the thinker by rodin

I am, therefore I think

In 1637 René Descartes published his Discourse on the Method in French stating in Latin, Cogito, ergo sum which roughly translates as I think, therefore I am. And ever since I first came across the phrase whilst studying philosophy at Uni, I’ve had a problem with it. It’s always felt as if it’s a bit itchy or scratchy, niggling away in the back of my mind that something about it wasn’t quite right.

Then, back in the mid 1990’s Louise L Hay’s book ‘You can heal your life’ was recommended when I was going through a particularly tough few years physically and mentally. That was the start of a conscious journey that lead me to the present moment. Throughout that journey, Descarte’s statement has sat at the back of my mind as a constant sense that it held a key that would unlock a completely different world.

More recently, after being introduced to the work of Syd Banks I came to a better understanding about how my mind works and things started to shift. It felt miraculous in some ways as long held behaviours that I had previously thought were ‘me’ were tipped up and shaken out, showing that they were habits I had simply grown used to.

And it has slowly dawned on me that this simple statement held a fundamental truth, but it was misaligned and that it is not that the thinking creates me, rather I am here and a part of my experience of this life is that I think. To think is not the precursor to life, it is simply one part of being human. To me, it now makes more sense to switch the assumption around so that I am becomes the primary, life creating, affirming statement, and therefore I think reminds me that this is something I do because I am.

You may be wondering why it’s important to make the distinction and how might just a few words in a different order create change and that’s summed up in something a client said about the work we did together. She said I had pointed out to her that she was looking at the world through the wrong end of the telescope and that it would help if she turned it round.

And I suppose that’s what recognising the phrase didn’t work did for me too. I was looking at the world the wrong way round. I assumed my thoughts were real, that every time someone said or did something I didn’t like; or something happened that hurt me and mine, that it was a deliberate act. I now realise that things happen and that recognising that I am in those moments of challenge allows me to step back and see events for what they are, rather than what I think they are. I am more present to the now and as a result am able to respond when I need to in ways that are both healthy and appropriate, rather than reacting as if everything is a persnal attack.

I’d like to pose a question to you, the reader. I’d love to know what happens when you consider both statements below. Does one make more sense than the other and if so why?

  1. I think, therefore I am
  2. I am, therefore I think

(Image by 139904 from Pixabay)

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  1. Hey Livia, I couldn’t agree more that we need to go back to the mind all the time – I guess that is the ultimate conundrum of life, how do we know we are alive if we can’t think?? And thank you for joining me here, it’s lovely to have had your insight and your understanding of ‘I’ very much resonates with my own.

  2. Salut, Linda!

    I’m actually writing you from French grounds, from the very city that Descartes took his law diploma from.

    First thing, the problem that Descartes tickles by this already famous phrase, is one that wants to cure the skepticism that we are entitled to until we do not critically test the dogmatic informations we supose are certitude. Descartes’ purpose was to find a solid ground to the existence of the self and while it is true that he defined humans by their mind (reason), he didn’t exacty mean to say that the self is the thought, but that the thought is the proof that we exist. We need the thought in order to put the question of our existence and the thought is the condition of possibility for us to say ‘I am not the thought’. This is of course according to the overlapping of thought and language. And after we question the certitude of our existence, the thought comes into act because he’s the one through which the self can express his doubts. So the importance that Descartes gives to the thought, rather to the reason, is in order to shake off the skepticism. Thinking makes doubting possible and so it is proof that we exist, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the self is reduced to its thoughts. This discussion makes part of the large and probably never ending mind-body problem.
    But what I want to say is that in my second year of faculty while studying Descartes I also stumbled upon this text and this phrase triggered my interest but in a way that I wanted to refute it. In the same time it happened that I was reading Eckhart Tolle and also indian philosophy and so I reached a point where I considered that conciousness, the self (not the ego) is the ‘I’ in ‘I am’, the background canvas if you will, on which all the thoughts project and merge, which can create ego or bien-être. But reading Jung just made me realised that the conciousness that I am has still some unconscious roots that pop up in our everydayness and are not a choice. We can choose to try to fight with the shadow archetype for example, but still there are circumstantial determinations that we have no control of.
    So as to answer to your question, the way you put the problem of Descartes seems more accurate in the sens that we are the ones who have to work on ourselves and thus on our thoughts in order to reach a level of peace. But you see, we always go back to the mind – we would normally say ‘peace of mind’. Common language works against us many times.

    I think my response is quite messy, but I hope is intelligible.
    Thank your for your post and for being open. This is the first time I read your blog and I’m glad that I did.
    Take care of yourself.

  3. My daughter suddenly out of the blue developed OCD thoughts, and worries constantly that she is her thought. I have always said, thoughts are just that- random thoughts,especially do not make You-so you are the person, not the thought.
    If the thought made us who we are, then the world would indeed be an even scarier place.

  4. Thanks Julie and what a great way to frame both questions, recognising that we always have choice (even if they are choices that seem hard or challenging) is indeed powerful beyond measure.

  5. I found the story very interesting and thought provoking.

    Phrase no 1 – You could just take it literally of course ‘I think, therefore I am’ = I am alive, every living creatures must have thought of some kind. I see your point that the phrase seems to be transposed and the implication is that thought is what defines us. As you have told us in your story, we can change the way we think. When we do this we see things differently and this changes our world. Therefore phrase 2 seems to be more accurate ‘I am, therefore I think’. I have to go back to Descartes phrase, as we as human beings have choice and can choose what and how we think and therefore are able to change how we are and who we are or at least whom we seem to be is determined by what we choose others to see of ourselves. Therefore I suggest ‘I am, therefore I think’ is more accurate.