A Comparative Analysis on Hegel and Heidegger’s Criticism on the Cartesian cogito Proposition

On this paper I propose a comparative discussion upon Hegel and Heidegger’s criticism on the Cartesian cogito proposition. I will begin with a quick overview of the salient features of Hegel’s criticism, then I will turn to unfold Hegel’s. Once we will grasp the overall picture of both thinkers perception, I will discuss the differences between their perceptions. Lastly, I will raise the question whether there is a common ground on which both thinkers stand in the light of Bernard Williams’ analytical inspection of the Cartesian cogito.

Hegel and Heidegger’s Criticism

Although Hegel acknowledges Descartes’ key role in modern philosophy, the general tone that raises from Hegel’s critique reveals an attitude of arrogance. Hegel inclines to describe his notions as popular, naive, childish and abstract1. According to Hegel, Descartes’ comprehension on thought “grasped itself as abstract understanding only2. This is due to the fact the Descartes conducts a radical doubt that ‘shears off’ any concrete determinations as given in inheritance from the Medieval and Classic age legacy. We should pay attention to the fact that in this context the abstract is used in a negative sense as a criticism for an insufficient thorough thinking. As much as it contrasts the common sense, Hegel’s logic implies that the more concrete a concept is, the more its content is comprised of a higher number of abstractions. Likewise, an abstraction singles out one aspect of a thing out of its context.3 Further, according to the Phenemenology of the Spirit, the history progresses towards a concrete end, which eventually rests in the Absolute. Hence Descartes’ abstract image of the Cartesian proposition may only designate the initial milestone of history and thought. “But in consciousness the end is predominant, and it is to arrive at something fixed and objective — and not the moment of subjectivity4. Hegel, from a teleological perspective outlines here two major features of his criticism. First, that Descartes stands in the initial standpoint of the requisite thought which could only be developed into concrete and comprehensive throughout the history. Second, that the Cartesian proposition manifests merely a static image which lacks the chief feature of a dynamic development through history (“the moment of subjectivity”).

Beneath the ground of the cogito proposition, relies a redefinition of our modern understanding of the truth. Hegel illustrates how during the history there used to be a ‘touchstone’ that was used to validate and single out the truth and could be traced out by the Neo-Platonic philosophy5. It is Plato’s notion of the Form of Good that has been adopted by the Neoplatonic discipline as The One and ultimately absorbed into the theological thought that predominated the Medieval age. Plato originally uses this notion to describe an ultimate object of knowledge6 which its emanations feeds the world with meaning and hence could be used to identify truth. Although Descartes obliterates the traditional transcendental source of the truth, he is in fact transplanting the same notion into the subjective-self. This historical shift of the source of the truth from the transcendental to the intrinsic subjective standpoint reduces all forms of evaluation and judgment into an “immediate intuition and inward revelation7, whereas “nothing is true which does not posses an inward evidence in consciousness8.

Hegel emphasizes the chief notion which equip the self with the ability to identify truth to the extent of a certainty above any doubt, it is its self-reflection ability to grasp itself as being in immediacy. Thus the thought is identical to being, not deriving or ascending from it. Hegel rejects the perception that ergo stands for an inference as it was a propositional statement.9 This immediacy differs from a representation in respect to Heidegger’s view as we should see later on and it is where Hegel’s departure point takes place towards his perception that the thought and being are intertwined into each other. Nonetheless, as long as we stick to the Cartesian image of the cogito, being could only grasped as a pure abstraction with no intrinsic concrete content. It is its identity in a sense of self-reflection of the thought toward itself but not as a mere abstraction but rather as a dialectical process that is implemented within history. The doubt takes its place into this process as a negation of its determinations toward the higher synthesis of itself10 That is the only light by which it is possible to constitute Hegel’s notion of both truth and the cohesion of thought and being, as a dialectic-historical process in which each consequential ‘thought’ (synthesis) is in fact the truth of its former determinations from which it is constituted. It is thus a speculative thought in a sense of a reflective thought rather than a static abstract proposition that gives rise to the historical process.

