Ten Minutes of Thought – René Descartes

Ali Haydaroglu

This week sees the publication of the inaugural edition of Ten Minutes of Thought with Ali Haydaroglu. This week, Ali discusses French Philosopher René Descartes.

René DescartesSince HL Philosophy’s favourite ‘2 Minute Philosophy’ videos are too vulgar for TBAW, I’ve decided to write my own. Take some time to take a step back and make sense of the world around you with the help of a great philosopher, and drop by Mr. Dick’s office to let him know how much you regret taking Econ over Philosophy.

What am I, and what do I know?

‘Cogito ergo sum’, ‘I think, therefore I am’, or the timeless motto of pure rationalism makes little sense without some context on Descartes and his Meditations on First Philosophy. René Descartes, a 17th century French philosopher living in Europe’s age of discovery and expansion, was distraught in what he identified as an inability to find a piece of knowledge so certain and clear that he may have no doubts about it. His thought process went like this:

  1. I must find a piece of knowledge that I know clearly and surely to be true.
  2. My senses cannot be the source of this knowledge, as I know my senses are fallible and can be manipulated easily (optical illusions, schizophrenia etc.)
  3. Since I am only connected to the physical world by my body and senses, I must look for truth in the mind, or in reason. To disconnect myself from the physical world, I will lock myself in an oven for hours to meditate (this is true)
  4. There could be an evil demon whose existence I cannot disprove who is manipulating or befuddling my logical conclusions about mathematical truths or other rational ideas: I cannot know them to be absolutely true.
  5. The only thing I can know surely is the fact that I am thinking at this moment. I cannot be sure of my previous and future existence as I cannot trust my memory (there might be an evil demon deceiving me. Yet, the fact that I am thinking at this moment requires the existence of a self, which I define as a thinking thing: I think, therefore I am.


So What?

Descartes uses pages of logic and reason to try to expand this body of knowledge that consists simply of a his own present existence, yet logical explanations fail to provide him with a sound proof of the existence of God, the physical world, other people or an evil demon deceiving him. His journey is one that can be taken by any individual who closes his eyes and follows his footsteps, and it leaves a mark that cannot be undone. We can never be sure of anything other than our own existence: radical skepticism takes us only to an empty abyss where all that exists is the self. As depressing and implausible as this sounds, Descartes’s words carry great implications for Western Philosophy. ‘The cogito’, or the proof of the self’s existence was the creation of the unique individual in face of society, the first appreciation of the chasm between mind and body and the realization of the power and shortcomings of pure reason.

As it is with a lot of philosophy, much of Descartes’s convoluted proofs and explanations are best left in books and footnotes where the curious reader can explore them – what I’ve written is merely a glimpse into Descartes world of reason that is relevant to everyone and no one at the same time. Think about it the next time you find yourself wandering in thought.