I was interested in the following piece which appeared in an article titled "Let's Be Philosophical" by Russel Baker in The New York Times (January 25, 1987).

It was that incident, in fact, that renewed my determination to get busy with reading philosophy. It is humiliating to be caught accidentally confusing Descartes with Hume.

And accident it was, of course, for I am thoroughly familiar with the thought of Descartes. It is famously stated in his ''Puto ergo sum,'' a Latin expression meaning, ''I am putative, therefore I do sums.'' This is sometimes written, ''Cogito ergo sum,'' meaning, ''Being incognito, I naturally add up.''

David Hume, on the other hand, was incapable of thinking such thoughts since he was never either putative or incognito and, being Scottish, detested the very idea of thinking in Latin. This he considered a disgusting affectation that the English used to show off Oxford educations.

Oxford Dictionary of English defines "incognito" as "(of a person) having one's true identity concealed".

Can someone clarify if the journalist correctly uses the word "incognito", as I'm not sure on this circumstance, even after reading the Latin origin this word ("incognitus", from in - 'not' + cognitus (past participle of cognoscere 'know')?

  • Too localised - it's just wordplay based on the similarity between cogito and incognito. – FumbleFingers Jun 11 '12 at 18:17
  • Is there a particular reason in order to that you would close all my questions? @FumbleFingers – Elberich Schneider Jun 11 '12 at 18:21
  • Sorry - wasn't aware that I was hitting on you in particular. I've upvoted and even answered some of your questions, so it's not all bad. I doubt you'll agree with me on this particular question, since you asked it. But bear in mind this could have been fully answered in a comment, and probably has little relevance for future visitors. As so often, I don't object to the question being asked - I just don't see the point of keeping it open to await a "better" answer. Agree with me or not, but I vote in good faith (most of the time! :) – FumbleFingers Jun 11 '12 at 21:26

The journalist is attempting to be humorous. The actual translation of the phrase "Cogito ergo sum" is "I think, therefore I am".

By pretending to translate "sum" to have the same meaning as "sum" in English, he can showcase his knowledge while those in the know have a laugh at his expense. He has made a similar correlation between "cogito" and "incognito" to allow the pun to work.

The passage is made more funny still by the opening remark, "It is humiliating to be caught accidentally confusing Descartes with Hume." It would be even more humiliating to be caught in this mistranslation. He also brings humour in echoing Hume as discarding the value of an Oxford education as a "disgusting affectation" - one which nevertheless would have allowed him to translate the phrase correctly.

  • 3
    Also the play on "Hume-iliating"...altogether egregious wordplay. – JeffSahol Jun 11 '12 at 18:03
  • @JeffSahol Haha, I'd missed that! Nice. – Lunivore Jun 11 '12 at 18:07

The writer is attempting to be humorous; Cogito ergo sum is one of a few latin phrases that is still very widely known, meaning "I think, therefore I am". He has instead mis-translated it into english words that appear to correspond with the phrase in "obvious" ways ('cogito'->'incognito', 'sum'->'add up').

So in a sense the writer has intentionally misused the words in order to be funny.


No, the author was writing a parody.

Descartes said Cogito, ergo sum, which means "I think, I am" or "I think, therefore I am."

The author is being humorous by deliberately confusing cogito, I think, and cognito, I know. His reference to girls and beer / women and gin are in the same vein.

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