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The Beginnings of All Knowledge, Essay Example

Pages: 8

Words: 2238

Essay

It is easily said that one of the most famous quotes in philosophy is Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” (17).  Translated from the Latin “Cogito ergo sum,” it is quite possibly the best known quote – in philosophy – for those who have not studied philosophy at all.  Yet, it is often misunderstood and not grasped within the proper context.  This revolutionary phrase can be considered a beginning or foundation for all knowledge.

Background

René Descartes is an incredibly noteworthy philosopher.  Considered the “Father of Modern Philosophy,” he is responsible for many advances in metaphysics, epistemology, and mathematics.  He is well known in mathematics as well, having invented the Cartesian coordinate system for analytic geometry.  Often named as a key figure in the Scientific Revolution, it is not difficult to see the impact of this 17th-century French philosopher.

Philosophical Schools

Descartes can be seen with Spinoza, Leibniz, and others with rationalism.  As opposed to empiricism, which states that the ultimate source of knowledge and concepts is sense experience, rationalism asserts that knowledge and concepts can be captured independently of sense experience.  Immediately connecting Descartes to a previous point, rationalism introduced mathematical methods into philosophy.  Thus, the connection between mathematical and philosophical genius in Descartes is easy to see.  It even exists with other examples, as Spinoza and Leibniz were also proficient in mathematics.

However, it may not be fair to put rationalism on polar ends of empiricism.  In a looser conception of these two theories, it is possible for a philosopher to be both a rationalist and empiricist.  At Descartes’ time, such a distinction had not yet been made, so this was not a significant argument within the circles, as they did not exist in this manner.  In the case of Descartes and, one of the first British empiricists, John Locke, Markie notes, as they had similar views regarding the nature of human ideas.

Other schools of thought may be attributed to Descartes.  Cartesianism is named for Descartes’ philosophical doctrine, with there being a number of thinkers following in this path.  Also, Descartes can be placed in the school or theory of foundationalism, though this is inextricably linked to epistemology, which has yet to be covered.

Philosophical Thought

Descartes did not have a particularly wide range of philosophical doctrine.  However, he did venture beyond the main portion of this analysis, which is grounded in epistemology.  For instance, an in addition to mathematics, Descartes had a hand in Christian philosophy and moral philosophy.  Metaphysics is another area of influence that is closely related, once again, to the primary area of epistemology.

Before getting into epistemology, it is worth mentioning the field of skepticism.  This branch of philosophy takes a look at whether knowledge is possible.  It can even be taken to the extreme, such as the idea that no truth is knowable.

Epistemology seeks to counter the objection of the lack of knowledge – in fullness or in part – that is present within skepticism.  Basically, epistemology is simply the branch of philosophy that looks at the nature of knowledge, such as its limitations and origination.  For Descartes, and certainly for the primary subject of this analysis, it occupies a central portion of his thought.

Background of Concepts and the Passage

There are some important concepts to clarify before moving onto the chosen passage.  As Newman notes, Descartes defines knowledge in terms of doubt.  The function of this plays an important role in the previously mentioned concepts, as, in Descartes’ epistemology, skepticism is not ignored.  Descartes looks to take a rationalistic approach to the subject of knowledge.  By looking at it from the perspective of doubt, Descartes seeks to avoid any power in such arguments.

This brings up the relevance of foundationalism.  Foundationalism asserts that knowledge can be known in relationship to basic beliefs.  This is quite important, as skepticism can use the regress argument to endlessly ask for justification.  However, instead of opening oneself up to further justifications or clarifications, there can be a common ground – a basic belief that “cannot” be questioned – according to the theory.  This is where we see the relevance of Descartes’ identity with foundationalism, as well as a starting point to now approach the chosen passage.

The Chosen Passage

Descartes’ famous “I think, therefore I am” is chosen due to its dynamic nature.  It seems so simple, yet it is easily misunderstood.  Also, what is true meaning of this statement?  Does it have a greater meaning, once connected to epistemology and the history of philosophy?  There are a number of interesting questions and items that surround this very popular quote, which makes it engaging to approach.  All of these areas of the quote has confused me a bit, which is why it has become the central passage to be analyzed in this analysis.

Identification and Explanation

It is important to demonstrate what the quote is not.  A common mistake is found in the conclusion that, with the phrase, it serves as proof that one is a human being.  However, the short passage does nothing to proof such a conclusion, in that a human being’s body exists.

Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” does not say this (17).  In his assertion that denial defines doubt, as it has been expressed prior in this analysis, Descartes finds a point in which no one can “entertain the smallest doubt,” in the words of Descartes (17).  He is finding the foundational point of all knowledge in this lack of doubt, countering the infinite regress problem.

Once the context is properly placed, everything else is quite logical.  If a human being finds himself or herself in thought, with the “I think” clause, that starts off the argument.  This cannot be refuted, according to Descartes.  From one being in thought, one realizes that he or she “is” – not a human being, as rejected earlier, but one in thought.

Every part of Descartes’ argument is to be perceived in the nature of thought, and nothing else.  If one is in thought, that person can identify that they are in thought.  And, if they identify that they are in thought – which is undeniably true, if they think this – then they can reason that they are in thought.  The passage forms a proof for the subjective individual to know that they are in thought, that their consciousness exists.

Explanation of Acceptance

An explanation of this passage cannot be done in a “normal” fashion.  For example, this is not a multiple-step passage that involves a number of pre-suppositions.  However, by diving into the true meaning and picture of this powerful statement, further insight can be gained to explain the item.

