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Journal of the History of Philosophy 43.4 (2005) 490-491

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Husain Sarkar. Descartes' Cogito: Saved from the Great Shipwreck. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.  Pp. xviii + 305.  Cloth, $65.00.

Descartes's first critics attacked his cogito, ergo sum as deficient; his present critics attack it as excessive. Either way, it is an Archimedean point in Descartes's world and merits a book-length study. In this book, Husain Sarkar makes a powerful case that the cogito is not an argument, but rather an "experiment," generating an intuition enabling Descartes to retrieve a timber from what Bourdin called the "great shipwreck" of the hyperbolic doubt.

Sarkar places the experiment within his own fresh readings of Descartes's philosophy. They will be illuminating to new Descartes scholars. Some readings will seem perverse or cryptic. Constructive passages illuminate more, polemic passages less, as when Sarkar finds seven flaws in Hintikka's cogito interpretation. Despite the polemic excesses, Sarkar writes with modesty, epitomized by his slogan, "Reason with them in the most courteous manner."

With verve and imagination Sarkar presents the cogito as an experiment which can be carried out in any world at all and yields an intuition that qualifies as a Cartesian first principle. He suggests various implications of his interpretation—for example, for the epistemic role of will: "The will initially learns the limits that it must recognize only at the foot of the cogito . . . It is in the state of the cogito that the will learns what it means to be ineluctably inclined toward affirming a proposition, and what it is to be free" (256).

What is the content of the intuited 'I exist'? Sarkar calls upon Robert Adams's notion of a "primitive thisness," entirely distinct from a substance's properties or "suchnesses," and upon David Lewis's thesis that besides knowing propositions a person can know a self-ascription of a property. Still, he makes no headway at all. True, the question is extraordinarily [End Page 490] difficult. It has not yielded appreciably to brilliant phenomenologists or brilliant students of direct reference and indexicality or, for that matter, me. The content of 'I' statements is a topic for another book, and no one I know of is writing it.

In the book's centerpiece, Sarkar marshals a series of attacks on the cogito as argument. Sometimes they miss—more polemic overkill. Usually they hit home. Their cumulative effect is persuasive.

  1. Descartes says that "I think, therefore I exist" is the first principle of his philosophy (VI, 32; VIIIA, 7; V, 147: references are to the Adam and Tannery edition). But if the cogito were an argument, one of its premises would become his first principle.
  2. An argument requires movement of thought and that requires reliance on memory (X, 370 and 408), and in the cogito Descartes strips memory of its credentials (VII, 24, superseding the assurances of X, 368).
  3. An argument relies on logical principles, but Descartes suspects these and reasoning generally. In the First Meditation he calls into doubt the simplest mathematics; elsewhere he generalizes from mathematics to "self-evident principles" and to "all the arguments I had previously taken as demonstrative proofs" (VI, 32; IXB, 6; similar aspersions are cast in V, 137 and 139). (But see also Mark Olson, "Descartes' First Meditation: Mathematics and the Laws of Logic" JHP 26 [1988]: 407–438.)

I'll add a wrinkle. Descartes's mouthpiece Eudoxus says you can use your own doubt to deduce facts that are even more certain than those commonly built upon the great principle that it is impossible that a thing should both exist and at the same time not exist (X, 522). The conclusion of any argument rests on such logical principles. If the cogito were an argument, its certainty could not exceed theirs. Descartes suggests here that it does.

Sarkar also cites Descartes's denigrations of "logic," but these often pertain not to reasoning generally but to syllogistic logic. Thus Margaret Wilson took the cogito to be a nonsyllogistic argument. Still, Sarkar effectively deploys...


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