Life, Death & Philosophy – René Descartes

“What is love? Oh baby, don’t hurt me. Don’t hurt me, no more.” Contrary to all expectation, these undying words were not written by perhaps the most famous French philosopher of all time. Today we are not talking about Haddaway, but René Descartes, who set out on his last journey on the waves of the River Styx on February 11, 1650.

Cogito, ergo sum

Anyone who has ever taken an undergraduate course in philosophy will have a basic understanding of both this Latin phrase and the name Descartes. Alternatively, this statement can also be recited at every inappropriate opportunity to illustrate one’s own intellectual superiority. After all, only insanely intelligent people speak Latin.

Far fewer people, however, are aware of the philosophical background of this statement. “Cogito, ergo sum” or “I think, therefore I am” in today’s parlance, represents one of the central theses of Descartes’ philosophy. Descartes formulated the now universally known Latin form in his 1644 work Principles of Philosophy.
But what preceded this thought? A long night with too much cognac? A philosophical form of midlife crisis? More likely, a search for the big answers to life, being, the universe, and all the rest.

The underlying question behind this is whether we can be certain that anything exists at all. From where does the certainty arise that we are not just a Boltzmann brain spontaneously bounced into existence, merely believing that there is a world around it and that its impressions and experiences are real (of course, Descartes had no idea about this thought experiment, which emerged about 200 years after his death)?

But let’s let the venerable master speak for himself:


“While we thus reject all of which we can entertain the smallest doubt, and even imagine that it is false, we easily indeed suppose that there is neither God, nor sky, nor bodies, and that we ourselves even have neither hands nor feet, nor, finally, a body; but we cannot in the same way suppose that we are not while we doubt of the truth of these things; for there is a repugnance in conceiving that what thinks does not exist at the very time when it thinks. Accordingly, the knowledge, I think, therefore I am, is the first and most certain that occurs to one who philosophizes orderly.”

Principles of Philosophy, Part 1, article 7

Descartes was convinced that even extreme forms of skepticism have a limit. While we can doubt everything around and about us, the act of doubting itself is an undeniable fact. Therefore, there must be an entity that performs this act, and because we are aware of it, we can logically conclude that it is we ourselves who doubt. Perhaps “I doubt, therefore I am” would be a somewhat more appropriate expression, but these are secondary details.

Now, a variety of possible criticisms can be made in response to this consideration. For example, the logic addressed is not quite as consistent as it might seem. Several generations of more or less reputable philosophers have done the same, but this is not to be the focus here.

The life and work of René Descartes offers such an immense wealth of interesting ideas and possible interpretations that I would have enough material for the next months to deal only with him. But other fascinating personalities also deserve a short appearance on this small stage.

My name is Nathan Reed and this short piece is part of a new series I am writing. Snapshots of philosophy on a particular date, so to speak. I will try my best to give you some new bites every notable day.  

You are a decent human being. Behave accordingly.

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