Rene Descartes, universally hailed as the father of western philosophy, is frequently remembered by his famous quote, “I think, therefore I am." These renowned words have gathered the philosopher speculation and fame, however, why were these famous words uttered in the first place? Was there a meaning, deeper than what was apparent? Or was Descartes, simply stating a trite observation. This mere proposition led to a belief in the foundation of knowledge, in a time where radical doubt was widespread. There are scholars and philosophers who have discussed the problem before Descartes and after him. To reach a plausible conclusion, it might be beneficial to re-visit some of the perceptions posed by earlier philosophers, as well as criticism by the latter ones.
While the famous words were uttered by Descartes, the idea was formulated well before by Plato; giving us an idea about their plausibility. According to Aristotle, the fact that human beings are conscious of their doings, and this consciousness equates to thinking, means that we must exist. If people are able to contemplate the intricacies surrounding them and are aware of these deliberations, then they must be alive to sense these conscious thoughts. This was Plato’s main idea behind the “knowledge of knowledge”. It is possible that Descartes was expressing his ideas along similar lines; that thinking stems from conscious ability, and this consciousness equates existing. Philosophers like Plato and Aristotle are hailed as speakers of the truth on many matters, by extension, the statement by Descartes may hold merit.
While some philosophers shared Descartes’ ideas, there were others preceding him that criticized his work considerably. These Philosophers challenged his claims, attenuating the merit of his statement as a result. Bernard Williams, in Descartes, The Project of Pure Enquiry, presents a well-detailed evaluation of the problem. According to him, the word cognition suggested that the thinking of the great philosopher was personal, and cannot be verified by third party entities. This means that according to Bernard, Descartes was speaking out of his distinctive perception. It also means that it cannot be generalized to other people or one philosopher’s thoughts may not provide a clue to another thinker’s thought process. A similar problem was enhanced by scholar Pierre Gassendi, who questions the ability of a philosopher to possess the capabilities to think for everyone. In other words, the philosopher said the statement out of his own personal thought, and hence, did not mean for it to be generalized to other beings.
Some philosophers, such as Friedrich Nietzsche, have criticized the use of the word ‘I’ in the phrase, stating that it presumes that the thinking task is happening. Friedrich Nietzsche believed that it was inappropriate for Descartes to claim a statement like I am thinking; while there is no proof that actual thinking is being done by him. According to Nietzsche, a better approach would have been to use the “it” instead of “I”, to add a more impersonal touch to the phrase. David Hume also provides an extension of this theory and claims that contest for a self that can be found using logic and reasoning, confuse between “similarity” and “Identity." In other words, while people might share a similarity in thoughts, and share the continuity of them, it does not equate to our thoughts being similar.
To conclude, for Rene Descartes statement to hold true, it is significant to understand the context in which it was spoken, previous philosophers take on the issue and the criticism it faced in later years by established philosophers. Acclaimed philosophers like Plato and Aristotle hold similar views on the matter, and often celebrated for their strong command on truths, later philosophers have criticized Descartes’s statement to a point where its foundation can be seen to be rooted in weakness. Despite his grasp on matters of consciousness and thought, Descartes statement does not hold its ground firmly in the face of criticism, therefore, fails to be true.