Front Page Titles (by Subject) III.: The Cogito Ergo Sum — Its Nature and Meaning . - The Method, Meditations and Philosophy of Descartes
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III.: The Cogito Ergo Sum — Its Nature and Meaning . - Réné Descartes, The Method, Meditations and Philosophy of Descartes 
The Method, Meditations and Philosophy of Descartes, translated from the Original Texts, with a new introductory Essay, Historical and Critical by John Veitch and a Special Introduction by Frank Sewall (Washington: M. Walter Dunne, 1901).
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The Cogito Ergo Sum — Its NatureandMeaning.
The man in modern times, or indeed in any time, who first based philosophy on consciousness, and sketched a philosophical method within the limits of consciousness, was Descartes; and since his time, during these two hundred and fifty years, no one has shown a more accurate view of the ultimate problem of philosophy, or of the conditions under which it must be dealt with. The question with him is — Is there an ultimate in knowledge which can guarantee itself to me as true and certain? and, consequently upon this, can I obtain as it were from this — supposing it found — a criterion of truth and certainty?
In the settlement of these questions, the organon of Descartes is doubt. This with him means an examination by reflection of the facts and possibilities of consciousness. Of what and how far can I doubt. I can doubt, Descartes would say, whether it be true, as my senses testify, or seem to testify, that a material world really exists. I am not here by any necessity of thought shut within belief. I can doubt, he even says, of mathematical truths — at least when the evidence is not directly present to my mind. At what point then do I find that a reflective doubt sets limits to itself? This limit he finds in self-consciousness, implying or being self-existence. It will be found that this method makes the least possible postulate or assumption. It starts simply from the fact of a conscious questioning; it proceeds to exhaust the sphere of the doubtable; and it reaches that truth or principle which is its own guarantee. If we cannot find a principle or principles of this sort in knowledge, within the limits of consciousness, we shall not be able to find either ultimate truth or principle at all. Philosophy is impossible.
But the process must be accurately observed. There is the consciousness — that is, this or that act or state of consciousness — even when I doubt. This cannot be sublated, except by another act of consciousness. To doubt whether there is consciousness at a given moment, is to be conscious of the doubt in that given moment; to believe that the testimony of consciousness at a given time is false, is still to be conscious — conscious of the belief. This, therefore, a definite act of consciousness, is the necessary implicate of any act of knowledge. The impossibility of the sublation of the act of consciousness, consistently with the reality of knowledge at all, is the first and fundamental point of Descartes. This it is very important to note, for every other point in his philosophy that is at all legitimately established depends on this: and particularly the fact of the “I” or self of consciousness. The reality of the “I” or “Ego” of Descartes is inseparably bound up with the fact of the definite act of consciousness. But, be it observed, he does not prove or deduce the “ Ego” from the act of consciousness; he finds it or realizes it as a matter of fact in and along with this act. The act and the Ego are the two inseparable factors of the same fact or experience in a definite time. But as the consciousness is absolutely superior to sublation, so is that which is its essential element or cofactor —in other words, the whole fact of experience — the conscious act and the conscious “ I” or actor are placed on the same level of the absolutely indubitable.
By “ I think” or by “ thinking” Descartes thus does not mean thought or consciousness in the abstract. It is not cogitatio ergo ens, or entitas, but cogito ergo sum; that is, the concrete fact of me thinking. That this is so, can be established from numerous statements. “Under thought I embrace all that which is in us, so that we are immediately conscious of it.” “A thing which thinks is a thing which doubts, understands [conceives], affirms, denies, which wills, refuses, imagines also, and perceives.” Here thinking is as wide as consciousness; but it is not consciousness in the abstract; it is consciousness viewed in each of its actual or definite forms. From this it follows that the principle does not tell us what consciousness is; it knows nothing of an abstract consciousness, far less of a point above consciousness; but it is the knowledge and assertion of consciousness in one or other of its modes—or rather it is an expression of consciousness only as I have experience of it—in this or that definite form.
