May 12, 2010




I stink,

therefore I am

Hey! Nihilo-Nihilers! Ever heard of THE CRISIS OF THE CARTESIAN COGITO? Well, maybe you should, since it gives a flat and simple example of the importance of the debate I described and exemplified in another contribution to DE NIHILO NIHIL, the one about the BIG BANG THEORY. “COGITO” (“I think” in Latin, from COGITO, ERGO SUM) is the name given, in our contemporary culture, as one say when one tries to look flashy, to a buzz-statement farted in 1637 by a guy, who signed CARTESIUS when he was writing in Latin, and who carried the more modest name of René Descartes (1596-1650). The CARTESIAN (from CARTESIUS i.e. Descartes) COGITO though is simply nothing other than the following sentence:


That statement, one of the most renowned philosophical mottoes of the previous millennium, stinks ambiguity and sweats duplicity big time. And that particular equivocal stench that I will describe here, makes of the COGITO a juicy example of the fundamental struggle between Idealism and Materialism in philosophy. IDEALISM is the belief in the fact that spirit and spiritual entities determine the organization of material life. MATERIALISM is the conviction that the organization of material life determines our spiritual representations, meditations and fantasies. The problem which lead to the crucial debate between Idealism and Materialism comes from a struggle over which category, MATTER or SPIRIT, is to be considered FUNDAMENTALLY OBJECTIVE. This can be explained by using the example of the question which is the most tightly connected to the Cartesian Cogito: HOW IS IT THAT I THINK?

“… we see that to answer the question “How is it that man thinks?” there can be only two quite different and totally opposed answers:

First answer: Man thinks because he has a soul.

Second answer: Man thinks because he has a brain.

According to which answer we give, we will be lead to give different solutions to the problems which flow from this question.

According to our answer, we are idealists or materialists. (Politzer 1976: 13 – published in 1936)

In that situation, the IDEALISTS (who provide the first answer in Politzer’s example) and the MATERIALISTS (who provide the second answer in Politzer’s example) both agree on the supremacy of the OBJECTIVE over the SUBJECTIVE. What they do not agree upon is to which category, MATTER or SPIRIT, the status of fundamental objectivity should be given. For the idealists, a spirit (namely God) is the supreme OBJECTIVE being that penetrates every human SUBJECT and determines them through the soul. The idealists do not deny that we have a brain, but for them the fact of having a brain is not specific to the human SUBJECT, who is the only one with “a soul” that “will survive” after the death of the body. For the materialists, the human brain is a particular organization of OBJECTIVE biological matter characterized by the possibility to historically develop a complex mind that reaches the level of SUBJECTIVE self-consciousness. The body and the brain are mandatory supports for the mind. “Thus when the body is dissolved by putric action, its power of thinking entirely ceases” (Priestley in 1778, quoted in Plekhanov 1967: 91). The materialists do not deny that we have a spirituality, but they describe it as being the production of our SUBJECTIVITY. For the Idealists SPIRIT (God) is the objective being that created our material individuality. For the Materialists MATTER is the objective being that gradually evolved from inorganic, to organic, to organic with a social organization leading to a subjective conscience able to create ideas, including fictive ideas such as the myth of God.

Descartes was sitting between two chairs on that fundamental debate between Idealism and Materialism. He was a scientific mind who introduced significative developments in Mathematics and Physics, and who strongly believed in the determining action of matter on mind. But at the same time he evolved, specially by the end of his life, into the typical 17th century moral oriented GodAssLicker/MotherMaryFucker. The point is also that, even in his materialist phase, he always had the jitters vis-a-vis the (pro-blind-religion) monarchic power, which at the time did not only tended to burn the “subversive” books but their authors too. Therefore, if we come back to the Stinky-Statement itself, we observe that there are two possible opposite meanings to the Cartesian COGITO, one idealist and one materialist.

a) THE IDEALIST MEANING OF THE COGITO: This meaning comes from the ontological value given to the statement. If, when you make the statement, you are talking about WHAT IS EFFECTIVELY EXISTING (ONTOLOGY is the Doctrine of Being), the existence of the fact of thinking appears as the foundation of your own existence. Then you are claiming that your spirit determines your matter. Speaking of Descartes, the idealist Hegel (1963, vol.3: 224) said that “the spirit of his philosophy is simply knowledge as the unity of Thought and Being.” Another way to put the statement in its idealist meaning is I AM BECAUSE I THINK, standing for: DESCRIBING MYSELF AS A BEING, I CLAIM THAT IT IS THE FACT THAT I THINK THAT MAKES ME EXIST.

