Monday, May 3, 2010

Cogito, Ergo Sum

By Fr. Aloysius Hemrom SDB

As I journey down the memory lane, the last time that I had to confront or carefront philosophical problems was in 1992, when I was invited (took a good break from Cherrapunjee or Sohra) by the Father-founder of the Integrated Training for Religious and Laity (ITLR), Rev. Fr Puthenpurakal (PV) Joseph (without ‘c’, mind you!), presently the august director of the DBCIC (in short, DB Museum), to lecture to the ITLRs on the history of Western and Indian philosophies and philosophers. It was a good revision for me after my Dimapur-days (1984-87). I enjoyed ‘philosophizing’ with the ITLRs. Now that after 17 years in the ‘philosophical limbo’, I have landed here in Divyadaan (God’s Gift), the melting pot of the Institute of Philosophy in Nashik – Mumbai Province (here the Lonergan School is going strong), from last 28 July, it is a time to find some ‘philosophical bearings’ once again after some 12 years of ‘burning candles’ and ‘putting flowers on the altar’ in the theologate (now mind you, for those who have forgotten the latest GIRM 305 which says that they are to be put around and no more on the altar).

It is interesting to note that those 17 years in the ‘philosophical limbo’, in a way, was a good thing. Now that some ‘bearings’ have been discovered, let me share with you something that may shock or may not shock you – unless you are a great ‘shock-absorber’. But the fact is, that it does exist: in some a good measure, in others somewhat a less measure, in some others the whole measure (am I too judgmental or presumptious?). And what is that ‘shocking thing’?

Cogito! It is the Cogito, ergo sum = “I think, therefore I am” (or “I am thinking, therefore I exist”), of RenĂ© Descartes (31 Mar 1596 – 11 Feb 1650; Latinized form: Renatus Cartesius), the great 17th century French philosopher, mathematician, physicist and the “Father of Modern Philosophy” in his famous Discourse on the Method IV (written in French, 1637) and in Principles of Philosophy I (in Latin, 1644). He had his followers in the persons of Baruch Spinoza and Gottfried Leibniz who advocated his ‘thought’ but opposed by the empiricist school of thought consisting of Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley, andHume.

Allow me to revise together some tenets of this interesting Cartesian philosophy so as to build on the cogito principle which, I believe, has affected the very marrows of humankind (quite a tall statement and claim, you will say!) For Cartesius, there is just a single principle in life: ‘thought exists’ which cannot be separated from me, therefore, I exist. Further, if I doubt, then something or someone must be doing the doubting, therefore the very fact that I doubt proves my existence. "The simple meaning of the phrase is that if one is skeptical of existence, that is, in and of itself proof that he does exist." Descartes thus concludes that he can be certain that he exists because he thinks. But in what form? He perceives his body through the use of the senses; however, these have previously been proven unreliable. So Descartes concludes further that the only indubitable knowledge is that he is a thinking thing. Thinking is his essence as it is the only thing about him that cannot be doubted. Descartes defines "thought" (cogitatio) as "what happens in me such that I am immediately conscious of it, insofar as I am conscious of it". Thinking is thus every activity of a person of which he is immediately conscious. This Cartesian cogito principle shook up the 17th century world and in 1663, Pope Alexander VII (1599-1667) placed his works on the Index of Prohibited Books.

Now what is this cogito principle or cogitatio? To simplify further the Cartesian principle, it is this: ‘My personhood/personality (as I am) depends on the way I picture/create (think) myself, no matter whoever/whatever/whichever/however others may label/think/speak of me’. Further, ‘I am or I exist on the basis of what I think of myself and not what Tom, Dick and Harry think of me’. To put it crudely: ‘I am what I think best about myself, no matter what others think of me or speak about me’. I hope, I have succeeded in stating the principle in a sound manner and in simple terms.

How does this cogito principle work in my life? As a salesian, I have professed to follow the Constitutions and Regulations given by Don Bosco (and revised by the subsequent General Chapters) but I choose the ‘conveniences’ only and rationalize on other things because ‘I think those convenient things make me what I am – a good salesian’ and I continue my life quite happily. The ‘hard things thereof’ I think do no apply me; they apply to other ‘good salesians’. The provincial reminds me now and again the constitutional and regulatory implications in my life through his letters and circulars. The AGCs too arrive from Rome. I continue my life ‘as usual’ (as it is commonly said: ‘As it was in the beginning, is now and…), because that’s what I think it should be. There are meetings and animations conducted in the province or elsewhere, but I think they are not meant for me; they are meant ‘for the other’. I am quite happy at what I am doing in the parish, in the school, in the institution. For, that’s what I think of myself. Others may point fingers at me for not attending such programs or animations, but what I am is what I think of myself. Let others think whatever they like to think or speak! After all, now-a-days, there is freedom of thought and speech! Thus, cogito, ergo sum!

Let me muse further: There are on-going programs but I don’t think I need such programs. There are visitation reports left by the provincial/extraordinary visitor, but I know best what’s to be done because that is ‘what we think as a community’. The province-meetings are meant for the ‘jobless’. I have to ‘save souls’ for God’s kingdom (?) and ‘more souls’. That’s what I think. During the formation stages (aspirantate, pre-novitiate, novitiate, philosophate, practical training, college studies, theologate), guidelines and directions are given (especially during conferences and other interactions and meetings) but I don’t think I need them, for I know myself quite well of who I am. Besides, I am quite an expert on today’s psychology and up-to-date with the mass-media – that’s what I think! After all, formation is supposed to be personal and as a person I am quite sure of myself because that’s what I think of myself… therefore, I am!

Cogito, ergo sum! That is the reason why I have put down such musings after I have woken up from my ‘philosophical stupor’ (for my own benefit in the first place and for anyone of goodwill; Nota bene: With no malice towards anyone!). And I hope Renatus Cartesius will not turn in his grave with such cogitations of mine for reversing the ‘index’ of Pope Alexander VII!

Article written by Fr. Aloysius Hemrom

Nashik, 19 March 2010

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