Don’t Doubt Descartes

Statue of the philosopher in Descartes, France

If you took an intro to philosophy course or even if you never took philosophy, the one phrase you might know is “I think therefore I am.” That comes from the man known as “the Father of Modern Philosophy,” – René Descartes.

Descartes was born in 1596 in La Haye en Touraine in central France. The city is now named for him. His book, Meditations on First Philosophy, was on the required reading list for my first philosophy course.

Descartes had not been a healthy child and spent a lot of time in bed. He was sent to Jesuit schools and got a degree in law. He moved to the Netherlands and he did most of the writing he is known for in the 20 years that he lived there.

Queen Christina of Sweden invited him to Stockholm to be her tutor. She was 23 and he was in his 50s. While in Stockholm, he came down with pneumonia which caused his death.

When he wrote that famous phrase in 1637, what did he mean? He wrote it as “Je pense donc je suis.” and it was often written in Latin as “Cogito ergo sum” and translated to Englis as “I think therefore I am.”

It is a summary statement from his Discourse on the Method. He was thinking and writing about some of his ideas about science which included theories (like those of Galileo) that were controversial at the time. His intention was to write a proof showing that skepticism about the laws of nature is necessary for understanding nature.

This “methodological skepticism” meant he would reject any idea that could be doubted. Them he would need proof for the idea so that it could be accepted as knowledge.

In all this doubt, he could even doubt his own existence. One thing he could not doubt was the existence of his own thoughts. If he was doubting, he was thinking. If he was thinking, then he existed.

“Of philosophy, I will say nothing, except that when I saw that it had been cultivated for so many ages by the most distinguished men; and that yet there is not a single matter within its sphere which is still not in dispute and nothing, therefore, which is above doubt, I did not presume to anticipate that my success would be greater in it than that of others.”