Cogito? Descartes and Thinking the World

Cogito? Descartes and Thinking the World

Cogito? Descartes and Thinking the World

Cogito? Descartes and Thinking the World


Decartes' maxim Cogito, Ergo Sum (from his Meditations) is perhaps the most famous philosophical expression ever coined. Joseph Almog is a Descartes analyst whose last book WHAT AM I? focused on the second half of this expression, Sum--who is the "I" who is existing-and-thinking and how does this entity somehow incorporate both body and mind? This volume looks at the first half of the proposition - cogito. Almog calls this the "thinking man's paradox": how can there be, in the the naturalworld and as part and parcel of it, a creature that... thinks? Descartes' proposition declares that such a fact obtains and he maintains that it is self-evident; but as Almog points out, from the point of view of Descartes' own skepticism, it is far from obvious that there could be a thinking-man. How can it be that a thinking human be both part of the natural world and yet somehow distinct and separate from it? How did "thinking" arise in an otherwise "thoughtless" universe and what does itmean for beings like us to be thinkers? Almog goes back to the Meditations, and using Descartes' own aposteriori cognitive methodology--his naturalistic, scientific, approach to the study of man--tries to answer the question.


Cogito should be the last proposition in one’s repertoire to engender a question mark.* What is this question mark doing then? Is there any question–doubt–uncertainty about my … thinking? Is this not, as Descartes likes to say, the “Archimedean point” of my (cognitive) life? My students often complain with impatience that, by wondering in this Cogito? vein, I confront them with another one of those invented philosophical problems. What in the world could be the problem about thinking, since we do it all the time, we live by it?

We do do it—thinking—all the time. But we should not be so sure that it is in the world that we do it, at least not the real world of kicking soccer balls and eating ice cream. The elusiveness of thinking has made many philosophies to account for it by making it an act outside and, often, against nature, an act whose direct object—unlike the objects of kicking and eating—is sublimated, an essentially transcendental and otherworldly item such as (depending on one’s clan) a concept, an idea, a sense (sinn), a proposition, or a thought.

It is a striking characteristic of Descartes that he brings thinking back to—embeds it in—nature. For him, thinking—penser—is essentially penser-le-monde, so well put in French, without a mediative preposition such as “about” or “of,” an unabashedly direct object construction, thinking the world, exactly like kissing the gal, kicking the soccer ball and eating the ice cream. For Descartes, there is only Nature, the one and only. The kissing, the eating, and the thinking all take place in it, and a place they all take.

*This is a personal preface. If you can’t stand those (I used to smirk at them), just skip it and go directly to chapter 1.

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