Tricky Cogito


Existence and theCogito



The Cogitostrikes most people as intuitively valid, but it has been trenchantly criticized. How exactly the inference is supposed to work still excites controversy. Here I will consider a line of objection that I have not seen pressed before. The natural way to interpret the inference is that it moves from a premise about instantiation to a conclusion about existence: I know with certainty that I instantiate the property of thinking, so I must exist as the subject of this property. We might expand the argument as follows: “I have the property of thinking; if something has a property, that thing must exist; therefore I exist”. My thoughts exist (as I know with certainty), and they must be instantiated in some object; this object is not identical to my thoughts; so we can infer that there exists an object (viz. myself) that is not identical to my thoughts. Thus we can move nontrivially from the existence of thinking to the existence of a thing that thinks. But consider the analogous argument concerning unicorns: “Unicorns are horses with one horn, so unicorns instantiate the property of having a horn; but there has to be an object that instantiates this property; therefore unicorns exist.” Or: “Santa Claus has a beard, so he instantiates the property of having a beard; but then he must be an object that instantiates a property; therefore Santa Claus exists”. The premises seem true but the conclusion is false, so the argument must be invalid—but where does it go wrong? Meinong would give the following answer: it does not follow from the fact that an object instantiates a property that the object exists—it might only subsist. In more recent terminology, these objects might be merely “intentional objects” not real existent objects; and so instantiation does not imply existence on the part of the instantiating object. Applying this point to the Cogito, what is to rule out the possibility that the self is a merely intentional object that instantiates the property of thinking but does not exist? We can see that objects are able instantiate properties without thereby existing, so why can’t the self be one of those? To be sure, the propertiesexist—they are real entities all right—but it doesn’t follow that anything that instantiatesthem is itself real. Fictional objects are a counterexample: the property of being a detective is a real property, but the fact that Sherlock Holmes is a detective doesn’t make himreal. Likewise, thinking is a real property that things can have, but it doesn’t follow that anything that instantiates this property is itself real—after all, Holmes also thinks. Maybe the self is like Holmes.

How might we respond to this objection? One possibility would be to appeal to the certaintyof the premise that I think, holding that this is what sets the Cogitoapart. But am I not also certain that unicorns have one horn, that Santa Claus has a beard, and that Holmes is a detective? The fact that an object certainly instantiates a property does not automatically confer existence on that object (it is certain that the Golden Mountain is a mountain). Another possible way out would be to question the whole ontology of subsistent or intentional objects, insisting that there are no objects but existent ones. This flies in the face of the seemingly obvious fact that some things don’t exist and yet have properties; but also, from the point of view of the Cogito, it gives up the certainty of the inference—for now we have to accept that the validity of the Cogitodepends on the rejection of Meinongian metaphysics. Maybe we should, maybe we shouldn’t, but we don’t want the fate of the Cogitoto be tied to that metaphysical issue. No one hearing the Cogitofor the first time thinks, “Well, it depends on your view of Meinong”. Descartes surely did not take a stand against Meinong-style ontology when he enunciated the Cogito. The validity of the argument should not depend on whether or not you entertain Meinongian predilections. It isn’t as if those with such predilections are prohibited from accepting the Cogito; at any rate, that’s not the way the question presents itself.

A third suggestion is that there is an asymmetry between unicorns (etc.) and thinking selves, namely that you can hallucinate unicorns but you can’t hallucinate thinking selves. Thus it can seem to you as if there is a unicorn in front of you without there being one, but you can’t hallucinate having thoughts without actually having them. That asymmetry must be conceded—beliefs in unicorns are not epistemically necessary but beliefs in thoughts are—but it doesn’t help to salvage the argument: for all we get from this is that the existence of thoughtsis certain, not that the existence of thinking selvesis. True, we can be certain that thoughts exist, but we could still be in error about the existence of a self that has them. There might be nothing except thoughts in the vicinity. We might be under an illusion about the self, as we might be under an illusion about unicorns. We might be misinterpreting a collection of thoughts as a self that hasthem. Compare seeing a swarm of bees in the distance and mistakenly thinking there is a single big organism there. Maybe we hallucinate a unitary self when we introspectively encounter a swarm of thoughts. Who knows what might be going on? We can’t hallucinate the thoughts, but we could be under an illusion about what they signify, i.e. an underlying unitary self. Similarly, when we hallucinate a unicorn we are not hallucinating its component properties—they are real enough quaproperties (though their present instantiation is illusory). Anyway, even if it is somehow impossible to hallucinate a self, why should the existence of a self be entailed by the existence of individual thoughts? We still haven’t justified the step from the existence of thoughts to the existence of a thing that has them (the Gassendi-Lichtenberg objection).

