Cogito Ergo Sum





It is convenient to use Descartes as a reference point because so much of what is distinctively modern is found with him.  His statement cogito ergo sum--“I am thinking therefore I am”--was from early in his writings an example of one of the few most basic, “clear and distinct,” ideas a philosopher could have.  The statement asserts the certainty of my existence as a consequence of the mere fact that I am thinking.  So long as I can be sure that I am thinking I am sure that I exist.   A lot hangs, then, on this “I am thinking.”  Descartes’ most sustained and widely read demonstration of this is to be found in the first two of his Meditations, which are recommendable in their entirety.  What comes to be known (admittedly rather absurdly) as The Cogito (the “I am thinking”) concerns the faculty of human judgment.  What he is concerned to do in The Meditations is to prove that judgment in his sense is free of deception.  If he succeeds, of course, then there’s a nice ground for human knowledge indeed.  Clearly, he is attempting a fresh reading of the already traditional search for a ground for truth.  It is this sense of “fresh reading” that is crucial here.  The problems of philosophy, charted in the preceding sections, are only clouded further by slavish adherence to traditional authorities like Plato and especially Aristotle.  The faculty of judgment ought to be free from all forms of deception, like stories and myths, certainly, but all old previous thinking, the whole cultural heritage, including the hazardous wastes of rhetoric.  Furthermore, human imagination and, worst of all, the fallible evidence of the senses each in its own way serves to compromise the clarity and distinctness of proper thinking.  Thus a mixture of geometry and philosophy produces what we now know as Cartesian method.   Cartesian doubt is one way of characterizing this and, to be fair, Descartes certainly encourages such labels because his most influential book, The Meditations, is built upon a cunning narrative, he calls it “a fable of the mind,” in which the philosopher takes his addressees through several stages of doubting.  It is advisable not to play down the literary aspects of his writing, for this will lead the casual reader into the error of taking his demonstrations, which are almost explicitly theatrical acts, as a kind of authoritative knowledge.  For instance when he complains of the multiplicity of conflicting philosophical authorities, none of which contribute a convincing account of the grounds and first principles of knowledge, we may be forgiven for assuming that Descartes is announcing a historically based crisis, the breaking down of epistemological foundations.  He would thus represent, as has been argued, a shift from medieval thought to a peculiarly modern one.  However this would fail to do justice to the argument as we find it.  Descartes’ point is not much altered from Plato’s.  The thinker must each time start from scratch in order to be sure of his or her knowledge.  The real question is to what extent is this escape from the multiplicity of sensuous and rhetorical distractions ever possible?   The demonstrations are, at the very least, suggestive of the necessity for the kind of theatrical cunning that Descartes himself employs to get what he calls his “Archimedes’ point” across.



Having first of all doubted the words of the authorities (which is always easy to do--why should we believe Aristotle or Plato when even they often contradict each other?) he moves on to the evidence of his senses.  Why should I believe that what I experience--what I see, hear, touch, feel or taste--is real, or even a true representation of the object world to which I get this sensuous access?  The question is, now, can I successfully doubt that my experience is real?  Descartes uses a number of examples.  Sometimes my dreams seem to be as real as when I am awake.  I cannot, therefore, be certain that I am not dreaming.  There are some madmen who think they are made of glass or that they are kings when they are really just poor beggars.  Of the latter Descartes, rather controversially, says, “but these people are mad and it would be extravagant if I followed their example.”  Instead he follows a different kind of extravagance.  If I hypothesise a demon, which systematically tricks me into believing that all my experience is real when in fact it bears no relation to actuality, how can I be sure of anything at all?  Added together, the doubting and the hypothesizing prove one thing for certain (while all else remains in doubt), that is, that I am doubting and that I am hypothesizing.  The invention of the evil demon may of course be an invention by the evil demon too, but the fact that I can doubt even this cannot be doubted.  Therefore my capacity to throw all aspects of my experience into doubt, except that fact of doubting itself, ought to be able to serve as a ground for certain knowledge.  It is called cogito, “I am thinking.”  Notice that when I adopt Descartes’ I, I do not say, for instance, “Descartes thinks therefore he is.”  That would simply not work.  It only works for what he calls “this ‘I.’”  The I is a philosophical subject that remains constant in the statement, whoever occupies that place.  So the autobiographical aspects of Descartes’ Meditations are purely fictional in so far as any I ought to be able to occupy that slot in the demonstration.  Descartes calls his method analytic as opposed to synthetic.  Traditionally the synthetic method would set out a theorem and follow it with a series of proofs.  What Descartes is interested in here is putting the addressee into the position of the philosopher going through his hypotheses and doubts.



