Philosophy - Can Descartes Be Certain He Is Thinki

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Philosophy - Can Descartes Be Certain He Is Thinking

Can Descartes be certain that he is thinking? How? Can he be certain that he exists? How? (And who is he?)

Descartes' statement "I think therefore I exist" raises questions about the meaning of thought, the meaning of existence but most fundamentally, in what sense he can be certain. The difficulty in establishing the certainty of "I think" and "I exist" is that the two concepts are interrelated. Thus, for example, differing interpretations of what it is to think will have a profound impact on the question of whether Descartes can achieve the certainty of his existence. The success of his attempt to achieve certainty can be analysed in relation to how far he overcomes the universal doubt he has introduced in the first meditation. It is in this sphere of meaning that "I" becomes very relevant as it is possible to argue that his use of "I" demonstrates that his own interpretation of what is certain is partially based on intrinsically held beliefs.
Williams describes the statement "I think" as indubitable. This is because "if anyone believes he is thinking or that he exists then necessarily he has a true belief." Using the Cartesian method, the statement that "I think" is unique because it is the only premise that has the property of having its truth confirmed by the act of doubting it. Descartes demonstrates that he has found a statement that is not defeated by the possibility of a ‘malicious demon' when he says "If I am in doubt, if I am entertaining the possibility that I might be deceived, then the very fact that I am around to entertain that doubt shows that I must exist". Thus he is already assuming that his ability to entertain doubt, or "think" is certain, which based on the premise above, is a not unreasonable conclusion.
Before further examining his assertion that he is thinking, the question of what Descartes means by thinking must be defined. In the simplest form, possible definitions of what it is to think can be separated into "wide and "narrow" definitions. In the second meditation, he appears to define thinking in terms of all conscious acts when he describes a thing that thinks as "a thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, is willing, is unwilling and also imagines and has sensory perceptions". Williams makes the point that the translation of the Latin verb ‘cogitare' and the French verb ‘penser' have wider meaning than the English ‘to think'. They relate to any conscious state or activity. However, if Descartes' definition of thought was really this broad it would need to be possible to assert that having sensory perceptions was indubitable as the ability to think. However, as he asserts in the first meditation, it is not the case to believe that "I have sensory perceptions" necessarily makes it a true belief. Despite this difficulty, Descartes' inclusion of, among others, imagination in the above definition of thinking demonstrates that he clearly does not interpret thinking in the narrow sense of being just a cognitive act of the intellectual kind. However, as Cottingham shows, this is partially the fault of categorising the definitions of what it is to think to rigidly. When Descartes says that it is necessary to doubt, understand etc. he is actually referring to the ability to be aware of these rather than being able to control the activities in their own right. Thus the assertion that "I am aware that I have sensory perceptions" is as indubitable as "I am aware that" and is thus equated with "I think". Williams describes this as Descartes' willingness to "sheer off " purely mental experience. Thus the conclusion can be reached that "thought" can be defined as "that of which I am immediately aware".
To return to the question of how he can be certain that he has a true belief, Williams writes that Descartes' certainty that he thinks is based not just on its incorrigibility, but also on its self verifying nature. If Descartes asserts "I think" then this must be true because the act of thinking the statement, proves it. Of course, "I think" is the only concept that can be self verified

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