Fourth, we might hope to find something in the specific nature of thought that guarantees an existent thinker, where this something is not present for properties in general. Maybe having a single horn doesn’t prove the existence of what has the horn, but thought might be such as to necessitate an underlying existent thinker. This would be the analogue of the ontological argument: most properties indeed fail to guarantee existence, but the property of total perfection does guarantee it, because of its specific nature. Instantiation by thatproperty entails the existence of the instantiating object (according to the ontological argument). There has been a strong intuition (notably voiced by Frege) that mental states necessarily require a bearer—something that has them, a subject. But it is far from clear how this can help the Cogito: Meinong could agree with this point while insisting that the bearer is a merely subsistent entity. Fictional mental states logically require a bearer too, viz. a fictional character, but they lack existence. The notion of a subject of predication—an object of instantiation—is too weak to deliver the conclusion of the Cogito: we might be predicating thought of a non-existent object. But also: does the intuition hold for all kinds of mental states or only thoughts? And does it apply to unconscious mental states as well as conscious ones? Is it true of the bodily sensations of jellyfish or worms? And is the point any different from the claim that any kind of state needs something for it to be a state of, including the state of being electrically charged or the state of the weather? We really need an argument, analogous to the ontological argument, showing that thinking inherently and uniquely calls for an existent subject that can be the reference of “I”, but what this argument might be remains elusive. Could it be that the capacity to think requires the capacity for the self-attribution of thoughts, and hence for a self? But what could establish that, and how would it guarantee the reality of the self in question? Descartes never argued anything of the kind, and it would certainly undermine his claim that the Cogitois primitively compelling. So there is nothing comparable to the ontological argument showing that it is in the nature of thought to bring with it an existent bearer, let alone one with the characteristics of the self as normally understood.[1]

But perhaps there is an intuition lurking in this unsuccessful argument that might have more cogency: namely that there is a contradiction in the idea of existent thoughts occurring in a non-existent object. Fictional thoughts can occur in a fictional object, but non-fictional thoughts require a non-fictional object. Thoughts are particulars not universals (token not types) and existent particulars need existent objects to inhere in. Properties can exist and be properties of non-existent objects, but events and processes can’t both exist and also inhere in non-existent objects. What would it mean for Sherlock Holmes the fictional character to have an existent real thought? Wouldn’t that make him real? So there is a metaphysical assumption at the heart of the Cogito: those thoughts whose existence is evident to us must exist in a being that is itself existent, since real events need real objects as bearer. Real mental particulars need real mental substances to inhere in—they can’t exist in an unreal substance. In Meinong’s language, existent events cannot inhere in merely subsistent objects. If there is real thinking going on, then this requires a real entity to do the thinking; and we know for sure that real thinking is going on—hence we know for sure that we exist. If the thinking was fictional, the subject of it would or might be fictional too; but granted that the thinking is not fictional, neither can he thinker be. Thus I know that I am not a character in fiction (or a “logical fiction” or an hallucination). Compare the bodily counterpart to the Cogito: “I have a body, therefore I exist”. We could not object to this that the premise could be true and the conclusion false, because the body, not being fictional, cannot be had by something fictional: something must non-fictionally exist if my body non-fictionally exists (whether it is the reference of “I” is a further question). We can infer from the existence of the body that something exists. To be more precise, if I know that I have bodily states, then I know that something exists in which those states occur—for example, if I digest there must exist something that digests. The inference is solid because it is compelling to claim that physical states require a physical bearer—a physical thing that has them. If I know there are physical states, then I can deduce that there are physical objects, because states must be states ofsomething. And it would be absurd to suggest that existent physical states could exist in a non-existent object—a merely intentional object. If Holmes is in real physical states, then he must be real himself—fictional characters can’t have real indigestion! The difference from the classic Cogitois just that the premise here is not certain (not an epistemic necessity): I don’t know for certain that I am in physical states or even that I have a body. So this is no use for Descartes’s purposes, though the connection between premise and conclusion is the same in both cases, viz. a metaphysical principle precluding unreal bearers of real states. As we might put it: we can’t mix the existent with the subsistent, the real with the imaginary, the factual with the fictional.

Where does this leave the Cogito? It allows it to struggle on, to retain a semblance of cogency, but it leaves it vulnerable to skeptical doubt. Descartes was working with a scholastic metaphysics of substance and accident—his evil demon was not supposed to call thatinto question. Against this background the Cogitois relatively smooth sailing. But a dogged opponent might protest that this metaphysics is not immune to doubt, and if it is doubted the Cogitowill not go through. Why should we accept that there are substances at all, material or immaterial—why not make do with an ontology of states, events, and processes? Later philosophers indeed did advocate such a low-calorie ontology (e.g. Russell) and so there is no substance in the world for thoughts to inhere in anyway. Thoughts may form sets or aggregates, according to this point of view, thereby gaining a sort of collective unity, but they don’t inhere in substances. So there is no valid metaphysical principle licensing the move from the existence of states to the existence of substances that support them. That may be wrong as a piece of metaphysics, but in the context of the Cogitoit would need to be addressed.