Descartes, once again, defines knowledge in terms of doubt.  By giving such an important statement, Descartes sets an important framework within epistemology.  He believes that the statement is self-evident and true, which has great implications for these overarching concepts that will be approached.

The proof of one’s thought and consciousness gives a starting point for all knowledge.  Thus, if someone were to skeptically deny his or her own conscious existence, the “proof” could be observed to counteract it.  When one is in thought, it is not possible for one to deny that the consciousness exists – for it is responsible for thought.

The immediate and lasting meaning is extremely important.  By asserting this starting point of knowledge – through the rejection of any possible denial of the person’s consciousness – Descartes seeks to provide that foundation for knowledge.  One’s consciousness can be truly known, since one is in thought and can self-evidently conclude that the consciousness is present.  Russell notes that this gives an “epistemological criterion of knowledge,” which is the starting point for knowledge that Descartes seeks (152).  Since even a doubter can observe that he or she is doubting, the doubter is proved wrong by being able to self-evidently observe that he or she is doubting (thinking) – proving the existence (the subject of the doubt, in this exercise) of the consciousness (the source of all thoughts).

An Objection

In my opinion, the objection that must be dealt with is obvious.  As Descartes is trying to provide a criterion of knowledge, by which a foundation can be made for knowledge or belief, the rejection of such an epistemological fact is something to consider.  This is the most relevant objection, certainly within the context of the previous discussions of philosophical dynamics.

While Descartes’ attempt is design to be safeguarded by doubt, with the foundation provided by the first person’s doubting and the consequential “proof” of the existence of consciousness, it could be argued that it is no so.  Extreme forms of skepticism could argue against the certain knowledge that is presented in Descartes’ argument.  It could even go as far as to say that there is no knowledge – or, perhaps more appropriately, that, in global skepticism, one does not know if anything is either true or false.  The latter argument may be more reasonable, as, if one will reject knowledge, doing so may be redundant as one would have to have that belief.  Global skepticism would reject any and all beliefs, including one’s own.

Returning back to the specific objection of the argument, a skeptic may not agree that one can know for sure if one is thinking.  After all, what is the difference between knowing one thinks and believing that one is thinking?  The person in question – the first person – could merely seem as if he or she is thinking, after all, according to the skeptical argument.  Or, one could believe that their thoughts or consciousness exists, but that it could not be proved or known absolutely.

In responding to this objection, there are various ways to counter such an objection.  One is to again look at the passage.  Descartes is, again, not trying to prove that a person exists, merely that the first person’s consciousness exists.  As one doubts his or her existence, the individual can recognize this doubt sheds light on he or she having thoughts.  Thus, there is something that is safe to grasp, according to Descartes.

One of the most powerful responses to the objection is to allow it (the objection) to exist on its own.  With such a crucial statement – arguable necessary for anyone to have assurance of the reality of something – rejecting it would be to reject all knowledge.  In other words, one of the best ways to counter such an objection is to let it stand, and to acknowledge it as an extreme take on a subject.  After all, how would it be possible to prove anything at all, based on the extreme skepticism that is present?  Thus, there must be some common sense in dealing with such an approach.

As another way to approach the object, an alternative explanation must be requested.  To the skeptic who denies the presence of a thought and/or a consciousness, what is the explanation?  Perhaps the response will be found in there being no consciousness, likely there being no certainty of anything epistemologically, or something else.  However, and since there will likely be no form of proof to satisfy skeptics of such a statement, enough will be seen to essentially ignore the validity of such an objection.

It is important to keep the objections within reason.  Due to improper understandings of Descartes’ phrase, some who object may be doing so with another meaning in mind.  For instance, it may be perceived as a proof for that of a human being.  However, when one doubts, the very act of doubting proves that one’s thought is real – which is the basis of Cartesian doubt and the popular phrase currently analyzed.

Conclusion

The popular quote from Descartes is one of the most recognizable in all of philosophy.  Along with Socrates’ “The unexamined life is not worth living” and Nietzche’s “God is dead,” Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” is incredibly popular and noteworthy.  However, this is not just a popular quote that has sentimental value – it is the beginning of all knowledge, the epistemological criterion that others have dubbed – that Descartes has targeted.  With it, there can be a starting point for epistemology, without skepticism taking over.

Its implications in epistemology, metaphysics, skepticism, and philosophy in general are difficult to approach.  It would seem almost “petty” to state that it has greatly influenced Western philosophy, as, of course, it has done so to a powerful extent.  It has certainly become integrated into modern philosophy.

The remaining question is obvious: Does it provide that powerful argument which dispels all skeptical objections, giving epistemology a starting point with which to work?  While it may be safe to say “yes,” this could ultimately be a subjective question.  As it is clear from previous discussions in this analysis, one must be careful about making any kind of certain statements or claims.

The famous “I think, therefore I am” is not only a popular quote but one that carries a great deal of force.  Introducing mathematical methods to philosophical discourse, Descartes’ work and quote not only provided Western philosophy with a starting point for the pursuit of knowledge, but an undeniable process that has influenced philosophers since his time.  His legacy is certainly among the great philosophers.

Works Cited

Descartes, Rene. The Principles of Philosophy. Whitefish, Montana: Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2010. Print.

Markie, Peter. “Rationalism vs. Empiricism,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rationalism-empiricism/

Newman, Lex. “Descartes’ Epistemology,” The Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2010/entries/descartes-epistemology/

Russell, Bertrand. The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell, Vol. 1: Cambridge Essays, 1888-99. London: Routledge, 1983. Print.

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