Descartes’ Dictum Cogito, Ergo Sum: The Relation of Cogito to Sum

Dr. Pushpa Rani Prasad, a Commissioned acting Principal working at S.P. Mahila College, Dumka, Jharkhand (India) writing in both English and Hindi. She is a pioneer of modern vision and her voice for modern Indian women is miracle and outstanding.
Dr. Pushpa Rani Prasad

Abstract
The attempt to put knowledge on certain foundation is historically associated with the philosophy of Descartes.  The most important question that has recurred most frequently regarding Descartes’ dictum ‘Cogito, ergo sum’ is that whether the proposition ‘I think, therefore I am’ is or is not an inference. According to Descartes, by saying cogito, ergo sum, he does not logically (syllogistically) deduce sum from cogito but rather perceives intuitively, the self-evidence of sum. But, there are several passages in the ‘Discourse and Principles’ that cause problems for the above view of Descartes. Philosophers differ on the exact relation of cogito to sum. Bernard Williams has defended the view that it is a kind of inference, though not syllogistic in form. On the other hand, in a recent paper Jaakko Hintikka has expressed the view that the word cogito serves to express the performatory character of Descartes’ insight. In this article, I have also examined Peter Markie’s view that it is self-evident Intuition/Immediate Inference Interpretation. In this article, I have tried to clear up the relation of cogito to sum.

The Relation of Cogito to Sum
Descartes employed methodic doubt with a view to discovering whether there was any indubitable truth. Though he regarded mathematics as the paradigm of knowledge, he knew that its ‘a priori truths’ are not indubitable because it was possible that a malignant demon should deceive him even with respect to those matters of which he was most certain. But he found that there was one proposition which was capable of escaping the demon’s reach. This was his famous dictum the ‘Cogito, Ergo Sum’ – ‘I think, therefore I am’.
Descartes writes:
“But I have convinced myself that there is absolutely nothing in the world, no sky, no earth, no minds, no bodies. Does it now follow that I too do not exist? No, if I convinced myself of something then I certainly existed. But there is a deceiver of supreme power and cunning who is deliberately and constantly deceiving me; and let him deceive me as much as he can, he will never bring it about that I am nothing so long as I think and that I am something. So after considering everything very thoroughly, I must finally conclude that this proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind.”1
At first sight, the cogito certainly seems to be an inference. Descartes’ dictum really express an inference is suggested by the particle ergo. In many respects it seems plausible to think that it does express a logical inference. Its logical form seems quite easy to define. In the sentence ‘I think’, an individual receives an attribute; for a modern logician it is therefore of the form “B(a)”. In the sentence ‘I am’ or ‘I exist’ the same individual is said to exist. Such type of views has been expressed by many philosophers. Gassendi claimed that ‘ambulo, ergo sum’, ‘ I walk, therefore I am’, is as good an inference as cogito, ergo sum.
In his reply to Gassendi, Descartes denies that ambulo, ergo sum is comparable with ‘cogito, ergo sum’. The reasons he gave are not very clear. Descartes’ remark is perhaps that although the inferences ‘ambulo, ergo sum’ and ‘cogito, ergo sum’ are parallel, their premises are essentially different. Ambulo is not an indubitable premise in the way cogito may be claimed to be.
In many passages Descartes seems to deny that by saying cogito, ergo sum he does logically (syllogistically) deduce sum from cogito. According to him, “he rather perceives intuitively (by a single act mental vision) the self-evidence of sum”.
