Descartes’ Inconclusive Conclusion

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Rene Descartes was a French philosopher who is credited for coming out with the phrase “Cogito ergo sum.” Meaning “I think therefore I am.” And it was considered by him and his cohorts as the sole evidence of one’s existence. Descartes explains,

“[W]e cannot doubt of our existence while we doubt.”

That statement sounds incomplete to me or rather it’s a circumlocution. To know that one simply exists is not enough. We exist as what? Or I exist as what?

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Tarzan of The Apes” knew he exists, but did not know he existed as human until he came into contact with other humans. Therefore a person gets to know him/herself only through others. This is summed up in the Bantu adage:

“Umuntu Ngumuntu Ngabantu.” Meaning a person is a person through other persons.

The problem I have with Descartes’ statement is that it is highly individualistic. Almost disregarding the existence of others because at this point he claims not to know or be interested in the existence of other humans. But knowing just a thing or two about oneself is not enough and even if we take this conclusion seriously, we can say that since human babies cannot be said to be involved in conscious thinking, we would be forced to conclude that babies do not exist: “I do not think, therefore I am not.”

Social psychologist can’t even agree a single definition of the self because what we call “self” is a very complex phenomenon. I shall therefore, in the following chapter, espouse my own ideas on the self and the some modalities of knowing.  Before we begin there are some things we need to keep in mind:


  1. To know is an unending process not a state of being.
  2. As long as we remain human, we cannot know everything about our(selves) nor the universe.
  3. Conscious knowing (explicit awareness) is the final stage of knowing.

There is always a part of the self that seem vague, and possibly remote from consciousness. It is only when it’s products enter consciousness that we recognise what it is. Whenever someone says “I” he is referring to the conscious self or the ego – all the memories he has about himself, immediate family members and others whom he has experienced. In psychology, we would call them objects. This consciousness then radiates outward to the outside world.

We (out of politeness, it should be I) have identified the unknown in the universe and the unknown within the self (inner world). Now conscious knowing only leads us to know about the outer world. I have said that the last stage of knowing is consciousness. Science limits itself to what is immediately perceivable or observable. That is why no matter how convinced one is of a theory, one is always faced with the burden of proof. Most geniuses felt the truth of their theories long before they could prove it. In their minds the invention had already taken place, they now only need to consciously communicate it. And it must be convincing. This is another mode of knowing – subliminal, you may call it.

In 1991, Chinua Achebe wrote, in response to the said dictum by Descartes:

“….a human is human because of other humans. Our humanity is contingent on the humanity of our fellows. No person or group can be human alone. We rise above the animal together, or not at all. If we learned that lesson even this late in the day we would have taken a truly millenial step forward.”

I think this is another reason why humanism is the way forward. Of course this is by no means a comprehensive and a constructive critique of Descartes but I am sure my point of the nature of knowing has been made.

Note also, for once I know that the diagram above is not all perfect. The core of consciousness which has in it animal instincts, is but not all animal. It alternates between the basic instincts and the unknown, almost divine. We shall revisit this later.


2 thoughts on “Descartes’ Inconclusive Conclusion

  1. You did make your point about being made who we are by our relationship to other humans. I wonder if everyone who postulates about existence is taking the time to differentiate between existing as a human, or simply existing. I sense that these thinkers were troubling themselves only with the difference between humans and animals.

    It’s implied, I believe, that existing as human is what Descartes means. However, if he had taken the time to clarify this point, he could have made a better case. I am not familiar enough with the rest of his writing to know if he did. “I think, therefore I am,” is a brilliant soundbyte, and thus has taken on a life of its own, outside the context of the rest of Descartes’ writing.


    • Yes! Crystal. I also believe it’s humans he is referring to but there are many other creatures with signs of cognitive abilities.

      No doubt, it’s a brilliant statement emphasizing reason but it makes perfect sense only through an individualistic lens. Does the individual think about existing or non existing objects in the universe? Can he continue thinking when the universe is no more?

      Plato asks: “How can you prove whether at this
      moment we are sleeping, and all our thoughts are a dream; or whether we are awake, and talking to one another in the waking state?”

      Anyway, thanks for your input. Be well.

      Liked by 1 person

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