Arnauld and Mersenne in their criticism of Descartes were the first to point out the resemblance of the cogito ergo sum. to statements of St. Augustin. Descartes himself had not previously been aware of these. The truth is, he belonged to the school of the non-reading philosophers. He cared very little for what had been thought or said before him. The passage from Augustin which has been referred to as closest to the statement of Descartes is from the De Civitate Dei, 1. xi., c. 26. It closes as follows: “ Sine ulla phantasarium vel phantasmatum imaginatione ludificatoria, mihi esse me, idque nosse et amare certissimum est. Nulla in his veris Academicorum argumenta, formido dicentium: Quid, si falleris? Si enim fallor, sum. Nam qui non est, utique nec falli potest: ac per hoc sum, si fallor. Quia ergo sum, qui fallor, quomodo esse me fallor, quando certum est me esse si fallor ? On this passage Descartes himself very properly remarks, that while the principle may be identical with his own, the consequences which he deduces from it, and its position as the ground of a philosophical system, make the characteristic difference between Augustin and himself. The specialty of Descartes is that he reached this principle of self-consciousness as the last limit of doubt and made it then the starting-point of his system. There is all the difference in his case, between the man who by chance stumbles on a fact, and leaves it isolated as he found it, and the man who reaches it by method—and, with a full consciousness of its importance, develops it through the ramifications of a philosophical system. To him the fact when found is a significant truth as the limit of restless thought; it is not less significant and impulsive as a new point of departure in the line of higher truth.
But what precisely is the relation between the cogito and the sum? Is it, first of all, a syllogistic or an immediate inference? Is the cogito ergo sum an enthymeme or a proposition?
There can be no doubt that Descartes himself regarded it as a form of proposition, an intuition, not a syllogism. In reply to Gassendi, who objected that cogito ergo sum implies qui cogitat, est,— a pre-judgment,— Descartes says: “The term pre-judgment is here abused. Pre-judgment there is none, when the cogito ergo sum is duly considered, because it then appears so evident to the mind that it cannot keep itself from believing it, the moment even it begins to think of it. But the principal mistake here is this, that the objector supposes that the cognition of particular propositions is always deduced from universals, according to the order of the syllogisms of logic. He thus shows that he is ignorant of the way in which truth is to be sought. For it is settled among philosophers, that in order to find it a beginning must always be made from particular notions, that afterward the universal may be reached; although also reciprocally, universals being found, other particulars may thence be deduced.” Again he says: “When we apprehend that we are thinking things, this is a first notion which is not drawn from any syllogism; and when some one says, I think, hence i am, or i exist, he does not conclude his existence from his thought as by force of some syllogism, but as a thing known of itself; he sees it by a simple intuition of the mind, as appears from this, that if he deduced it from a syllogism, he must beforehand have known this major, all that which thinks is or exists. Whereas, on the contrary, this is rather taught him, from the fact that he experiences in himself that it cannot be that he thinks if he does not exist. For it is the property of our mind to form general propositions from the knowledge of particulars.” This is a clear statement of the non-syllogistic nature of the principle, and a distinct assertion of its intuitive character. It also points to the guarantee of the principle — the experiment of not being able to suppose consciousness apart from existence — or unless as implying it. This and other passages might have saved both Reid and Kant from the mistake of supposing that Descartes inferred self-existence from self-consciousness syllogistically or through a major.
It is said that in the Principles Descartes represents the cogito ergo sum as the conclusion of a reasoning; the major premise being that “to nothing no affections or qualities belong.” “Accordingly where we observe certain affections, there a thing or substance to which these pertain, is necessarily found.” Again, “substance cannot be first discovered merely from its being a thing which exists independently, for existence by itself is not observed by us. We easily, however, discover substance itself from any attribute of it, by this common notion, that of nothing there are no attributes, properties or qualities.” It seems to me that there is nothing in these statements, when carefully considered, to justify this assertion. In fact, the second statement that substance or being is not cognizable per se, disposes of any apparent ground for the syllogistic character of the inference. For this implies that the so-called major, as by itself incognizable, is not a major at all. What Descartes points to here, and very properly, is the original synthesis of the relation of quality and substance. “The common notion” is the reflective way of stating what is involved in the original primitive intuition; and is as much based on this intuition, as this intuition implies it. He here approximates very nearly to a distinct statement of the important doctrine that in regard to fundamental principles of knowing, the particular and the universal are from the first implicitly given, and only wait philosophical analysis to bring them to light.
But misrepresentation of the true nature of the cogito ergo sum still continues to be made.