Along the way, Descartes gives a couple of crucial demonstrations of what this “thinking,” the Cartesian judgment, involves.  At a certain point in the demonstration Descartes says, “when I look out of the window I say that I see men passing by.”  He then points out that this is an error caused by habitual ways of speaking.   These passers-by might be automata clothed in robes with hats and masks (more Cartesian extravagance).  Rather, says Descartes, “ I judge what I see to be men.”  Hence the faculty of judgment gives sense to what is visible and, once again, a version of the difference between the transcendental (judgment) and the empirical (the visible) comes to organize the argument.  And, once again, the rhetorical field is the frontier between the two.




The problem raised by frontiers (both as distinguishing marks and as loci of passage) is that they reveal the multiplicity of ways in which persons and communities interact with those from whom they are or wish to be distinguished.  This multiplicity is often regarded as a bad infinite because not only does it describe the multiple conditions of similarity and difference that define association per se, but also these frontiers can be marked only with reference to the particularities of a given and specific community.  The bad infinite is thus finitude itself, history and historical specificity, and as such it subjects us to all the distressing vagaries of contingency and chance.  In this respect the Cartesian judgement remains tied to the metaphysical tradition in which it emerged first of all as a concept. 

The Cartesian Subject is not a Subject

As we have seen, Descartes’ texts reveal a desire for reasonably certain grounds amongst irreducible cultural and philosophical difference.  Furthermore, Descartes’ subject, now canonically referred to as the Cogito, is often today described as being in crisis.


The Subject in Crisis

This is probably most marked in work following Julia Kristeva and Jacques Lacan who both demonstrate a tendency to see Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis as having decentred a subject commonly described as “Cartesian.” In Jacques Lacan’s Ecrits we read: “the formation of the I as we experience it in psychoanalysis  ... leads us to oppose any philosophy directly issuing from the Cogito.” (1).  And in Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Lacan uses Descartes to assert that while the subject of psychoanalysis is of Cartesian origin, it emerges only in the wake of the signifier (47). 


This identity is often equated with the social identity of the modern subject—an identity before anything else who is capable of making free and rational decisions.  For this reason Descartes is a good place to go in order to discover the conditions out of which such an identity so powerfully emerges.  What we learn is surprising, because if we consider the sense of “social or cultural identity,” we find that the so-called Cartesian subject is actually not really a subject at all.



In “Rule Twelve” of the Regulae ad Directionem Ingenii (c.1628) Descartes describes how knowledge of the outside world passes through five relatively discrete operations or events of perception, culminating in the reasonable judgements and understanding proper to the operation of “native intelligence” or “mind.”  I want to make special reference to Descartes’ qualification here, which is typical, that he “lacks the space to include all the points which have to be set out before the truth about these matters can be made clear to everyone” (CSM I 40).  It would be a mistake to regard this as a passing comment, contingent on the purpose of the work in hand.  Descartes’ method is predicated on the desire for a certainty that is always “embarrassed” by the so called “bad” infinite: lack of time and space, prematurity of reason, infinite regression in solving complex propositions, infinite computation with respect to probabilities, etc.  Indeed, in The Meditations the same problem emerges as reason for not assenting to the standard interpretation of Man as “rational animal.”   He writes “from one single question, we would fall unwittingly into an infinite number of others, more difficult and awkward than the first, and I would not want to waste the little time and leisure remaining to me by using it to unravel subtleties of this kind” (A II 427, CSM II 14).  As a consistent response to this problem Descartes’ method, learned not only from geometry but from the allegorical arts as well, involves setting out “as briefly as possible ... the most useful way of conceiving everything within us which contributes to our knowledge of things” (CSM I 40).  The method of explanation, which as such implicates judgement with the ability to successfully communicate the judgement itself, allows the reader to follow a chain of “suppositions” that otherwise “detract not a jot from the truth of things,” a chain exorbitant to the truth that nonetheless makes “everything much clearer” (CSM I 40).  This kind of abstraction, based in part on the abstractions of algebraic geometry, subordinates logic to figuration.



