The Cogito as Performance

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Reply Sat 13 Dec, 2008 01:51 pm
In an article published in 1962, Jaakko Hintikka proposed that Descartes' Cogito be viewed as a performance and not as an inference, like it is classically viewed. Central to Hintikka's thesis is the notion of existential inconsistency. Hintikka begins explaining this notion by showing that when an individual, we will call him Person A, utters the statement "Person A does not exist", Person A creates an existential relation between himself and the "Person A" of the statement. Due to this existential relation, there is an existential inconsistency when the statement "Person A does not exist" is uttered by Person A. This inconsistency arises because Person A is performing the act of uttering the statement, and this performance depends on the existence of Person A. Likewise, an existential inconsistency arises when Person A tries to think to himself "I do not exist". This statement is different than the previous one, but performing the act of uttering "Person A" is identical to performing the act of thinking "I", mainly, the existential relation is still created between the subject of the statement (the "I") and the person thinking it. Finally, existentially inconsistent statements are self defeating, due to the fact that the performance of thinking or uttering the statement depends on an existent thing thinking or uttering it, and since existentially inconsistent statements are self defeating, their negations verify themselves when performed. This means that performing the act of thinking "I exist" is existentially self-verified because performing the act of thinking "I do not exist" is existentially inconsistent.

I think that if one wants to explore Hintikka's interpretation of the Cogito as a performance, it is prudent to start with his fundamental idea of existential inconsistency itself. With that being said, the question I find important is whether or not Hintikka is justified in using this notion with regards to Descartes Cogito in the first place.

If we accept Hintikka's conclusion that Descartes thinking the statement "I exist" is existentially self-verified because it's negation "I do not exist" is existentially inconsistent, then we can conclude that Descartes performing the thought-act "I exist" is equal to his performing the thought-act "I do not exist". Now, since an existential inconsistency is created because of the existential relation between the subject of the statement and the person performing the thought-act, the question of whether or not Hintikka is justified in using the notion of existential inconsistency boils down to whether or not Descartes is performing a thought-act and creating the existential relation. To explore this, I will use the Cogito as it is formulated in Meditation II.

When the Meditations are read by a third party, the sentence "I think, I exist" in no way implies an existential relationship between the "I" of the sentence and the reader, or even the author for that matter. This is the case because the reader is not the "I", the fictional person meditating is and the existential relation depends on the actual performance of the thought-act, not a written representation of the act. However, the Meditations were written in such a way that they are to represent the direct thoughts of Descartes as he is thinking them. This means that Descartes associates himself with the "I" of the statement "I think, I exist" and is in fact performing the thought-act. Thus it follows that Descartes does create the existential relation, but it is only created for Descartes himself when he is thinking it. It seems that Hintikka is therefore justified in using the notion, but only when it is applied appropriately. All this leads me to believe that if we are to read the Meditations like they are our own thoughts, we will more fully live up to Descartes request that the reader thoroughly think through the Meditations.
Reply Mon 15 Dec, 2008 04:12 am
@de Silentio,
de Silentio,

I really enjoyed this post. I'm afraid, however, that I don't understand the difference between viewing the cogito as an inference and as peformance. It seems to me that these 2 views might not really be distinct and are simply different sides of the same coin. But as I said, I'm not sure I understand what the difference is supposed to be. The way you have described the cogito as performance is basically the way I have been thinking of it already. Would you possibly be able to briefly explain what it means to view the cogito as an inference and what the difference is between that and viewing it as performance?


Also, although I haven't taken the time to read it, I found the article by Hintikka for any that might be interested in checking it out -
Reply Mon 15 Dec, 2008 10:39 am
I'm of a very formal school when it comes to Descartes and analytic philosophy. The way I was taught it was gospel. But I have to say that this is a very good point raised. Good stuff. (What follows may also address Deftil's question as to the difference between inference and performance.)

The way I was taught it was this. Let's compare two well known rationalists, Descartes and Spinoza. Descartes is known to have an analytic approach to philosophy, that is, Descartes wants to follow a scientific method to reach primary truths (ultimately the form of his dualistic philosophy). But what does Descartes have to do to reach this end? Descartes (in his discourse on method) essentially wants to break down his method into four stages; Doubt, analyze, reconstruct, and enumerate. Descartes first starts out by doubting everything (universal doubt, Meditation 1) and start from scratch accepting only those things he can know clearly and distinctly. He then wants to analyze everything down to its simplest components (Cogito, Meditation 2). He then reconstructs his ideas so that they are as clear and distinct as when he had deconstructed them and then enumerate (go over again and again and again).

Descartes starts out with essentially nothing and deductively comes to primary truths. Now keep this in mind, but switch over to Spinoza.

Spinoza was much in line with Descartes in many respects. However, he differed greatly in one particular way, the proof for the existence of God. Spinoza can be described as having a synthetic approach. Spinoza does not start of the way Descartes does in meditations. In Ethics, Spinoza starts off with definitions, axioms, and then goes into proofs to explain his philosophy. But he starts off with definitions which establish God first and foremost. In this way, he can assert that whatever follows, follows necessarily from the essence of God.

Whereas Descartes worked from the ground up so to speak to get to primary truths, Spinoza starts out with everything and derives the propositions from the fact that God necessarily exists to get at primary truths. Thus Spinoza has a synthetic philosophy. So now you can compare Descartes and Spinoza and see that they have two completely different approaches, but still classify as rationalists.

Now what I think Jakko Hintikka is saying based off of de Silento's post is that we could look at Descartes Cogito as SYTHETIC after the fact, not before it. That's my issue with Hintikka. More could be said, but that seems to be a prime issue.

De Silento's thoughts on the cogito on the other hand are quite well formulated. I agree with the fact that the "I" is the meditator rather than the author or the reader. I also agree that these are the words of Descartes and he could for all intensive purposes be the thinking thing. However, I think we differ in relation to what Hitikka refers to beyond the synthetic/analytic relationship. I think de Silento addresses in fact a bigger problem rather than the Synthetic/Analytic attribution of Descartes, the inconsistency of self reference. But the issue of existential reference is certainly a big problem in philosophy and I think de Silento's analysis in the last paragraph of post #1 gives a good point of view on it. I would love to hear more on the issue because it is very well thought out.
Reply Mon 15 Dec, 2008 09:07 pm
@de Silentio,
Descartes addresses his Meditations to his readers, and leads them along the paths his own thinking takes. In this sense of sharing, the cogito is HIS cogito, but it can be said by any of his readers in duplicating his experiment. In that sense, he invites his readers to create that same existential relation.

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