I’ve been on a philosophical kick lately, mainly existential. I’m wading through Being and Nothingness now and probably will be for some time. It’s a weighty read, not only because of the special terminology and constant references to other philosopher’s works (some familiar, others not so much), but because it sends my mind spinning in different directions (which may or may not be correct interpretations of the text).
Take Sartre’s fundamental position of the pre-reflective cogito as the primary consciousness. That is an idea I’ve wondered about for a long time (though not in those words). Descartes may have said “I think, therefore I am”, but who is the I having the thought?
The way I understand it, Descartes’ cogito is based on the recognition of thought about oneself, i.e. if I doubt my existence, I must exist to be able to have that doubt. However, that is using an awareness of the thought (or doubt) to prove self-existence. So what is that awareness?
This is the thought behind Sartre’s pre-reflective cogito. In other words, there are two things happening within the thinking behind “I think, therefore I am”. While the awareness of the thought is the I (or Ego), the thought itself is the actual primary consciousness (pre-reflective cogito) and happens idependent of an I.
As I type, there is consciousness of the computer in front of me (pre-reflective). I can experience the computer through my senses, such as sight and touch. However, that consciousness of the computer has nothing to do with I or me until I reflect on my own awareness of the computer. It is only when I become conscious of my own awareness of the computer (reflective) that I comes into being.
So what does that matter? Well, for one, a pre-reflective cogito creates an argument against solipsism (the idea that only one’s own self can be proven to exist). It does this by defining the I (or Ego) as an object instead of as the subject. Therefore, the pre-reflective cogito is conscious of the Ego in the same way that it is conscious of other objects (e.g. the computer, a chair, a tree).
In George Orwell’s 1984 (one of my all time favorite books), the protagonist, Winston, is ultimately struggling against solipsism. The Party has gained complete power over the people by distorting reality and enforcing belief in whatever reality they dictate. To hold these beliefs, one must practice doublethink, which is the ability to believe two contradictory truths at the same time. Those who have thoughts that go against the party are arrested for thoughtcrime.
As O’Brien tells Winston, “We control matter because we control the mind. Reality is inside the skull.” (Though O’Brien denies that this is solipsism, but rather collective solipsism which he asserts is a different thing.)
During Winston’s reeducation, we see how the concept of reality, and what constitutes reality, can become a slippery subject, especially as Winston struggles to understand O’Brien‘s actual experiences (or thoughts) as opposed to his own. He can not be certain whether O’Brien is lying to him or whether he actually believes the contradictory truths that he asserts. That is the idea – the questioning of reality as experienced outside of his own mind – that Winston cannot overcome.
But, back to the question of why any of this matters. Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it’s all pointless speculation. Or maybe it means everything and is a glimpse at the “truth” behind all of our perceptions.
For me, these are just the thoughts that rattle around in my brain as I go about my day. I am, therefore I think.