You are here: Home / Concepts / Cogito

This project is funded by an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) research grant and is supported by the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy (CRMEP) and Kingston University's Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

AHRC logo

CRMEP logo

Le cogito

The Latin word ‘cogito’ is often used as shorthand to refer to the first principle of Descartes’ philosophy, the principle that survives his method of radical doubt: ‘cogito ergo sum’ [‘I think, therefore I am’]. Within the Cahiers pour l’Analyse, and in Lacan’s rethinking of Freudian psychoanalysis more generally, the principle of the cogito is subjected to critical interrogation and substantive revision as part of an ongoing assessment of the implications of Freud’s discovery of the unconscious for modern philosophy and science.

The principle of the cogito, at the base of Descartesepistemology and metaphysics, is considered by many to be the original formulation of the modern problematic of the subject, or subjectivity. The new primacy accorded to the subject in Descartes’ project separates modern philosophy from scholastic reflection, without falling prey to sceptical relativism.

Since its inception, the Cartesian cogito has been subjected to challenges, starting with rationalists such as Spinoza, who found the primacy accorded to the subject (i.e., the ‘mineness’ or ‘uniqueness’ of the experience of thought) to be ungrounded, opting instead for the factical primacy of thought itself over its putative location or connection to a discrete subject. The most substantial revision of the Cartesian cogito was the transcendental approach to the subject pioneered by Kant, which transformed the cogito from a metaphysical principle into a set of invariant structures of the human mind, conceived as the conditions of possibility for knowledge as such. Although the Cartesian cogito came under increasingly intense criticism in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries (notably in terms inspired by Nietzsche, Marx, Freud and Heidegger), some sense of the primacy of the subject was retained in the French context, for example, in Sartre’s existential and political philosophy. The cogito in its original Cartesian sense remained a crucial point of reference for Jacques Lacan, who, against the grain of phenomenological interpretations, emphasized the interconnection, in the cogito, of the discourse of truth along with the dimension of deception and doubt. In the second of his Meditations, Descartes expressed the principle of the cogito in the following terms:

I have convinced myself that there is absolutely nothing in the world, no sky, no earth, no minds, no bodies. Does it now follow that I too do not exist? No: if I convinced myself of something then I certainly existed. Butt here is a deceiver of supreme power and cunning who is deliberately and constantly deceiving me. In that case I too undoubtedly exist, if he is deceiving me; and let him deceive me as much as he can, he will never bring it about that I am nothing so long as I think that I am something. So after considering everything very thoroughly, I must finally conclude that this proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind.

For Lacan, Descartes’ conception that the subject only secures the truth of its own existence by entering into relation with a ‘deceiving’ Other has a clear analogy with the psychoanalytic account of development. The essential relation of subjectivity to truth will be explored throughout the Cahiers pour l’Analyse and its theoretical legacy, particularly in the works of Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek.

In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse

The Cartesian cogito is a key concept in the inaugural article of the Cahiers pour l’Analyse, Jacques Lacan’s ‘La Science et la Vérité’ (CpA 1.1). Crucial for Lacan is the task of isolating ‘a certain moment of the subject that I consider to be an essential correlate of science, a historically defined moment […]: the moment Descartes inaugurates that goes by the name of cogito’ (CpA 1.1:8; E, 856). With his procedure of radical doubt, Descartes traverses the ‘defile [défile] of a rejection of all knowledge’, with the aim of ‘anchoring’ the subject in being (CpA 1.1:8; E, 856). By arriving at a minimal formal point of certainty, the cogito, Descartes pinpoints the essential nature of the subject of science. But Lacan suggests that Descartes’ accentuation of the term ‘ego’ in some of his texts on the cogito nevertheless obscures the nature of the subjectivity he has opened up:

In the ego that Descartes accentuates by virtue of the superfluousness of its function in certain of his Latin texts […] one must grasp the point at which it continues to be what it presents itself as: dependent on the god of religion. A curious fallen scrap [chute] of ergo, the ego is bound up with this God. Descartes’ approach is, singularly, one of safeguarding the ego from the deceitful God, and thereby safeguarding the ego’s partner - going so far as to endow the latter with the exorbitant privilege of guaranteeing the eternal truths insofar as he is their creator (CpA 1.1:16; E, 865).

By confusing the ‘I think’ of the subject with the activity of an ego, Descartes enters into imaginary rivalry with a deceitful other. However, what the cogito really reveals is not the ego, but the subjectivity of which the ego is not aware, and which eludes it.

