Front Page Titles (by Subject) IV.: Cogito Ergo Sum — Objections to the Principle. - The Method, Meditations and Philosophy of Descartes
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IV.: Cogito Ergo Sum — Objections to the Principle. - 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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Cogito Ergo Sum — Objectionsto thePrinciple.
Ithas been objected to the formula of Descartes, that it does not say what the sum or existo means; and further, that existence per se is a vague, even meaningless expression, and that to become a notion at all, existence must be cognized in, or translated into, some particular attribute, to which the term existence adds no further meaning than the attribute already possesses. This twofold objection seems to me to be unfounded.
When it is said I am, it is not meant that I am indefinitely anything, but that I am this or that, at a given time. In consciously asserting that I am, I am consciously energizing in this or that mode. I am knowing, or I am feeling and knowing, or I am knowing and willing. This is a positive form of being. I am not called upon to vindicate the reality of existence as an abstract notion or notion per se, or even in its full extension. I merely affirm that in being conscious, I am revealed or appear as an existence or being,— a perfectly definite reality, but not all reality,—all possible or imaginable reality, though participating in a being which is or may be wider than my being.
Nor are the attempts that have been made to find the express form of existence, which Descartes is held necessarily to mean, more successful than the general criticism. “I exist is meaningless” it is said, “unless it be convertible with, or translated into some positive attribute.” “I think, therefore I live”—this would be intelligible. But Descartes's answer to this would be very much what he said in reply to Gassendi, who, following precisely the same line of thought, suggested ambulo ergo sum. Unless the living or the walking be a fact of my consciousness, it is nothing to me, and is no part of my existence or being. Life is wider than consciousness,— at least if it is to be in any form identical with my being, it must be conscious life, just as it must be conscious walking.
But the second suggested interpretation is still worse. “I think, therefore, I am something” (i. e., either subject or object, I do not know which). Nothing could be further from the meaning of Descartes than this, as is indeed admitted, or from the truth of the matter. I am not something, that is, a wholly indefinite. I am as I think myself to be, as I am conscious in this or that definite mode, as I feel, apprehend, desire, or will. Being thus definitely conscious, I am not a mere indeterminate something. I am something simply because in the first place I know myself to be definitely this thing — myself. And as I know myself to be cognizant, I know myself to be definitely the knower, or, if you will, the subject. But the only object necessary to my knowledge in this case is a subject-object, or one of my own passing states. I require nothing further in the form of a not-self, in order to limit and render clear my self-knowledge. A mere sensation or state of feeling apprehended by me as mine is enough to constitute me a definite something.
Besides the alleged vagueness or emptiness of the term sum in the formula, there is a twofold objection,— one that it is not a real inference; the other that it is not a real proposition. It seems odd that it can be supposed possible for the same person to object to it on both of these grounds. It may be criticised as a syllogism, and it may be criticised as a proposition; but surely it cannot be held to admit of both these characters. If it can be proved to be not a real proposition to begin with, it is superfluous to seek to prove it an unreal inference. First, it is interpreted thus: “I think, therefore I am mind,— I am not the opposite of mind, I am a definite or precise something.” It is alleged there is no real inference here, for “the meaning of think contains the meaning of mind.” “I think” only contains “mind” if it be interpreted as meaning consciousness and all its contents— If it means all the acts of consciousness and the ego of consciousness. In this case the “I think, I am mind” would be no syllogistic or mediate inference. But the statement would neither be tautological nor useless: it would be a proposition of immediate certainty, in which the subject explicated involved a definite being as another aspect of itself. And this meets the objection to the formula as a proposition. It is said to be not a real proposition, seeing that the predicate adds nothing to the subject. This, in the first place, is not the test of a real proposition, or of what is essential to a proposition. A proposition may be simply analytic, and yet truly a proposition. All that is necessary to constitute a proposition is that it should imply inclusion or exclusion, attribution or non-attribution. When I explicate four into the equivalent of i i i i, I have not added to the meaning of the subject, but I have identified a whole and its parts by a true prepositional form. I have analyzed no doubt merely, but truly and necessarily, and the result appears in a valid proposition. So starting from “thinking” in the sense of consciousness, I analyze it also into act and me, and permanent me, and I thus do a very proper and necessary work. But I do more, for I assert definitude of being in the thinking or consciousness,— and this, though inseparable from it in reality, is at least distinguishable in thought. This constitutes a real predicate, and a very important predicate, which excludes on the one hand a mere act or state, mere “ thinking” as apart from a self or me, and an absolute me or self, apart from an act of thought. It excludes, in fact, Hume on the one hand and Fichte on the other.
