What philosophers and in what writings, if any, have attempted to explain or defend Descartes's rationalism in respect to the "cogito ergo sum" fallacy pointed out by philosophers like Russell, and Wittgenstein?

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    Can you give the references to Russell's and Wittgenstein's loci confuting Descartes ? There are more or less 500 years of philosophical debates around Descrtes' "discovery", some of which very interesting. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Feb 26 '14 at 18:54
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    I suggest adding a link to the question Could 'cogito ergo sum' possibly be false?. – labreuer Feb 26 '14 at 22:28

I believe you're referring to the fallacy of inferring the “sum” (or “I am”) part from the “cogito” (or “I think”) part, right? The “ergo” (or “therefore”) makes it sound like Descartes is expressing an argument which has as its premise that he thinks, and the conclusion that he exists.

The potential fallacy in this representation of the Cogito statement is that a more substantive meaning of “I” is usually read into the conclusion than is read into the premise. The support for the premise is just the introspective observation of the occurrence of thought. The conclusion, however, can be understood to mean the he, Descartes, exists—a guy named René who's French and has long hair and wrote letters to princesses, and everything else that's part of being René Descartes. That stuff is not entailed by the premise about the mere occurrence of thought, hence the accusation of fallacy.

The consensus response to this in recent Descartes scholarship is that the Cogito is not an argument at all, where either part is inferred from or logically-entailed by the other. Rather, the thought that Descartes thinks is indubitable is something like “there's thought and there's existence,” where the two parts of that claim are bound up with one other and both are perceived simultaneously.

Indeed, that is how Descartes generally expresses the point, outside of the mention of the Cogito sentence. In the second Meditation, he writes:

So, after considering everything very thoroughly, I must finally conclude that this proposition, I am, I exist is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind.

There's no inference there, and therefore no fallacy. Instead, there's just a thought that whenever thought is a necessary truth.

Now of course, moving beyond that statement to prove any other statements is of course THE big cartesian problem, and one that Descartes is not thought to have satisfactorily solved. But this version of the cogito, which Descartes is thought to have held, at least avoids the possible fallacy you mention as potentially intrinsic to the very expression of the sentence.

  • Sorry, but even after going that far, the question remains, why the mention of thinking at all? As I explained in my answer, the mere experience of one's existence is sufficient to establish the proposition "I exist" without any reference to thinking. But that Descartes did mention thinking suggests that he was trying to establish some sort of link between the two, and hence the popular belief in the fallacy which I think is completely justified. – infatuated Feb 27 '14 at 15:42
  • @infatuated - Thinking is necessary to experience existence, no? So it's a strictly weaker connection than requiring an experience. – Rex Kerr Feb 28 '14 at 9:08
  • It is not. Because thinking is an act of "I" or the self, and the self exists and recognizes itself prior to its acts. Muslim philosophers have firmly established this view, that is, knowledge of the self = existence of the self. Here's an essay on the topic: iph.ras.ru/uplfile/smirnov/ishraq/2/12aminra.pdf (scroll down to the section, "Knowledge by Presence") Therefore "I am" (or "-exist") is a self-evident proposition based on our knowledge of the self by presence, rather than acquisition or thinking which are acts of "I". @RexKerr – infatuated Feb 28 '14 at 13:00
  • @infatuated - Knowledge of the self is an act of thinking. So is awareness of being present. – Rex Kerr Feb 28 '14 at 20:28
  • All I've been trying to say is that knowledge of the self, in its strict sense, is NOT an act of thinking. When somebody thinks he is already aware of his existence a priori without any mental process required for its confirmation. As Avicenna puts it "my self-consciousness is my verse existence" not any act or issue of the existence. Please do take a look at the pdf I shared starting from p.7. – infatuated Feb 28 '14 at 20:52

Centuries before Descartes made up that (maybe perceived) fallacy, Avicenna the persian muslim philosopher had already explained why it is a logical fallacy to argue from an issue of the self (in this case thinking) for the existence of the self. Because in any such argument the existence of the self is already presumed as it is impossible to experience any issue of the self (such as thinking) without having first experienced the self itself. The glaring fallacy is manifest even by looking at the apparent semantics of the English translation of the argument that starts with a presumed "I" in the premise ("I think, ") to prove the "I" in the conclusion ("therefore I am.").

PS: Even if the famous statement is not meant to be a logical proof (as ChristopherE and Asphir Dom suggested in comments), but a reference to a human transcendental experience (which is supposed to be beyond proof and self-evident); it still holds true that the first object of transcendental experience is not any mental/psychological process (e.g. thoughts, feelings etc) associated with human self but rather the very direct experience of the self which precedes them all. Nowhere this is better explained than in the theory of "knowledge by presence" which was first proposed by Al-Farabi and later refined by Avicenna. In knowledge by presence, it is argued, the subject and object of knowledge are united -- either because of the identity of the two or one being the intimate part of the other --, therefore the subject can directly experience the object of knowledge without any medium. Such a knowledge is thus self-evident, infallible and needless of proof. Examples are human experience of one's very self, one's thoughts and feelings.

The theory is very significant as it bridges the gap between philosophy and mysticism, as in the latter most statements of truth are based on direct experience rather than logical proof. This allows objects of knowledge by presence to serve as self-evident premises for philosophy. That's how muslim philosophers for the first time reconciled Aristotelian philosophy with Platonic.

  • Okay, but the question is not why there's a fallacy in that inference, but how it's been addressed subsequently, right? – ChristopherE Feb 27 '14 at 13:58
  • Please remember Descartes makes that statement in order to have a first evident principle to found his philosophy after applying the methodological skepticism on every questionable presumption. But what is supposed to be the founding block of his philosophy is itself fallacious and even when reconstructed as "there is a thought therefore there is existence" is still a presumption without logical validation. – infatuated Feb 27 '14 at 14:07
  • It is NOT fallacy because you don't comprehend that parts of the language are above logic (almost any actually).So Descartes did not provide you with some USELESS formula (which i know you want), he provided you with high rank TRANSCENDENTAL experience. Don't want higher dig logic deeper. – Asphir Dom Feb 27 '14 at 14:08
  • See my answer. There would be a fallacy if the core idea in Descartes's philosophy were that inference. But it is not. Rather, it is the simultaneous recognition of thinking and existing. – ChristopherE Feb 27 '14 at 14:10
  • I do see the core purpose and the idea of Descartes's statement but still as a transcendental experience the theory can be questioned in the way I just explained in the postscript to my original answer; where I also explained how the problem is solved by muslim philosophers @AsphirDom – infatuated Feb 27 '14 at 14:58

I fundamentally agree with @Christopher - the cogito argument is an argument, but not an inference.

There is no inference of the form : "if p, then q".

On all the complex issue, it is worth reading in SEP the entry on Descartes' Epistemology and in The Cambridge Companion to Descartes, ed.John Cottingham (1992), at least : Louis Loeb, “The Cartesian Circle” and Peter Markie, “The Cogito and Its Importance”.

About Russell's critic, see in SEP entry :

Among the critics, Bertrand Russell objects that “the word ‘I’ is really illegitimate”; that Descartes should have, instead, stated “his ultimate premiss in the form ‘there are thoughts’.” Russell adds that “the word ‘I’ is grammatically convenient, but does not describe a datum.” [B.Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (1945),page 567] Accordingly, “there is pain” and “I am in pain” have different contents, and Descartes is entitled only to the former.

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