How If At All Does The Cogito

How, If At All, Does The Cogito Help To Ground Our Knowledge Securely? Essay, Research Paper The Cogito is the name given to the famous statement Descartes

How, If At All, Does The Cogito Help To Ground Our Knowledge Securely? Essay, Research Paper

The Cogito is the name given to the famous statement Descartes

considers of which he is sure of its certainty: cogito, ergo sum, or ?I

think, therefore I am?. In the Meditations, Descartes actually uses ?I

think, I am?, but this is practically indistinguishable from the former, which

appears in Descartes? other main works. Descartes considers that the Cogito to

be indubitable, and that he is able to use it to ground his knowledge securely.

The Cogito, however, can be said not to be as wide or as useful as Descartes

considers it to be. Its apparent indubitably may be said to be one way of

securing some knowledge, but it is likely to be the case that the only

knowledge which is actually secured is that contained within the Cogito itself. As the Cogito is such a simple proposition to make, Descartes

himself commented that anybody could have written it. Its simplicity flows from

its clear self-evidence: when one reflects on the proposition, one is thinking,

and thus one can neither doubt that one is not thinking nor not existing (at

least as long as the proposition is being considered). For this reason, it can

be said to be very effective at securing knowledge of oneself: even if a

sceptic were to claim that the malicious demon could influence the mind as

well, Descartes could reply that even if he were to doubt that he exists, then

he will still be existing, because the act of thinking requires existence.

Moreover, as Descartes points out when he begins to contemplate the evil demon

hypothesis, for the deceiver to be effective, there would have to be someone to

deceive. The cogito can therefore withstand such criticisms: as a result, the

knowledge that his mental (i.e., his non-corporeal self) is secure. There has been much debate as to the way Descartes formulates

the cogito, and whether it is an inference or a proposition. Descartes himself

would say that that cogito is not reached by means of a syllogism. Such a

syllogism would take the form of: 1)

Everything that thinks exists. 2)

I think Thus 3) I am. Descartes is of the opinion that that the self-evidence of sum

is perceived, rather than be deduced from cogito. This seems to suggest that

the cogito is an unnecessary part of the proposition. Rather than the

realisation of thinking causing one to realise that one?s existence is not in

doubt, Descartes seems to be suggesting that the mind is automatically aware of

its own existence that it immediately grasps the truth of the entire statement.

This, though, makes the cogito redundant. The mind is just as able to grasp the

truth of ?I exist? without needing to consider whether it is thinking or not.

?I exist? is a self-verifying sentence: to deny it would be as absurd as to say

?I am currently absent?. Hintikka, though, suggests that these two words alone

do not necessarily make it true (an amusing example is offered of weighing

machines saying ?I speak your weight? ? it is not inferred from this that the

weighing machine is a conscious being), but that the cogito has a

?performatory? role in allowing the conclusion, ?I am ?, to be true for the

particular thinker. This makes the indubitable nature of the cogito perceived

not through the actual thinking, but because it is actively thought of.?? Williams suggested that Hintikka?s

suggestion of? ?performatory? role for

the cogito did not involve making the entire proposition true, but offering a

reason why ?I exist? cannot be doubted. In either interpretation, our knowledge

of ourselves can be suggested to be secured through the cogito. An important reason why the cogito cannot be considered a

syllogism is the common suggestion that, under the logical form set out above,

one could replace ?I think? with ?I walk?. This is pointed in the Objections,

although the response Descartes gives points out why ?I think? is the preferred

term. Descartes, at this stage in the Meditations, is unable to be

certain that he has a physical body: it is still open to doubt. Descartes,

though, suggests that one would have to say, ?I seem to be walking,? in order

for the proposition to be as certain as the earlier form. The use of the verb

?seem?, though, implies thought, thus this formation would be adding nothing

new to the original form of the cogito. Again, though, one can only be sure of

the fact that one is thinking and existing ? nothing more can be drawn from it.

Descartes is implying that the conclusion is intuitively known

from the premise, thus there is just one mental act which comprehends it all.

