Strictly speaking, "Cogito ergo sum" simply means:
- "The existence of your own mind can never be in doubt."
- Item 1) also describes our true knowledge in its entirety.
Or we can say that strictly speaking, beyond our own mind's existence, nothing can be known. Ever.
The above sounds simple enough (if suicidal1). Yet one look at the "similar questions" tab to the right is enough to see how confusing these three Latin words remain to this day. What makes Descatres's proposal so uniquely cryptic is that its central premise was actually formulated in the context. Let's recall where Descartes was going with this.
He opens the First Meditation asserting the need “to demolish everything completely and start again right from the foundations” (AT 7:17, CSM 2:12).
The question he was trying answer, therefore, was "What, if anything, we can know for sure, without any possibility of doubts?"
The argument notes that some of our perceptions are inaccurate. Our senses can trick us; we sometimes mistake a dream for a waking experience, and it is possible that
an evil demon is systematically deceiving us we live in a simulation. That alone is enough to conclude that nothing we perceive as real, actually is so.
The perception itself, however, is happening (consumed?). Which necessitates the existence of our mind consuming the perception. Descartes asserts that much:
"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." (AT 7:25, CSM 2:16f).
Notice that Descartes didn't bother to mention the thought process in that first formulation of his proposal because it was always about the existence of the mind being necessary, even if the said mind were lacking consciousnesses (the "I" or Self) and, thus, the capacity to think for it-Self.
Such a mind would still have at least the sensory and emotional experiences (and it would probably experience thoughts in some form, though not of its own). That perception would still exist for real, making it necessary for the mind consuming it to exist for real.
To sum up, there are two distinct concepts that "I" refers to:
- the conscious/rational Self of "I think"
- the subject of perception
Descartes himself failed to make that distinction, and the rest is history.
So the first question: Does the above suggest that "Cogito Ergo Sum", is, indeed, neither about "I" nor "thinking"?"
And if yes, it would be only logical to ask..
The second question: Why would Descartes bring "I think" in his proposal, creating such a widespread confusion? -- I'm going to suggest the answer below.
1 Being entrapped in your own mind, with no way of knowing anything beyond that -- it does sound rather disheartening, I'm not gonna lie. But that is not how the story ends. There is a constructive way out, even tho discussing it lies beyond the scope of this question.