Heidegger, on the other hand, conduct his analysis with a rigorous inspection to bear the onthological and metaphysical foundations of the Cartesian proposition. Heidegger’s historiocistic inspection implies that although Descartes is commonly known as the liberator of the man out of the theological Medieval dogma, he is in fact concealing the Being out of man’s sight beyond any apprehensible horizon. This course will continue to articulate itself into its highest extent with Nietzsche’s eradication of both God and the Judeo-Christian legacy and with the rise of the Will to Power as a primordial essence11.

Heidegger interprets the Latin origin of ‘I think’, cōgitāre, and relies on the fact that Descartes himself sometimes substitutes it with the word percipere that means seize, grasp or perceive something. Heidegger claims that percipere should be understood as presenting something to the perceiver, thus it stands for a representation12. Heidegger then conducts a thorough etymological discussion on the aspects of the representation in which the ‘thing’ as an object is represented, as an activity of perception, to the subject, as the ‘I’, the res cogitas (the thinking thing). Heidegger concludes that according to Descartes himself, “every ego is a cogito me cogitare” – every “I represent something” simultanously represents a “myself”, me, the one representing.13. It is a state of affairs in which every representation of something is already representing the “self” as a preproposition. Hence according to Heidegger, the certainty of my existence is not determined by the assertion that ‘because I am able to think – I definitaly exist’, rather ‘due to the representation of myself to myself – I exist’ or to be more precise – ‘my existence as being is measured by the extent of which I represent my self to myself’14. Subsequently, the Cartesian formula feeds the methaphysical subiectum as the primordial substrum (as hypokeimon) “it is the full essence of representation”15.

Heidegger calls this phenomena ‘the age of the world picture16. A world which its chief feature of perception is determined by what Heidegger calls ‘present-at-hand’ (vorhanden)17. It corresponds to Descartes view of the nonhuman world as ‘res extensa18. The Being of the external world is a representation and comprehended in a mathematical and geometrical form as a predicate of the ‘cogito’, the res cogitas, its existence is defined as an end for whom it is represented to, the self, and thus could never be conceived as a being as itself with its own end. This clarifies Heidegger initial claim that the highest articulation of this course takes place in Nietzsche proposition of the Will to power as a primordial feature of Being which its contemporary manifestation is a “machine economy19 that is identified by technological dominance, utilitariansim, social exploitation and depression and so forth.

The salient differences between the two thinkers

The common ground from which both thinkers commence their inspections is somewhat identical, they both identify the Caretesian proposition as a historical epoch that bears fundamental implications upon the modern perception and thus has a high interest of conducting a critical analysis for the good of articulating their own thesis. Nonetheless, they both departure from the initial point into an essential different criticism. Hegel attitude is less tolerant upon Descartes whereas Descartes’ abstract proposition is described as a non-sufficient philosophical comprehension which draws a static image of the relation between thought and being, thrown out of history and time. Descartes’ ambigious inferencial formula thus may on the best scenario suggest an imidate and intuative relation between thought and being, but yields a void being, that is, a world with no content. On the other hand, Heidegger motivation is to single out of the Cartesean proposition the subiectum as a primoridal onthological component. Heidegger analysis concluds that a. According to Descartes, Being’s prominent feature is representedness as a product of positioning the self as the subiectum. b. Heidegger sees this perception as the root of the contemporary ‘machine economic’ society. However, none of the thinkers actualy refuts Descartes’ arguments one by one, rather, they conduct a subtle strategy of criticism. Hegel chooses to criticise the lack of historical perspective but emphasises the arguments which might support his thesis so that the cohesion of thought and being is singled out and outlined. Heidegger, on the other hand, composes his criticism by conducting further articulation of Descartes proposition’s state of affairs into a contemporary horrifying image of the ‘economic machine’. This strategy emphasis the absurdic aspect of Descartes’ perception so that a silent voice raises to call an essential metaphysical alternative.