As such, Lacan argues, the true significance of the cogito is not perceived until Freud, who identifies the true subject as the subject of the unconscious, the existence and nature of which is only detectable via the mediation of symptoms. As Lacan says in Seminar XI, ‘Freud’s method is Cartesian - in the sense that he sets out from the basis of the subject of certainty […]. [T]he dissymmetry between Freud and Descartes […] is not in the initial method of certainty grounded on the subject. It stems from the fact that the subject is “at home” in this field of the unconscious’.1 As Lacan puts it in ‘La Science et la vérité’, whereas Jung attempted to ‘reinstate a subject endowed with depths […], that is, a subject constituted by a relationship - said to be archetypal - to knowledge’, Freud remains strictly Cartesian, reducing the relation between subject and knowledge ‘to that exclusively allowed by modern science, the latter being no other than the one I defined last year [Seminar XII] as punctual and vanishing: that relationship to knowledge which, since its historically inaugural moment, has retained the name “cogito”’ (CpA 1.1:9; E, 858).

In ‘Qu’est-ce que la psychologie?’ in Volume 2, Georges Canguilhem addresses the mathematical nature of the certainty of the Cartesian cogito, and contrasts it with the embodied soul of the Aristotelians and the more sensualist, ‘somato-psychic’ conception of Maine de Biran (CpA 2.1:83). For Canguilhem, this sensualist conception was inverted at the end of the nineteenth century, with the ‘interior’ of the ego becoming no longer an affective depth, but rather an ‘abyssal’ unknown. It was this inversion, Canguilhem argues, which paved the way for the Freudian conception of the unconscious.

Lacan again invokes the cogito at the beginning of his ‘Réponses à des étudiants en philosophie sur l’objet de la psychanalyse’, which opens Volume 3 (CpA 3.1:5). Here Lacan discusses the Cartesian concept in terms of the difference between the subject and consciousness. As the students - i.e., Cercle members - point out, there has been a tendency in modern philosophy to reduce the two to one another, a reduction that takes place often in the concept of a cogito, be it the Cartesian cogito, or the apodictic cogito of Husserl, or indeed the pre-reflexive cogito of Sartre. In his response, Lacan maintains that the virtue of psychoanalysis, and psychoanalytic experience, is to re-introduce (or re-discover) the split between the subject and consciousness.

In his extensive discussion of Claude Lévi-Strauss in Volume 4, Jacques Derrida notes that the critique of the distinction between the empirical and the essential is itself an essential part of Lévi-Strauss’s project, and that the latter faults the Cartesian and the Husserlian concepts of cogito for their insistence on this difference (CpA 4.1:25). But Derrida notes that Lévi-Strauss effectively works with a straw-man version of the cogito and that the failure to recognize this difference at the heart of the theory of the cogito, and how this difference works, is a liability for his own structuralism.

The concept of the cogito is a crucial element in the comparative assessment of Descartes’ and Machiavelli’s politics in François Regnault’s ‘La Pensée du Prince’ (CpA 6.2). For Regnault, the Cartesian cogito is the metaphysical correlate of a conception of political sovereignty that conceives of the appropriate response to equivocity as the unilateral affirmation of certainty. In this gesture, it is the status quo that is essentially affirmed, since it is no longer subjected to doubt (CpA 6.2:29-33). Machiavelli’s Prince might appear as a correlate to the Cartesian cogito, but it is precisely the point of Regnault’s analysis to show that the materialism of Machiavelli (itself an antecedent of historical materialism) prevents the subsumption under a sovereign rule of the examples found in the historical field designated by ‘fortune’. Where the Cartesian conception forecloses the possibility of further doubt (and hence historical change), Machiavellian materialism is cognizant of the ruptural nature of history itself and the events it makes possible. In the last instance, the Cartesian has God - i.e., an exception from history - as its guarantor; by contrast, the ‘thought of the prince’ is of more than theoretical interest for the ‘thought of a subject’ that is fully immersed in history.


  • Badiou, Alain. Being and Event, trans. Oliver Feltham. London: Continuum, 2005.
  • Descartes, René. Oeuvres de Descartes, eds. Charles Adam and Paul Tannery. Paris: J. Vrin, 1904. The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, eds. and trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.
  • Husserl, Edmund. Cartesian Meditations (1931), trans. Dorian Cairns. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1977.
  • Lacan, Jacques. Écrits (1966), trans. Bruce Fink, in collaboration with Héloïse Fink and Russell Grigg. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.
  • Lacan, Jacques. Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (1964), trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Penguin, 1977.
  • Lacan, Jacques. Seminar XII: Crucial Problems for Psychoanalysis (1964-1965), trans. Cormac Gallagher, unpublished manuscript.
  • Sartre, Jean-Paul. The Transcendence of the Ego (1936). London: Routledge, 2004.
  • Žižek, Slavoj. The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology. London: Verso, 2000.


1. Lacan, Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 3rd session, 29 January 1964, 35.