ego non cogito ergo non sum.

I have been reading Enrique Dussel, an Argentine philosopher who was (and still is) a major proponent and theorist around Liberation Theology.

His book, A History of The Church in Latin America, is really challenging me and given me much to think about. As I read today, I almost skimmed right over a small reference to Descartes, but it snagged my attention. He says, “Modern European expansion, for example, had its ontological formulation in the ego cogito, which had as its historical antecedent the ‘I conquered.'”  At first I glazed over it, but the rest of the section grabbed me and I read and reread those first lines. The beginning of Descartes, and the even larger scope of Western identity, became intrinsically a part of of the colonial structure. How?

Most are familiar with Decartes’ famous formula. In its short form it is ego cogito, ergo sum. Meaning, as we more commonly know it in English, I think, therefore I am. Descartes also wrote, ego sum, ego existo, meaning, I am, I exist. 

Not sure why I thought this was funny. But it is.

Paraphrasing, Descartes was saying that the act of thinking itself is a proof of existence. That if we know nothing itself, the fact that we know and think is enough to have something. Our consciousness and sentience can be evidence enough of identity. While some would argue Descartes claim I will not delve into that today.

The issue I want to explore is the idea of I and the Other.  Western thought is centered here, the individual and the personal identity. We seek to know and to be known, and as white Europeans, we have the luxury of know that the “I” in Descartes theorem, can be substituted for ourselves. However, a major arises at the inclusive nature of that “I”. Who is allowed to see themselves as an I and a thinker and in result, as existent.  Foucault stated that, “more than the power of the cannon, it is canonical knowledge that establishes the power of the colonizer ‘I’ over the colonized ‘Other’.” He describes the conundrum. The colonizer creates, through a systematic destruction of culture, education, history, sex, mythology, and pedagogy, the colonized as an other. They are not “I” but they are something else.

Dussel expands the “I think, therefore I conquer” with an exploration of the continental discussion of the “I” to begin with. Tracing it from Spinoza, through Hegel, Fichte, and to Nietzsche, Dussel shows that the identity and the I are also tied up on the ontology of Western “Being.” The “I” of the West and for,

Fichte…was ultimate, undetermined, infinite, absolute, and natural, while for Hegel the ‘I’ was divine. With Nietzsche this ‘I’ was transformed  into creative power (the ‘I’ became the ‘will to power’). For Husserl this ‘I’ became the most discreet ego cogito cogitatum of phenomenology. The travesty in all this reasoning was that the Other such as the Indian, the African, the Asian, or the woman was reduced to nothing more than an idea, an object whose meaning determined by the ‘originally constituted “I”,’ and the Other was thereby designated, classified, and alienated as a mere cogitatum (Dussel, 12).

As Foucault stated, and Dussel reiterated, colonialism was the I vs. the Other. As we see in pieces like Macaulay’s Minute on Indian Education, the concept is not only about the “I” but the ability to claim “I”-ness. If we follow the Cartesian formula, the achievement of being is dependent on a thinker, there must be thought or knowledge in order to prove, or warrant, the conclusion of, “Therefore, I am.” Macaulay did not give much merit to the natives ability to think.  In his speech he claims that.

… the dialects commonly spoken among the natives of this part of India contain neither literary nor scientific information, and are moreover so poor and rude that, until they are enriched from some other quarter, it will not be easy to translate any valuable work into them.  It seems to be admitted on all sides, that the intellectual improvement of those classes of the people who have the means of pursuing higher studies can at present be affected only by means of some language not vernacular amongst them. (Italics are mine).

According to Macualay any faculty of thought is not intrinsic in this people but dependent on that education being given from the outside, from an “I” to an “other.”  The White Man’s Burden, to go an educate and “save” the world creates an idea that prior to the arrival of the thinking one, that the native masses were a giant unthinking Other. Due to their inability to think, articulate or know, they could not be, could not have an identity.

“If we really wish to do good in Africa, we must teach her savage sons that white men are their superiors.” James MacQueen

“She talked of weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways.” Heart of Darkness.

“It must be recollected, in all our transactions with these natives, that they are ignorant savages…” Albert Markham.

There are countless examples of the Other/Colonized being denied intellect. Again, following Descartes theorem of ego cogito, ergo sum we can also follow the converse, ego non cogito ergo non sum (I do not think, therefore I am not.)

And so we see the seedy, converse, underbelly of Descartes theory. While it does ring true for many of us, what does it mean for those who have been, and still are, removed from that ability to think. We turn them into objects of thought. They are thoughts, they are the receivers of thought, not the thinkers of them (There are echoes of Berger’s essay on The Male Gaze here, with women as the receivers of the male gaze and desire, not their own people. They are looked at, not lookers themselves).

How do we respond to this? How do we regive thought and knowledge and therefore, identity? How can we acknowledge the being and “I”-ness of those traditionally seen as Others?


Even in the adventures of my favorite boy reporter, Tintin, do we see the ignorant Other.

from Tintin In The Congo.

Tintin enacts the White Man’s Burden, teaching to such poor, ignorant Congolese children who are in need of am education. The rest of the book continues with some pretty horrible racism. 

Luckily, Herge (the creator of Tintin), saw the error of his ways and changed is procolonial stance later in life. See my upcoming essay on this very topic.

I’m still thinking about all this. More to come.


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