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A Review of Rene Descartes Meditations on First Philosophy

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This article is a summary of Rene Descarte’s Meditation on First Philosophy. It seeks, as permitted by the Meditator himself, in his letter to the reader, to examine his treatise with the possibility of instituting change if necessary.

I doubt not, if you but condescend to pay so much regard to this treatise as to be willing in the first place to correct it (for mindful not only of my humanity, but chiefly also of my ignorance, I do not affirm that it is free from errors); in the second place to supply what is wanting in it, to perfect what is incomplete, and to give more ample illustration where it is demanded, or at least to indicate these defects to myself that i may endeavour to remedy them.

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He starts his meditations which ps over a period of six days by sitting himself, I dare say, comfortably, by the fire side.

Meditation I: Skeptical Doubt

In the First Meditation, the meditator expounds the grounds on which we may doubt generally all things, and especially material objects, so long at least, as we have no other foundations for the sciences than those we have before now possessed. The meditator was struck by how many false things he had believed, and by how doubtful the structure of beliefs he had based on them.

He realized that if he wanted to establish anything in the sciences that was stable and likely to last, he needed – just once – to demolish everything completely and start again from the foundations. I can do this without showing that all my beliefs are false, which is probably more than I could ever manage. My reason tells me that as well as withholding assent from propositions that are obviously false, I should also withhold it from ones that are not completely certain and indubitable.

So all I need, for the purpose of rejecting all my opinions, is to find in each of them at least some reason for doubt. I can do this without going through them one by one, which would take forever: once Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, (Start Publishing LLC: eBook edition, 2012) kobo file. the foundations of a building have been undermined, the rest collapses of its own accord; so I will go straight for the basic principles on which all my former beliefs rested. Whatever I have accepted until now as most true has come to me through my senses.

But occasionally I have found that they have deceived me, and it is unwise to trust completely those who have deceived us even once. 2 The Meditator goes further to say that although our sense perceptions deceive us yet one could not possibly doubt all of what one has come to know through the senses for example, his seating by the fire, clothed in a winter dressing gown or that he is truly in possession of this arms and legs. This led to what is popularly referred to as the dream argument where he argues that; I often have perceptions very much like the ones I usually have in sensation while I am dreaming.

There are no definite signs to distinguish dream experience from waking experience. therefore, It is possible that I am dreaming right now and that all of my perceptions are false3 Objection to the dream argument: It could be argued that the images we form in dreams can only be composed of bits and pieces of real experience combined in novel ways. Therefore, Although we have reason to doubt the surface perceptual qualities of our perception, we have no reason to doubt the properties that we perceive the basic components of our experience to have. In particular, there is no reason to doubt the mathematical properties that material bodies in general have. )4 The First Meditation can thus be seen as presenting skeptical doubts as a subject of study in their own right. Certainly, skepticism is a much discussed and hotly debated topic in philosophy, even today. Descartes was noticeably the first to raise the mystifying question of how we can claim to know with certainty anything about the world around us. The idea is not that these doubts are “Rene Descartes 1639.

Meditations on First Philosophy in which are demonstrated the existence of God and the distinction between the human soul and the body. ” marxists. org. n. p. n. d.. http://www. marxists. org/reference/archive/ descartes/1639/meditations. htm (accessed April 10, 2013). 3 Banach, David. “An Outline of Descartes's Meditations on First Philosophy. ” anslem. edu. Creative Commons License. 2006. http://www. anselm. edu/homepage/dbanach/medol. htm (accessed April 10, 2013). 4 Banach, ‘An Outline... philosophy. ’ op. cit. robable, but that their possibility can never be entirely ruled out. And if we can never be certain, how can we claim to know anything? Skepticism cuts straight to the heart of the Western philosophical enterprise and its attempt to provide a certain foundation for our knowledge and understanding of the world. It can even be pushed so far as to be read as a challenge to our very notion of rationality. Skepticism cannot be lived, we as individuals cannot possibly doubt everything as this will lead to an infinite regress.

We should note that Descartes' doubt is a methodological and rational doubt. That is, the Meditator is not just doubting everything at random, but is providing solid reasons for his doubt at each stage. For instance, he rejects the possibility that he might be mad, since that would undercut the rationality that motivates his doubt. Descartes is trying to set up this doubt within a rational framework, and needs to maintain a claim to rationality for his arguments to proceed.

Meditation II: Of the Nature of the Human Mind

Day two of the meditation sees the meditator still in doubt, following Archimedes, the meditator attempts to find a starting point or at least one point which he would not doubt. I will nevertheless, make an effort, and try anew the same path on which I had entered yesterday, that is, proceed by casting aside all that admits of the slightest doubt, not less than if I had discovered it to be absolutely false; and will continue always in this track until I shall find something that is certain, or at least, if I can do nothing more, until I shall know with certainty that there is nothing certain.

Archimedes, that he might transport the entire globe from the place it occupied to another, demanded only a point that was firm and immovable; so, also, I shall be entitled to entertain the highest expectations, if I am fortunate enough to discover only one thing that is certain and indubitable. Recalling the previous meditation, he supposes that what he sees does not exist, that his memory is faulty, that he has no senses and no body, that extension, movement and place are mistaken notions. Perhaps, he remarks, the only certain thing remaining is that there is no certainty. Descartes, ‘On... Philosophy. ’ op. cit. kobo file The meditator then wonders, is he not, the source of these meditations? (that is after doubting his existence; of his body and senses) does that mean he cannot exist either? He has also noted that the physical world does not exist, which might also seem to imply his nonexistence. And yet to have these doubts, he must exist. For an evil demon to mislead him in all these cunnuing ways, he must exist in order to be misled. There must be an "I" that can doubt, be deceived, and so on.