In demonstrating the first phase he asks us to conceive the process of passive corporeal sense perception as one in which senses are “impressed” by data, “in the same way in which wax takes on an impression from a seal” (CSM I 40).  In this way Descartes can generalise all sense perception under the term shape (“nothing is more readily perceivable by the senses”), including colour, which is his example here.  He writes: “we simply make an abstraction, setting aside every feature of colour apart from its possessing the character of shape, and conceive of the difference between white, blue, and red, etc. as being like the difference between the following figures or similar ones” (CSM I 41).  His diagrams show three figures as follows: one is constructed of five equidistant lines of equal length drawn vertically; the second is a square divided into sixteen; the third is a larger version of that square but with diagonal lines bisecting each of the sixteen internal squares.  The given figures are entirely arbitrary, so colour is to be understood through the abstract principle of differentiation per se. The generalisation is therefore regarded as being sufficient owing to the special quality this time of a good infinite.  He writes: “The same can be said about everything perceivable by the senses, since it is certain that the infinite multiplicity of figures is sufficient for the expression of all the differences in perceptible things” (CSM I 41).  And, because infinity can be grasped neither by the senses nor by the imagination, we know that the intellect will never run out of means (figures) for representing its objects in abstraction.  Again, in The Meditations, Descartes asks rhetorically:


Is it not that I imagine that this wax, being round, is capable of becoming square, and of passing from a square to a triangular figure?  No indeed, it is not that, for I conceive of it as capable of undergoing an infinity of similar changes, and as I could not embrace this infinity by my imagination, consequently this conception I have of the wax is not the product of the faculty of imagination. (105)


So the frontier between the object world and the transcendental judgement actually constitutes the meeting point of two types of infinity.  The first is the multiplicity of worldly forms and the second is the ability of human judgement to find potentially infinite substitutions for representing them.  Descartes’ philosopher is thus the master of a universe of signs, which each time need the perpetually creative activity of interpreting judgement.



The mind is thus simply the name for an exorbitance, the excess that infinity suggests, which lies between the subject and the outside world.  The difference between good and bad infinity thus characterises the frontier itself as an absolutely necessary condition of representation and, as we would see if we took a sufficiently complex range of the colour spectrum and represented each difference with a graphic mark, writing.  This just is the Cogito.  Writing in this sense in fact defines Descartes’ universe not only as semiotic but also as constituted essentially by a relation to “the other” as potentially infinite and randomly determined addressee.

Authority and Enlightenment

Descartes’ writing abounds with masks, guises, performances and representations of all kinds, each acting as mediation for the otherwise absent light of reason itself.  More than a hint is given here as to Descartes’ participation as a social subject. “Actors,” he writes in his very early Praeambula (c.1619), “taught not to let any embarrassment show on their faces, put on a mask.  I will do the same.  So far, I have been a spectator in this theatre which is the world, but now I am about to mount the stage, and I come forward masked” (CSM I 2).  There is no proper scholarly context for this passage although it does bear traces of the Renaissance and Baroque traditions that surface from time to time in Descartes’ texts.  But this “I” we will gradually come to think of as the Cogito itself, as “this ‘I’” in The Meditations (CSM II 17); and Discourse on Method, Descartes’ “autobiography,” is in fact a biography or as he calls it “a fable” of reason (CSM I 112), in which reason adopts the role of the good citizen, pretends to accept the most conservative, normative and dominant of historically and nationally established principles for a “provisional moral code” in order to demolish them and rebuild them on firmer grounds (CSM I 122-131).  On this note what will come to be known as the call of Enlightenment is sounded.



The status of the Discourse itself is important.  On the one hand it demonstrates the way that a single philosopher arrives at a level of certainty from which to proceed in developing a well founded knowledge.  The demonstration is, as Descartes is at pains to point out, at best a history but perhaps better understood as a fable, like the pictorial representations of Renaissance art:


I shall be glad to reveal in this discourse what paths I have followed, and to represent my life in it as if it were a picture ... but I am presenting this work only as a history or, if you like, a fable in which, among certain examples worthy of imitation, you will perhaps also find many others that it would not be right to follow. (CSM I 112)


So the Discourse may offer examples for imitation, but imitation should be understood here in a specific way.  What the Discourse reveals in this passage is that the very grounds for the certainty of any given singular understanding can only be represented in the ungrounded rhetoric of fable or resemblance, the “being-like” of allegorical representation.  Descartes’ rationalist legacy emphasises rather too easily the role of mathematics in an epistemology understood in terms of exactitude conditioned by order and measure. The rationalist aspects of Descartes’ legacy were developed par excellence by G. W. Leibniz, who substituted the logical structure of judgement for Descartes’ suspension of assent.   But we are able to read in the writing of this early modern philosopher that resemblance and exactitude are neither coincidental nor opposite (which we know is true of all relations of difference and identity).   Rather, both are grounded in the infinite frontier itself, which is difference, understood by us as the Cogito—“I am thinking”—my existence as representability. 



