Saturday, November 14, 2009

je pense, donc je suis

The true meaning of words is often lost in time and translation. Thus. Rene Descartes familiar Latin, Cogito ergo sum becomes in French, Je pense, donc je suis, and finally in English, I think, therefore I am. But what is the true meaning of this phrase written 400 years ago in Descartes famous Meditations on First Philosophy (1641)? Is the true meaning a simple recognition of a permanent distinction between mind and matter, idée et la matière?

Descartes himself, explains: "I decided to feign that everything that had entered my mind hitherto was no more true than the illusion of dreams. But immediately upon this I noticed that while I was trying to think everything false, it must needs be that I, who was thinking this, was something." Then further, Descartes explains, "Je pense, donc je suis was so solid and secure that the most extravagant suppositions of sceptics could not overthrow it, I judged that I need not scruple to accept it as the first principle of philosophy I was seeking."

The philosophical debate over mind and matter both preceded and followed Descartes observation. Plato in his Parable of the Caves likewise obseved that the illusion of reality can be a matter of perception. Shadows dancing on the wall of a cave might be one man's sole observation of the world beyond the cave. Later, less than a hundred years after the death of Descartes, Bishop Berkley in England coined the phrase Esse est percepi or "Seeing is believing." Cite. The logical conclusion of such a statement is that truth is illusory, la vérité est illusoire. Berkley's claim in turn produced the pithy comment by Samuel Johnson and recorded by Bosworth:

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time of Bishop Berkley's ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter and that everything in the universe is ideal.... Johnson answered, striking his foot against a stone with a mighty force until he rebounded from it, "I refute it thus." Cite.

We are left wondering what Descartes meant by his enigmatic statement. That it stems from a universal doubt as to the truth of things is not in dispute. It is the human condition to be curious and wonder. The first human tale of the Bible is the story of Adam and Eve and the Tree of Knowledge. ...

More to come...

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