In the general ordinary opinion, this idealist version of the COGITO is often believed to be what Descartes meant. Almost everybody is ready to follow Hegel’s idealist exclamation (1963, vol.3: 228): “Thought as Being and Being as Thought – that is my certainty, ‘I’; in the celebrated COGITO ERGO SUM thus have Thought and Being inseparably bound together.” This belief is probably wrong, and the real meaning of Descartes’ view is quite likely to have been distorted by that idealist interpretation.

“The Descartian thesis has been distorted into the statement that nothing is evident to man but his own subjective conception. And the ideology has been carried to the extreme of calling the whole world an idea, a phantasmagoria. True Descartes needed God in order to be sure that his conceptions did not cheat him.” (Dietzgen 1906c: 427 – written in 1887)

On the God-Garbage, see my third contribution to DE NIHILO NIHIL Despite the accuracy of this observation by the materialist Joseph Dietzgen (1820-1888), it is important to realize that the COGITO does not belong to Descartes anymore since its celebrity status made of it a common sense motto… with the idealist meaning. Descartes’ main philosophical adversary of the time, Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655), who criticized him from the materialist point of view but with the old fashioned instruments of traditional logic, demonstrates how difficult it is to give precedence to THINKING over BEING in that type of reasoning:

“Furthermore, when you say “I think”, you make a statement about yourself at the present time; it is the same as if you said, “I am thinking”. In fact you are the subject and thought is the attribute. However, you cannot say that you are thinking without saying “You are”. Logicians declare this when they teach that the verb makes a statement about time, namely TO NUN HUPARCHEIN, the fact of existing now. Accordingly, when you say “I think,” you are saying “I am”; and when you then draw the conclusion “therefore, I am”, you are adding nothing but what you have presupposed; and so you are proving something by itself.” (Gassendi 1972: 180 – published in 1644)

And this brings ust to:

b) THE MATERIALIST MEANING OF THE COGITO: This meaning comes from the gnoseological value given to the statement, being acknowledged that “It is a fact of experience that men think” (Dietzgen 1906a: 72). If, when you make the statement, you are talking about YOUR OWN ACTIVITY OF REFLECTION (GNOSEOLOGY is the Doctrine of Knowledge), that activity of thinking appears as the confirmation of your previous existence. Then you are claiming that your matter determines your spirit. “The fact of my thinking, says the philosopher, proves my existence” (Dietzgen 1906b: 195). Another way to put the statement in its materialist meaning is I AM SINCE I THINK, standing for: IN MY INVESTIGATION ABOUT MYSELF, I NOTICE THAT I THINK. THEN IT PERMITS ME TO CONFIRM THAT I EXIST. This meaning is at the origin of the absolutely crucial para-Cartesian statement that constitutes the title of the present contribution: I STINK, THEREFORE I AM (the fact of stinking does not make me exist, but definitely confirms my mere existence). Along the same line of interpretation, one can also quote the paronymic dog-Latin COITO ERGO SUM (“I fuck, therefore I am”), stimulated, so to say, by exactly the same type of materialist hypothetico-deductive reasoning grounded in an obvious empirical fact of existence…

