Cogito ergo sum

Cogito ergo sum (French: "Je pense donc je suis"; English: "I think, therefore I am") is a philosophical Latin statement proposed by René Descartes. The simple meaning of the phrase is that someone wondering whether or not they exist is, in and of itself, proof that something, an "I", exists to do the thinking — However this "I" is not the more or less permanent person we call "I". It may be that the something that thinks is purely momentary, and not the same as the something which has a different thought the next moment. [1]

The phrase became a fundamental element of Western philosophy, as it was perceived to form a foundation for all knowledge. While other knowledge could be a figment of imagination, deception or mistake, the very act of doubting one's own existence serves to some people as proof of the reality of one's own existence, or at least that of one's thought.

The statement is sometimes given as Dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum (English: "I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am"),[2] although this extension was never used by Descartes himself and it is potentially misleading, as it suggests that Descartes' argument is based on doubt, whereas it is inherent in any mental activity whatsoever.

A common mistake is that people take the statement as proof that they, as a human person, exist. However, it is a severely limited conclusion that does nothing to prove that one's own body exists, let alone anything else that is perceived in the physical universe. It only proves that one's mind exists (that part of an individual that observes oneself doing the doubting). It does not rule out other possibilities, such as waking up to find oneself to be a butterfly who had dreamed of having lived a human life. Descartes's original statement was "Je pense donc je suis," from his Discourse on Method (1637). He wrote it in French, not in Latin and thereby reached a wider audience in his country than that of scholars. He uses the Latin "Cogito ergo sum" in the later Principles of Philosophy (1644), Part 1, article 7: "Ac proinde hæc cognitio, ego cogito, ergo sum, est omnium prima & certissima, quæ cuilibet ordine philosophanti occurrat." (English: "This proposition, I think, therefore I am, is the first and the most certain which presents itself to whoever conducts his thoughts in order."). At that time, the argument had become popularly known in the English speaking world as 'the "Cogito Ergo Sum" argument,' which is usually shortened to "Cogito" when referring to the principle virtually everywhere else.



The phrase Cogito ergo sum is not used in Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy but the term "the cogito" is (often confusingly) used to refer to an argument from it. In the Meditations, Descartes phrases the conclusion of the argument as "that the proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind." (Meditation II.)

At the beginning of the second meditation, having reached what he considers to be the ultimate level of doubt — his argument from the existence of a deceiving god — Descartes examines his beliefs to see if any have survived the doubt. In his belief in his own existence, he finds that it is impossible to doubt that he exists. Even if there were a deceiving god (or an evil demon), one's belief in their own existence would be secure, for how could one be deceived unless one existed in order to be deceived?

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 [or thought anything at all], then I certainly existed. But there is a deceiver of supreme power and cunning who deliberately and constantly deceives me. In that case, I, too, undoubtedly exist, if he deceives 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 that I am something. So, after considering everything very thoroughly, I must finally conclude that the proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind. (AT VII 25; CSM II 16–17)

There are three important notes to keep in mind here. First, he claims only the certainty of his own existence from the first-person point of view — he has not proved the existence of other minds at this point. This is something that has to be thought through by each of us for ourselves, as we follow the course of the meditations. Second, he does not say that his existence is necessary; he says that if he thinks, then necessarily he exists (see the instantiation principle). Third, this proposition "I am, I exist" is held true not based on a deduction (as mentioned above) or on empirical induction but on the clarity and self-evidence of the proposition.

