Cogito Ergo Sum: The Responsibility of Self-Liberation

by Gillian Brassil

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness

(Declaration of Independence).

Our founding fathers  had to make this truth self-evident; had they not, we would be a conglomeration of colonies dictated by an overbearing government and forced to pay exorbitant taxes. What would the United States be if we had not made our freedom self-evident?

The difficulty in making our freedom self-evident arises as our instincts prevent us from thinking for ourselves. Free thinking requires conscious effort; we do not recognize our freedom unless we think about it. We are naturally suppressed by primitive instincts and external forces. These innate beliefs are ingrained in our thought processes and direct our basic decisions. We must make ourselves cognizant of our individual freedom. Bearing this in mind, I propose that no one is free unless everyone is free, as we rely on each other to set societal norms and regulations. And so, each one of us must liberate our thought process to allow society to be free. It is each one of our responsibilities to abandon our primitive instincts and to recognize our freedom as to make freedom available to all.

I present René Descartes as an example of an individual that plans to liberate his mentality. Descartes resolves to change his thought process in his Discourse on Method to achieve good sense. He believes that good sense “exists whole and entire in each of us” (3) and that it is best “to learn to distinguish the true from the false” (10) to progress with confidence and common sense. He fears that many are unconscious of reason and “that it is chance rather than the will of some men using reason that has arranged them thus” (12). He believes good sense and reason come from within “since it is much more likely that one man would have found them than a whole multitude of people” (17). He composes himself to find good sense and to derive ideas logically. He creates four rules for processing his thoughts:

  1. never to accept anything as true unless he has evidence that it is true,
  2. to divide and conquer problems,
  3. to conduct organized thought processes; i.e. from the easiest to comprehend to most difficult, and
  4. to think completely and include as much information as not to forget anything.

He believes that “only mathematicians have been able to find any demonstrations,” (20) as they think through problems clearly and logically as to derive one certain truth. He finds mathematics to be the only certain truth in life: “For ultimately, the method that teaches one to follow the true order and to enumerate exactly all the circumstances of what one is seeking contains everything that gives certainty to the rules of arithmetic” (21). He resolves to eradicate the uncertainty from his life and prepares himself to change the way in which he thinks: “rooting out from my mind all the wrong opinions that I had accepted before that time as in accumulating many experiences, in order for them later to be the subject matter of my reasonings, and in always practicing the method I had prescribed for myself so as to strengthen myself more and more in its use” (22).

As he undergoes this period that he coins as “skeptical doubt,” he requires a safe mindset. He presents this idea with the analogy of a house as it is “necessary to be provided with someplace else where one can live comfortably while working on it” (22). His house is his moral code. Descartes provides four maxims as moral guidance to remain in control of his actions while maintaining indecision in his judgments vis-a-vis the following:

  1. to remain faithful to the laws and customs of his country and religion,
  2. to make firm and decisive actions,
  3. to master his own thoughts rather than to focus on external factors, and
  4. to find the best possible occupation in life as to live happily.

These principles are the basis for Descartes new scientific method of thought. He will master his thoughts and actions while maintaining an element of control.

slavery-modern-slaveryMan trapped on default setting (Everett).

David Foster Wallace would concur that Descartes should master his thought. In his “Kenyon Commencement Speech,” Wallace proposes that it is up to each of us to consider our thoughts and to collect personal views: “…if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m going to be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop” (Wallace 6). Each of us has our own perception of the world that is unique to our own experiences, thus it is our responsibility as an individual to decide how to perceive the world and  to choose what stimuli affects us. The same concept applies to reason. Descartes has the ability to see how new ideas align with or change his notions and how these ideas shape his new way of processing thoughts. Wallace continues on this application by describing a person’s preconceptions: his or her default setting. Descartes’ default setting is his former inclination to accept information as true without validity. His default setting is self-deluded and he desires to think logically and project solely what is true. Descartes must abandon his default setting and remove the chains that he is born with and builds overtime in order to acquire new knowledge. His innate belief system, if not put on hold, filters out valuable knowledge and accepts fallacies. Wallace’s analogy of the mundane adult lifestyle presents to the reader that “if you’re already sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable” (Wallace 7). Thus, on his default setting Descartes is incapable of realizing the possibilities of the situation, as he attempts to redesign himself with the prospect of understanding each situation fully and honestly. Descartes relies on the rules of mathematics, a purely algorithmic and detached learning style. What he ignores is emotion. Empathy is the key to silencing the default setting, as it simulates walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. Empathy allows us to feel how others do instead of solely the way we feel, which opens us to new understandings of how we can perceive different scenarios. Until Descartes learns to consistently empathize, the innate way of thinking controls his thoughts and actions.