Descartes writes:
“When someone says ‘I think, therefore I am’, he does not deduce his existence from his thinking by means of a syllogism, but, by the mind’s simple act of inspection, sees it something that is self-evident. This is apparent from the fact that, if he deduced it by means of a syllogism, he would first have had to know the major premise, “Everything that thinks is or exists”. But that, on the contrary, has been learned from the individuals awareness of himself – that he cannot be thinking unless he exists. For it is the nature of our mind to form general propositions from knowledge of particulars”.2
Jaakko Hintikka is of the view that the relation of the two parts of the ‘cogito, ergo sum’ cannot be a logical inference in the ordinary sense of the word. According to him, in Descartes’ argument the relation of cogito to sum is not that of premise to a conclusion. He says that, “their relation is rather comparable with that of a process to its product. The indubitability of my own existence results from my thinking of it almost as the sound of music results from playing it or light in the sense of illumination (lux) results from the presence of a source of light (lumen)3. Regarding the function of the word cogito in Descartes’ sentence as well as his motives in employing it, Hintikka says that, “it serves to express the performatory character of Descartes’ insight; it refers to the “performance” (to the act of thinking) through, which the sentence ‘I exist’ may be said to verify itself. For this reason, it has a most important function in Descartes’ sentence. It cannot be replaced by any arbitrary verb. The performance (act) through which the existential self-verifiability is manifested cannot be any arbitrary human activity, contrary to what Gassendi claimed. It cannot be an act of walking or an act of seeing”.4
Peter Markie is of the view that the answer to this problem is that:
“Descartes intuits the self-evident proposition that he thinks and simultaneously infers that he exists. His knowledge that he thinks is intuitive in the primary sense of being self-evident and entirely non-inferential; his knowledge that he exists is intuitive in the extended sense of being immediately inferred from the simultaneously intuited premise that he thinks”.5
Markie has referred to many statements of Descartes, which support this interpretation. Descartes presents intuition and deduction as his only sources of certainty in the Regulae. According to Descartes, deduction is the inference of something as following necessarily from some other propositions with certainty. Intuition is the faculty by which we gain the initial certainties that make deduction possible. Intuition is distinguished from deduction by the fact that it does not involve a movement of thought through a series of inferences and by its immediate self-evidence.
According to Descartes, when we immediately infer a conclusion from an intuited self-evident premise, we are not aware of any movement of thought through series of premises, so we may describe our knowledge of the conclusion as intuitive. No extended series of intuitions lead us to the conclusion, there is just one mental act in which the self-evident premise is intuited and the immediate conclusion is drawn.
Descartes’ remarks in the Discourse and Principles further support this interpretation. In Discourse Descartes says, “And observing that this truth ‘I am thinking therefore I exist’ was so firm and sure that all the most extravagant suppositions of the skeptics were incapable of shaking it, I decided that I could accept without scruple as the first principle of the philosophy I was seeking”.6
In the Principles Descartes writes:
“For it is a contradiction to suppose that what thinks does not, at the very time it is thinking, exist. Accordingly, this piece of knowledge – I am thinking; therefore, I exist – is the first and most certain of all to occur to anyone who philosophizes in an orderly way”.7
In each passage, Descartes presents his immediate inference from his thought to his existence as a single piece of knowledge, it is the first principle of his philosophy. His point seems to be that in one act of intuition, he grasps the premise and immediately infers the conclusion.
Peter Markie has called this interpretation “The self-evident Intuition/Immediate inference interpretation”. But, Descartes’ arguments in some passages cause problems for the above interpretation. In one of the passages in the Principles, Descartes says that prior to knowing that he thinks and therefore he exists, he must know, not only what thought, existence and certainty are, but also the general proposition that it is impossible for what thinks not to exist. His point seems to be that his inference from his thought to his existence uses the general proposition as a suppressed premise. It is not, ‘I am thinking, therefore I exist’, it is ‘I am thinking and whatever is thinking must exist, therefore I exist’.
But in his comment to Mersenne in Second Replies, Descartes explicitly denies that his inference from his thought to existence is a syllogism using the general premise that whatever thinks must exist. He repeats the same point in response to one of Gassendi’s objections.
If we modify our interpretation so that Descartes’ inference uses the general premise that whatever thinks must exist, we shall be in conflict with his replies to Mersenne and Gassendi, but if we do not modify our interpretation in this way, how are we to account for his claim in the Principles, that prior to knowing that we think and therefore exist, we must know whatever thinks must exist.