But waving this, it is alleged that to say “I think,” is mere redundancy, seeing that “I” already means “thinking,” which is a function, among others, of man. The proposition is therefore merely verbal or analytic. But how do I know that “I” already means “thinking,” or that thinking is implied in “I”? By some test or other—by some form of experience. And what can this be but by the “ I” being conscious of itself as thinking? And what is this but falling back upon the principle of the cogito ergo sum as the ultimate in knowledge?
It seems further to be imagined that a real inference could be got if the formula of Descartes were interpreted as meaning “I think, therefore I feel, and also will,” for experience shows that these facts are associated. This would give the formula importance and validity. Surely there is a misconception here of what Descartes aimed at, or ought to have aimed at. Before I can associate experience, “I feel” and “I will” with “I think,” I must have the “I think” in some definite form. This must guarantee itself to me in some way; that is the question which must be settled first; that is the question regarding the condition of the knowledge alike of feeling and willing. It was nothing to the aim of Descartes what was associated in experience; he sought the ultimate form, or fact, if you choose, in experience itself, and his principle must be met, not by saying that it only gives certain real inferences through subsequent association and experience, but by a direct challenge of the guarantee of the principle itself—a challenge which indeed is incompatible with its being the basis of any real inference.
To the cogito ergo sum of Descartes it was readily and early objected, that if it identified my being and my consciousness, then I must either always be conscious, or, if consciousness ceases, I must cease to be. Descartes chose the former alternative, and maintained a continuity of consciousness through waking and sleeping. As a thinking substance, the soul is always conscious. Through feebleness of cerebral impression, it does not always remember. What wonder is it, he asks, that we do not always remember the thoughts of our sleep or lethargy, when we often do not remember the thoughts of our waking hours? Traces on the brain are needed, to which the soul may turn, and it is not wonderful that they are awanting in the brain of a child or in sleep. that the soul always thinks, was his thesis; and it was to this point that the polemic of Locke was directed. Whether consciousness be absolutely continuous or not — whether suspension of consciousness in time be merely apparent, — is a mixed psychological and physiological question. But it is hardly necessary to consider it in this connection; and Descartes probably went too far in his affirmative statement, and certainly in allowing it as the only counter-alternative. For consciousness must not be interpreted in the narrow sense of the conscious act merely, or of all conscious acts put together. That would be an abstract and artificial interpretation of consciousness. That is but one side of it; and we must take into account the other element through which this conscious act is possible, and which is distinguishable but inseparable from it. This is the “I” or “Ego” itself. When we seek to analyze my being, or my being conscious, we must keep in mind the coequal reality or necessary implication of self and the conscious act, and keep hold of all that is embodied in the assertion of the self by itself. This we shall find to be existence in time in this or that definite act or mode, and a continuous and identical existence through all the varying and successive modes of consciousness in time. The variation and succession of the modes of consciousness do not affect this identical reality, and no more need the suspension do, even though the suspension of the mode were proved to be absolute, and not simply such a reduction of degree as merely to be below memory.
In our experience we find that after at least an apparent absolute suspension of consciousness, the I, or self, on the recovery of consciousness, asserts itself to be identical with the I, or self, of the consciousness that preceded the suspension. There is more than a logical or generic identity. It is not that there is an “ I” in consciousness before the suspension and an “I” also after it; but these are held by us to be one and the same. The temporary state of unconsciousness is even attributed to this identical “I.” It is supposed to have passed through it. It is quite clear, accordingly, that the being of the “I,” or self, is somehow not obliterated by the state of unconsciousness through which it passes.
