Home » philosophy » What did Descartes mean? Talking to myself.

What did Descartes mean? Talking to myself.


Descartes – Wikipedia

This is bugging me. I know it shouldn’t and that I should just get on with the course. My Native language is English but I speak French. I know that very often things just don’t translate so how do we know that Descartes meant what we say he meant.

I might just be getting bogged down by words here. I often am bogged down by words. Descartes didn’t write in English or even in Latin he wrote in French. It was also a very long time ago and we all know that words change their meaning over time. 

On Being 

He didn’t write

“I think, therefore I am.” That is a translation.

He was talking about what he was doing at the time so it is more likely that he said ‘I am thinking, therefore I am”. So what is the difference? Well does this mean that when you are not thinking that you cease to exist? If you go back to the “In what form?” question then can you exist purely when you are thinking and not at any other time. What happens to the brain when it isn’t thinking or is it always thinking? Is dreaming thinking?

By stating this Descartes places himself at the centre of his world and at the centre of his own knowledge. I am surprised that this sort of statement wasn’t considered heretical at the time. Maybe he was forgiven because of his Trademark Argument proving the existence of god. The wars of religion were over but the highly devout Marie de Medici maintained a very Catholic country at that time.

By the way I tried the Trademark Argument with dragons and fairies and it works with both as long as they are perfect.

On Knowledge

La connaissance de soi est le savoir qu’une personne acquiert sur elle-même, en termes psychologiques ou spiritueles, au cours de sa vie.

Self-knowledge is the knowledge that a person acquires in themselves……

You know the text maybe but what about the difference between La Connaissance and Le Savoir. They both translate as knowledge. We have been talking about knowledge and definitions of it but what did Descartes mean and does it make any difference?  It might not but I want to know.

Descarted wrote “Les conditions de la connaissance vraie”.

Connaissance is  knowledge in the sense of being  familiar with someone or something or being able to tell the difference between things.

Le savoir is exterior to you it becomes la connaissance when you appropriate it.

The “savoir”  is in a book you can read the book and have the savoir. When you can use this “savoir” by yourself, it’s connaissance

For example ‘Je ne le connais pas mais je sais qui c’est .” – I don’t know him (I have never met him but I know who he is (I have read about him in a newspaper).

Know how – Je sais lire. (savoir)

Know who – Je sais qui

Je connais son nom. -I know his name

(Thank you Helene for all the help with the differences.)

Something else interesting is the word “reconnais” literally  to know again but we would translate as to recognize.

Je sais que ma fille est à la maison, je reconnais le bruit dans sa chambre !

I know my daughter is in the house, I recognise the noise in her room!

Where am I going with this?

Nowhere really I just wanted to write down what I was thinking. What I think is important to think about (maybe only for me) are two things.

1. That Descartes was probably talking about actively thinking – I am thinking therefore I am.

2. That Descartes was French. In French there are two different ways of looking at knowledge he may not have the same concept of it as I do.



  1. Jaap says:

    Hi Louise, Descartes was very afraid . . I am surprised that this sort of statement wasn’t considered heretical at the time. .. It was heretical, that is why he went from France to Amsterdam. And even in the Netherlands his books caused uproar and his books were banned for some years. He went to Sweden after that.
    In Wikipedia “Je pense donc je suis” is cited from his book.
    Most philosophers had to hide their real feelings and knowledge, Spinoza (after Descartes) only published his book after his death. Philosophy was a very dangerous occupation. Jonathan Israel did write fine books about the history of philosophy and mentions even death sentences for philosophers.
    Thanks for explaining la connaissance et le savoir.

    • Louise Taylor says:

      Thank you Jaap.
      You see I might know about French but I don’t know anything about Philosophy or much about history, especially not French history. I started listening at about the Tudors and stopped listening at about Victoria. French history for me was just small bit parts in British history. I watched a film recently about Hypatia of Alexandria so I knew she was killed for her beliefs.
      I do like words and I get very worried about words and their meanings. A little obsessive sometimes. I would love to be able to get into his head so that I could understand what he meant by his words.
      Thank you for the history lesson. Very much appreciated.

  2. Jaap Bosman says:

    Descartes wrote in French, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/13846/13846-h/13846-h.htm is a French text Discours de la methode. Here you will find he wrote … je pense, donc je suis.

    • Louise Taylor says:

      Yes I know – the French don’t have a continuous form. I have read the text in French. That is why I am questioning it. I believe that this should translate as “I am thinking therefore I am.”

  3. […] person I am teaching but we use the word very differently. I wrote a post recently about whether Descartes meant “I think therefore I exist” or “I am thinking therefore I exist” […]

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