Expanding Cogito Ergo Sum

October 2, 2007 at 11:53 am Leave a comment

With “Cogito Ergo Sum” (I think, therefore I am) Descartes was attempting to tackle the largest philosophical questions of his time. He wanted to rebuild Philosophy by going back to the beginning, to the only thing he knew for certain. He knew that “He thought”, and from that irrefutable starting point, he had no choice but to conclude that he therefore existed. All of that in three little words, an impressively efficient way to start attacking the existing labyrinth of philosophical thought surrounding him in his time.

With my girdle of presumption firmly in place, and tongue almost in cheek, I’d like to both expand and explore some other revelations hidden inside Descartes’ gem of philosophical brevity.

I don’t think (no pun intended) that anyone, including René, would object to a trivial expansion of his thought, “I think for myself, therefore I am”, since his whole point was that it was he who was doing the thinking in the first place.

There should also be no objection to rolling back the quote to closer match the original Latin. “I think for myself, therefore I exist.”

What this expansion loses in brevity, it more than recaptures in implication. Thinking for ourselves is what enables us to make our mark on the world. It’s what distinguishes us from the milling crowd. It’s what defines us as individuals and makes all art possible by enabling it to be unique. The ability to think for ourselves is our most important possession, and when we give it up, we give up that which makes us who we are. We give up our identity, and therefore in turn, we give up our existence. We become a zero.

Hand in hand with “Thinking for ourselves”, and almost inseparable from the concept of thought, is “Deciding for ourselves”. If we don’t think for ourselves, then we certainly can’t decide anything. If we let others decide for us, then we might as well not have the ability to think. Without deciding for ourselves what is good or bad, beautiful or ugly, right or wrong, we have no legitimate claim to an identity. We become nothing but an echo chamber for the thoughts of others.

These aren’t mere philosophical mumblings; we encounter the implications of “If I don’t think for myself, I cease to exist” everyday. This is especially true if we work in any sizable organization. “Do it because I said so!” is a direct assault on personal thought and the individual decision making process. To do something just because we are directed to do so transforms us into nothing more than a resource to be deployed by others. We are more than that, or at least we can be… if we choose to be.

When contemplating a possible change, our preferred mode of action is always to understand (think and decide for ourselves) why a change is necessary before we implement it. “do it, because I said so!” not only ignores that preferred mode, but attempts to negates it. In six little words, it eloquently states that we don’t have the right to ask why, to understand, or even think about the matter. We only have one option, and that’s to do it. Regardless of what “it” is. Whispering in the dark behind these words is the echo, “I was only following orders.”

The management style represented by, “Do it because I said so!” elicits an immediate gut response, to resist, to push back, to oppose. In short, our unconscious thought process is this… I think for myself, that creates my identity, if someone takes my thoughts away from me, they’re causing me to cease to exist… therefore I will resist their actions.

Or, in honour of Descartes, Cogito Ergo Resisto… or I think, therefore I resist. I stand my ground, until I have reason to move. Or until I understand, and accept, their reasoning for movement.


Entry filed under: Change, Change Management, Leaders, Leadership, Life, Life Balance, Management.

Eight tips for Managing Change At the Heart of People Skills

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