Rethinking Descartes’ Cogito: “I think, therefore we are (not I am).” Part I: Resolving the Popeye Perplex.

Burton Weltman

“I’m Popeye the Sailor Man.”

“I am what I am, and that’s all I am.”  So sayeth Popeye the Sailor Man before he downs a can of spinach and goes forth to pummel some bad guys and save some innocent people from harm.  Popeye was a popular comic strip super hero before there were superheroes, with bulging biceps and enormous strength that he derived from consuming spinach.  A precursor from the 1920’s of the age of superheroes that emerged during the Depression years of the 1930’s, Popeye shared a key trait with Superman and most other superheroes from then to the present day: a belief in himself as a miraculously conceived individual with unique characteristics that he derived from no one else.  Popeye was his own man, an independent individual, and there was no one to whom he owed a debt of gratitude for his specialness.  “I yam what I yam,” Popeye would repeatedly declaim in a slurred expression that was alternately and ambivalently humble – he did not claim to be more than he actually was – and proud – because what he actually was was plenty good.

“I am that I am.”  So sayeth God to Moses before He goes forth to pummel the wicked Pharaoh with plagues and enables Moses to lead the Hebrews out of slavery.  From ancient times in Western society through the Middle Ages, it was generally held that no person could claim to be self-sufficient or the author of his/her own powers, and no one could claim to be unique.  Among Jews, Christians and Muslims, it was generally believed that only God could say that He was what He was and that it was the sin of pride for a person to say that of him/herself.  Pride, the belief that one was the author of his/her own virtues and accomplishments without the support of other people or God, was seen as the root of all evils.

But things changed.  Beginning with the Protestant Reformation and the emergence of capitalist economic systems in the 1500’s, and then with the Enlightenment and the rise of liberal and democratic social and political theories and practices in the 1700’s, an ideology of individualism developed that has permeated Western societies to the present day.  Pride, personal independence and self-sufficiency became virtues.  We routinely praise people whom we identify as being self-made and independent, and who have pride in their individual selves.  And we criticize people who do not claim to be independent and who seem not to have pride in themselves or their work.

We are, however, ambivalent about our pride. So, for example, expressions of pride in a personal achievement, such as scoring the winning touchdown in a football game, are often accompanied by “Thank the Lord” statements which ostensibly denote humility.  But even these statements sometimes seem to connote some special relationship of the speaker with God and some favoritism from the Lord, as though He actually cares who wins a football game.  Pride seems thereby to emerge even from within a statement expressing humility.  The upshot is that we tend in our society to display an ambivalence and an internalized contradiction between pride and humility that could be termed a Popeye Perplex.

Philosophical support for the ideology of individualism was supplied in the early 1600’s by Rene Descartes through his formulation of Cogito, ergo sum or “I think, therefore I am.”  Popeye was  a disciple of Descartes.  But I do not think that either Descartes or Popeye got things quite right, and I think that a reformulation of the Cogito could be a way of resolving the Perplex.

The Cogito: If I yam what I yam, what are you?

We humans seem to be among the few creatures on earth who are aware of ourselves.  We are, in turn, plagued by persistent existential questions about who and what we are.  Hence Popeye’s almost obsessive concern to reassure himself and others that he was what he was, whatever that was.  Descartes’ claim that “I think, therefore I am” represents the predominant answer in our society to these existential questions.

Descartes’ formulation has been widely interpreted to mean that we humans are thinking creatures who can know only one thing for sure — that each of us exists as an isolated individual.  This conclusion is reflected in Popeye’s mantra of “I yam what I yam.”  Descartes’ Cogito is also popularly taken to mean that each individual is the center of his/her own universe and can rely only on his/her own observations and conclusions in deciding how life should be lived.  Based on these interpretations, Descartes has often been viewed as the godfather of individualism.

But Descartes’ actual intention was quite different.  His intention was to establish God as the center of the universe, as the central point of meaning for humankind, and to connect us to each other through God.  Descartes is often credited with allowing us to turn Adam’s Original Sin of pride and personal independence into a high virtue.  In this misreading of Descartes, we fail to understand that he actually sought to promote a collective communion with the Lord and a humble recognition of humans’ dependence on God.