Descartes does not use this first certainty, the cogito, as a foundation upon which to build further knowledge; rather, it is the firm ground upon which he can stand as he works to restore his beliefs. As he puts it:

Archimedes used to demand just one firm and immovable point in order to shift the entire earth; so I too can hope for great things if I manage to find just one thing, however slight, that is certain and unshakable. (AT VII 24; CSM II 16)

According to many of Descartes' specialists, including Étienne Gilson, the goal of Descartes in establishing this first truth is to demonstrate the capacity of his criterion — the immediate clarity and distinctiveness of self-evident propositions — to establish true and justified propositions despite having adopted a method of generalized doubt. As a consequence of this demonstration, Descartes considers science and mathematics to be justified to the extent that their proposals are established on a similarly immediate clarity, distinctiveness, and self-evidence that presents itself to the mind. The originality of Descartes' thinking, therefore, is not so much in expressing the cogito — a feat accomplished by other predecessors, as we shall see — but on using the cogito as demonstrating the most fundamental epistemological principle, that science and mathematics are justified by relying on clarity, distinctiveness, and self-evidence.

Baruch Spinoza in "Principia philosophiae cartesianae" at its Prolegomenon identified "cogito ergo sum" the "ego sum cogitans" (I am a thinking being) as the thinking substance with his ontological interpretation. It can also be considered that Cogito ergo sum is needed before any living being can go further in life".[3]


Although the idea expressed in Cogito ergo sum is widely attributed to Descartes, he was not the first to mention it. Plato spoke about the "knowledge of knowledge" (Greek νόησις νοήσεως - nóesis noéseos) and Aristotle explains the idea in full length:

But if life itself is good and pleasant (...) and if one who sees is conscious that he sees, one who hears that he hears, one who walks that he walks and similarly for all the other human activities there is a faculty that is conscious of their exercise, so that whenever we perceive, we are conscious that we perceive, and whenever we think, we are conscious that we think, and to be conscious that we are perceiving or thinking is to be conscious that we exist... (Nicomachean Ethics, 1170a25 ff.)

Augustine of Hippo in De Civitate Dei writes Si […] fallor, sum ("If I am mistaken, I am") (book XI, 26), and also anticipates modern refutations of the concept. Furthermore, in the Enchiridion Augustine attempts to refute skepticism by stating, "[B]y not positively affirming that they are alive, the skeptics ward off the appearance of error in themselves, yet they do make errors simply by showing themselves alive; one cannot err who is not alive. That we live is therefore not only true, but it is altogether certain as well" (Chapter 7 section 20). Another predecessor was Avicenna's "Floating Man" thought experiment on human self-awareness and self-consciousness.[4]


There have been a number of criticisms of the argument. One concerns the nature of the step from "I am thinking" to "I exist." The contention is that this is a syllogistic inference, for it appears to require the extra premise: "Whatever has the property of thinking, exists", a premise Descartes did not justify. In fact, he conceded that there would indeed be an extra premise needed, but denied that the cogito is a syllogism (see below).

To argue that the cogito is not a syllogism, one may call it self-evident that "Whatever has the property of thinking, exists". In plain English, it seems incoherent to actually doubt that one exists and is doubting. Strict skeptics maintain that only the property of 'thinking' is indubitably a property of the meditator (presumably, they imagine it possible that a thing thinks but does not exist). This counter-criticism is similar to the ideas of Jaakko Hintikka, who offers a non-syllogistic interpretation of Cogito Ergo Sum. He claimed that one simply cannot doubt the proposition "I exist". To be mistaken about the proposition would mean something impossible: I do not exist, but I am still wrong.

