…In this short space I want to consider one of the most famous sentences about thinking ever uttered: “I think, therefore I am.” It appears in the fourth section of Descartes’ Discourse on Method (1637). He presents this as the culmination of a thought experiment in which he imagines that everything that has ever entered his mind was no better than the illusions of dreams; he then sees that his thinking this thought presupposes that there is someone who is thinking and that is himself. In thinking about himself he establishes himself as one indubitable reality. He is not dreaming himself. But the importance of the famous sentence for me is not its place in Descartes’ struggle against skepticism, but its suggestiveness about the relationship between one and oneself.
I think, therefore I am. I think, therefore I know I am. I think in language and can therefore say the sentence, I am. In thinking further about that simple sentence (I am), I come to realize that I am alive; more thinking, and I can say, I am alive when I needn’t have been, needn’t have come into existence. Does any circumstance force the issue on me, as skepticism forced the issue on Descartes? It’s not as if one has barely recovered from a dreadful accident or a life-threatening illness. No, the realization can come for no reason in a sudden moment of intellectual shock, a moment of arrest. In the shock, I detach myself from the automatism of conformity and obligation to the practices, customs, and duties of everyday life. I stand back from myself, rather than rushing ahead unaware of myself as a self. It is not a matter of who or what I am; not a matter of my particular identity; only that I am. Do I experience this shock often or only now and then? On this matter, I have no prescription. Let’s say, now and then.
I would like to propose that if don’t have such arrests, such moments of shock at my mere existence, I don’t exist to myself. I don’t have what Rousseau calls in the Fifth Walk of The Reveries of a Solitary Walker, the sentiment of our existence, or what we could call a self-feeling. To know that one exists is to have consciousness of oneself as a self, as a center, as something more than the resultant of pushes and pulls. This sentiment is not the same as self-centeredness or egotism. These latter sentiments are in fact the source of automatism.
To be for oneself is the easiest thing to be, but to be to oneself as a human self that has no necessary existence is something else again. I can observe myself as if I were another person. This is what Thoreau calls “doubleness” in Walden. I stand and push back at what presses in me or on me, or at least I try to resist being an automatism. Only by doing this can I really be myself, be the real me (in Walt Whitman’s phrase). The real me is the inner observer of the me who acts. I think, therefore I am more than an automatism. Perhaps one meaning of the Socratic examined life is the achievement of doubleness. Thus, to think that I am gives me a reality that the presence of others cannot. I confirm myself from within and hence in a way that others cannot confirm me.
A Written Contribution to Thinking Aloud, 2012