Descartes and the "Cogito". Our Foundation of Philosophical Knowledge

Presentation / Essay (Pre-University) 2014 12 Pages

Philosophy - Philosophy of the 17th and 18th Centuries



Synthesizing information from various sources, this paper reflects upon the life of René Descartes, as well as the results of his work. Efficacy of Descartes’ postulation is concluded in relation to the impact made upon the world, citing present reflections of the statement “Cogito, Ergo Sum ”.The history of Descartes’ early life, his progression into philosophy, and modern influences are utilized to portray his greatest work, and profound effects upon the world. The importance of the Cogito is discussed in depth and in relation to modern society’s interpretation of Cartesian philosophy. The background of Cartesian philosophy, explanations of the process, and meaning of ideas, serve to define the crux of the Cogito itself. Several postulates of famous philosophers contradicting Descartes’ ideas of solipsism are included, as well as modern interpretations by famous authors, such as David Foster Wallace.

Keywords: knowledge, philosophy, René Descartes, Cogito Ergo Sum, Descartes

Descartes and the Cogito:Our Foundation of Knowledge Prior to the revelations put forth by René Descartes, many philosophers operated under the presumptions that observance was knowledge in an objective sense. The profound statement “Cogito, Ergo Sum ” that Descartes proposed truly defines the extent of all objective human knowledge. This proposition sheds light upon what the human consciousness may be, and the limitations that surround knowledge as a whole. The ideas of consciousness and reality were poured over in full detail by renowned philosophers long before Descartes. However, despite their efforts throughout history, no other philosopher was credited with producing the ideas that Descartes had. His propositions and postulates spark conversation among modern philosophers, writers, and laypeople, even to this day.

René Descartes: Early Life

Philosophical works tend to build upon the ideas of their predecessors. Oftentimes, instead of proposing entirely original ideas, philosophers will take ideas and reform them. One such example of philosophical reformation is Alexandrian Plotinus, as he had done in the case of Plato’s early philosophies. Plotinus’ alterations and adaptations of Plato’s work later became known as Neoplatonism. In similar fashion, St. Augustine of Hippo reformed Plotinus’ ideas in order to apply them into a working Christian philosophy. Philosophy is a field that is in a state of constant metamorphosis, continuous changes and additions renew ideas and allow philosophy as a whole to prosper. Although great changes in philosophy occurred before the time of Descartes, very few original works emerged. Alterations, additions, and corrections to previous philosophical ideas occupied the majority of history, but few groundbreaking innovations had arose. That is, until the work of Descartes was published to the world, bringing with it new ideas of fundamental knowledge (Strathern).

On March 31, 1596, René Descartes was born to a farmer in the traditional French province of Touraine. Descartes’ mother had died when he was only one year old. Soon after, his father Joachim remarried and left Descartes to be raised by his grandmother, and eventually by his great­uncle. Caught in a familial turmoil, Descartes began to undertake formal education at a Jesuit college in La Flèche, France. After spending intermittent periods of time attending various universities and travelling Europe, he eventually found himself in the Netherlands at a college in Franeker (Watson). In 1628 Descartes began his philosophical career, at age 30, while simultaneously delving into research of both mathematics and the natural sciences. Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy,published in 1641, is made up of six separate Meditations in which Descartes begins by discarding all previously assumed knowledge or certainties. From this point forward, Descartes constructs new standards of fundamental knowledge and applies processes to verify information in an objective sense. In his first Meditation Descartes shares the following with readers of his work:

It is some years now since I realized how many false opinions I had accepted as true from childhood onwards, and that, whatever I had since built on such shaky foundations, could only be highly doubtful. Hence I saw that at some stage in my life the whole structure would have to be utterly demolished, and that I should have to begin again from the bottom up if I wished to construct something lasting and unshakeable in the sciences. But this seemed to be a massive task, and so I postponed it until I had reached the age when one is as fit as one will ever be to master the various disciplines. Hence I have delayed so long that now I should be at fault if I used up in deliberating the time that is left for acting. The moment has come, and so today I have discharged my mind from all its cares, and have carved out a space of untroubled leisure. I have withdrawn into seclusion and shall at last be able to devote myself seriously and without encumbrance to the task of destroying all my former opinions. (p. 17)

Descartes had used doubt as a tool, he forced it from his mind whilst deriving incontrovertible knowledge, based upon the Cartesian doubt method of deductive reasoning. This allowed Descartes the ability to begin formulating a basis of which only intrinsic, foundational knowledge would stand.

Philosophy of “Cogito, Ergo Sum

In order for Descartes to have a fresh outlook on the ideas of certainty and knowledge, he had to throw away all preconceptions of knowledge that he had previously considered concrete or inherently truthful. The first beliefs Descartes rejected were those relating to the senses. Mainly, the idea that one believes in the existence of their own body, and everything that is observed by sight and touch. Because these senses are subjective, and can be present in dreams, they are discredited as fallacial knowledge. Descartes had often used the metaphor of a demon, or malevolent being controlling his life. Similar to the analogy of dreaming, Descartes would not be able to distinguish what in his life was created by the demon, and what was certain reality; his observations, knowledge, and possibly even his own ideas were subject to fabrication by an insidious force. Descartes was one of the first Philosophers to avail the word “idea” for his philosophies, using the definition of “whatever the mind directly perceives”. Because of this definition, an idea may exist as a method of thought, however not necessarily as a truthful reality.



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Title: Descartes and the "Cogito". Our Foundation of Philosophical Knowledge