However, to say that one intuits one?s knowledge of one?s mental self, and then

infers from this that one exists, whilst denying that one flows from the other

(they are all understood immediately) seem to be contradictory. To say that by

thinking, one automatically recognises one?s existence is to suggest ?therefore

I exist? is a conclusion to the syllogism described above. The only alternative

is to suggest that there is an innate knowledge of one?s existence inside

everyone, and that it reveals itself through mental processes: this, too,

whilst providing a secure base for knowledge does not avoid inferences. Part of the way the cogito achieves this degree of surety

regarding our knowledge is its reliance on the mind being transparent to the

individual. Descartes? method involves the need for introspection. Markie has

commented that, when one does this, one is not aware that one is thinking, but

rather that there is thought. With this alteration, one cannot infer, or be

certain, that one exists. Moreover, there are some thoughts and ideas about

ourselves that cannot be seized upon as easily as others, like emotions. This,

though, is an irrelevant argument: it is the fact that one can seem to be

having such-and-such a feeling, or can grasp some elementary ideas which the

introspection requires. Another flaw in the cogito is the actual definition of ?I

think?: Descartes does not specify what kinds of thoughts are covered by this

term. Descartes himself defines ? a thinking thing? as one that ?doubts,

understands, affirms, denies, is willing, is unwilling, and also imagines and

has sensory perceptions?. It may presumed that Descartes considers this list to

be illustrative rather than definitive, as otherwise Descartes would be

drastically limiting the mind (albeit a finite mind). Williams rightly points

out that although this group of propositions about mental life may be

incorrigible, there are others (like emotions or being able to picture colours)

that are not. Moreover, subconscious or unconscious processes also have to be

taken into account. When one is in deep sleep[1],

one cannot be actively thinking, thus knowledge of one?s existence cannot have

any ground, even though parts of the brain are still active and processing

information (an example is the way the noise of fire alarms is able to be

interpreted by the brain and make it take the necessary action). Of course,

there is no certainty that one will ever wake up, but it can be argued that

grounds for one?s existence, based on the cogito, may still exist, albeit in a

way the conscious mind cannot access. This, though, is to misunderstand

Descartes. The proposition is only true, whilst it is being contemplated. For

that moment, he can be certain of his existence, and from this it can be

inferred that he is existing whilst his attention is on different things. For these reasons, Descartes is aware that there is a mysterious

?I? in the cogito, and that it can only work in the first person. ?He thinks,

therefore he exists?, is not as certain as its first person alternative. One

can say ?he doe not exist?, and have grounds for saying that. To refer to the

first person, though, makes its truth self-evident: it is inconsistent to say

such a thing. The reliance on the first person, though, shows that the cogito

can only prove that one exists, and is therefore not a secure ground for any

knowledge other than that. One may be certain that he exists, and the person

next to him may also be using the cogito to verify his existence. There is no

way both of them can be as certain of each other?s existence as they are of

their own. The cogito very quickly leads one to solipsism. Another problem with the cogito and its ability to securely

ground knowledge is the apparent contradiction in the Meditations

regarding what one can be certain of. Descartes maintains that he can only be

certain of things which he can clearly and distinctly perceive. Although he

never asserts that he clearly and distinctly perceives his ability to think,

and thus his existence, he says he is certain of it, which, following Descartes?

method, suggests that he does clearly and distinctly perceive it. But by the Third

Meditation this has been called in to doubt when he maintains that, prior

to assuring oneself of the existence of God, even clear and distinct

perceptions are open to manipulation by the malicious deceiver. Descartes

appears to be asserting that an atheist would therefore have nothing to rest

his own clear and distinct perception of his existence on, thus it would not be

certain. If Descartes himself is therefore taken as a guide, until one is

assured of the existence of God, even the cogito is in doubt, which means that

by his own standards he has not secured knowledge of himself. Even so, the cogito still does not securely ground knowledge. As

has been discussed, it merely secures a ground for knowing that the experiences

one has in one?s minds are in fact occurring in one?s mind. Nothing more can be

obtained from it, and so to claim that it is the basis of all knowledge and

certainty is fallacious. [1] By which is

meant the non-R.E.M, non-dreaming stages