The Existential Cogito

Cogito Ergo Sum. Rene Descartes’ famous words translate into what is possibly the most well-know philosophical phrase, “I think, therefore I am.” It is the first indubitable truth of the Cartesian system. He arrived at this foundation via intuition and from it deduced both God and matter (the soundness of said deduction is up for debate). Many foundationalists cite Descartes’ intuited truth as a prime example that some things are known simply because their truth exists. Many other beliefs can stem forth from this grounding.

Yet, from an existential standpoint the cogito has major implications. Some existentialists, myself included, believe the cogito to be an absolute truth – one where existence begins. As Jean-Paul Sartre states in his book Existentialism and Human Emotions,

There can be no other truth to take off from this: I think, therefore, I exist. There we have the absolute truth of consciousness becoming aware of itself.

For many, essence precedes existence. For Sartre and other existentialists, existence precedes essence. That is, one develops who and what they are. For one to develop and learn truths, one must first discover the absolute truth by which to relate all other claims, that is, I exist.

Objectivity is often connected with interpretations of the Cartesian cogito. For Sartre, it is subjectivity that is most pertinently connected (which is a logical extension of his belief that existence precedes essence). A (false) polemic leveled against existentialism is that is resorts to relativism (whether it be epistemological or ethical). While it is true that existentialism centers on the existing self, it is incorrect to haphazardly assert that all is relative. Existentialists want to avoid objectifying humanity. Individuals are no mere determined reactions that interact with the rest of the material world. No, the individual is valuable in itself because it is an existing being which through basic self-awareness envelops absolute truth. But this is no selfish and individualistic truth. Rather, subjectivity relates the absolute truth of one’s existence in an other-oriented manner. Through the cogito, one discovers not only self, but others as well. As Sartre continues,

…let us at once announce the discovery of a world which we shall call inter-subjectivity.

Thus the cogito is a combination of the absolute and the subjective. The absolute is the state where all other truths, all subjective interpretations, rest. By virtue of existing, that is, the absolute truth, is connected with the subjective, the building of knowledge about the world.

It is not enough that you live. Your existence is truth in its absolute sense. It is valuable. But it is what you do with your existence that matters. Develop your life.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s