This materialist version of the COGITO probably corresponds to what Descartes really (and hypocritically… cf his compulsive fright of the gendarmes of Louis XIII) meant in his famous Discourse on Method for Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and for Seeking Truth in the Sciences. It is also the interpretation our collective common sense forgot. “Materialism – which, it should be said here, is in general the logical consequence of Descartes’ doctrine – “ (Plekhanov 1967: 253) appears to be his option only if the approach to the statement is gnoseological. Thus, despite a very odoriferous ambivalent manner of formulating the explanations that accompany the COGITO itself, we can affirm that Descartes was talking about his METHOD OF INVESTIGATION rather than about EXISTENCE. “Descartes’ method is the method of the clear understanding merely” (Hegel 1963, VOl.3: 240). At the exact moment of stating the COGITO, he was describing himself working on his methodology’s starting point. This starting point was the attempt to formulate the only thought he was certain to be able to trust as true and totally free from any other preconceived idea. He then claimed that that pure initial judgment was I THINK. As Spinoza (1961: 12) puts it, Descartes follows the three following gnoseological steps: “I DOUBT, I THINK, THEREFORE I AM”. That very specific situation in which the COGITO is formulated permitted Pierre Gassendi, using the old logical procedure of the syllogism, to oppose Descartes again on the METHOD as he had opposed him on the BEING:

“So a syllogism must be made up, either in the first and perfect figure, to use a technical term, as follows:

“Whoever thinks is; I think; therefore I am.”

or, in fourth figure, generally disapproved of and called Galenic, as follows:

“I think; whoever thinks is; therefore I am.”

But in either form, your collapse is evident. For if you draw your conclusion according to the first form, the statement “Whoever thinks is” becomes a preconceived notion, antecedent to the one you wish to establish as the first judgment. And according to the second form, your minor premiss “Whoever thinks is” becomes a judgment that does not depend upon your statement “I think” and does not follow your conclusion “I am” upon which you want all judgment except “I think” to depend. (Gassendi 1972: 180-181 – published in 1644)

All these speculations are supposed to be about the starting point of the procedure (the “method”) of investigation. “The first of the fundamental determinations of the Cartesian metaphysics is from the certainty of oneself to arrive at the truth, to recognize Being in the notion of thought” (Hegel 1963, vol.3: 240). From that, we can say that there is a clear irrealistic abstraction in the Cartesian reflection leading to the COGITO: that futile attempt to clean mentally the mess of our thoughts to find the pure original idea (I THINK) that will permit us to deduce intellectually our own existence (THEREFORE I AM). Shit! Yes! How irrealistic to see our own existence presented as a simple hypothesis, merely a burp coming from no stomach!. “For, as regards ourselves, when I know that I exist, I cannot hypothesize that I exist or do not exist anymore than I can hypothesize an elephant that can go through the eye of a needle…” (Spinoza 1955: 19). One of the most prestigious African materialist philosophers, Kwame Nkrumah (1909-1972), showed the “speciousness” of Cartesian methodological conceptions by the simple fact of looking at them with a free mind:

“Descartes says that he can think of himself as being without eyes, or as being without arms, etc. In short, he claims that he can think of himself as having been deprived of any of his physical features which anyone might care to name. Whatever be the truth value of this, he sets it up as a reason for saying that he can think of himself as being without a body. Though one may not wish to deny that Descartes could indeed have been physically deformed, one must, I think, resolutely maintain that disincarnation is not a physical deformity! There still remains a distinction between mere deformity and disincarnation. Descartes’ reasoning is of the same level of speciousness as the notion that because one can think of a cow without a tail or horns, etc., one can think of a cow without a body. Thinking of a cow without a body is as different from the thought of a cow without a tail, as thinking of Descartes without a body is different from his thought of himself without arms.” (Nkrumah 1964: 16)

But, despite that obvious irrealistic abstraction (and even because of it!), something ontologically crucial is on the move around that so simple little Stinky-Statement. The struggle between IDEALISM and MATERIALISM is flagrant everywhere in Descartes’ Discourse on Method, and especially around the COGITO. This strong presence of the fundamental debate of philosophy deeply rooted in it, is certainly what explains a good part of the fascination the statement I THINK, THEREFORE I AM still exerts on the philosophical culture of the turn of the millennium. Now let stick our noses right in the middle of the ambiguous dung. Let us put the motto in its broader context and see how ambivalent its orientation is. Click on the following quote and enter our FRAGMENT OF THE COGITO. Quoting from the  Discourse on Method for Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and for Seeking Truth in the Sciences, Part Four:

“As there are men who make mistakes in reasoning even on the simplest topic in geometry, I judged that I was as liable to error as any other, and rejected as false all the reasoning which I had previously accepted as valid demonstration. Finally, as the same precepts which we have when awake may come to us when asleep without their being true, I decided to suppose that nothing that had ever entered my mind was more real than the illusions of my dreams. But I soon noticed that while I thus wished to think everything false, it was necessarily true that I who thought so was something. Since this truth, I THINK, THEREFORE I AM, was so firm and assured that all the most extravagant suppositions of the sceptics were unable to shake it. I judged that I could safely accept it as the first principle of the philosophy I was seeking.