Thus the notion of imitation that Descartes employs is quite subtle and must be understood as a term in the series of models, masks, fables and representations of all kinds that characterise his work, the importance always of choosing one’s authorities, or models, with prudence.  Thus what is to be imitated might perhaps best be thought in terms of imitation itself:


Fables make us imagine many events as possible when they are not.  And even the most accurate histories, while not altering or exaggerating the importance of matters to make them more worthy of being read always omit the baser and less notable events; as a result, the other events appear in a false light. (CSM I 114)


So the Discourse combines fable (which conventionally offers an allegorical version of proliferating images, doublings and subtle illusions) with the necessary idealising finitude of a history, with its lacunae and arbitrary over-emphasis on selected aspects of an otherwise chaotic constellation of events and relations (the bad infinite).  This very important qualification, which again points to Descartes’ consistent philosophical practice, must be taken into consideration when reading the fable/history of the Discourse itself, which records a vast pretence.

Architectural Metaphors

The nature of the pretence should be regarded as a kind of “temporary accommodation,” in line with the architectural metaphors he uses.  For instance, he says: “before starting to rebuild your house, it is not enough simply to pull it down ... you must also provide yourself with some other place where you can live comfortably while building is in progress” (CSM I 122).  This metaphor is of course constructed upon the subtle foundations of a whole allegorical system of architectural metaphors, which develop as a response to the familiar problems.



With regard to philosophy (as we have already observed), not one of its problems is not subject to disagreement (CSM I 115).  And this situation is repeated in the empirical world where Descartes, while mixing with people of different humours, ranks and races, discovers “almost as much diversity as I had done earlier among philosophers” (115).  So the problem of diversity is answered through the concept of singularity, and the architectural metaphor goes to work:


Buildings undertaken and completed by a single architect are usually more attractive and better planned than those which several have tried to patch up by adapting old walls built for different purposes.  Again, ancient cities which have gradually grown from mere village into large towns are usually ill-proportioned, compared with those orderly towns which planners lay out as they fancy on level ground.  Looking at the buildings of the former individually, you will often find as much art in them, if not more, than in those of the latter; but in view of their arrangement—a tall one here, a small one there—and the way they make the streets crooked and irregular, you would say it is chance, rather than the will of men using reason, that placed them so.” CSM I 116).


Paradoxically Descartes’ aesthetic would favour new cities like Singapore or Milton Keynes over London, Venice or Dublin, while enjoying the particular buildings, squares or even neighbourhoods of the latter over the former.  But no single architect could compose a well ordered whole out of eccentric individual visions.  Again, for Descartes, the randomness that seems to have determined the way cities have grown is representative of the way individuals, who are sometimes capable of reasoned judgments, find that they are mere parts in an irreducible and chaotic diversity when faced with each other.  This passage by Descartes is echoed by the twentieth century German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, in a famous passage from the Logical Investigations, where he compares language to an ancient city:


Our language can be seen as an ancient city; a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses.  (8)


In Wittgenstein’s description the “new boroughs” seem to conform to Descartes’ ideal of “orderly” planning, overlaid, as Rationalism itself is supposed to have been, on ancient foundations, chaotic yet brilliant with baroque beauty.  But both descriptions (one just after the beginning of modernity, the other just before the end) are linked by a single thread, by which the bad infinite becomes good in analogy.  Citizens are already subjects who must speak in the peculiar metrics, write in the labyrinthine marks associated with the places where they live.



In the work of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure we read about the myths of language-change.  In part Three of The Course in General Linguistics he notes that in the view of the early linguists, “anything which departed from an established order was an irregularity, a violation of an ideal form.  Their illusion, very characteristic of the period, was that the original state of the language represented something superior, a state of perfection.  They did not even inquire whether that earlier state had not been preceded by a still earlier one” (162).  Saussure then proceeds to demonstrate that “the main factor in the evolution of languages, and the process by which they pass from one state of organisation to another, is analogy” (162).  And it is precisely analogy that serves to “counterbalance the diversifying effect of sound change” (160).  Analogy turns chaos into regularity.  It converts a bad finite into infinite possibility for change.  It demonstrates yet another way in which reason is necessarily linked to the exorbitance of rhetorical processes.  And it reveals a notion of chance that is consonant with necessity.  Language, if only in this sense, belongs to the generalization that reveals a massive tendency to inertia in community: the more participants there are who may influence change, the less chance there is for fundamental change to occur.  Saussure again observes that: “Legal procedures, religious rites, ship’s flags, etc. are systems used only by a certain number of individuals acting together and for a limited time.  A Language on the contrary, is something in which everyone participates all the time, and that is why it is constantly open to the influence of all.  This key fact is by itself sufficient to explain why a linguistic revolution is impossible” (74).



