Ashok R. Kelkar





“Je suis comme un milieu entre Dieu et le néant”

(I am like a midpoint between God and nothingness.)

René Descartes, Meditations


            Descarte’s celebrated dictum, ‘Je-pense, donc je suis/Cogito, ergo sum, (I think, therefore I am) (depending on whether one cites from the 1637 French edition or the 1644 Latin edition of his Discourse on Method) is normally abbreviated to Cogito ‘I think’. This is just what one would expect given its positioning as an important step in its author’s quest for a minimalist philosophy of cognition.  But the dictum has an equally interesting positioning in the Christian European quest for a minimalist philosophy of man as a being.  In that context the emphasis would correctly fall on the second half, namely, ‘therefore I am’.


            Man as a being.  The European noun being (French être, German Sein, Dasein, Wesen) has two senses, ‘for anything to be’ and ‘anything that is’ and these correspond to the Sanskrit nouns sattā, bhāva, astitva (all in sense 1) and sat, sattva, bhūta, vastu (all in sense 2). (Incidentally, these are all traceable to the same three Indo-European roots.) Looking at sense 2, which concerns us here, one notices the interesting difference between the European anthropocentric tendency to understand ‘anything that is’ more narrowly as ‘anyone that is’ and the Indian cosmocentric tendency to retain the more inclusive feel of ‘what there is’ as against ‘what I am’. ‘A being’ in European parlance is typically a person, whether demonic, human, or angelic, even a member of the Holy Trinity. ‘A being’ in Indian parlance need not be a person; that is perhaps why sat, asti has to be joined to cit, bhāti to make it possible for a person to be.


            For a Christian European, the question ‘who am I’ has a ring of anxiety.  In the Indian tradition, ko’ ham? has only a ring of jijñāsā (desire to know-not idle curiosity). The Cartesian answer points to a peculiar rephrasing of the question, ‘what allows me to be certain that I am?’ This rephrasing is of course as old as Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430).  In saying dubito, ergo cogito; cogito, erog sum (I doubt, therefore I think; I think, therefore I am), Descartes was only echoing Saint Augustine, who said; “si enim fallor, sum” (For, if I err, I am) (Civitas dei 11:26) and, again, “Dubito, ergo sum” (I doubt, therefore I am) (De Trinitate 20:21). (I am indebted to Father J.de Marneffe of De Nobili Ciollege, Pune for kindly tracking down the Augustine references.) Descartes in his turn has been echoed by a modern Algerian-Grench intellectual, Albert Camus (1913-1960). (Augustine was Algerian-Roman.) In his humanist rejection of Christianity and Communism in the same breath, Camus declares, “Je me revolte, donc nous sommes” (I am in revolt, therefore we are) (L’Homme revolté 1951, translated as The Rebel, 1953). Christian Europe has asked itself the same anxious question, there, at three important junctures in its history, namely –


(i)                  the assimilation of the Greco-Roman classical tradition and the Semitic Christian tradition to each other

(ii)                the progressive resolution of this complex tradition into the Modern temper

(iii)               the exhaustion of the Modern temper

and arrived at three mutually echoing and yet quite distinct answers.


            It will be worthwhile to examine the nature of this three-step transition, especially since it may give us a clue to the complex fate of the Catholic scientist on the brink of the Jasenist heresy that Descartes unhappily is.  The three historical junctures occasion three related yet distinct philosophical gestures.


1.      ‘I err, therefore I am.’ Man’s fallibility is his one claim to being a person. Animals don’t err, for animals have no freedom to err.  A very Christian sentiment. (Doubt is only an aspect of human fallibility. Descartes thus “clearly saw that it was a greater perfection to know that to doubt”, Discourse, part IV.) The error may be an error in understanding the world or an error in choosing the right course of action in dealing with the world.

2.      ‘I think, therefore I am.’ Man’s capacity to think yields his one certain cognition, that is, his only infallible cognition.  A very un-Christian sentiment, possibly a case of Modern hubris. But then a man’s capacity to think also yields guarantee to his free will, ensuring his freedom to err and his freedom to disobey.  A very un-Modern sentiment, possibly a rather Christian sentiment.

3.      ‘I revolt, therefore we are.’ Man’s capacity to disobey, that is to choose what has been laid down as the wrong course of action, is his one claim to social being. (A Robinson Crusoe’s freedom to disobey is vacuous, as is a bee’s or ant’s freedom to obey.) Sheep don’t revolt; they follow rather than strike out on their own.  A very Modern sentiment, possibly an un-Christian sentiment.  (Calling Adam’s disobedience felix culpa is at best a left-handed compliment.)


So much for the Christian European quest, with Descartes positioned in the middle between the complex tradition and Modernity.


      Now how does this account (assuming that it is a correct one) further the philosophical quest in any way? Apart, that is, from any intrinsic historical interest it may possess?


1.      The three-step historical account places Descartes’s vacillations in a proper perspective.  (His vacillation, for example, between supporting Galileo and cowering before the church: “a certain doctrine in physics, published by a certain individual, to which I will not say that I adhered, but only that, previously to their censure, I had observed in it nothing which I could imagine to be prejudicial either to religion or to the state.” Discourse part VI.) The vacillations are not merely a person frailty or oddity but an essential ambivalence at the midpoint. The account should help us to understand Descartes’s thought better.