And although he ought to consider empathy, he can only perceive what he draws connections with; what he sees and understands. Thus Descartes feels removed from outside logic, which Wallace explains: “there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of” (Wallace 3). This is the human default setting: self-centeredness. Descartes cannot completely abandon his default setting because he cannot leave his perspective behind. He is eternally trapped within myself, and cannot physically see the world through different eyes. He mutes his default setting. His maxims represent the underlying hardware that serves as the groundwork for his reasoning. However, it is imperative that he silences his egotism to comprehend the world differently. He cultivates what thrives in his default setting by introducing thoughts perceived while muting it. He must choose to think outside of himself in order to conceptualize what is true.

descartes-cogito-ergo-sumDescartes’ “I think therefore I am” (Descartes).

In Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential discourses, Existentialism is a Humanism and Being and Nothingness, the existential hero searches within himself for the meaning of life. The individual paints his own journey beyond the confines of society. Man becomes what he has decided to be; he may construct himself to be free as “he will be what he makes of himself” (22). He agrees with Descartes’ methodology, saying, “we base our doctrine on pure subjectivity-that is, on the Cartesian I think– on the very moment in which man fully comprehends his isolation, rendering us incapable of re-establishing solidarity with those who exist outside of the self, and who are inaccessible to us through the cogito” (18). Cogito is the Latin word for “I think,” which Descartes and Sartre use to describe the state of full and formal reasoning. Sartre subscribes to Descartes’ Cartesian philosophy of looking inwards to develop a personal understanding of the world, but it is each individual’s personal job to “make every man conscious of what he is, and to make him solely responsible for his own existence” (23). It is each individual’s job to make himself aware of his thoughts and actions as “a being who exists before he can be defined by any concept of it” (22). By this, Sartre means that each person writes his or her own story, just as Descartes believes each person develops his or her own rationale. Sartre sums this into this phrase:

existence precedes essence; or, if you prefer, that subjectivity must be our point of departure


The basic principle is that man exists as a physical being and then he writes his methodology, or “man is responsible for what he is” (23).

If we hold this to be true, then we must consider what should happen if man conducts himself poorly. If man refuses to liberate himself from his default setting, and chooses to ignore his freedom, he is operating in bad faith. Sartre claims, “any man who takes refuge behind his passions, any man who fabricates some deterministic theory, is operating in bad faith” (47). Descartes also believes in a form of bad faith, as he presented with his maxims, when man chooses to consider external forces without looking for his personal thoughts. Descartes’ bad faith falls on the same level as illogical thought and refusing to think for one’s self. Sartre and Descartes concur that to find good faith, one must look into himself and uncover it: “the ultimate significance of the actions of men of good faith is the quest of freedom in itself” (48). The action of searching for good faith in itself is an operation of good faith. Abandoning bad faith in lieu of good faith is the premise of casting off self-delusion and accepting inner freedom as “this is what abandonment implies: it is we, ourselves, who decide who we are to be” (34). Deciding who we are to be is the greatest of all freedoms, as it is the power we have to choose to be free.

Choosing to be free is an expression of freedom that not only affects ourselves, but all of those around us. So, after Descartes chooses to abandon his default setting, he can further explore his freedom for “once a man realizes, in his state of abandonment, that is is he who imposes values, he can will but one thing: freedom as the foundation of all values” (Sartre, 48). Whether or not Descartes wants to be free, or whether or not we want to be free, freedom thrives within our minds and acts as the foundation for our thoughts and actions. This leads Sartre to the conclusion that “man is condemned to be free: condemned, because he did not create himself, yet nonetheless free, because once cast into the world, he is responsible for everything he does” (29). Man has no choice but to accept his freedom as he is responsible for his thoughts and actions.

His responsibility is not only to himself, but to others as mankind is “responsible for all men” (Sartre, 23). The task is not only the individual’s right to develop a personal philosophy but also his duty to make good faith available to the public sphere as, “we always choose the good, and nothing can be good for any of us unless it is good for all” (24). Our responsibilities lie in the realm of the general public, and so should we choose to ignore our ability to comprehend free will, we ignore the possibilities of others liberating themselves. The relevance of others liberating themselves is that the freedom to express one’s self publicly is that “it depends entirely on the freedom of others, is the freedom of others depends on our own” (48). Our actions affect others, and constrict the freedom of others to think and liberate themselves should we impose our belief sets upon them. This is why Descartes proclaims to look only within himself and to avoid changing external forces in his third maxim. We must abandon our inner default setting and free our rationale to allow others to do the same.

Everyone is capable of Sartre’s version of the elimination of the innate default setting, as abandonment is “within everyone’s reach: one need only seize it directly” (40). And so, Descartes and others must simply carpe opportunitatem and find truth. Developing the cognizance to differentiate between truth and fallacy encourages our process to make freedom self-evident, as Descartes provides in his second maxim and Sartre applies in his interpretation of the cogito because “any theory that considers man outside of this moment of self-awareness is, at the outset, a theory that suppresses the truth, for outside of this Cartesian cogito, all objects are merely probable, and a doctrine of probabilities not rooted in any truth crumbles into nothing” (40). Validation proves imperative in the process of self liberation. And so, on this front, the crux at freeing one’s mentality to free that of others is Sartre’s singular universal truth:

I think therefore I am


If we can all determine the difference between what is true and what is false, and we recognize the preceding cogito as true, we can determine who we are and where we stand. This stands as our freedom to ponder our abilities and our virtues, and to allow others to be as well. For, if we all think for ourselves, and we allow others to think for themselves, we can all recognize and utilize freedom under this universal truth.

