|Yes he was a genius, but I don't think he looks a lot of fun|
Adjective & noun. Mid-17th century.
[modern Latin Cartesianus, from Cartesius Latinized form of the name of René Descartes (1596-1650), French philosopher and scientist: see -IAN.]
A adjective. Pertaining to or characteristic of Descartes, his philosophy, or his mathematical methods. M17
B noun. A follower of Descartes. M17
Cartesianism noun the philosophy of Descartes M17
Of all the things that you believe to be true, what do you absolutely know to be true? This was a question that preoccupied the mind of the unfathomably brilliant René Descartes, who believed that we can take nothing our senses tell us as absolute truth. How do we know we're not dreaming, for example, or the world around us isn't a fabricated reality imposed upon us by some higher being? Such was the extent of Descartes' hyperbolic doubt (or Cartesian skepticism) that he even wondered if he could be certain of his own existence. This, however, was the limit of this doubt, for when Descartes tried to imagine what it's like to not exist, he couldn't (you can't either - give it a try). However, he did know what it was like to question his own existence, and this, wrote Descartes, was proof to himself that he existed; of this one fact, regardless of how fallacious every other sensory input he had was, he could be absolutely certain:
COGITO ERGO SUM
I think therefore I am
When, as a child, I first read of Descartes work, and particularly this thought experiment, I was thoroughly astounded by it. I had an odd fascination with the question of reality and existence - I had once wondered most earnestly what it would be like to be my Action Man, to be an inanimate object, ultimately to not exist; frustratingly, this was impossible, and Descartes told me why: my existence rendered it impossible to imagine non-existence, because my ability to wonder that in the first place meant I was existing. Brilliant! And unlike, say, his work on algebra or the laws of refraction which would have gone right over my head (they still would), this was a thought experiment I could replicate ... as a child. Since that day, Descartes and his Cartesian reasonings have always had a special place in my can't-prove-it's-literally-real-but-it-definitely-is-in-some-capacity head. Imagine my horror, therefore, my existentialist angst if you will, when years later, having developed a love of dictionaries, I happened upon Ambrose Bierce's entry on Cartesian in The Devil's Dictionary. Bierce, rather dismissively writing that Descartes "was pleased with himself to suppose he demonstrated the reality of human existence", suggested his famous dictum might be improved thus:
COGITO COGITO ERGO COGITO SUM
I think that I think, therefore I think that I am
What? Hang on! Descartes only thought he was thinking, so could only think that he existed? So he might not have? I might only think that I'm thinking now, which granted leads me to think I'm real, but ... y'know ... it's not certain? Oh for ... well thank you very much Mr Bierce. Just when I was truly beginning to believe in myself; now I'm back staring at my Action Man and wondering what it'd be like to be him. Git.
(who d'you reckon would win in a fight?)
Are you a Cartesian?
Are you a proponent of hyperbolic doubt?
Do prove (kind of) you exist by commenting in the box below.