Descartes begins his reasoning with an attempt to find something that a person can know for sure.  He expresses concern that some Evil Genius might be feeding him misleading perceptions which would lead him to false thoughts.  He then hits on the indisputable fact that he is thinking and the fact that he is thinking is indubitable even if an Evil Genius is otherwise misleading him.  From this fact, he proceeds to the conclusion that a person can know for sure that he/she exists.  A person can ostensibly know this because each person is aware of his/her own thoughts and is, therefore, aware of him/herself as an existent being.

But Descartes does not rest with “I think, therefore I am.”  That was only a preliminary conclusion.  For if the only thing I can know for sure by myself is myself, how is it that I can successfully act in the world outside of myself?  We all act and operate successfully as though we know things outside of ourselves.  We communicate with each other, work with each other, and manipulate all sorts of other things as though we know about them.  How can this be?

Descartes’ answer is God: “When I turn my mind’s eye on myself, I understand that I am incomplete and dependent on another,” he says.  That other is God.  After considering all that he thinks he knows about the universe, Descartes comes to the conclusion that “all these attributes are such that, the more carefully I concentrate on them, the less possible it seems they could have originated from me alone [even from an Evil Genius].”  They must, instead, come from God and “it must be concluded that God necessarily exists.”

God brings things together and holds them together for us so that we can function in a world about which we cannot really know anything outside of our individual selves.  It is through our common connection with God that we can connect with each other and the outside world.  God is the deus ex machina who makes the machinery of the universe work.  In sum, instead of celebrating independence and promoting individualism, the Cogito functioned for Descartes as a proof of God’s existence and our communal dependence on Him.

Despite Descartes’ intentions, his Cogito has been used to justify the individualism that has permeated Western societies over the last four hundred years.  The ethical, political and economic theories developed during this time have almost invariably started with the isolated, independent individual and then tried to explain and justify society.  This has been true of even most socialistic and communitarian thinking.  Social and political practice has followed from this same starting point.  It is a starting point that puts most cooperative and communitarian theories and practices at a disadvantage.  It can lead to the extreme conclusion of Margaret Thatcher, England’s longtime conservative Prime Minister, that there is no such thing as society, only a bunch of individuals.  It therefore behooves anyone who wants to attack the prevailing individualism, and who hopes to replace it with a more cooperative social theory and practice, to address the Cogito and see if there is an alternative to its insistent focus on “I.”

Cognition and the Cogito: We before Me.

Descartes’ Cogito has been repeatedly criticized by philosophers even as it has become a popular mantra.  Criticism multiplied during the mid to late nineteenth century as philosophers increasingly rejected the dualism — mind versus body, self versus the world — of Descartes and his disciples and promoted, instead, more integrated and dialectical philosophies.

Kierkegaard, for example, complained that the Cogito was a circular argument that presupposes “I” and then uses it to prove the existence of “I.”  Nietzsche claimed that in phenomenologically examining one’s thoughts, one could at most say that “It thinks” but that one has no basis for saying “I.”  William James, following a suggestion from George Lichtenberg, went a step further and concluded that the most one could say is that “Thinking is occurring” but not that “I” think.  Following the lead of these critics, I think there are at least two problems with Descartes’ Cogito that lead me to conclude that a better formulation would be “I think, therefore we are,” a formulation that would provide philosophical and psychological support for a cooperative and communal social theory and practice.

First, Descartes confounds the difference between consciousness and self-consciousness.  The first “I” in his Cogito is not the same as the second “I” and there is no logical connection between the two.  Consciousness is an awareness of things outside of ourselves which is generally demonstrated by a responsiveness to those outside things.  Arguably, any living creature has consciousness of some sort because all living creatures, even amoebas, respond to outside influences and seem able to process information they receive from the outside world to reach conclusions upon which they act or at least react.  Self-consciousness, in contrast with simple consciousness, is an awareness of our awareness of things.  Seemingly, only the so-called higher life-forms, which do not include amoebas, have this second sort of awareness.

