Brain Food

April 24, 2017

Happy Birthday to René Descartes

Rene Descartes




A happy would-be 421st birthday to René Descartes!

It’s a ripe old age for a man you’ve undoubtedly heard of, but what was so special about him?

Je ponse, donc je suis

Or, in the English-speaking world, I think, therefore I am. Sound familiar?

The French phrase originally comes from Descartes’s philosophical text Discourse on the Method, but is also referred to in his later works. But what was Descartes talking about?

To give you a Minute-friendly gist of his argument, it went something like this:

How do we know what really exists? Surely from our senses. But our senses can be deceived (our dreams, for instance, can feel alarmingly real), rendering them unable to prove what exists. So our mind must be the only thing that is real, since, regardless of what our senses tell us, we can always think about what we sense and then challenge it. The fact that we’re thinking beings is certain. Thus: we think, therefore we are.

Descartes’s notion gained such traction that it became a cornerstone of Western philosophy. And I think, therefore I am is still referred to today, 380 years after he first published the thought.

For more on René Descartes, including how he argued for the existence of God, read our blinks to his Meditations on First Philosophy.