Perhaps a more relevant contention is whether the "I" to which Descartes refers is justified. In Descartes, The Project of Pure Enquiry, Bernard Williams provides a history and full evaluation of this issue. Apparently, the first scholar who raised the problem was Pierre Gassendi. He points out that recognition that one has a set of thoughts does not imply that one is a particular thinker or another. Were we to move from the observation that there is thinking occurring to the attribution of this thinking to a particular agent, we would simply assume what we set out to prove, namely, that there exists a particular person endowed with the capacity for thought . In other words, the only claim that is indubitable here is the agent-independent claim that there is cognitive activity present[5] The objection, as presented by Georg Lichtenberg, is that rather than supposing an entity that is thinking, Descartes should have said: "thinking is occurring." That is, whatever the force of the cogito, Descartes draws too much from it; the existence of a thinking thing, the reference of the "I," is more than the cogito can justify. Friedrich Nietzsche criticized the phrase in that it presupposes that there is an "I", that there is such an activity as "thinking", and that "I" know what "thinking" is. He suggested a more appropriate phrase would be "it thinks." In other words the "I" in "I think" could be similar to the "It" in "It is raining." David Hume is another philosopher who criticizes Descartes 'Cogito Ergo Sum'. He says that those philosophers who argue that we can work out we have a 'self' using reason are confusing 'similarity' with 'identity'. He is saying that the similarity of our thoughts and the continuity of them in this similarity does not mean that we can identify ourselves as a self but that our thoughts are similar.

Williams' argument in detail

In addition to the preceding two arguments against the cogito, other arguments have been advanced by Bernard Williams. He claims, for example, that what we are dealing with when we talk of thought, or when we say "I am thinking," is something conceivable from a third-person perspective; namely objective "thought-events" in the former case, and an objective thinker in the latter.

Williams provides a meticulous and exhaustive examination of this objection. He argues, first, that it is impossible to make sense of "there is thinking" without relativizing it to something. However, this something cannot be Cartesian egos, because it is impossible to differentiate objectively between things just on the basis of the pure content of consciousness.

The obvious problem is that, through introspection, or our experience of consciousness, we have no way of moving to conclude the existence of any third-personal fact, to conceive of which would require something above and beyond just the purely subjective contents of the mind.

Søren Kierkegaard's critique

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard provided a critical response to the cogito.[6] Kierkegaard argues that the cogito already pre-supposes the existence of "I", and therefore concluding with existence is logically trivial. Kierkegaard's argument can be made clearer if one extracts the premise "I think" into two further premises:

"x" thinks
I am that "x"
Therefore I think
Therefore I am

Where "x" is used as a placeholder in order to disambiguate the "I" from the thinking thing.[7]

Here, the cogito has already assumed the "I"'s existence as that which thinks. For Kierkegaard, Descartes is merely "developing the content of a concept", namely that the "I", which already exists, thinks.[8]

Kierkegaard argues that the value of the cogito is not its logical argument, but its psychological appeal: a thought must have something that exists to think the thought. It is psychologically difficult to think "I do not exist". But as Kierkegaard argues, the proper logical flow of argument is that existence is already assumed or pre-supposed in order for thinking to occur, not that existence is concluded from that thinking.[9]


  1. ^ Baird, Forrest E.; Walter Kaufmann (2008). From Plato to Derrida. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall. ISBN 0-13-158591-6. 
  2. ^ It appears in an anonymous introduction, from 1765, signed by "Thomas," which was included in the Descartes edition by Victor Cousin and is accessible, together with Descartes' works at the Gutenberg Project.[1]
  3. ^ Vesey, Nicholas (2011). Developing Consciousness. United Kingdom: O-Books. p. 16. ISBN 978-1-84694-461-1. 
  4. ^ Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Oliver Leaman (1996), History of Islamic Philosophy, p. 315, Routledge, ISBN 0415131596.
  5. ^ Saul Fisher. "Pierre Gassendi". Retrieved 2010-11-02.  from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  6. ^ Kierkegaard, Søren. Philosophical Fragments. Trans. Hong, Princeton, 1985. p. 38-42.
  7. ^ Schönbaumsfeld, Genia. A Confusion of the Spheres. Oxford, 2007. p.168-170.
  8. ^ Kierkegaard, Søren. Philosophical Fragments. Trans. Hong, Princeton, 1985. p. 40.
  9. ^ Archie, Lee C, "Søren Kierkegaard, God's Existence Cannot Be Proved". Philosophy of Religion. Lander Philosophy, 2006.