It is here that psychology and physiology touch. The bodily organism, living and sentient, is the condition and instrument of consciousness. The temporary manifestation of consciousness is dependent on physical conditions. Consciousness may be said to animate the body; and the body may be said to permit the manifestation of consciousness. But there is the deeper element of the Ego or self which is the ground of the whole manifestations, however conditioned Through a non-fulfilment of the physical requirements, these manifestations may be absolutely suspended, or at least they may sink so low in degree, as to appear to be so; they may subside to such an extent as not to be the matter of subsequent memory; but the Ego may still survive, potentially if not actually existent; capable of again manifesting similar acts of consciousness, continuous and powerful enough to assert its existence and individuality, in varying even conflicting conscious states, and to triumph over the suspension of consciousness itself.
The deductive solution which has been given of this question does not meet the point at issue. It is said that though I am not always conscious of any special act or state, I am yet always conscious: for, except in consciousness, there is no Ego or self, and where there is consciousness there is always an Ego. This self, therefore, exists only as it thinks, and it thinks always. To say that the Ego does not exist except in consciousness, and to say that it exists always, is to say either that consciousness always exists, or to say that when consciousness does not exist, the Ego yet exists, which is a simple contradiction, or to say that consciousness being nonexistent, the Ego neither exists nor does not exist, which is equally incompatible with its existing always. In fact, the two statements are irreconcilable. If the Ego does not exist except in consciousness, it can only exist when consciousness exists; and unless the continued existence of consciousness is guaranteed to us somehow, the Ego cannot be said to exist always. If the statement is meant as a definition of an Ego, the conclusion from it is tolerably evident: in fact, it thus becomes an identical proposition, An Ego means a conscious Ego; therefore there is no Ego except a conscious one. Still, it does not follow that there is always a conscious Ego, or that an Ego always exists. The existence of the Ego in time at all is still purely hypothetical, much more its continuous existence. Such a definition no more guarantees the reality of the Ego, than the definition of a triangle calls it into actual existence.
But what is the warrant of this definition? Is it a description of the actual Ego of my consciousness? Or is it a formula simply imposed upon actual consciousness? It cannot be accepted as the former, for the reason that it is a mere begging of the question raised by reflection regarding the character of the actual Ego of consciousness. The question is — Is it true or not, as a matter of fact, that the Ego which I am and know now or at a given time survives a suspension of consciousness? It seems at least to do so, and not to be merely an Ego which reappears after the suspension. To define the actual Ego as only a conscious Ego is to beg and foreclose the conclusion to be discussed. The definition thus assumes the character of a formula imposed, and arbitrarily imposed, upon our actual consciousness.
Let it be further observed that this doctrine does not even guarantee the continuous identity of the Ego, through varying successive states of consciousness. It cannot tell me that the Ego of a given act of consciousness is the one identical me of a succeeding act of consciousness. All that it truly implies is that in terms of the definition an Ego is correlative with a consciousness; but it does not guarantee to me that the Ego of this definite time is the Ego of the second definite time. It might be construed as saying no to this, and implying that logical identity is really all. But it does not, in fact, touch the reality of time at all. This is an abstract definition of an Ego, and a hypothetical one. The Ego of our actual consciousness may possess an identity of a totally different sort from that contemplated in this definition; and therefore, as applied to consciousness in time, it either settles nothing, or it begs the point at issue.
In fact, it is impossible to dispense with the intuitions of self-existence and continuous self-existence in time, whatever formula we state. Our existence is greatly wider than conciousness, or than phenomenal reality; we are and we persist amid the varieties, suspensions, and depressions of consciousness — a mysterious power of selfhood and unity, which, while it does not transcend itself, transcends at least its own states of being.