More subtly, however, there is this problem: the prima faciepersuasiveness of the Cogitoseems not to be hostage to the kind of principle I have invoked to bolster it. Is this what someone is thinking who accepts the Cogito? Possibly, but it would have to be in some subliminal or tacit manner, since the requisite principle is hardly laid bare in the usual presentations of the Cogito. It takes work to come up with it and it is not entirely self-evident, even if you accept it. So it is not clear it can explain the felt cogency of the Cogito; indeed, it renders it much more wobbly than we might initially have supposed. Once it is fully articulated in this way its appearance of self-evidence starts to fade, and yet it is routinely hailed as the surest of philosophical theses. The resourceful Meinongian has produced a new threat to the Cogito, and the suggested repair to the argument lacks transparent cogency, even if it is ultimately correct as a piece of metaphysics. So we are left in a rather unsatisfactory position: the argument is not clearly valid but not clearly invalid either. I would say that it can be salvaged more effectively than might have seemed possible once the Meinongian objection has been formulated; for that objection looks formidable at first sight and it takes some ingenuity to forestall it. Hume’s kind of critique of the self, which takes the self as a type of fiction (at least on some interpretations of Hume), was evidently alien to Descartes and quite inimical to the Cogito(we can’t deduce the existence of a substantial self merely from the existence of ideas encountered internally). And yet it is hard to deny that the Cogitohas all the appearance of self-evidence, whatever its final analysis may turn out to be. This philosophical gem thus remains as tantalizing as ever.



[1]Not that the ontological argument is really any good in the end, but it is at least an argumentthat needs to be contended with.


7 responses to “Tricky Cogito”

  1. Joseph K. says:

    Questions about creating philosophy. I am impelled to ask the question by reflecting on a weakness that I have that I want to address, namely I let a lot of ideas I have, a fraction of which might conceivably be philosophically interesting, to waste by failing to develop them. In contrast one factor (but only one among many I’m sure) in your exemplary philosophical output seems to be that you are prolific. I imagine you do not allow too many good ideas to go to waste. Any insight into what qualities cause this to be true of a person, or conversely what qualities cause a person to fail to develop their own ideas? Lack of confidence in one’s abilities is likely to play a role. Also likely is a realistic estimation of how hard philosophy is, hence how difficult it is to say anything useful. A related question: of the philosophical ideas that pass through your mind, when do you suspect or know that one is worth reining in and pursuing with rigor?

    • These are excellent questions. I find my own prolificity quite puzzling actually and have long wanted to understand the sources of creativity, as well as how it might be encouraged. I am quite critical of my own ideas when they first occur to me; I also hate to make mistakes. But I let my mind roam free initially and see what it wants to say to me. Often I say to myself, “Don’t be so stupid, Colin”, but also “Mmm, that’s interesting”. I also write exploratory notes. Does that help?

  2. Joseph K. says:

    Yes. I am critical of my ideas and hate to make mistakes and I hear the “Don’t be so stupid voice” more often than latter. I should also get in the habit of writing in low-stakes contexts more. I also have the habit of holding out for those moments where it seems to me I am having a deep thought. I have the feeling that what I say about some philosophical issue will be uninteresting to the degree that it is not fueled by what occurs in these moments. The moments are like this: there is a philosophical problem I find interesting, my attention is concentrated on a distilled version of it, and I get sent into an imaginative trance, channeling something that yields something about the problem resembling insight. There have been periods of my life where I was happy and inspired and was able to have them often. But I’m in a dull environment now. I have them rarely and, owing to the narrowness of my interests, about few issues. Partly the narrowness of my interests is due to the poverty of my education and partly my talents are unevenly distributed. No doubt you have a better education and more widely distributed and better talents, including the philosophical one that causes someone to be entranced by a problem. You don’t have to rely on your aptitude for one or two areas for your philosophical reveries. Your philosophical reveries, which you are already more likely to have, span over several areas. Because of this your philosophical (and rhetorical) muscles frequently get exercised.

    • I make a point of having a variety of interests, which allows for cross-pollination. I also explicity instruct myself not to think conventionally–about anything–so that I develop my mental freedom. Humor plays a role. I despise stock responses and conformist thinking. I am prepared to take risks. I make a practice of writing notes about what I’m thinking about. Then there’s the X factor…

  3. Joseph K. says:

    Freedom is essential: freedom to think and behave as one wishes, freedom to follow one’s impulses where ever they lead. A certain degree of freedom is necessary to sustain the flourishing, vital state which in humans naturally seeks to express itself in creative endeavor; few people, even among the societies called “free” (sullying the word) are lucky enough to have freedom in the required amount. A person, unless he or she is of exceptional strength of character (or his impulses tend in the same direction as societal pressure), tends to shrivel under the weight of manifold forms of societal coercion to which he or she is subject from childhood on. Hence most people are unremarkable in the attribute of creativity. Society denies people freedom and denies them the chance to live up to their creative potential. I wonder when if ever people will begin to perceive a moral problem with this fact.

  4. Joseph K. says:

    And thank you, that is all very helpful and duly noted.

  5. says:

    On the “felt” cogency of the Cogito. The Cogito seems, initially, to be the least (theoretically) “mediated” inference to the best explanation ever—a quasi-deductive one-off, of a piece in itself, almost a tautology <.Given, however, the semantics of the premise, "I think" (at least from a logical point of view), virtually anything and everything might follow. So, then, why should the particular conclusion of self-existence feel the more, the most, compelling? Because it's informed, however tacitly, by theory. Now matters turn psychological. This is a perennially vexed issue and I hesitate to comment on it, given especially the memory of a disastrous presentation of it in college.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.