The basic aim of Descartes’ Meditations is to establish an irrefutable foundation for philosophical reflection. In other words, Descartes is looking for a starting point for all our knowledge claims, a starting point that is determined through rational reflection and thereby satisfies our basic commitments to reason. Descrates ultimately believes he finds such a foundation in the statement Cogito Ergo Sum, in so far as with this statement Descrates feels it is indubitable to assert that one is thinking: while arguments may arise about what is being thought, or how one thinks, one cannot dispute the fact that the individual thinks. This becomes the foundation for Descartes’ philosophy.
The initial premise which leads to Descartes’ conclusion is that he begins his project from a concept of radical doubt. This means that he wishes to eliminate from the beginning of his project, in conjunction with the aim to find first principles of philosophical reflection, any claims that might be viewed as dubious or subject to interpretation. Descartes’ final thesis of the indubitable nature of Cogito Ergo Sum is therefore inseparable from the supposition that doubt is necessary for philosophical reflection. This is because if one cannot provide reasons for a certain belief that are irrefutable then this reasons is not sufficient for Descartes’ project.
Because of the extent of reason and doubt that is active in the Meditations, it therefore can be suggested that the conclusion that Cogito Ergo Sum is irrefutable is precisely irrefutable because it begins from such a wide spectrum of doubt. Hence, in search of his foundation for all philosophical thinking, Descrates uses a delicate combination of doubt and reason to guide his path.
Doubt, therefore eliminates, all type of empirical data that is received from the senses, noting that these are potentially deceiving. Descartes shows the extensiveness of this method of doubt when he writes the following at the outset of the Third Meditation: “I shall now close my eyes, I shall stop my ears, I shall call away all my senses, I shall efface even from my thoughts all the images of corporeal things, or at least (for that is hardly possible) I shall esteem them as vain and false.” (58) In this passage, we see the full extent of Descartes’ eliminative method: Descrates’ basically discounts as unreliable anything related to the physical body so as to lead to the premise of the fact that he thinks as unshakeable.
However, in this same method, we see one of the key premises of Descartes’ argument: he here suggests that thinking is entirely different from the physical body. He thus draws a dualism between mind and body. This is because in his eliminative method based upon a premise of radical doubt, he does not feel that thinking itself should be eliminated: rather, it is only the physical world that is to be eliminated, and this leaves only a pure thinking.
Certainly, Descartes also acknowledges that thinking can be deceptive, for example, when he discusses the Evil Genius who is potentially deceiving him. Therefore, he even has to qualify his initial premise to separate thinking from the body, in terms of a more precise account of what it means to think. As Descartes’ famously writes, “I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind.” (53) For Descartes, it is the basic act of thinking which becomes impossible to refute: not arguments about what we are thinking about, or the validity of these thoughts, but rather that we think. This serves as the first principle the philosopher seeks.
Accordingly, Descartes a number of clear premises which leads to this conclusion of the Cogito. Firstly, he assumes a method of radical doubt, suggesting that all our empirical sensations should be questioned. Secondly, he separates thought from the material world, in so far as thought is separated from the unreliable data provide by the body. This leads to the ultimate conclusion, that thinking itself is irrefutable.
- Descartes, Rene. Meditations on First Philosophy. Translated by John Cottingham. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996.