Cartesian Philosophy – Emily

“I think, therefore, I exist.”

René Descartes
The Father of Modern Philosophy
1596-1650

Born near the end of the 16th century in France, Rene Descartes has been considered the “Father of Modern Philosophy”. In his early life he studied much, but in his later youth he left behind his father’s dreams for him to be a lawyer and resolved “to seek no knowledge other than that of which could be found in [himself] or else in the great book of the world”. He traveled, “…visiting courts and armies, mixing with people of diverse temperaments and ranks…and at all times reflecting upon whatever came my way so as to derive some profit from it.” (Descartes, Wikipedia)

In his mid twenties, he was stationed in Neuberg an der Donau, Germany, he had a series of three very powerful dreams or visions which he claimed greatly influenced his life. Among other things, it is said that he saw that all truths were interconnected, and that a fundamental truth would help open the way to all science (which he had already concluded would be “a central part of his life’s work”). Descartes found his basic truth fairly soon: the famous “I think, therefore I am”.

This phrase has been described as “one of the catchiest ideas yet created by the human mind” (freerepublic.com) , and is certainly one of the most famous phrases in all of philosophy.

The essence of this idea is that, to think you exist, you must exist. You cannot think about anything without first existing, especially existence. By extension, it is also impossible to truly doubt your own existence, because one needs to first exist before they can doubt existing. However, it is quite simple to doubt objects, people and events. As we’ve discussed before, it ccould be considered ridiculous to base the amount of knowledge and theories that we do on simple sensory perception. Our senses are just too inaccurate for us to rely completely on them – but then again, they are all we have, so we can go with limited and flawed perceptions, or we can go with nothing.

To illustrate the limits our senses have, Descartes used the Wax Argument. In essence, it is:

You have a piece of wax.
Your senses tell you about it: smell, texture, weight, colour, etc.
Yo bring this wax near a heat source.
Your senses tell you that the characteristics of the piece of wax change, however, it is still the same piece of wax.
Therefore, in order to properly grasp the nature of the wax, you should put aside the senses. You must use your MIND.

One can find evidence of this Philosophy or Truth in modern society – there is the common belief that humans are, by nature superior to animals. That we have conscience, consciousness, and more rights. Descartes and others of his time even took this further, some saying that animals had reason or intelligence, or could even feel pain.

I find myself agreeing with Descartes’ “Truth” – “I think, therefore, I am”. I can’t know what exists, other than my consciousness. One’s natural response to this is usually along the lines of either “Well that chair doesn’t think, so it doesn’t exist” or “No, I know that my body exists, and I know that Descartes guy existed since he said that quote, etc…”. But the best thing is, once you start thinking about it, it gets better. No, you can’t really know if that chair exists – all you have to base that assumption on are your senses and perception. If we think back to logic, we know that if A (I think), therefore B (I exist), it does not necessarily mean that if B, therefore A.

Also, we don’t really know if Descartes ever truly existed. We only have our senses telling us that he did – people talking about him, Wikipedia articles written referencing him, etc. But what if all these stories about “that guy Descartes” are just false information from your senses? Maybe he never existed, and your ears and eyes are telling you he did. Maybe you even subconsciously came up with “I think, therefore, I am”, and your senses tell you Descartes really did.

This is what I understand of Rene Descartes.

(If any of this was confusing/convoluted/headache-inducing to anyone, one of the sites I was reading had their Descartes article tagged as “myheadhurts”)