I Think Therefore I Am Quote By Rene Descartes

Rene Descartes thought experiment
What does "I think therefore I Am" possibly mean and why is it critical to the history of philosophy and knowledge? Let's break down what Rene Descartes was thinking when he wrote the famous line which translates to "I think therefore I am." The short story short (we'll get to the longer story), Descartes imagines a dream that is so real it feels like he is awake. Descartes is going to question how one can tell the difference between the dream world and the real world and ultimately question everything he knows. As we do, we'll explain the larger context of his discussion, and what he is trying to achieve by using this example.

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Who said it?

Rene Descartes

Who was Rene Descartes?

René Descartes (1596-1650) was a French philosopher, scientist, and mathematician who is considered the father of modern philosophy.

Where and when was it first published?

This quote first appears in Descartes’s Meditation One, which was published in 1641.

Who was Rene Descartes?

Rene Descartes (1596-1650) was a French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist who is often considered the father of modern Western philosophy. Born in La Haye en Touraine, France, Descartes was educated at the Jesuit College of La Flèche and later studied law at the University of Poitiers. In 1618, he joined the Dutch States Army, where he developed an interest in mathematics and the natural sciences. Descartes eventually left the military and dedicated his life to intellectual pursuits.

Descartes’ most notable works include “Discourse on the Method” (1637), “Meditations on First Philosophy” (1641), and “Principles of Philosophy” (1644). These works laid the foundation for Cartesian philosophy and contributed significantly to the development of modern thought.

He is the father of the concepts of Cartesian Doubt (methodological skepticism), Cartesian Dualism (a distinction between the mind and the body), Analytical Geometry (a field that combines algebra and geometry) and the one you’ve definitely heard of: rationalism. But let’s talk more about the first one.

What Is Descartes Talking About?

In Rene Descartes’ Meditation One: Concerning Those Things That Can Be Called Into Doubt” he questions whether or not we can arrive at knowledge through sensory experience by considering that he may be dreaming. Descartes is famously quoted as asking the question, “how often has my evening slumber persuaded me of such customary things as these: that I am here, clothed in my dressing gown, seated at the fireplace..” when in fact, as Descartes says, he is actually between his sheets dreaming. For this reason, Descartes does not believe that we can claim the truth about something because we experience it, when our experiences can be the result of an allusion that do not show how the world really is.

What Descartes is trying to do here is throw into doubt the things that we think we know for certain and apply stronger measures for determining whether we can claim to know. Though the reading states that he eventually got out of skepticism, Descartes was at this point in his life a “skeptic” which doubts that we can know anything. 

In the wake of Descartes’s arguments, future epistemology would fall into two groups: those who believe we can arrive at knowledge through rational, logical deliberation (rationalists) and those who believe that we need to show that something is demonstrably true in order for it to be true (empiricists). Descartes’ metaphor to sleeping is a tough challenge to empiricists because empirical observations must come through sensory observations, which Descartes shows are not entirely trustworthy.

This will lead Descartes to utter the famous line “cogito, ergo sum” which is Latin for “I think therefore I am.” Essentially, Descartes is going to argue that is the only thing that one can know (that they are indeed alive).

Descartes’s Quote As A Cornerstone of Philosophy

Within the field of Philosophy, primarily analytic philosophy, there are two major sub fields: ontology and epistemology. Ontology deals with the “nature of things” or questions the very existence of reality. Primarily ontology frequently deals with concepts and how well terms describe a certain object. Imagine, if you will, a goat. It seems obvious to us where the goat begins and ends. However, if you observed the goat and the goat’s surroundings at the atomic level, it may not be obvious where the goat begins and ends.

Conversely, the field of epistemology concerns questions about truth. In short, epistemology asks the question, “what do you mean when you say you know?” While ontology may fall victim to conceptual analysis that paralyzes arguments, epistemology is of major importance to all fields of science and the primary focus of the Philosophy of Science (and all its subfields). When someone questions the “epistemology” (or their “epistemic path” to their claims), they are calling into question how one arrived at the claim they are making.

A major argument within epistemology, discussed above, is whether logic (and mathematics) is to be trusted or whether empirical observations should be counted on more (as logic and mathematics may conceptually lead to absurdity). Descartes is going to take the former stance and attempt to build a type of logic that we should trust whether or not it seems to contradict our senses. This would form the basis of a major argument against experiments as an epistemic path to knowledge: for if one could be asleep, what difference does it make how successful an experiment matched a prediction?

The Dutch Philosopher Baruch Spinoza is going to counter Descartes and champion a middle ground for the debate by arguing that both empiricism and rational deliberation have their clear limitations.

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