When Descarte was trying to think of everything that was false it struck him that the fact that he was thinking proved that he was ‘something’. A truth. Those who know a little about philosophy will understand the importance of the ‘truth’ debate. This thought produced the most famous and influential philosophical quotes in the history of Western Philosophy. The well known Latin form “Cognito ergo sum” or the traditional English translation “I think, therefore I am”.
I was reading about how Descarte came upon this thought when I noticed that the English translation is not in fact how Descarte meant it to be understood. Being french, he unsurprisingly would have written in french – with the first work that mentions this thought being Discourse on the Method (1637). The quote – “je pence, donc je suis”, in English “I am thinking, therefore I exist”.
My french is appallingly poor but I read that the quote in french utilises the continuous present tense. And it is only in this tense that the force of his argument is brought out.
Now, why am I talking about this? What on earth has this to do with anything that matters in our practical real life?
Descartes was saying that when we are in the process of doing something that we truly exist because in order to do that something, we must ‘be’. It made me think about how we perceive ourselves and how we describe our behaviour. To use the tense of the first quote, we have no urgency, no movement…no action. Whereas in the continuous present tense we are actively progressing towards our goals, involved in life or living in the moment.
It struck me that the latter provides more opportunity for satisfaction and if we concentrated on doing and thinking we would glean benefits. How many of us when asked what we like to do in our spare time tell others something that we used to do – perhaps still desire to do – maybe even still believe we do – but in actual fact, it’s been a very long time since we did. Read? Cooked from scratch? Me, I used to paint…and really want to be able to say, ‘In my spare time I am painting a picture’. I recently bought an easel, some canvas and paints with the intention to become fully absorbed but have not yet gotten around to doing anything. I could say “I paint” because I have painted but I cannot say “I am painting” because I have not done so in years and have no half finished painting upstairs and – for the nit-pickers amongst you – yes I am currently (and in the present tense) writing this post.
How important then is it for us to think in the present tense, the continuous present tense – so we motivate ourselves to be doing things now and in the future. I wonder what tense we typically use and if it impacts on our accomplishments?