Further reading

  • W.E. Abraham, "Disentangling the Cogito", Mind 83:329 (1974)
  • Z. Boufoy-Bastick, Introducing 'Applicable Knowledge' as a Challenge to the Attainment of Absolute Knowledge , Sophia Journal of Philosophy, VIII (2005), pp 39–52.
  • R. Descartes (translated by John Cottingham), Meditations on First Philosophy, in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes vol. II (edited Cottingham, Stoothoff, and Murdoch; Cambridge University Press, 1984) ISBN 0-521-28808-8
  • G. Hatfield, Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Descartes and the Meditations (Routledge, 2003) ISBN 0-415-11192-7
  • S. Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript (Princeton, 1985) ISBN 978-0-691-02081-5
  • S. Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments (Princeton, 1985) ISBN 978-0-69-102036-5
  • B. Williams, Descartes, The Project of Pure Enquiry (Penguin, 1978) OCLC 4025089
  • Baird, Forrest E.; Walter Kaufmann (2008). From Plato to Derrida. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall. ISBN 0-13-158591-6. 

External links

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Cogito, ergo sum — Cogito ergo sum Pour les articles homonymes, voir Cogito. Cogito, ergo sum signifie « je pense, donc je suis » en latin. Cette expression résume une position philosophique de Descartes, esquissée dans le Discours de la méthode (1637),… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Cogito Ergo Sum — Pour les articles homonymes, voir Cogito. Cogito, ergo sum signifie « je pense, donc je suis » en latin. Cette expression résume une position philosophique de Descartes, esquissée dans le Discours de la méthode (1637), puis développée… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • COGITO ERGO SUM —         (лат.) мыслю, следовательно существую. Тезис Декарта. Философский энциклопедический словарь. М.: Советская энциклопедия. Гл. редакция: Л. Ф. Ильичёв, П. Н. Федосеев, С. М. Ковалёв, В. Г. Панов. 1983. CO …   Философская энциклопедия

  • cogito ergo sum — (izg. kȏgito ȅrgo sȕm) DEFINICIJA mislim, dakle, jesam; mislim, dakle, postojim; temeljno načelo Descartesove filozofije ETIMOLOGIJA lat …   Hrvatski jezični portal

  • cogito ergo sum — [käj′ə tō΄ ʉr′gō sum′] 〚L〛 I think, therefore I exist: the basic tenet of the philosophy of Descartes * * * …   Universalium

  • cogito ergo sum — [käj′ə tō΄ ʉr′gō sum′] [L] I think, therefore I exist: the basic tenet of the philosophy of Descartes …   English World dictionary

  • cogito, ergo sum — лат. (когито, эрго сум) «я мыслю, следовательно, существую» (слова французского философа Декарта). Толковый словарь иностранных слов Л. П. Крысина. М: Русский язык, 1998 …   Словарь иностранных слов русского языка

  • Cogito, ergo sum — (lat.), ich denke, also bin ich; das oberste Princip von Descartes, welches er als die unmittelbar gewisseste Wahrheit an die Spitze seines philosophischen Systems stellt …   Pierer's Universal-Lexikon

  • Cogĭto, ergo sum — (lat., »ich denke, also bin ich«), oberster Grundsatz des Descartes, der als unmittelbar gewisse Wahrheit an der Spitze seines philosophischen Systems steht und mehrfach der Ausgang neuerer Spekulationen gewesen ist. Vgl. Descartes …   Meyers Großes Konversations-Lexikon

  • Cogito, ergo sum — Cogĭto, ergo sum (lat.), ich denke, mithin bin ich, Hauptgrundsatz des Descartes, den er als unmittelbar gewisseste Wahrheit an die Spitze seines Systems stellte …   Kleines Konversations-Lexikon

  • Cogito ergo sum — Cogito ergo sum, lat., ich denke, mithin bin ich, Satz von Descartes, als unmittelbare Gewißheit an die Spitze seines Systems gestellt …   Herders Conversations-Lexikon

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”