“The ‘therefore,’” says Professor Huxley, “has no business there. The ‘I am’ is assumed in the ‘I think,’ which is simply another way of saying ‘I am thinking.’ And, in the second place, ‘I think,’ is not one simple proposition, but three distinct assertions rolled into one. The first of these is ‘something called I exists,’ the second is ‘something called thought exists,’ and the third is ‘the thought is the result of the action of the I.’ The only one of these propositions which can stand the Cartesian test of certainty is the second. It cannot be doubted, for the very doubt is an existent thought. But the first and third, whether true or not, may be doubted, and have been doubted; for the asserter may be asked, how do you know that thought is not self-existent, or that a given thought is not the effect of its antecedent thought or of some external power?”
The “therefore” has business there, as seems to me, until it is shown that immediate inference is no inference. The “I am” is not assumed in the “I think,” but implied in it, and explicitly evolved from it. Then the “I think,” though capable of being evolved into a variety of expressions, even different statements of fact, is not dependent on them for its reality or meaning, but they are dependent upon it. There are not three distinct assertions first, which have been rolled into one. On the contrary, the meaning and possibility of any assertion whatever are supplied by the “I think” itself. “Something called I exists,” is not known to me before I am conscious, but only as I am conscious. It is not a distinct proposition.” Something called thought exists,” is not any more a distinct proposition, for the thought which exists is inseparably my thought, and my thought is more than the mere abstraction “thought.” “The thought is the result of the action of the I” is not a fair statement of the relation between the “I” and thought, for there is no “I” known, first or distinct from thought, to whose action I can ascribe thought. The thought is me thinking. And the existence of thought could never be absolutely indubitable to me, unless it were my thought, for if it be but thought, this is an abstraction with which “I” have and can have no relation. “How do you know that thought is not self-existent?” that is, divorced from a me or thinker; for this reason simply, that such a thought could never be mine, or aught to me, or my knowledge. Thought, divorced from me or a thinker, would be not so much an absurdity as a nullity. “How do you know that a given thought is not the effect of its antecedent thought or of some external power?” Because as yet I have no knowledge of any antecedent thought, and if I had, I must know the thought and its antecedent thought through the identity of my consciousness; and thus relate both to the “I,” conscious, existing, and identical. And as to some external power, I must wait for the proof of it, and if I ever get it, it must be because I am there to think the proof, and distinguish it from myself as an external power. And further, this external power can only be known, in so far as I am conscious of it. Its known existence depends on my consciousness, as one factor in it, and therefore my consciousness could never be absolutely caused by it.
The cogito ergo sum is thus properly regarded by Descartes as a propostion. It is in fact, what we should now call a proposition of immediate inference,—such that the predicate is necessarily implied in the subject. The requirements of the case preclude it from being advanced as a syllogism or mediate inference. For in that case it would not be the first principle of knowledge, or the first stage of certainty after doubt. The first principle would be the major—all that thinks is, or thinking is existing. To begin with, this is to reverse the true order of knowledge; to suppose that the universal is known before the particular. It is to suppose also, erroneously, a purely abstract beginning; for if I am able to say, I am conscious that all thinking is existing, the guarantee even of this major or universal is the particular affirmation of my being conscious of its truth in a given time; if I am not able to say this, then I cannot assert that all or any thinking is existing, or indeed assert anything at all. In other words, I can connect no truth with my being conscious. I cannot know at all.
But what precisely is the character of the immediate implication? What is implied? There are four possible meanings of the phrase.
With regard to the first of these interpretations, it is obviously not in accordance with the formula. Implication is not production or creation. But, further, it does not interpret the sum in consistency with the cogito. If I am first of all supposed to be conscious, I am supposed to be and to exercise a function or to be modified in a particular form. It could hardly, consistently with this, be said that “ I conscious “ produce or create myself, seeing that I am already in being, and doing. This interpretation may be taken as a forecast of the absolute ego of Fichte, out of which come the ego and the non-ego of consciousness. There is no appearance of this having been the meaning of Descartes himself. And, indeed, it is not vindicable on any ground either of experience or reason.
