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Summary of Lecture on the Philosophy of Rene Descartes
Michael Jhon M. Tamayao
Cogito Ergo Sum.I think, therefore I am. The mere fact that I am thinking, I am sure that I exist. Whether it is your first time to encounter this famous statement or not, you can’t help but be intrigued by the simplicity and straightforwardness of the message. The message is so simple that we most certainly dismiss it as inessential. This statement however occupies a special place in the revolutionary philosophy of Rene Descartes which, among other things, plays a critical role in the development of modern western thought.
Who was Rene Descartes?
Rene Descartes (1596-1650) was a famous French philosopher and mathematician. He was considered by many scholars as the “Father of Modern Philosophy” because he initiated the shift from Medieval to the Modern way of thinking. Much of the subsequent western philosophies were reactions to his philosophy.
What was the impetus for Descartes’s philosophy?
Mathematician that he was, Descartes desired to make knowledge certain. He wanted to create a system of knowledge that was free of error. Since philosophies of the past were laden with uncertainties and possible errors, he demolished them and tried to institute an skeptic-proof science.
The geometrical method was a perfect tool for his task. Just as the geometrical method of Euclid starts from certain ideas which need not be proven, Descartes’ philosophy starts from a statement whose truth is self-evident. However, this statement cannot be something taken from sense experience, since knowledge arising from sense experience is subject to uncertainties or as Descartes states senses often deceive us. Thus, if “empirical” knowledge is excluded, then what remains is knowledge from pure reason, that is, knowledge learned without the use of the senses. This belief stating that true and certain ideas are only attained through reason is called “rationalism.”
How did Descartes arrive at the “cogito ergo sum”?
Because anything that can be doubted was discarded as untrue knowledge, Descartes sought for something that was indubitable (cannot be doubted) to serve as the ground of his system of thinking. For him, the only thing that cannot be doubted was doubting itself. To still doubt that you are doubting is self-contradicting and virtually impossible because the data subjected to doubt has already been proven true the very moment the act has been carried out. That he is doubtful is certain. Or restated more paradoxically, he is certain that he is uncertain. Moving on, he saw doubting as a mode of thinking. No one can reject that he is thinking because rejecting the idea proves that he is already thinking. That I am thinking is certain beyond unreasonable doubt. Thinking is something and can never be nothing. Since thinking is something, and since I am certain that I am thinking, then I am certain that I am something. Or to put it simply, I think, therefore I exist.
What is the “I” in the “I think therefore I exist”?
Descartes is certain that he exists because he thinks. This does not however mean that he is certain that his “body” exists because the knowledge of the body is acquired through the senses which was previously said to be unreliable. So he is uncertain that he exists as a body, but he is certain that he exists as a thinking being. Thus, the “I” which Descartes is certain of existing is not his body but he as a thinking being. By thinking he means any conscious activity of a person such as reflecting, doubting, questioning, proposing, willing, imagining, sensing, and the awareness that he is thinking. Since this is the only thing about him that cannot be doubted, thinking is said to be his essence.
How does the Cartesian Method work?
In his work Discourse on Method (1637), Descartes expressed his intentions of making a new method which will serve as the basis of all scientific and philosophical inquiries. One can easily understand his method using the analogy of a chain.
The strength of the chain is usually measured by durability of its first ring. If the first ring (from which the rest of the chain is anchored) is weak then the chain will easily give in to external tensions exerted on it. But if the first ring is “unbreakable,” then the chain will withstand any external force. Descartes pictures his system of knowledge like the latter chain which is anchored on an “unbreakable” first ring. He wants the system of knowledge to be like the latter chain. Through his new method, Descartes firmly believes that, like the sturdy chain, all sciences and philosophies will withstand the onslaught of skepticism no matter how extreme it may be.
Knowledge must start from something that is recognized by reason as “clear and distinct.” That which is unclear and ambiguous is unreliable, and that which is unreliable cannot serve as a keystone of knowledge. Since sense perception is unreliable, the only means to acquire clear and distinct ideas is through “intuition.” As was previously proven, the first ring in the chain of knowledge is the existing thinking self. Thus from this indubitable idea all knowledge must be deduced. No link in the deductive chain of knowledge must be omitted and everything must be ultimately linked to the starting point. Through this mechanism everything participates in the same degree of truth enjoyed by the first idea.
How did Descartes think as an Skeptic?
Descartes used the method of skepticism to arrive at the incontrovertible and absolute truth. He discarded anything that can be doubted and retained only the things that cannot be doubted (that is, the cogito ergo sum). Unlike the conventional “Skeptics,” Descartes doubted not in order to remain in doubt but in order to arrive at the solid starting point of knowledge.
Descartes employed radical doubt. He doubted everything that is acquired by the knowing faculties: sense data and intellectual data. He even doubted mathematical truths saying that an “Evil Genius” may be fooling him, making something that is objectively wrong as right. That 1+1=2 may in fact be objectively wrong, but because the “Evil Genius” is so deceitful he can make it seem perfectly correct.
Paradoxically, doubt itself is certain. Descartes stated that what is certain to him is that he is doubting and, consequently, thinking. Despite his extreme doubt, he was most certain that he exists. Thus in face of the onslaught of skepticism, the only real thing about him is his thinking. With this, he concludes that the primary reality is the thinking thing or the “res cogitans.”