There are several passages that conflict with the self-evident Intuition/Immediate Inference Interpretation. Peter Markie suggests that the Self-evident Intuition/Immediate Inference interpretation can be modified to account for some, though not all, of the problematic passages. To develop the new interpretation, he has examined two basic concepts of Descartes' epistemology, his concept of certainty and his concept of reasonable belief. Descartes' epistemology contains two degrees of epistemic appraisal. One is the top standard of certainty and the other is a lesser degree of justification, which Descartes describes as highly probable or very reasonable belief. All the beliefs that meet the demands of certainty for him, such as his belief about his thought and existence in the Second Meditation, are also very reasonable, but some of his very reasonable beliefs, such as his sensory evidenced beliefs about the external world in the First Meditation, are not certain for him. Which degree of epistemic appraisal a belief meets is determined by his evidence for the belief. The sensory evidence Descartes has for his external world beliefs in the First Meditation makes those beliefs very reasonable but not certain. The evidence Descartes has for his belief in the existence in the Second Meditation makes that belief both very reasonable and certain. When a belief is self-evident, Descartes' evidence for it consists of his act of clearly and distinctly perceiving it. When a belief is not self-evident, Descartes' evidence for it consists of those belief that constitute his reason for believing it. The difference between what is merely very reasonable and what is certain is that Descartes has slight reason to doubt the former. A hypothesis gives Descartes a reason to doubt one of his beliefs just when it is a possibility he has not ruled out and it indicates how his belief might be false despite his evidence. The hypothesis that he is dreaming and that some God deceives him are possibilities he has· not ruled out in the First Meditation and they indicate how his very reasonable beliefs about the external world might be false despite his sensory evidence for them.
In Peter Markie’s view, relative to these points we can better understand Descartes' claim to certainty about his thought and existence. Descartes' claim has two parts:
(i)      He has evidence for these beliefs that makes them very reasonable.
(ii)    That evidence resists even the slightest, most exaggerated reasons for doubt, so that his beliefs are certainties.
In the light of above points, the Self-Evident Intuition/Immediate Inference Interpretation may be modified. The first thing Descartes must do is explain what makes his beliefs in his thought and existence very reasonable. This is where his frequent appeals to clear and distinct perception and an immediate inference from his thought to existence come into play. Descartes takes his belief in his thought to be very reasonable because the proposition that he thinks is a self-evident one he clearly and distinctly perceives to be true. His act of clear and distinct perception is the "evidence" that makes his belief that he thinks very reasonable. The same may be said of his other beliefs about his mental state. His belief in the existence is very reasonable, because he immediately infers it from a very reasonable belief about his mental state.
Yet, what makes these beliefs so reasonable as to be certain? Descartes' answer is that he has no reason to doubt them. Now his observation about how reasons for doubt just affirm his thought and existence comes into play. In Second Meditation Descartes says the Deceptive God Hypothesis and Dream Hypothesis do not give him a reason to doubt his beliefs that he thinks and exists; for they entails them and so fails to indicate how they might be false despite his clear and distinct perception.
If we modify our interpretation in the above way Descartes’ claim appears to be consistent.
Now we will see how the above modified interpretation deals with the passages that cause problems for the initial one. Our modified interpretation easily avoids one of the problems we have examined. Our initial interpretation is inconsistent with Descartes' claim, in the Meditations and Replies, that some clear and distinct perceptions, specifically ones of very simple mathematical truths, are made doubtful by the Deceptive God Hypothesis. Our modified interpretation is consistent with Descartes' claim. It says all clear and distinct perceptions are very reasonable and only those that concern our thought and existence are certain. The difference between the certain clear and distinct perceptions and the merely very reasonable ones is that the former resist reasons for doubt like Deceptive God Hypotheses. Such reasons for doubt do not indicate how our beliefs in our thought and existence might be false despite the clear and distinct perceptions that support them.
Another problem concerns whether Descartes' inference from his thought to his existence is immediate or a syllogism. We have seen a passage in the Principles insists on the importance of a prior knowledge of the general principle that whatever thinks must exist. The way to account for this passage is to pay close attention to what Descartes says he must know prior to knowing his thought and existence. He must know that what thinks must exist, and he must also know what knowledge, thought, existence and certainty are. His point surely is not that all this information must be added to his inference from thought to existence to bridge the gap between his initial premise and his conclusion. He does not need to add definitions of thought, existence and certainty to his argument to get from "I think" to "I exist." His point is this: he must have some of this information to understand the propositions that he thinks and that he exists and the rest to understand his account of why they are certain for him. He cannot understand the propositions, unless he knows what thought and existence are. He cannot understand his account of why they are certain for him unless he knows what certainty is. He cannot understand his account of why they are certain unless he knows that what thinks must exist; for part of his account is that his belief that he thinks immediately entails, and so makes reasonable, his belief that he exists. Descartes does not offer the general principle that what thinks must exist as a suppressed premise in his inference from his thought to his existence. He offers it as something he must know to understand why his thought and existence are certain for him. Moreover, it is sufficient that this general principle is reasonable for Descartes; it need not be certain. When Descartes claims to be certain of his thought and existence in the Second Meditation, he does not offer that claim to certainty - I am certain about my thoughts and existence as a certainty. He presents it and his explanation of why it is true as reasonable beliefs about his epistemic state.