I then examined closely what I was, and saw that I could imagine that I had no body, and that there was no world nor any place that I occupied, but that I could not imagine for a moment that I did not exist. On the contrary, from the very fact that I doubted the truth of other things, it followed very evidently and very certainly that I existed. On the other hand, if I had ceased to think while all the rest of what I had ever imagined remained true, I would have had no reason to believe that I existed; therefore I concluded that I was a substance whose whole essence was only to think and which, to exist, has no need of space nor of any material thing. Thus it follows that this ego, this soul, by which I am what I am, is entirely distinct from the body and is easier to know than the latter, and that even if the body were not, the soul would not cease to be all that it now is.

Next I considered in general what is required of a proposition for it to be true and certain, for since I had just discovered one to be such, I thought I ought also to know of what that certitude consisted. I saw that there was nothing at all in this statement, “I think, therefore I am”, to assure me that I was saying the truth, unless it was that I saw very clearly that to think one must exist. So I judged that I could accept as a general rule that the things which we conceive very clearly and very distinctly are always true, but that there may well be some difficulty in deciding which are those which we conceive distinctly.” (Descartes 1956: 20-21 – published in 1637)

Tied result! The fragment of the Discourse on Method containing the Stinky-Statement shows very clearly what the CRISIS OF THE COGITO is: a jittery stop-and-go wishiwash between Idealism and Materialism, between rational progress and mystical regression. So typical of these last ten centuries, dont you think so, O Nihilo-Nihilers! Personally my stand is taken: it is the materialist stand. I STINK THEREFORE I AM, such is the most convincing syllogism of this stinky, juicy, sloppy, sweaty dying-out millennium. It is a truth, a mere truth!


Descartes, R. (1956), Discourse on Method, New York, Macmillan/Library of Liberal Arts, 50p. – published in 1637.

Dietzgen, J. (1906), The Positive Outcome of Philosophy, Chicago, Charles H. Kerr & Company, 444p.

Dietzgen, J. (1906a), “The Nature of Human Brain Work – A Renewed Critique of Pure and Practical Reason” in The Positive Outcome of Philosophy, Chicago, Charles H. Kerr & Company, PP 39-173. – written in 1869.

Dietzgen, J. (1906b), “Letters on Logic” in The Positive Outcome of Philosophy, Chicago, Charles H. Kerr & Company, PP 175-323. – written around 1884.

Dietzgen, J. (1906c), “The Positive Outcome of Philosophy” in  The Positive Outcome of Philosophy, Chicago, Charles H. Kerr & Company, PP 325-444. – written in 1887.

Gassendi, P. (1972), The Selected Works of Pierre Gassendi, New York, Johnson Reprint Corporation, 442p. – published between 1624 and 1658.

Hegel, G.W.F. (1963), Lectures on the History of Philosophy, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul; New York, The Humanities Press, vol.1, 487p.; vol.2, 453p.; vol.3, 571p. – published in 1840.

Nkrumah, K. (1964), Consciencism – Philosophy and Ideology for Decolonization and Development with Particular References to the African Revolution, London, Heinemann, 122p.

Plekhanov, G.V. (1967), Essays in the History of Materialism, New York, Howard Fertig, 288p. – published in 1896.

Politzer, G. (1976), Elementary Principles of Philosophy, New York, International Publishers, 171p.- published in 1936.

Spinoza, B. de (1955), On the Improvement of the Understanding – The Ethics – Correspondence, New York, Dover Publications, 420p. – published in 1677.

Spinoza, B. de (1961), Principles of Cartesian Philosophy, London, Peter Owen Limited, 192p. – written in 1663


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