The common ground in the light of Williams’ analysis

We now shall inspect the common ground upon both thinkers stand in the light of Bernard Williams’ Descartes: The Project of Pure Inquiry analysis on chapter three.

Williams begins his analytical discussion by setting up two major features that designates the certainty of the cogito’s two pillars – cogito and sum. Williams uses the terms incorrigible and self-verifying20, They are incorrigible and self-verifying in a sense that they do not necessarily compose a pure tautology, rather, as Hintikka suggest, “it is the very act of thinking the proposition that makes the proposition true21. However, these features provide both thought and existence a solid ground beyond any doubt. Hegel notices this feature and calls it immediate intuition and inward revealtion22, as the ‘touchstone’ of a true statement, whilst Heidegger argues that this certainty should be addressed as the certainty of the Being as a representation to itself.23

Once Williams addresses the certainty of the cogito, he argues that in fact, according to Hintikka’s interpretation of the cogito as an performative proposition, the cogito proposition is not essential24, since the utterance of a mere ‘I am’ (sum) proposition already consists of the active thought as a reflection within itself. This argument adequets Descartes’ formula of the proposition as it appears on Meditations on First Philosophy – ego sum, ego exist25 (I am, I exist). This observation could not be missed by both Hegel and Heidegger as an essential bridge to a monistic and immanencial perspective.26

Furthermore, Williams argues that the content of the thought is meaningless to yield one’s existence as sum.27 He relies on Descartes’ acknowledge of thought as ‘all forms of consciousness’ and his distinction between coginitive thought as percepio and any form of desire, aversion and so forth as volition28. This argument implies that the ‘I am’ as Being is indifferent to its content, which only emphasises its essential lack of content, in a sense of onthologicl content. For Hegel, it is a definitve evidence for Descartes ‘poor determination’ of the Being out of the thought29 which may only entail to an unsatisfactory proof of God as a predication of the ‘I think’, while being forced to establish premisses that could not be constructed from the pure doubting thought itself.30 Likewise, Heidegger points out that ‘Being as representedness’ provides certainty only due to its representedness, that is to say, the reliance of Being its self-representation rather on the world as Being, which yields again, indifference to the content of the Being.

Last, is the common ground on the eliminiation of the cogito as a syllogism, a valid logical inference. Williams shows that although the proposition clearly includes an inferencial phrase therefore, ‘ergo’, it could not be a valid inference because there must be a tacit premise on which a conclusion should be derived31. ‘I exist’ could not be deduct out of ‘I think’ unless there is an additional permise ‘whoever thinks – exist’. However, this premise violates the Pure Enqurier condition that all propositions must be undubitable, thus any further permise regarding the external world could not be valid in that sense. That leaves us with two options, the one is to consider a thinner premise that merely states – ‘In order to think – it is neccesary to exist’ a statement that does not obligates or refers to the external world, which Descartes was ready to accept32. The second option, is to interpret the relation of cogito and sum not as a inference, but rather as a self-reflecting proposition. The elimination of the inference clearly implies on both the immediance and cohesion of the two phrases and was widely used by both Hegel and Heidegger to articulate their perception of the unity of thought and being.33

References List

  • Martin Heidegger, Age of the World Picture, The Question of Technology and Other Essays. 1977, Translated by William Levitt. Published by New York: Harper and Row.

  • Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, 2001, Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, Published by Blackwell.

  • Bernard Williams, Descartes, The Project of Pure Enquiry, 2015, Published by Routledge. An Amazon Kindle Digital copy.

  • Charles Taylor, Hegel, 2005, Published by Cambridge University Press.

Online Resources

  • Plato’s Ethics, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,


  • Hegel, Hegel’s lectures on the History of Philosophy, (Modern philosophy, the metaphysics of understanding, Descartes).


  • Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy.


