There is no sentence in the history of philosophy and human thinking that is more influential and more quoted than Descartes’ statement “Cogito ergo sum”, “I think, therefore I am”.
I don’t consider myself a particularly good philosopher, but this sentence has always bothered me, and I’ve never understood why it’s considered a cornerstone of philosophy.
I think that this sentence does not assert anything, or yet it asserts something, but the conclusion “therefore I am” is completely unnecessary, because it adds nothing to the “I think” part of the statement.
The correct statement would be “I’m thinking.” In this statement, it is not only that the person making the statement engages in certain advanced brain activity, that he draws conclusions from his experiences, sets up theories, proves or disproves them, so the statement contains not only the fact of thinking, but also philosophy, human thinking, the greatest mystery of human existence, existence itself.
“I’m thinking” is expressed in the first person singular, so it includes the subjective experience of individual existence, the experience that we will never be able to share with other people, since the most important feature of our existence and self-awareness is subjectivity and uniqueness. No human being will ever experience or feel the same way I feel about my own existence, and I will never be able to put myself in the skin of another human being to feel their sense of self-awareness. Or, I feel exactly the same as everyone else, except that I feel it in my own body, in my own consciousness, while other people feel the same in their own body and consciousness. It’s the same feeling, but somewhere else, in a different body and in a different soul, we can’t exchange it. So the feeling is the same, but the perceiver is always different. At the same time, the perception of the perceiver is also the feeling itself, it is a self-referential perception that cannot be described more precisely for this reason alone.
This feeling is already there in “I’m thinking” and also perfectly expresses the statement that whoever thinks it, already exists, because non-existent cannot think. So “therefore I am” is already a completely unnecessary conclusion.
If I say “gravity is universal”, then it is a meaningful and true statement, the whole sentence is necessary, since the first half “gravity” only tells what I am going to say something about, while the second half “universal” also says what I claim about gravity.
While this statement is an objective statement about a phenomenon of nature, “I think” is a subjective statement that requires a subject. The trouble with this subject is that it cannot be derived from anything else for the moment and probably forever. The subject is either present or absent. We cannot and will not be able to generate a statement by any method that defines the subject using objective entities. Descartes tries to cheat, he pretends that the existence of the subject “therefore I am” follows from the first part of the statement “I think”, although this is simply a lie, the subject is already there in the first word, so Descartes did not manage to grasp anything of the nature of the subject, no matter how much he wanted it.
If he had made a statement like, “gravity is universal, therefore I am” then I too would have bowed to his genius, since the first part is a statement about the object, the second part, the conclusion, is already about the subject, it’s a shame that the whole statement is of course not true. But the statement should be something like this, which could rightly win the recognition of all thinking beings.
The only problem is that no one can make such a claim. The subject, the self-consciousness, will always remain an unsolvable mystery. Forever.
In fact, if we want to get close to the subject, we don’t even need to say “I think” or “I am”. We really don’t have to say anything. The subject, the self-consciousness, does not need the help of speech, in order to manifest itself, no activity is actually necessary. Or, the only such activity is existence itself. But since our existence is involuntary and a continuous activity, we do not particularly need to force it to exist. Anyone who has ever meditated and emptied their mind to the point where they didn’t think about anything (it’s quite difficult to achieve this state, but it is possible), has already felt the state without words, thoughts and feelings, which nevertheless includes only one feeling, the sense of existence.
Self-consciousness, the subject, cannot therefore be approached with words, there is only one method for examining it, meditation. However, even with this method, we cannot achieve more than feeling our own existence. However, we cannot feel anything else – any object, color or taste – more directly than this. The most special thing about subjective self-consciousness is that it is the only rock-hard perception of which we cannot doubt its reality. Our eyes, ears, nervous system and brain can trick us. We can doubt everything, and we should doubt it to some extent, but we can be sure of one thing without any doubt: the person who perceives his own consciousness as the only thing that exists even in the emptiness of meditation, exists.
Our only real and direct perception is the perception of the existence of our own self-consciousness.
All philosophy must start from here.
April 1, 2012
English translation: August 28, 2023