The philosopher Descartes famously said 'I think, therefore I am'. It is a well-known statement about rational identity, one which we all believe and hope we have. The choices we make, our understanding of the real world and of ourselves, and our sense of what makes sense all rely on our ability to think: it is a consciously self-conscious process. We know we're engaged in the act of thinking because thinking about thinking is what we sometimes do. So, as Cole Porter suggests, let's do it.
'I think, therefore I am' contains interesting implications. As well as rationality and consciousness, it implies that we experience mental events as we experience the world – we recognise someone else and say hello, we remember the past and wonder about the future, we see ourselves taking part in a meeting, we empathise with characters in soaps. These events mesh together in many ways, coherent or half-understood, as we try to make sense of time and causation, agency and human interaction.
It is as if by thinking, and knowing that we think, we can establish our sense of self in the tapestry we call the real world. Just as we don't really 'own' events and decisions and minds exterior to ourselves, so we don't 'own' the actual process of thinking, even though we do it, know we do it, and believe our doing it is unique. It seems expedient, then, to imagine that, when we think, and because we think, what we think we think is so much 'part of us' and what we really are, that self and thinking are inseparable.
All kinds of superior perspectives on this imagined fusion could be found by pursuing things like what we think is true (epistemology), what is in any sense of the word and why (ontology), what follows what with good reason or bad (teleology), and how self-satisfied we could become if we thought of ourselves as uniquely clever (kidology). Here, however, our task is simpler: that of reflecting on a variant of 'I think, therefore I am' – 'I am what I think'.
We all know about variants, so it's important to be ready for them. With good reason, perhaps, a student recently confused epistemologist with epidemiologist. 'I am what I think' is peculiarly relevant to modern ways of thinking about thinking. There are several interesting reasons for this. Pre-eminent among them is that many writers and commentators today – on current affairs and the news, literature and history, culture and politics – fuse themselves, as the agentive 'I', the 'me' in the mix, with what they say as the result of thinking.
This makes things difficult for everyone. If things that are said originate from the identification of the self with each and every opinion made, then two things happen: one, it becomes inherently subjective, and so incontestable unless listeners wish to risk being seen as hostile (attack the person and not the viewpoint); and two, it takes on a self-evident and self-justifying dogmatism, since what 'I think' (however disingenuously expressed) becomes 'the truth'.
There are other implications as well. We express our thoughts in language, and shape language to our thoughts. If I believe that, as a young black man or woman, the workplace is institutionally and systemically prejudiced against my promotion, then it might be likely that when I suggest that that is so, my audience will see 'me' first and what I say second.
The viewpoint is one with connotations which use weaponised words and assume that, knowing as we do that the speaker is who she is, we would be churlish and irrational to examine the opinion (its contentions and factuality) first without empathising with the speaker, and then telling ourselves that such an opinion is entirely understandable given discrimination in the workplace.
We 'are' what we say: my opinion is so much my own that, if you attack my opinion, you attack me. Anyone that attacks me is anti-social and unreasonable. Even more so since what I say is the view (in my own view) of all reasonable people, and all the reasonable people are like me. Words like 'woke' and 'political correctness' are used about debates like this, and even descriptors such as these have become controversial to the point of being unusable.
Self-affirming discourses are everywhere these days, where their content and tone assume and expect agreement. In that sense, 'I am what I think' reflects a sea change from 'I think, therefore I am', and sheds useful light on contemporary ways of talking and thinking. Consider the implications of this.
One is that, confident of agreement, the speaker arrogates to themselves the high ground, the pulpit six feet above contradiction. Another is that reading response is at risk of turning into group-think instead of intelligent disagreement. And third, and most important, the quality of thinking and argumentation itself deteriorates.
It would be Luddite and partisan to blame social media for this change in discursive content and tone. We know how news media through the years bump up circulation by feeding the readers' prejudices – the confirmation hypothesis as the sociologists tell us. By shifting ground from 'I think, therefore I am' to 'I am what I think', there is a risk of reasoned argument becoming emotive rant.
Some areas of book publishing have always engaged with challenges such as these. Topics like religion and human rights spring to mind. Fresh from an immersion in several such books (all of which shall be nameless for legal reasons, like young people under age), this reviewer has been bathed in the illuminative light of multi-faith transcendence, and encouraged to reframe his mental boundaries by reflecting on the disabling effect of being a white Scottish professional.
Almost convinced that we live in a world of intrinsic bias and institutional inequality, systemically created and maintained by all the wrong people, and preached at by zealous game-changers for whom what they say and write is self-evidently fair and right, there seems little I can safely say except how right they are.
I am a sinner, not a contrarian, and shouldn't shout back at the preacher. Home-spun truisms and contentious 'givens' should be contested and called out, regardless of who says them. Because you are you, that does not entitle you to be right.
Yet in this extreme state of confusion and distress, I nevertheless hold to the hope that the transition from 'I think, therefore I am' to 'I am what I think' hasn't happened irrevocably. I am not what I think, although a lot of what I think reflects what I am. So disagree with me: not if you must but if you choose. Cole Porter said that: 'Goldfish in the privacy of bowls do it'. So everyone really knows what's going on.
Dr Stuart Hannabuss is a writer and reviewer based in Scotland