Because You Are, I Am
Jack Herrera

12 May 2017

The phrase "I think, therefore I am" or "Cogito ergo sum" might make Descartes the most-quoted philosopher of the last 400 years. The Frenchman's theory—if I am thinking, I must also be existing—is foundational to modern philosophy. For Descartes, the Cogito formed the foundation of all other knowledge: in the depths of Meditations, as he doubts everything, the Cogito is the one truth of which Descartes is sure.

However, since Descartes, doubt has expanded. David Hume and Immanuel Kant questioned the “I” in I think, therefore I am. For there to be an “I,” doesn’t thought already have to have taken place? Maybe we should say “it thinks” in the same way we say “it rains,” and say that the idea of “I” only comes after this thinking.

Diving down the rabbit hole, Sartre posited the existence of multiple different types of consciousness in Transcendence of the Ego. For Sartre, there is first thought, and then consciousness of that thought, and then consciousness of that consciousness of that thought, etc. At some point in the chain, the belief of an “I” pops up. 

In a recent article in Aeon, Abeba Birhane muses on how Descartes (and Western Philosophy more broadly) thinks of “I,” or the self, as something that appears in a internal mind of an individuals. She writes about how this idea of a self-sufficient, solitary self informs so much of the modern world, including current-day psychology and neuroscience. But Birhane asks a question: what’s the role of other people in the self? Does the self really come from one person’s solitary mind—or do the people around us inform who we refer to when we use the word “I”?

Birhane draws from Ubuntu and Zulu philosophy to describe how certain societies believe that the self comes (at least partially) from other people, not just the lonely individual. She writes,

According to Ubuntu philosophy, which has its origins in ancient Africa, a newborn baby is not a person. People are born without ‘ena’, or selfhood, and instead must acquire it through interactions and experiences over time. So the ‘self’/‘other’ distinction that’s axiomatic in Western philosophy is much blurrier in Ubuntu thought. As the Kenyan-born philosopher John Mbiti put it in African Religions and Philosophy (1975): ‘I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.

Some philosophers—particularly that peculiar “post-modern” breed (but also oldies like Hume)—have wondered whether the self even exists at all (a concept important to Buddhist thought). It seems like Birhane does indeed believe in the existence of the self; however, she thinks this self does not exist independently, but rather arises from a matrix of relationships.

Don't we see this when we answer the question “Who are you?” Must of us do not answer with Cogito ergo sum, or (for the naturalist or empirically-minded among us) hold up a scan of our brains. Rather, when asked “Who are you?” we answer “brother,” “daughter,” “friend,” “healer,” “teacher,” etc. In short, our descriptions of ourselves often invoke our relationships to other.

That all said, I’m not sure I’m sold on a vision of the self as fundamentally relational. I worry we sometimes we get caught in a language game: when someone asks us about ourselves, they normally want to know how to relate to us. It makes sense then that we answer questions about ourselves with information about how we relate to other people. But does that mean we don’t think of ourselves as anything more than our relationship with others? I’m not sure. But I think it’s a beautiful idea—and I want to end of the same note as Birhabe. She writes,

There is a Zulu phrase, ‘Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu’, which means ‘A person is a person through other persons.’ This is a richer and better account, I think, than ‘I think, therefore I am.’

Read Birhabe's article here:

Comments (2)

Marijan's picture


Friday, May 12, 2017 -- 4:48 PM

"But does that mean we don’t

"But does that mean we don’t think of ourselves as anything more than our relationship with others?"
- Indeed, we do!
Martin Buber ( I, You, We); Bernhard Welte ( "The two ways of thinking": The relational way of thinking)

MJA's picture


Monday, May 15, 2017 -- 12:19 PM

Descartes in a room in Ulm

Descartes in a room in Ulm reduced his thoughts to "I" and found the truth he was searching for. Unfortunately thoughts entered his mind again and truth was lost.
Einstein who was born in Ulm died searching for an equation that unites everything. It was only the thought of the speed of light that stood in his way.
Then came a man from New Ulm who removed measure from the equation uniting everything including "I", and found the single truth of I or equal is just One.