How did Descartes prove that God exists?
Descartes is now aware that he exists as a thinking thing. But this awareness also tells him that he is limited and imperfect and subject to doubt. If given the chance that he gives existence to himself, he should have given himself a perfect nature. Thus, he did not give existence to himself.
Descartes was aware that he was imperfect. But with the idea of “imperfection” comes the idea of “perfect” because you cannot know the one without the other. Now, the idea of “perfect” cannot come from Descartes or from any limited thinking self for the simple reason that “the perfect cannot come from the imperfect.” Hence, it can only come from a Perfect Being, who is God.
For Descartes the idea that “God is Perfect” is clear and distinct. If God is perfect, then part of his essence is to exist, for just as the idea of “three sides” is included in the idea of triangle, so is existence included in the idea of God, the Perfect Being.
After proving the existence of God, Descartes pressed on to state that man can rely on his reason. Since God is perfect he can never deceive us because doing so destroys his perfect nature. Thus, the rational self is now ascertained that the clear and distinct ideas it apprehends are indeed certain and true. Accordingly the concept of an Evil Genius is debunked.
Types of Ideas…
With the first idea now in place, Descartes then tries to rebuild the entire system of knowledge. He fills the foundation with innate ideas which he thinks are true and certain. By innate he means ideas which are available to us since birth such as the knowledge of God, logical and mathematical principles, and moral truths, to name a few.
Aside from the innate ideas, Descartes distinguishes two other types, adventitious and fictitious ideas. By adventitious he means ideas which are derived from the sense, and by fictitious he means ideas fashioned by the thinking self out of the former. The knowledge that “fire is hot” is adventitious, while the idea of a “human torch” is fictitious.
Descartes has little regard for the latter two because they are acquired only through the senses. Only innate ideas and knowledge deduced from innate ideas are certainly true for him.
Does the material world exist?
Again in contrast to conventional skeptics, Descartes proved the existence of the external world. He said that although the external world is known through the senses (which is unreliable) there is still an evidence that it really exists.
When we feel the heat of the sun, we do not will it to be so because it just comes as a data of the senses. The rays of the sun are hot because they are indeed hot and not because I only thought it to be hot. Sensory perceptions come to us involuntarily, thus pointing to the fact that there is something “external” existing outside the thinking self. For Descartes this is the external world or “res extensa.”
It is possible that the senses deceive us, but it is overwhelmingly clear that there are things outside the mind that trigger the senses. And we have a very strong inclination that these things are corporeal. We are so sure that God would be charged of deceit given these data were all but mere illusions. Well of course, by virtue of the nature of the senses, some data may be wrong, but through the proper use of reason and critical examination we could arrive at the actual picture of the material world.
At the end of his work Meditations on First Philosophy (1641), Descartes reassured us of the validity of our knowledge of our own existence, of God, and of the material world.
Who is man for Rene Descartes?
The “res cogitans” or the thinking thing is immaterial, while the “res extensa” or external world is material. These two realities are present in man; he is a dichotomy of mind and body.
The body, on the one hand, has the material properties of extension and motion, and as such it is governed by the laws of physics. On the other hand, the mind, inasmuch as it is immaterial, is not governed by the laws of physics. For Descartes, only man has a mind thus the only thing in the universe that is beyond the grasps of the laws of nature. Although ultimately Descartes proved the existence of the body, he saw it as an inessential part of his personal existence. For him, what constitutes the true essence of man is the mind, making him a strict rationalist. The mind, which has priority over the body, is more real than the body, and it can exist apart from the body.
Descartes then sought for the link that ties the two realities in man. He said that it was through the “pineal gland” in the brain that the mind interacts with the body. But since the mind takes precedence over the body, Descartes’ mind-body dualism has a uni-directional stint stating that the mind controls the body.
How do we become ethical according to Descartes?
Reason plays a central role in Descartes’s ethics. In his work Rules for the Direction of the Mind, he insists that humans must increase their natural light of reason. Our intellect should direct our will in pursuing what must ought be done. Reason alone makes man moral. A good man is someone in a good mental health and has freed himself from the mental diseases of doubt and deception.
Happiness consists solely of contemplating the truth from which the comforts of life come. Everything begins in the proper use of the thinking faculties. We learn to preserve our health, to conduct our acts, and all manners of skills through the contemplation of truth and proper exercise of reason. Anyone can survive the saddest disasters and emotional pains provided he knows how to use his reason.
One of the main points of Descartes’s ethical code is to embrace life and to never fear death. This manifests the Hellenistic influence of stoicism to his philosophy. Do not imprison yourself in fear of things which are impossible to control such as death. Instead develop an affirmative attitude towards life by having recourse to reason. One gains mastery of himself by devoting his whole life in search for truth and by not succumbing to his emotions.
If there is one thing you need to remember about Descartes’s philosophy, it is its goal of cultivating the mind’s capacity for sound judgment and putting reason before anything else. For Descartes, reality must be explained through clear and distinct ideas. He started from the indubitable idea that “the thinking self exists” and then continued on in proving the existence of God and the corporeal world.
For him, man is a dichotomy of mind and body. But because the mind has precedence over the body, man is essentially a thinking being. Thus, he must live in accordance to reason and never by passions.