Some thoughts on thinking, being, Rene Descartes, and conjunctions.

  • I think therefore I am
  • Cogito ergo sum
  • Je pense, donc je suis.

Descartes of course wrote this in French. Does “therefore” convey the intended meaning?

Therefore connotes the idea of proving something. As if “I think therefore I am” is to be understood as:  because I think, that proves therefore, that I am, which needs proof, because my being is in doubt (which it is).

This reading falls short though and is weak. But to be concerned with this follows first from asking what is thinking, and what is being? As it were, these may be said to be, and they are said to be, equivalent. We review this here: Human in the Loop (Being in Data). Thinking is being.

That being the case, we return again to Descartes’ “Je pense, donc je suis”, but focusing more narrowly on “donc“. Let’s try some interpretations of donc.

  • I think therefore I am
  • I think because I am
  • I think. That being the case, I am
  • I think, and so I am
  • I think, and that’s what I am
  • I think, as, I am
  • I think, there, for I am

The list could continue, but this is enough already to see a different meaning for therefore, not as proof, but rather, definition:

  • I think; and this is what I am (a being that thinks, and being is thinking).

And this is elliptical in looping redundancy. And here we get to the nature both of being, and of Descartes’ formulation, “Je pense, donc je suis.” A being is, one that thinks. One that thinks, is.

Putting aside the idea of “thinking matter” (which the best of science will not rule out), let us say that a stone does not think but that I do. I think, and therefore I am. I have, first of all the ability to formulate an idea of “I”, of self. A stone does not and therefore cannot contemplate “I think therefore I am”.

Let’s break this down further:

  • I am a being that thinks
  • I (a being that thinks) am (this is being) a being (that’s me; I am, a thinker) that thinks (this is being, which I am)

So you get a glimpse then into the circularity. Let’s restate then using the equivalencies:

  • A being that thinks IS being, and therefore because I think, I am, being, a being.

We can go on looping this as long as we like but the point is precisely that it loops. This is clear when you look at the meaning of “thinking”. Again that’s highlighted here Human in the Loop (Being in Data). 

The conjugation we’re really looking for, that we need, may not exist. I have trouble thinking of precisely the right one. There are only approximations.

  • I think, and that therefore is because, I am
  • Because I think, for that reason I am; because certainly indeed that is what I am, one that thinks, which is being.

We can symbolize. Maybe this is clearer.

  • I think = I am
  • I am = I think
  • I think :: I am
  • I am :: I think

These formulations are rather definitional, which is stronger (than proof). Definition is probably good. That is, it’s probably worth thinking about. Asserting proof is weaker, worth less attention.

The common reading, which is a mis-take, a misreading, of “I think therefore I am” is that the therefore connotes not only doubt underlying being, a doubt that needs to be addressed (and there is doubt, certainly, and it does need to be addressed), but the common reading of therefore implies that the doubt is addressed and answered, by thinking. Well in fact it is, but the misreading posits that thinking proves being. It doesn’t. Thinking is being, and the  proof reading can’t justify four centuries of fame for “I think therefore I am“.

The definitional reading is strong, and does.

  • I think, there, for I am

Thinking simply is being. Whatever either of them actually are, and whether or not they actually exist, we cannot know. But at least we can know in either case that whatever they are, they are the same. At least we can go that far, with strength enough. We recognize the limits of our understanding, of things so utterly mysterious, and within our limits, we can recognize overlap.

The simplicity of the formulation “Je pense, donc je suis”at once reveals and hides the elliptical complexity  of both being and thinking, the meaning of which are always to us at once revealed and hidden at the same time.

For this the saying withstands the test of time.

And we also learn something about conjunctions.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Jeff Snyder says:

    I read this, therefore, I like it, I think.

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