The Cogito in Eastern Philosophy "I think of Others, therefore I am"


Published in the Philosophical Review, 2012   


It seems that Descartes' great achievements in mathematics facilitated a general acceptance of his philosophical explorations. There was even a sense of fascination about his insight, the cogito, overriding patches of criticism, some coming from seriously acknowledged philosophers, such as Nietzsche, Hume, Kierkegaard and others.

Descartes' meditation about ‘certainty, thinking and existence’ can also be  found in eastern philosophies. Differently from Descartes' approach based on “Duality”, however, eastern philosophies start from the general principle of ‘Interconnectedness of All Phenomena’ and ‘Nonduality of body and mind’. This may imply a less likely reconciliation between the two approaches. Nevertheless, a question can be raised on whether a secret passage exists somewhere within the cogito, which allows for its non-duality replication, without much changing in its structure.

The most fundamental principle in eastern philosophies

Of the basic principles in eastern philosophies, the Principle of ‘Interconnectedness of All Phenomena’ can be the starting point for this discussion. “All things weave a single whole” says Daisaku Ikeda, Buddhist philosopher, in his dialogue with the environmentalist Hazel Henderson:

“...all beings and phenomena exist or occur because of their relationship with other beings and phenomena, and nothing in either the human or nonhuman world exists in isolation. All things are mutually related to -and interdependent with - all other things. They all form a great cosmos maintaining the rhythms of life”.(1)

To explain interconnectedness, Buddhist sutras relate that the Buddha showed his listeners two bundles of reeds leaning against each other and forming thus an image (of a whole) which would not have existed without each of the bundles' participation:

“If one of the two bundles is removed, then the other will fall. Similarly, without this [thing’s] existence, that [thing] cannot exist, and without that existence, this cannot exist”.(2)

“Try to identify yourself!”

I witnessed the following discussion in a lecture about the Principle of Interconnectedness in daily life, in which the lecturer asked me a formidable question: “How would you identify yourself?

At that time I was just back from my work in an engineering plant, so my answer was “I am an engineer in…”. Before I continued my sentence the lecturer thanked me and turned to the next person sitting next to me asking the same question. The answers which followed were: “ I am a mother of …”, “I am a third son in a..”, “I am a student at…” - and so on.  With a triumphant smile, the lecturer said: ”Did you notice that you cannot identify yourself without the others being included and with whom your life is interconnected? To be an engineer requires an office or factory to work in, which also includes technicians, administration etc…, and one cannot be a mother without a child, nor a student without a teacher, and so on”.

Clarity, distinctiveness and self-evidence characterise the Principle of Interconnectedness, which can be easily verified. There can be no more fundamental epistemological principle than the readily observable principle of interrelatedness of all things. It is the essence of all scientific knowledge, because science is about the study of cause and effect, implying phenomena are interrelated through natural laws. Interrelatedness implies also Nonduality of two mutually connected phenomena. Two interconnected phenomena, features or subjects are described in the perspective of nonduality as ‘not two’, or ‘two - but inseparable’. Mahayana teacher Thich Nhat Hanh finds it important to differentiate nonduality from absolute monism:

“Non-duality means ‘not two,’ but ‘not two’ also means ‘not one.'

That is why we say ‘non-dual’ instead of ‘one.'” (3)

This explanation implies that the two-ness (of distinct features) is still recognized; is not rejected by nonduality.

A simple example of nonduality can be the inseparability of the exterior of a house and its interior: one cannot exist without the other existing, they are ‘two but inseparable’.  It is just impossible to separate the existence of the interior from the exterior of a house.

Duality: the ultimate heresy

The harmonious functioning of the entity of body and mind is severely disrupted by the dualistic separation of the material and mental. The western mind - influenced by Abrahamic religions - essentially views the spiritual aspect (God) as separate from (or existing before) the physical aspect (Universe) and views the material aspect of bodily existence as distinct from the spiritual or mental aspect of mind. This basic tendency for separation was subconsciously employed by Descartes in the Second Meditation, inwardly blaming the body of the worst possible accusation: that of deceiving the mind, although not always, only from time to time!  