Descartes seems to think that because I – the first “I” in his Cogito – have an awareness of things, I have an awareness of my thinking about these things and, therefore, an awareness of myself.  That logic is flawed.  All Descartes has proved by saying “I think” is that he is comparable to an amoeba.  By the mere fact of thinking, Descartes has not established knowledge of himself or knowledge of his own existence.  He has merely established what William James called “a stream of consciousness,” a blur of perceptions and thoughts, the sort of thing that James Joyce portrayed brilliantly in Ulysses and confoundedly in Finnegan’s Wake.

The second problem with Descartes’ Cogito is that as a matter of philosophical logic and psychological fact he proceeds backwards.  It is not from my awareness of myself that I then gain awareness of others, it is from an awareness of others that I gain an awareness of myself.  Ontologically and psychologically “We” or at least “You” comes before “Me.”  I cannot say “I” without an awareness of other people with whom I interact and with whom I can compare and contrast myself.  As such, a reformulated Cogito might better be “I think, therefore we are.”

There is an ethical dimension to this critique of the Cogito.  In order to get past an amoeba-like awareness of others as merely stimuli which require a response and reach a self-conscious awareness of myself as one among many beings, I must recognize other people as essentially the same as me and equal to me.  That is, in order to see myself, I must see others as beings to whom I can compare myself and against whom I can contrast myself.  If these others are completely foreign and unlike me, then I cannot see myself in them.  If they are completely like me, then I cannot see myself as distinguished from them.  In any case, I must first see others in order to then see myself.

I must also see other people as essentially equal to me in order to trust the evidence about myself that I receive from my interactions with them.  My self-awareness stems in large part from other people’s reactions to me, including their judgments of me, and from my reactions to them, including my judgments of them.  In order to trust their reactions to me and their judgments of me, I must respect them as people essentially equal to me.  In turn, in order to rely on my judgments of them, I must see them as like me and not so different as to be beyond comparison with me.  In sum, self-consciousness, an ability to say “I” and actually know what you are talking about,  requires respect for others.  So too does self-respect.  Your respect for others is a catalyst for and a measure of your respect for yourself.

It is from this circumstance that I believe the Golden Rule emerges as a statement of fact as well as an ethical ideal.  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and “Love thy neighbor as thyself” are descriptions of reality and not merely ideality, because the way we think of ourselves depends on how we think of others.  If we think of the well-being of others as connected with our own well-being, loving our neighbors as though they are extensions of ourselves, then we are likely to think well of ourselves.  If we disregard others’ well-being, we are likely to think poorly of ourselves.  In turn, the way we expect others to treat us depends on how we treat them, on doing unto them as we would have them do unto us if we were in their situation.  If we treat others poorly, we are likely to expect them to treat us poorly, and they probably will.  If we treat others well, we are likely to expect the same from them and are more likely to be treated that way.

Recognizing the reality of a reformulated Cogito and the Golden Rule is a way to solve the Popeye Perplex and resolve our chronic ambivalence and alternation between pride and humility.  This recognition means acknowledging that others are an extension of ourselves and that the way we treat others is a reflection of what we think of ourselves, so that thinking well of ourselves does not involve promoting ourselves above others, denigrating them, and seeing ourselves as self-made successes.  In turn, we do not have to humiliate ourselves in order to accept that we are part of a common humanity.

This acknowledgement that “We” precedes “Me” means accepting the contention of John Dewey and other pragmatic and progressive social thinkers that our self-development as individuals starts with our actual experience as social beings, and that theories and practices which reflect that fact protect individuals and promote individuality better than abstract formulations which start with isolated individuals.  Or as Karl Marx claimed: “The self-development of the individual is the basis for the development of all” and vice versa: The development of the collective is the foundation of the development of the individual.  Dewey and Marx were thereby contending that the world actually works according to the Golden Rule and were encouraging recognition of that fact as a first step toward realizing the benefits thereof.  I will elaborate on these contentions in the second part of this essay: Rethinking Descartes’ Cogito: “I think, therefore we are (not I am).”  Part II: The World According to Calvin and Hobbes.

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