Descartes’s dictum Cogito ergo sum launches a minimalist philosophy not only of human cognition but also of human existence, in the Christian European tradition.  What allows me to be certain that I am ? Descartes’s answer is : man’s capacity to think guarantees his freedom to think and so to doubt, err, and disobey.  It is historically midway between St. Augustine’s answer and Albert Camus’s answer.  Like his epistemology, it is at once bold and timid, ambitious and modest, reason – loving and faith – adhering, Protestant and Catholic in spirit.


  1. There is an essential link between the minimalist programme in the philosophy of cognition (no presuppositions please, either verify or reject) and the minimalist programme in the philosophy of man as a being (no presumptions about changing the world, either understand-and-adjust or stand rejected). Both of these are counsels of ambitious modesty.  They do leave the Mediaeval summa behind only to hasten slowly to Modernity.  (Incidentally, there is an interesting resemblance between the cognitive transition from the Scholastic motto, falsify or accept, to the Renaissance motto, verify or reject, and the cognitive transition within the Indian tradition from the svatah* -prāma¸ya-vāda to the paratah*-pramān*ya- vāda.)


  1. The account also lets us see how the mutual assimilation of the Classical and the Christian traditions was effected. Plato’s white horse of reason and dark horse of passion were reunderstood as spiritual strength (logos as spirit, as reason, as speech) and carnal frailty.  Reason was no mere workhorse to Descartes, but a faithful guide if properly subordinated to the Church.  Here he was following Saint Augustine’s admonition; ‘Si non potes intellegere, crede ut intelligas.  {raecidit fides, sequitur intellectus.” (If you cannot understand, believe and you’ll understand.  Faith precedes; Intellect follows.) (Sermones 118:1) (Incidentally, it will be interesting to see how the assimilation of falsafah or arastūn to theology fared in Semitic Islam in comparison to European Christianity.)


  1. Where, then, did the boldness in Descartes (strong enough to sweep away all received opinion) come from? The Augustinian point of departure led to two alternate paths -  the Church-approved Thomist path and the Jansenist path. (The Dutch Catholic Carnelis Jansen’s Augustinus was published but in 1640, condemned by papal bulls in 1643, 1653.


1)      Descarte’s Dutch connection is well-known.) Jansenism influenced Descartes inspite of his early jesuit upbringing.  The Catholic heresy resembles in one important respect the more openly Protestant Calvinism.

2)      In the acceptance of predestination.

3)      Both heresies prepared the ground as Max Weber points out, for the Protestant ethic and the spirit of Capitalism. The ethic that treated all men in an individualistic and impersonal manner is of a piece with the epistemic that treated knowledge in an atomistic manner in terms of ‘clear and distinct ideas’ and declared that doubt and error are nothing to be ashamed of in that they paved the way to truth. The respective strengths and limits of the two are, by hindsight, well-understood by now. They paved the way to the modern revolt.  Descartes expressed the right bourgeois sentiments in constructing a four-point provisional moral code pending the replacement of the demolished intellectual house (Discourse, part III) and readily “perceived it to be possible to arrive at knowledge highly useful in life; and....to... render ourselves the lords and possessors of nature” (Discourse, part VI).


One appropriate way for an Indian to celebrate the fourth birth centenary of the father of ‘modern’ philosophy will no doubt be to position him against the backdrop of centuries and continents.  Possibly, also against the backdrop of disciplines.



  1. Jesuits were active in securing Papal condemnation in the face of support to Jansenism from  Plaise Pascal and monks of the Port Royal.
  2. Calvinism additionally (to the doctrine of predestination that the Holy Bible is the only basis of Christian faith and that the only sacraments are baptism and communion. Catholic doctrine of ‘transubstantiation’ and Lutheran one of ‘consubstantiation’ are both rejected.
  3. Original sin has destroyed man’s freedom to choose, now God’s predestined grace alone matters for man’s redemption.  Royal or papal absolution is of no avail.  All that is left for man is to follow rigid and austere virtue without entertaining any hope of reward.  This is what the acceptance of this doctrine of predestination involves.



Published in Indian Philosophical Quarterly 33:1-2:165-8, January and April number for the 400th birth anniversary of René Descartes 1596-1650 1996 being a special For efficiency reasons, large objects should usually be passed to or returned from a function by reference or by their address (using a pointer). There are, however, a few circumstances in which the best choice is to return an object by value. A good example is an overloaded operator +. It has to return a result-object, yet it may not modify any of its operands. The seemingly natural choice is to allocate the result-object on the heap (using operator new) and return its address. But this is not such a good idea - dynamic memory allocation is significantly slower than local storage. Also it may fail and throw an exception which has to be caught and handled; worse it can lead to memory leaks since it is unclear who's responsible for deleting this object - the creator or the user? Another solution is to use a static object and return it by reference. This is also problematic, since on each invocation of the overloaded operator, the same instance of the static object is being modified and returned to the caller, resulting in aliasing. Consequently, the safest, less error prone and most efficient solution is to return the result-object by value: