When Descartes wrote this in 1637, I wonder if he knew how often he would be quoted, misquoted, modified and humourised. Most of us know that it points to our sentience as a species. But have you ever thought that it also suggests that what you think makes you who you are? Indeed, if Descartes had said ‘how I think is who I am’ he wouldn’t be that wrong.
Thinking is a weird thing really. We do it all the time without a lot of effort. Someone asks you a question and all of a sudden you are thinking. You read a newspaper and you start thinking about a topic. Someone tells you their opinion and you start thinking about yours. It happens as you sit on your own, walk on a street and often as you are trying to get to sleep. Every day we are presented with evidence that others don’t think the same as we do, yet most of us wander around our lives surprised by the thoughts of others. Sometimes we can even be enraged or astounded by the views that other people hold, and sometimes that difference in perspective can result in unintended conflict or a breakdown in relationships.
Putting these two together can give an insight into the thinking process that seems so natural to us: 1) we think with ease and find that others think differently from us all the time; 2) to help us think so easily and quickly we each have formed a structure in our minds that defines how we create meaning in our world. This structure facilitates our thinking and our decisions. Without it we would start every new thought from the beginning. So we have a structure to marshal our thoughts and if this results in thoughts different from others then that structure is obviously different from others. The minute you realise that the structure of your mind, the way you make decisions, is different from other people’s structure, the frustration that you may feel when people don’t see what you see or don’t understand where your thinking is going or the reasons for your perspective on a problem goes away.
Once you accept that your thinking structure is different from others it’s not a great leap to accept that your thinking and therefore you, are unique: ’How I think is who I am’.