  • MIA, Encyclopedia of Marxism


1 Hegel Lectures on the History of Philosophy, A1, “Descartes sets to work in a quite simple and childlike manner”, “there is found a naïve and empirical system of reasoning”, “ the grounds which are here advanced are for the most part popular”.


3MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Terms, Abstract and Concrete.

4 Hegel Lectures on the History of Philosophy, A1.

5Ibid, “The whole of Philosophy as it had been carried on up to this time was vitiated by the constant pre-supposition of something as true, and in some measure, as in the Neo-Platonic philosophy”.

6Plato’s Ethics, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. “For the ‘Form of the Good’ turns out to be the ultimate source of all being and knowledge”.

7 Hegel Lectures on the History of Philosophy, A1.


9Ibid, “The ‘Therefore’ which binds the two sides together is not the ‘Therefore’ of a syllogism; the connection between Being and Thought is only immediately posited.

10Hegel’s Dialectics, Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ‘The speculative moment is thus “truly not empty, abstract nothing, but the negation of certain determinations [..] the result is conceived as it is in truth, namely, as a determinate negation”.

11Heidegger, European Nihilism, p.103.

12Ibid, p.105. “Sometimes Descrates substitutes Cogitare with „percipere“ -[..] in the sense of presenting-to-oneself [..], representing.“

13Ibid, p. 106.

14Ibid, p. 115. “It means that the permanence of my self as res cogitans consists in the secure establishment of representation, in the certitude according to which the self is brought before itself.

15Ibid, p.117.

16 Martin Heidegger, Age of the World Picture, p. 127.

17 Martin Heidegger, Being and Time 21: 132. “Values would then be determinate characteristics which a Thing possesses, and they would be present-at-hand

18Heidegger, European Nihilism, p. 116.

19Ibid, p.116.

20Williams, Chapter III, “Both possess the property [..] of being incorrigible, Moreover [..] each of them is self-verifying.”


22Hegel Lectures, The so-called immediate intuition and inward revelation”.

23 Heidegger, European Nihilism, p.114. “The principle says that representation, which is essentially represented to itself, posits Being as representedness and truth as certitude

24Williams, “but the other proposition, ‘cogito’, is not essential, as a reflexive thought of Descartes, at all.

25Rene Descartes, Mediations on First Philosophy, Meditation II, 1-9.

26Hegel, Lectures: “The ‘I think’ directly involves my Being”,

Heidegger, European Nihilism, p.113, “because the first-person pronoun is not essential here.

27Williams, “For Descartes, however, a cogitatio or pensee is any sort of conscious state or activity whatsoever”.

28Ibid, “All forms of consciousness [..] can be brought down to two general kinds”.

29 Hegel, Lectures: (1) “In thought we thus have Being; Being is, however, a poor determination, it is the abstraction from the concrete of thought.” (2) “This knowledge is indeed on its own account perfect evidence, but it is not yet the truth; or if we take that Being as truth, it is an empty content, and it is with the content that we have to do.

30Charles Taylor, Hegel, p.521, “Thus it is that when Descartes goes forward to establish the content of the empirical world against doubt he has to fall short of his promise and have recourse to presuppositions, to premisses and elements which he merely accepts without being able to establish them by thought alone, [..] This is Hegel’s judgement, for instance, on the recourse to God as guarantor of the veracity of my perceptions in the Meditations.

31Williams, “He does not conclude his existence from his thought as if by force of some syllogism”.

32Williams, “The first Descartes denies [..] the latter he is prepared to admit as presupposed”.

33Hegel eliminates the cogito as an inferential proposition: “The ‘Therefore’ which binds the two sides together is not the ‘Therefore’ of a syllogism; the connection between Being and Thought is only immediately posited.” (Hegel, Lectures). Heidegger conducts the same elimination: “the ergo (therefore) it appears as though the principle were a syllogism [..] The principle is a conclusio, but not in a sense of a conclusion of a syllogism” (Heidegger, European Nihilism, p. 112,113).