However, the possibility of the bodily senses deceiving the mind, the field of divine spirituality - even once, becomes too  much to accept. Deceiving is evil. To deal with the evil of the possibility of deceiving the divine, Descartes looks first for the benefits from his war against deception: he first createsa sublime goal and benefits from eradicating the bodily senses from discussion, justifying this by seeking doubtlessness. The goal was to attain absolute certainty:

“ Anything that admits the slightest doubt I will set aside just as if I had found it to be wholly false, and I will proceed in this way until I recognise something certain… Archimedes used to demand just one firm and immovable point in order to shift the entire earth, so I too can hope for great things..” (4)

After disregarding the bodily senses in total (to focus just on the working of the mind), Descartes was faced with a horrible scenario: what if the bodily aspect of existence - stigmatised earlier as potentially deceptive - nonetheless had a way to deceive the mind itself!  This must be the Devil itself, struggling for supremacy over the mind, it is the Evil Demon:

“ I will suppose that it is not God, who is supremely good…but rather some demon of the utmost power …has employed all his energies in order to deceive me”. (5)

The initial approach of separation of the physical from the spiritual continued its battle into the field of the mind: the ‘good god’ and ‘evil demon’. This is a battle for the ultimate, for the divine power over the mind.  

Eastern philosophies, on the other hand, view the divine as ‘Life’ rather than ‘God’. The attributes of God, being eternal and creative, are those of Life being eternal and creative. Life manifests itself in all phenomena, which includes both good and evil. Both Good God and Evil Demon are useful concepts but are basically inseparable. The ‘inseparability of distinct phenomena’ - is a different perspective from western duality.

Controlling the Evil Demon through nonduality

The perspective of nonduality in viewing phenomena explains that the mind is endowed with both enlightenment and delusion. The Evil Demon is the destructive ego-self, which is born from ignorance about the truth of interconnectedness with others. In this scope of understanding, the devilish functions (or  evil tendencies) can be transformed and controlled, because evil has no fixed or absolute nature separate from one’s own life; it cannot be eradicated but can be subdued and transformed.

In contrast, if not controlled, Descartes’ Evil Demon can lead to deception, destruction and sufferings:

“At the root of human misery, Buddhism sees three destructive impulses: greed, arrogance and ignorance [of interconnectedness], which it terms the ‘three poisons.’ These are the essence of all the delusions and negative workings of life that impede the realization of our full potential for happiness and creativity."(6)

The tendency to focus on self on account of the surroundings enables greed, arrogance and ignorance to manifest. Nonduality encompasses these destructive tendencies as being not separate from one’s life. In this way nonduality suggests one has full responsibility to control and overcome one"s own negative tendencies, (which tend to control others and create disharmony and problems). All conflicts employ duality, while nonduality is a way to transform problems: for example, instead of saying ‘we are in conflict’ nonduality states ‘we share a problem’. (7)

Duality’s failure to manifest good

Descartes had a brilliant insight about the nature of inner doubts. In equating the worse evil with inner deception, Descartes shares with eastern philosophies a deep insight, namely that it is doubt in one’s self as originally endowed with the mind of enlightenment - that obstructs the mind of enlightenment. Whether inspired by God, or - in eastern terminology - by the mind of Enlightenment (expressing wisdom, compassion and courage) the mind has one way to manifest itself: it is through behavior and action in the physical world.

If the physical aspect of existence is cut off, then the mind of God cannot operate in this physical reality of daily life.  By eradicating the bodily senses in Descartes’ meditation, and by freezing the physical aspect of activities from sharing in actions motivated by inner enlightenment, duality disables the mind of God from action in reality. True good cannot be expressed in reality if the physical aspect is separate from the mind of goodness. The physical domain - or the actual proof - is the real battle ground for certainty. The great ambition to control the world (alluding to Archimedes feat) realistically requires to control one’s self, the inner world and to revolutionise one’s existence through self-mastery.

The Cogito Argument

How to define the cogito in philosophical terms? Is it an ‘intuitive insight’ or a ‘logical conclusion’? There is a problem with justifying Descartes' excessive removal of the physical aspect from discussion (on the basis that senses are “sometimes deceptive”). As a premise, the sentence: ‘senses are sometimes deceptive’ is semantically true, however, the word “sometimes” does not mean “always”. So, how would a proposition which is not always true in reality lead to a conclusion which is claimed to be always correct, and a foundation of certainty and all knowledge?

Simon Blackburn suggests a charitable reinterpretation of Descartes, considering that perhaps by ‘sometimes deceptive sense experiences’ he meant that: ‘for all we know’:

“ ‘… for all we know, any particular sense experience maybe deceiving us’. This seems a better candidate for validity. But [in this interpretation] the conclusion is a conclusion about any particular experience. It is no longer the conclusion that all our experience (en bloc, as it were) may be deceiving us. It is the difference between ‘for all we know, any particular banknote may be a forgery’ and ‘for all we know, all banknotes are forgeries’. The first maybe true when the second is not true.” (8)

Knowing that the premise he used (excessively generalising the wrongdoing of the senses) is not true - Descartes distanced himself from considering the cogito as a syllogism. If not, then the Cogito becomes a circular argument.  Simply, “that which thinks” must be already “existing” in the first place:

“...however, Descartes notes that before knowing the cogito, we must grasp not only the concepts of thought existence and certainty, but also the proposition that ‘it is impossible that: that which thinks should not exist’. This suggests that the cogito is a kind of syllogism, in which I infer my existence from the fact that I am thinking.” (9)

It seems that Descartes prefers to classify the cogito as an intuition, or as a great insight. However, accepting the statement of “I am” or “I exist” as logically or psychologically valuable - may lead to trivializing the whole subject, because the words “I am” already include “I exist”. Kierkegaard viewed the cogito as almost circular because it already presupposes the existence of “I”.