This is more or less what Descartes is saying with the architectural metaphor:


We never see people pulling down all the houses of a city for the sole purpose of rebuilding them in a different style to make the streets more attractive; but we do see many individuals having their houses pulled down in order to rebuild them, some even being forced to do so when the houses are in danger of falling down and their foundations are insecure.  This example convinced me that it would be unreasonable for an individual to reform a state by changing it from the foundations up and overturning it in order to set it up again; or again for him to plan to reform the body of sciences or the established order of teaching them in the schools. (117)


Here, Descartes’ pretence to conservatism with regard to issues of education and state reform is in fact a radicalism regarding the desire to construct the grounds for individual critical distance from existing social standards and norms.  Citizenship is the mask of a subjectivity that ensures social existence but that is open to a radical exorbitance—the exorbitance of the Cogito, or writing, or analogy—which all name the possibility of a substitutions that cannot be named in fact.



So the architectural metaphors are not merely metaphors.  They do the very work that the metaphors describe: they offer the exorbitant ground of a surrogate vocabulary without which “rebuilding” would remain one of the transient dreams of imagination; analogy offers the possibility of an exterior locus to the temporary accommodation of historical conditions.  More crucially analogy does the work of architecture itself.  As G. W. F. Hegel writes in his Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics, the task of architecture:


Lies in so manipulating external organic nature that it becomes cognate to the mind, as an artistic outer world [...] It raises an enclosure round the assembly of those gathered together, as a defence against the threatening of the storm, against rain, the hurricane, and wild beasts, and reveals the will to assemble, although externally, yet in conformity with principles of art.  (91)


Architecture thus resembles the ways in which communities guard themselves against the chaos that is their outside, it “resembles” them and offers a kind of communal identity in style and structure.   Martin Heidegger, in the twentieth century also writes, on the purpose of a Greek Temple: “It is the templework that fits together and at the same time gathers around itself the unity of those paths and relations in which birth and death, disaster and blessing, victory and disgrace, endurance and decline acquire the shape of destiny for human beings.  The all-governing expanse of this open relational context is the world of this historical people” (42).  Here the specific nature of the architecture stands not only as the symbolic representation of a historically grounded people, but it also determines the essential experience of their world in its entirety. 



It is always a possibility for Hegel, however, that architecture exceeds its limits and becomes sculpture, “for the limit of architecture ... is that it retains the spiritual as an inward existence over against the external forms of the art” (91).  The “spirit” of a community is never “contained” as an inward form; it is rather already the sculptured exterior of architecture itself, because architecture inspires its material and forms “as the determinant content on behalf of which it sets to work” (91).  In other words spirit builds its dwelling place around itself against a hostile outside, but that dwelling always bears the inventive trace of spirit itself, thus externalised in the becoming-sculpture of architecture, the dwelling itself.  Spirit just is the sculpture of its external form.  What all this says, very briefly, is that the essence of humans is what they build themselves, whether out of the ruins of inherited legacies, or bravely, independently, against the storm.  This hint of heroism is never far from the modernist version of things.  If the analogy between architecture and language is taken seriously, then the suggestion is that the human is no more or less than the milieu of the historical, cultural edifice, in language or in buildings, where the human must dwell for this dwelling just is the human.  If so then we dwell in a radically unfinished project. 


The modern subject, then, may seem something like an infant, shrouded in a terrifying authority which it needs in order to define itself; or it is something like Descartes’ I masquerading in the guise of the good citizen in order to be the true philosopher, enclosed by the architecture of geographical and historical forms but opening those forms up at their limits to an exorbitance that is spirit, or reason, nothing but this exorbitance.



Descartes solves the problem of cultural difference with reference to the infinity of figures available for representation.  But the masquerade of subjectivity can be overcome only through the recognition of selfhood as masquerade, i.e., by reason.  Reason however, as otherness itself, can only ever be manifest in the extravagant forms, the fables and fictions of the philosophical oeuvre, the extravagant fashions and necessary chances that help construct the bizarre cities of modernity and postmodernity.  Only an engagement with the exorbitance of the frontier itself will help account for the conditions and responsibilities of the modern (and the postmodern) self.  We should just add that any attempt to understand cultural frontiers within an already established framework (the finitude of a conceptual system), will discover that the frontier is not reducible to the available concepts.  And because these limits to political thought are points of potential transformation, potential for change is thus conditioned by this infinite frontier.