“I think, therefore I am”: origin and meaning of this famous phrase

This famous phrase by René Descartes laid the foundations for a new way of knowing the world and doing philosophy. Let’s see what it consists of.

Last update: May 23, 2022

“I think, therefore I am” is one of the most famous phrases of the philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650), who marked a before and after in the history of thought. Well, the meaning of it represents nothing more and nothing less than the beginning of rationalism and modern philosophy.

But what does this phrase mean? How did it come about? We detail it below.

Origin of the phrase “I think, therefore I am”

To understand the meaning of “I think, therefore I am”, first it is necessary to refer to the context in which it was created. The philosophical reflections of Descartes arise at a time of profound crisis and transition: the European Renaissance. During this period, all the convictions that had been assumed as truths during the Middle Ages begin to crumble.

Therefore, what until then had been considered true, begins to be refuted by scientific advances. Everything becomes uncertain.

As a result, Descartes intends to leave behind the old ideas of the Middle Ages (mostly based on authority and tradition); and lays the foundation for the acquisition of new and true knowledge.

For this, in his work method discourse (1637), sets out to find some absolute certainty that is founded on itself. That is to say, that it does not depend on something else or on some external authority that certifies it as true. As used to happen in the Middle Ages, whose knowledge was based on the sacred Catholic scriptures, for example.

This certainty would be a principle that bases the construction of a new science. Well, Descartes believed that in philosophy there could also be a method that allows us to know truths, just as it happened with mathematics or other hard sciences.

That first irrefutable truth is denoted by the phrase “I think, therefore I am”what refers to the indubitable truth of our own existence as long as we think. That is, we can doubt everything else, except that we are thinking at this very moment.

The Renaissance brings doubts about the ecclesiastical authority to give resurgence to scientific methods.


The methodical or Cartesian doubt

To reach this absolute certainty, Descartes questions the veracity of all the knowledge acquired and wonders what are the sources that support it.

In the first place, he doubts the knowledge that the senses provide us, since it is evident that they deceive us very often. Then he claims that all our experience can be a dream, an illusion, so he also questions the imagination as a reliable source of knowledge.

Finally, doubt human rationality to reach true knowledgeresorting to the hypothesis that an evil genius or deceiving spirit can make us err, even when we think we are thinking correctly.

For example, when we perform a mathematical operation, there could be an omnipotent evil genius who makes us believe that we arrive at the correct result when in fact we do not.

So, if we cannot trust our senses or our intellect, should we accept skepticism and claim that it is impossible to know the truth of any fact?

Despite the fact that he begins by doubting the veracity of everything that exists, Descartes concludes that there is an indubitable truth, from which to sustain the rest of knowledge.. And this truth is that even if I am deceived or wrong, I am certain that I am thinking and, if I think, then I exist.

In this way, the existence of a thinking “I” is the first truth he arrives at. A truth that cannot be questioned because by doubting our own thought we are confirming its existence.

Meaning of the phrase

Now, the meaning of the phrase “I think, therefore I am” it becomes clearer: the only thing we cannot doubt is that we are precisely doubting. Therefore, if I doubt, my thought exists and so do I.

Whether we are living in an illusion or in the Matrix, we cannot doubt that we think. Therefore, we are existing.

The fact of thinking and thinking of ourselves shows that we are and that we exist.


Implications of Cartesian reflections

The phrase “I think, therefore I am” spawned a philosophical revolution. Well, this expression contributed to the fact that the subject was considered a central piece in all subsequent philosophy.

After Descartes, the thinking “I” began to be both the subject and the object of philosophical inquiry. Because if the first truth, the starting point of philosophy and all of science, is the existence of the thinking “I”; then, to know something about the world and ourselves, we must analyze and investigate its own contents, functions and properties.

Thus, One of the great legacies of Descartes was the idea that we must start by knowing our own mental states. (representing our first certainty) in order to know something about everything else.

Thus, Descartes is known as the father of modern philosophy and founder of one of the most influential philosophical currents in history: rationalism.

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