The cogito contains two versions of the word “I”: the first is “I think” and the second “ I am” (or “I exist”). In the opinion of Nietzsche, Lichtenberg and Bernard Williams the “I” of “I think” refers not to an entity of a person, but to the “process of thinking”.   The suggestion was that Descartes should have said: ”thinking is occurring”- a process of ‘inner dialogue’ is apparently taking place in the mind: asserting, doubting, clarifying, deceiving… This means that a higher level of awareness was observing ‘the process of thinking’.  This eventuality (that Descartes was observing the process of thinking from a higher level of awareness in his mind) - is not foreign to the eastern teaching about the various levels of consciousness of the mind.

The various levels of mind

Eastern philosophical analysis suggests a multilayered structure of the mind having several levels of consciousness.(10)  The first layer of consciousness comprises the field of the five senses (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching). The next layer is the field of thinking and reasoning.

A higher level of thinking, called the Mano mind (from the Sanskrit word ‘Mano’ meaning to ‘comprehend’) encompasses awareness of self-identity, insights, moral values and spiritual beliefs. In  this perspective, the cogito seems to be Descartes' vivid insight of the working of his Mano consciousness, observing his own process of thinking and the powers of inner beliefs.

Far from any certainty in its performance, however, the working of Mano mind depends on apriori, established and already accepted moral values (which are relative in nature and sometimes conflicting). Further, the Mano level of consciousness focuses on the ego-self, or on own individuality, which - if not cultured - can override others' individuality and cause conflicts. It is not the field of mind guaranteeing any certainty.

Buddhism suggests the existence of two more fields of mind: the field of subconsciousness and the final field of Enlightenment (in which one manifests the eternal interconnectedness of all beings).

The field of subconsciousness drives the level of consciousness, having the powers of tendencies, instincts and collective knowledge.  Subconsciousness (Alaya) is called the storehouse of all experiences, the vast record of past causes and actions - as well as motivational patterns of potential behaviour, which are interrelated with family, society and humanity in general. The ultimate goal then is to search for the ‘enlightened mind’ or ‘enlightened nature’ of one’s being.  This urge for enlightenment originates from our daily awareness of the Mano level of its limitations, facing problems and experiencing various conflicting tendencies (leading to sufferings in relationships with the outside world).

The Mind and Senses are inseparable 

The question about the existence of the process of thinking, or generally speaking, ‘the Mind’, was examined by a Buddhist reformer, Nichiren, who in a famous letter (about attaining Enlightenment) stated:

“When we look into our own mind at any moment, we perceive neither color nor form to verify that it exists. Yet we still cannot say it does not exist, for many differing thoughts continually occur.”(11).

Descartes would agree with Nichiren’s statement: that the mind, understood here as the “process of thinking” is undeniably existing, busy with enormous activity of analyzing and classifying scenarios and images.

However, the process of thinking would not have existed without its contents. Without the prior contribution of the senses, supplying the mind with huge amounts of data and images for analysis - the process of thinking cannot exist.  Thinking is always about ‘self and others’ as well as ‘self and environment’. Only due to the natural existence of the environment, other beings, and various phenomena and things (self-evident contents of thinking) – one can say that thinking is possible.

This inseparability of the process of ‘I think’ and its contents of ‘others’ – expresses the reality of interconnectedness:

“I think of others, therefore: I am”.



1/ Planetary Citizenship, page 123, Middleway Press, Soka Gakkai and Hazel Henderson, 2004

2/ Interconnectedness, SGI

3/ Thich Nhat Hanh:

4/ Second Meditation, Rene Descartes, Philosophy of Mind, D. Chalmers page 10 5/ ibid

6/  The Three Poisons: Greed, Arrogance, Ignorance

7/ Quotes on Peace, Ikeda :

8/ Think, p.23, Simon Blackburn, Oxford University Press

9/ Daniel Garber (1998, 2003), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy

10/ The Nine Consciousnesses, SGI Buddhism

11/ On Attaining Enlightenment, The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, page 3