I think therefore I am–rethinking the “I think”


“I think, therefore I am”

What is the sense of this proposition? We need to evaluate it according to the way in which it has been and currently is appropriately used.

“I think” is a rather vague expression: we want to say that in all matters of thinking, there must be something thought (as an example, and one of the first such cases, consult Socrates’ premise in the Theaetetus that “…and in all matters of thinking, there must be something thought of”)

But of course there is the sense of “I think” such that “I think” need not be intentional and or conscious in the way that we take the first part of Descartes’ infamous conclusion. Example: “I was thinking that the year Napoleon  died was 1891, but…”  But what?–when we express our consciousness of a mistake, or our doubt over a belief we previously held to be sound, we use the “I think” as a merely an introduction to the part of the proposition that answers the question, “what is in doubt?”

For instance, consider the sense of “to think” as it exists in a different tense! “I thought that you were going to pick up Emily at 4:30…”

Suppose we know nothing more. Here, the “I think” expression (manifested in a different tense, I know) has a very different sense: one that admits of doubt, one that would not be a precursor to an infamous philosophical necessity. “If I thought that you were going to pick up Emily at 4:30, then clearly you know that by the time I said “I thought”, you knew that something contrary to what I thought actually occurred!”

Need we be in the past-tense to identify distinct senses of “I think”–let us try something in the present and see if Descartes’ use of “I think” still provides a foundational epistemic starting point from which to springboard an entire metaphysics based on the dualism of mind and matter.

“I think 4x=16 is correct, but check my math.”

What is the sense of “I think” here? Clearly, the “I think” is merely a clue–a clue to the reader and/or audience that the speaker’s knowledge and/or understanding of the upcoming expression is shaky at best, that is, dubious–the sense is quite distinct from the sense of “I think” in “I think therefore I am”!  In Descartes’ use of “I think” it is an instance of a category of activity-the activity of the mental having of an experience-and based on his stipulated conditions concerning the nature of doubt, it passes the litmus test and is thus a proper candidate for spring boarding his epistemology of skepticism.

We must understand that we use philosophical concepts in various ways. We use them for different purposes, in some cases to hint at an upcoming doubt, or perhaps to name a counter-factual possibility!

“If I thought that today would be rainy, at the least I would have brought a rain coat.”

To think, to have thought, and to be thinking are used in very different ways. They share an infinitive form, but they are used in such variety that it is borderline ridiculous to name any commonality between their meanings. Additionally, and more importantly, the same tense of the verb “to think” need not necessarily imply a mental activity in the way Descartes, or should I say Descartes’ interpretors (who knows what Descartes really meant, after all), have in mind.

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