Imagine, if you will, the absence of Descartes in history, and therefor the absence of his famous phrase Cogito, Ergo Sum, popularly translated as “I think, therefor I am” (which is perhaps a mistranslation but we will get to that shortly.) Without Descartes, who is arguably the most influential philosopher of the last five hundred years, especially in that everything we think and do is centered essentially around the cogito, around the idea of the I, around a centered objective subject that sees the world spread out and ordered—Linnaeus like— around her, we could perhaps see (re-cognize) a very different landscape. Without this central I figure we have something like the Copernicusation of conception (Copernicus being the early 16th century astronomer who famously wrenched the earth from its geocentric model and replaced it with a heliocentric one) in which the I is unceremoniously ripped from the center of its ordered and named universe and what? Done away with? Reconfigured? Shattered? Essentially this is what Martin Heidegger did through Being and Time in the 1920’s and 30’s when he worked with the concept of Dasein, which translates as, essentially, being. Let us return for a minute to the mistranslation of cogito. Cogito, as I said earlier, is often translated as “to think”, which it is, but this is too simple by far. Even the shorter definitions offer in addition to think, the phrases “to ponder, to weigh, reflect upon.” The word itself is derived from co-agito, agito meaning to “set in violent motion, drive onward,” and to “impel forward.” The Lewis and Short Latin Dictionary refers to it as “In gen., of the motion caused by other things.” But what interest me more than cogito is its relation to the word cognition, which comes from the Latin cognitio, a close relative of cogito. Again the Lewis and Short provides a general example which is “a becoming acquainted with, learning to know, acquiring knowledge, knowing, acquaintance,” and as knowledge “as a consequence of perception or of the exercise of our mental powers.” This definition strikes me for being so active. It is not something which is observed dully, statically, but is sought after, is impelled towards, dynamically and sometimes violently. Each of the definitions of cognitio is a verb, something that is constantly already becoming. If we couple this with the prefix re we get an even more dynamic word, recognition, that is constantly re-becoming acquainted with, re-learning to know, re-acquiring knowledge, re-knowing. And it is in this that Heidegger’s Dasein and more importantly his concept of the Mitsein, (being-with) comes into play. Heidegger writes that Mitsein belongs to the being of Dasein that is an issue for its very being.” Being-with, being in communion with, in community with, is at the very essence of what it means to be. We are active, engaged (and engaging) dynamic beings and it is only in activity that we can truly be, that we can leave behind our common, everyday laggard selves. Being is no longer defined and trapped by the prison of distrust that the cogito enforces but instead is moving out into the world, as into a river from which a thousand opening are constantly always already happening. We begin (always beginning, always rebeginning) to complete the circle away from the centered I and begin to close again with a being that is not complete, discrete and unique but which requires a necessary incompletion, indeed can only near completion when it is always already incomplete, when it is always already becoming something else. And there is liberty in that.
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