With regard to the second interpretation, nothing could be further from the meaning of Descartes. I am conscious; therefore, I must be before I am conscious, or I must conceive myself to be before I am conscious. The inference in this case would be to my existence from my present or actual consciousness, as its ground and pre-rcquisite, as either before the consciousness in time, or to be necessarily conceived by me as grounding the consciousness. There are passages which seem to countenance this interpretation — e. g., “ In order to think, it is necessary to exist.” But in another passage he says, that all that thinks exists can only be known by experimenting in oneself and finding it impossible that one should be conscious unless he exist. This rather points to the view that the I am of the formula is simply another aspect of the I am conscious — not really independently preceding it in time or in thought, but found inseparable from it in reality, though distinguishable in thought. That my existence preceded my consciousness, Descartes would be the last to maintain; that I was before I was conscious, he would have scouted as an absurdity. That another Ego — viz, Deity — might have been, even was, he makes a matter of inference from my being, revealed to me even by my being. But existence in the abstract, or existence per se as preceding me in any real sense, either as a power of creation or self-determination — whether in time and thought, or in thought only—he would have probably looked on as the simple vagary of speculation. He was opposed to the absolute ego as a beginning— the starting-point of Fichte—which as above consciousness is above meaning. He was opposed equally to abstract or quality-less existence as a starting-point, which is that of the Logic of Hegel, whatever attempts may be made to substitute for it a more concrete basis — viz, consciousness. But for the intuitional knowledge of myself revealed in a definite act, it is obviously the doctrine of Descartes, and of truth, that I could not even propose to myself the question as to whether there is either knowledge or being; and any universal in knowledge is as yet to me simply meaningless.
With regard to the third interpretation, it seems to me not to be adequate to the meaning of Descartes, or the requirements of the case. It either does not say so much as Descartes means, or it says more than it professes to say. If it be intended to say my consciousness means my existence in the proper sense of these words,—i. e., in a purely explicative or logical sense — we have advanced not one step in the way of asserting my existence. We have but compared two expressions, and said that the one is convertible with the other. But we may do this whether the expressions denote objects of experience or not. This is a mere comparison of notions; and Descartes certainly intended not to find a simple relation of convertibility between two notions but to reach certainty as to a matter of experience or fact — viz, the reality of my existence. This interpretation, therefore, does not say so much as Descartes intends. But further, if instead of a statement of identity or convertibility between two notions it says that the one notion — viz, my being conscious—is found or realized as a fact, this is to go beyond the mere conception of relationship between it and another notion or element, and to allege the reality of my being conscious in the first instance, and secondly, its convertibility with my being. But in that case the formula of Descartes does not simply say my consciousness means my being. This interpretation might be stated in the form of a hypothetical proposition. If I am conscious, I am existing. But Descartes certainly went further than this. He made a direct categorical assertion of my existence. The decision of the question as to what my existence is may be involved in the assertion that it is, but this is secondary, and, it may be, immediately inferential, but still inferential.
We are thus shut up to the fourth interpretation which, with certain qualifications, is, it seems to me, the true one.
My being conscious is the means of revealing myself as existing. In the order of knowledge, my being conscious is first; it is the beginning of knowledge, in time and logically. But it is not a single-sided fact: it is twofold at least. No sooner is the my being conscious realized than the my being is realized. In so far at least as I am conscious, I am. This is an immediate implication. But it should be observed that this does not imply either the absolute identity of my existence with my momentary consciousness, or the convertibility of my existence with that consciousness. For the “ I conscious” or my being conscious, is realized by me only in a definite moment of time; and thus if my being were precisely identical and convertible with my being conscious in a single moment of time, the permanency of my being through the conscious moments would be impossible. “should simply be as a gleam of light, which no sooner appeared than it passed away, and as various as the play of sunshine on the landscape. All, therefore, that can be said, or need be inferred, is that my existence, or the me I know myself to be, is revealed in the consciousness of a definite moment; but I am not entitled to say from that alone that the being of me is restricted to that moment, or identified absolutely with the content of that moment. Nay, I may find that the identity and continuity of the momentary ego are actually implied in the fact that this experience of its existence is not possible except as part of a series of moments or successive states. In this case, there would be added to the mere existence of the ego its identity or continued existence through variety or succession in time. Thus understood, the cogito ergo sum. of Descartes is the true basis of all knowledge and all philosophy. It is a real basis, the basis of ultimate fact; it provides for the reality of my conscious life as something more than a disconnected series of consciousnesses or a play of words; it opens up to me infinite possibilities of knowledge; the reality of man and God can now be grasped by me in the form of the permanency of self-consciousness.