clear that he is only a thinking thing imperfectly, though we are perhaps more cognizant than he was of how true this is, since all thought after Nietzsche can be summarized as a struggle to define the scope and power of the factors that condition thought: language; social conventions; gender; limitation and ignorance; personality traits; historical circumstances; unconscious and subconscious drives and instincts; an unknown multitude of sensible powers; the contingencies of IQ, having enough time and money and health to think; the peculiarities of a psychological profile that might include a history of abuse,  etc.

5.) This is one approach to Descartes’ claim in the later meditations that because he is imperfect, God must exist. A contemporary way of putting the argument might go like this:

a.) If something is (really) possible in a qualified, imperfect sense it is (really) possible simply (if not, then what we are calling “qualifications” would belong to the description of the thing taken simply. Said another way, if a thing is impossible without X, then X cannot be a qualification of what it is simply, but is either an integral feature or a necessary accident.)

b.) A thinking thing is really possible in a qualified sense (true a fortiori, since I know that I really exist.)*

c.) God alone is a thinking thing simply (while we don’t assert he exists, he alone could be unconditioned by any pre-conscious or subconscious motives, or be completely responsible for what he is.)

d.) A thinking thing, as such, exists necessarily (since whatever says “I exist” says it so far as it I responsible for the truth of the claim. See above at 2.)

e.) Therefore, God is really possible and, if he exists, does so necessarily.

f.) But if something exists necessarily, it must either be (i) really impossible or (ii) really existent.

g.)  God is really possible. (from a-c)

h.) Therefore God exists.

6.) The argument both uses Leibniz’s possibility axiom and improves on it, since it traces both divine necessity and his real possibility in the same reality of thought (sc. the cogito). For the same reason, it also improves on other necessity-contingency arguments by using a modality of necessity that proves God is essentially personal.

7.) Descartes might respond to philosophy after Nietzsche by saying “Sure, there are all sorts of limitations and qualifications placed on reason. But these are all essentially conditions of reason, i.e. we cannot understand them except in relation to the reason which they make possible. The attempt to absolutize these conditions in such a way as to make reason an illusion that cannot have a true transcendence of power, historical conditions, gender, language, or any of these things is a failure to understand that it is precisely such a true transcendence that these conditions are providing the conditions of.”

8.) Descartes is taken as ushering in the era of the subject. This is fine, so far as we recognize that subjectivity belongs to the conditions of reason and not reason taken simply.


*This premise makes the argument a cosmological argument and not an ontological one.

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