Descartes’ search for truth will in turn help others to find truth. And although both Descartes and Sartre support uncovering their inner freedoms to allow others to follow suit, they do not agree with the principle that freedom is a social construct. Immanuel Kant’s What is Enlightenment? stresses the importance of the individual to mature to develop reason; however, he places freedom available solely in the public sphere: “Enlightenment is mankind’s exit from its self-incurred immaturity” (58). In order to gain knowledge of truth, Descartes must abandon the self inhibiting thought processes that hinder judgment. Kant presents that “Immaturity is the inability to make use of one’s own understanding without the guidance of another,” (58) as Descartes declares that he must think for himself without the cloudiness of outside opinion. Even as they diverge in theory on the origin of freedom, Kant’s definition of immaturity aligns with Descartes’ views on thinking for the self. Kant would support Descartes’ firm and resolute action, as presented in his second maxim, as he defines “Self-incurred is this inability if its cause lies not in the lack of understanding but rather in the lack of resolution and the courage to use it without the guidance of another” (58). He declares, “It is so easy to be immature” (58). It is easy to ride on one’s default setting; however, in doing so, one can never determine truth or find enlightenment. Kant thus would support Descartes’ abandonment of his tainted reasoning.

More importantly, Kant would support Descartes’ methods to improve and find freedom for the public as well. In fact, he says that it is the duty of the individual to achieve logical reasoning: “one man may indeed postpone, for his own person and even then only for a short time, enlightenment in that which it is incumbent for him to know; but to renounce it, for his own person and even more for posterity, is to violate and to trample on the sacred rights of mankind” (59-60). Should one man ride on his default setting forever, mankind cannot achieve freedom. Descartes is right in his methods of respecting the laws and customs of his society while maturing, as Kant finds “the public use of reason must at all times be free” (59). He must not hinder the opinions of others while undergoing his enlightenment. At the same time, Kant wants “freedom to make a public use of one’s reason in all matters” (59) in that reasoning should be shared in the public sphere in a respectful manner. Descartes intends to respect the laws of his country and religion without being weighed down by pre-conceived thoughts. He will reform himself to find reason without affecting the freedoms of others. He must do this openly as his individual freedom shall allow others to find freedom as well. Despite Kant’s belief that freedom is provided through social argumentatives, Kant and Descartes concur that the individual must free himself and allow others to be free as to provide a safe space in the public sphere. Their convergence in the maturing of the individual however, shows that freedom is rooted within the self. In alignment with Cartesian philosophy, stressing the mental liberation and development of thought, if each individual can free himself without sacrificing the freedom of his neighbor, the general public may achieve freedom as well.

brain,chain,head,justice,psychology-06feeb6f430e61ac4e1f0d37c1459338_hMental liberation (Rodriguez).

In a brief historical example, this premise expresses itself through Martin Luther King’s renowned “I Have a Dream,” where he rallies the black community to liberate themselves as to let others see them as free. He, however, aligns more with Kant, in that the struggle to procure freedom is available in the public sphere: “They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone” (3). It is true that the individual cannot achieve freedom without the support of others; however, this freedom is found within the self. King’s doctrine aligns with Descartes’ in his realization that we rely on others to be free for ourselves to be free, but he fails to recognize that this freedom can only be found through the abandonment of the inner default setting. Should others have empathized with the black community, they would not have faced such harsh cruelty. This proves that searching within to develop a personal philosophy would have aided in the process of liberating all.

And so, as Descartes and others provide, we have the ability to abandon our bad faith and utilize our freedom. The expression of this ability in turn allows all others to be free. For the common good, it is our individual responsibility to look within ourselves and respectfully ignore external forces as to develop a personal philosophy. The process of thinking for one’s self makes it possible for us to process our liberties and enjoy the perks of free will.





Works Cited

“Descartes.” N.d. Web. Dec 2. 2015.

Descartes, René. Discourse on Method. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1998. Print.

Everett, Whitney. “Modern Slave.” Web. Dec 2. 2015.

Jefferson, Thomas. The Declaration of Independence. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Evening Post, 1776. Print.

Kant, Immanuel. What is Enlightenment? Berkeley: University of California Texts, 1996. Print.

King, Martin Luther. “I Have a Dream.” 1963. Web. 20 Nov, 2015. Speech.

Rodriguez, Edel. “Brain Chain.” visualizeus. Web. Dec 2. 2015.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. New York: Philosophical Library Inc., 1956. Print.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism is a Humanism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. Print.

Wallace, David Foster. “2005 Kenyon Commencement Address.” 21 May, 2005. Web. 20 Nov, 2015. Speech.