Thus, we see that Peter Markie’s modified version of the self-evident Intuition/Immediate Inference Interpretation avoids the textual problems with the initial version. The above arguments clearly show that the proposition Cogito, Ergo Sum is not an inference.

Conclusion
 The above discussions conclude my survey of the relation of Cogito to sum. We have seen that there is no settled agreement among the philosophers on the exact relationship of Cogito to sum. Bernard Williams in his paper ‘The Certainity of the Cogito’ contends that the relation of cogito to the sum is a kind of inference. Hintikka has raised a number of valid points in his analysis of Descartes’ cogito as a performatory utterance. In this article I have examined Peter Markies’s view that it is self-evident Intuition/Immediate Inference interpretation. This interpretation can be modified in the light of two basic concepts of Descartes’ epistemology, his concept of certainty and his concept of reasonable belief in such a way that avoids the problematic passages. His modified interpretation is consistent with Descartes’ claim that all clear and distinct perception are very reasonable and only those that concern our thought and existence are certain. I support the above view. The arguments given by Markie are very convincing. In my opinion the relation of Cogito to the sum is not an inference but a self-evident intuition/Immediate Interference Interpretation.
Descartes’ claim to certainty about his thought and existence is central to his general program in epistemology. He wants to answer skepticism, and he wants to do so within foundationalism, the view that all our knowledge begins with some self-evident beliefs which are not evidenced by any others but yet provide our justification for all the rest we know. His claim to certainty about his thought and existence is the initial move in his attempt to define the set of self-evident beliefs. Descartes also thinks that his claim to certainty of his thought and existence plays an important role in his metaphysics. He says that the real value of his dictum ‘I think, therefore I am’ is that it can be used to establish that this ‘I which is thinking is an immaterial substance with no bodily element’. This is a continuing theme in Descartes’ philosophy.
But we find that there are some underlying philosophical issues that Descartes leaves. Philosophers have objected to his account of how he gains the very reasonable belief that he thinks to begin with. He says he clearly and distinctly perceives that he thinks. His concept of clear and distinct perception is the least clear and distinct concept in philosophy. He never adequately explains what this mental vision is or why apprehending a proposition by it is sufficient to make belief in the proposition very reasonable. Descartes leaves us wondering exactly how our beliefs about our mental state and existence become reasonable. Descartes is open to a criticism nicely stated by A.J. Ayer.
“What Descartes thought that he had shown was that the statements that he was conscious, and that he existed, were somehow privileged, that, for him at least, they were evidently true in a way which distinguished them from any other statements of fact. But this by no means follows from his argument. His argument does not prove that he, or anyone, knows anything. It simply makes the logical point that one sort of statement follows from another”.8
Descartes needs both parts of his explanation of his certainty. He needs an account of what makes his beliefs in his thought and existence very reasonable and an account of why those reasonable beliefs resist every reason for doubt. It may be said in Descartes favour that the issues which he has raised makes his position interesting and important. Thus, we see that the main interpretive issues have been settled, but the philosophical issues remain as part of Descartes’ legacy to us.
Reference:
1.      Cottingham, John and Robert Stoothoff & Dugald Murdoch: The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Cambridge University Press, 1984, Vol.-II, p.p.-16-17.

2.      Descartes, Rene: Replies to the Second set of Objections in the Decartes, A collection of critical essays. Edited by Willis Doney, Anchor Books, Double Day & Company Inc., New York, 1967, p-90.
3.      Hintikka, Jaakko: Cogito, Ergo Sum Inference or Performance; In Descartes: A Collection of Critical Essays, Edited by Willis Doney, Anchor Books, Double Day & Company Inc., New York, 1967, p-122.
4.      Ibid, p-123.
5.      Markie, Peter: The Cogito and Its importance; In The Cambridge Companion to Descartes, Edited by John Cottingham, Cambridge University Press, 1992, p.p.-145-146.
6.      Cottingham, John and Robert Stoothoff & Dugald Murdoch: The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Cambridge University Press, 1984, Vol.-I, p.-127.
7.      Ibid, p.-195
8.      Ayer, A.J.: ‘I Think, Therefore I Am’, In Descartes: A Collection of Critical Essays, Edited by Willis Doney, Anchor Books, New York, p-82.

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