Translation into HE: Descartes' Cogito

§1: What is Descartes' Cogito?

'the cogito' is the name given to a specific sentence, of which there are two versions: 'I am thinking; therefore, I exist' and 'I think; therefore, I am'.

the first version helps makes sense of Descartes' statements to the effect that, if he stopped thinking, he might cease to exist; but, the second version expresses the belief that I2 continue as a reality even when I2 lapse from a state of reflective self-awareness to a state of pre-reflective experiencing (of external reality, say).

I2 will illustrate the translation process using the first version which comes from the Discourse on Method.

§2: the translation

I am thinking; therefore, I exist.

in any case, this statement is already in the first person; and, after applying transformation 2, we get:

I am experiencing; therefore, I exist.

Descartes uses 'thinking' as we would use 'experiencing'. this translation eliminates idiosyncratic vocabulary.

using transformation 3 to locate instances of self-referencing produces:

Ix am experiencing; therefore, Ix exist.

ultimately, the translation process should remove all placeholder pronouns; but, it is important to avoid assuming either that all uses have the same referent or that not all uses have the same referent. in this case, I2 will first apply rule 4 to translate one placeholder:

I2 am experiencing; therefore, Ix exist.

Descartes claim that the 'I' which 'now necessarily exists' is a mind; and, thus, consists of thinking substance, res cogitans. this sort of claim suggests a reality that is independent of experience; and, thus, an existential or ontological reality; so, amness is not being asserted here. since Descartes contrasts res cogitans so sharply with res extensa, matter, I2 suspect that existence (as defined in HE) is not what Descartes means by 'Ix exist'. this interpretation is confirmed by other statements, such as:

I2 realize that Ix am, as it were, something intermediate between God and nothingness, or between supreme being and non-being ... [CSM II, 38. into HE]


it is certain that I3, that is, my soul, by which I2 am what I3 be, am really distinct from my body, and can be without it. [CSM II, 54. n 3., into HE]

I2 am experiencing; therefore, I3 be.

in one sense, the translation script ends here. it has achieved the desired effect of clarifying the presuppositions of a philosopher who relied on the ambiguities of language to help make his case. in VE, 'I am thinking; therefore, I exist' contains two uses of 'I'. translating the cogito into HE reveals that, based on the contextual meaning assigned to 'exist', the two uses of 'I' do not have the same referent; and, thus, that the statement is a colossal non-sequitor.

in another sense, there is another step. I2 could speculate as to what sort of assumption(s) as to the structure of the human individual would allow Descartes' statement to make sense -- as it surely did for Descartes and for any number of others since then.

§3: the interpretation

I2 seems to me that Descartes --- at least here, at the starting point of his inquiry --- is equating the I2 and the I3 in a true identity relation, thus:

( I1 ≡ I2 ) am experiencing; therefore, ( I1 ≡ I2 ) exist.

this would even account for Descartes' theory that the ( I1 ≡ I2 ) is transparent to itself; that is, that no aspect of ( I1 ≡ I2 ) is unconscious to ( I1 ≡ I2 ):

As to the fact that there can be nothing in the mind, insofar as it is a thinking thing, of which it is not aware, this seems to me to be self-evident. For there is nothing that we can understand to be in the mind, regarded in this way, that is not a thought or dependent on a thought. If it were not a thought or dependent on a thought it would not belong to the mind *qua* thinking thing; and we can not have any thought of which we are not aware at the very moment when it is in us. [CSM II, p. 171]

this reading of Descartes is confirmed by similar observations by other commentators; for instance, Chalmers has this to say:

The phenomenal and the psychological aspects of mind have a long history of being conflated. Rene Descartes may have been partly responsible for this. with his notorious doctrine that the mind is transparent to itself, he came close to identifying the mental with the phenomenal.1

looked at in this light, it would seem that Descartes' strategy is to establish certainty concerning a body of evidence by focusing on the features of the conflated ( I1 ≡ I2 ) that are associated with the I2, phenomenal awareness. then, Descartes draws conclusion concerning the reality of the I3. it is as if Descartes understood that the I2 is not self-originating; but, only considered the possibility that the I3 could generate the I2.2

§4: the speculation

however, it seems to me that the story doesn't quite end there; for, as time went on Descartes took some pains to show that sensation and imagination were not purely mental faculties; but, instead, were powers or 'features' of the union of body and mind. Cottingham speculates:

Thus, what Descartes may be moving towards is the idea that, though the subject of sensations and feelings may not be a primitive substance, the attributes of sensation and feeling nonetheless fall into a distinct and irreducible category of their own.3

thus, it seems reasonable to suggest that Descartes was evolving toward a theory in which the structure of the human individual would be described with this structure diagram: [ I1 ~> I2 <~ I3 ].

for an extended discussion, see the entry for cartesian interactive trionism in the catalog of belief systems.

[1]: Chalmers, David J. 1996. The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory. New York: Oxford university Press. p. 12. [Back]

[2]: today, most researchers in the field of consciousness research tend to make the opposite assumption: that the I2 is generated solely by the brain. is the most popular assumption the only legitimate assumption; or, is it simply the most stylish? [Back]

[3]: Cottingham, John. 1985. "Cartesian Trialism". Mind. 94(374)218-230. @224-5. [Back]