He formulates the famous cogito argument, saying: "So that it must, in fine, be maintained, all things being maturely and carefully considered, that this proposition (pronunciatum) I am, I exist, is necessarily true each time it is expressed by me or conceived in my mind."  The cogito argument is so called because of its Latin formulation in the Discourse on Method: "cogito ergo sum" ("I think, therefore I am"). This is possibly the most famous single line in all of philosophy, and is generally considered the starting point for modern Western philosophy.

In it, the Meditator finds his first grip on certainty after the radical skepticism he posited in the First Meditation. The cogito presents a picture of the world and of knowledge in which the mind is something that can know itself better than it can know anything else. The latter part of the Second Meditation dwells largely on the "Wax Argument" with which the meditator hopes to show that we come to know things through the intellect rather than through the senses and that we know the mind better than anything else. His argument focuses on the process of change by which solid wax melts into a liquid puddle.

The senses seem to tell us things about the world, and Descartes admits that what we know about the solid piece of wax we know through the senses. The senses can similarly inform us about the melted wax, but they cannot tell us that the melted wax and the solid wax are one and the same. Nor, the meditator argues, can the imagination. Only the intellect can organize and make sense of what we perceive. The senses only perceive a disconnected jumble of information: the intellect is what helps us to understand it.

Meditation III: Of God that He Exists

At the beginning of Meditation III, the meditator finds a whole host of truths which he holds we can know for certain. These truths involve the causal or representational theory of perception. This theory holds that we directly perceive ideas which are caused by objects in the external world. Descartes claims that we can know for certain that we are seeing a particular idea (of the sun or the stars or this room or that tree), what we don't know for certain is if there is a sun or stars or a room or tree ausing our ideas). The meditator goes on to produce a criterion for truths which we can know for absolute certainty. He does this by reflecting on those truths which he has already discovered using the method of doubt, and determines that what they all have in common is that the ideas in them are all clear and distinct. Thus any truth composed of clear and distinct ideas can be known for certain. Descartes then proceeds to try to move from the foundation, to determine what truths might be based on those truths. The first thing he must do, as it turns out is to prove that God exists!

Without doing this he cannot get rid of the Evil Demon hypothesis. When considering God as "a substance that is infinite, eternal, immutable, independent, supremely intelligent, supremely powerful, and which created both myself and everything else," the Meditator realizes that the idea of God must have far more objective reality than he has formal reality: God is an infinite substance whereas he is only a finite substance. Since the idea of God cannot have originated in himself, he concludes that God must be the cause of this idea and must therefore necessarily exist.

The Meditator counters the argument that he might conceive of an infinite being through negation, that is, through conceiving of it in contrast to his own finite being. Doubts and desires come from an understanding that we lack something, and we would not be aware of that lack unless we were aware of a more perfect being that has those things which we lack. While he can doubt the existence of other things, he cannot doubt the existence of God, since he has such a clear and distinct perception 8OSU. “the meditations. ” n. p. n. d. ttp://oregonstate. edu/instruct/phl302/philosophers/meditations. html (accessed April 13,2013). of God's existence. The idea has infinite objective reality, and is therefore more likely to be true than any other idea. The Meditator then entertains the possibility that he may be supremely perfect, that all his deficiencies are potentialities within him, and that he is slowly improving toward perfection. If perfection is a potentiality within him, then it is plausible that the idea of God could be conceived in him without any outside cause.

The Meditator rejects this possibility for three reasons: first, God is all actual and not at all potential; second, if he is constantly improving, he will never attain that perfection where there is no room for improvement; and third, potential being is not being at all: the idea of God must be caused by something with infinite actual being. If the Meditator could exist without God, he would have come to be out of herself, or from his parents, or from some other being less perfect than God. If he derived his existence from himself, there is no reason that he should have doubts and desires.

He also cannot escape this reasoning by supposing he has always existed and never had to come into being. There is no reason that he should continue to exist unless there is some force that preserves him, that creates him anew at every instant. As a thinking thing, he should be aware of that power of preservation though it came from within him. If his parents or some other imperfect being created him, this creator must have endowed him with the idea of God. If this creator is a finite being, we must still ask with respect to it how it came to possess the idea of an infinite God.

We can trace this chain back through countless creators, but we must ultimately conclude that the idea of God can originate only in God, and not in some finite being. We can thus sum up the third meditation: Every idea must be caused, and the cause must be as real as the idea. If I have any idea of which I cannot be the cause, then something besides me must exist. All ideas of material reality could have their origin within me. But the idea of God, an infinite and perfect being, could not have originated from within me, since I am finite and imperfect. I have an idea of God, and it can only have been caused by God.

Therefore God exists.

Meditation IV: Of Truth and Error

The Fourth Meditation, subtitled "Truth and falsity," opens with the Meditator reflecting on the ground he has covered so far, observing that all his certain knowledge, and in particular the most certain knowledge that God exists, comes from the intellect, and not from the senses or the imagination. Now that he is certain of God's existence, a great deal more can follow.

First, he knows that God would not deceive him, since the will to deceive is a sign of weakness or malice, and God's perfection would not allow it. Second, if God created him, God is responsible for his judgment, and so his faculty of judgment must be infallible so long as he uses it correctly. One wonders then following from the evil demon argument and the third meditation on the existence of God, how then error comes to play if God is too perfect to be infallible yet He (God) is responsible for our judgement? Error, the meditator believes comes from improper use of our intellect, i. e. in judging things we do not really know.

Summation of the fourth meditation is thus: Only an imperfect (less than perfectly good) being could practice deliberate deception. Therefore, God is no deceiver. Since my faculty of judgment comes from God, I can make no mistake as long as I use it properly. But it is not an infinite faculty; I make mistakes when I judge things that I don't really know. God also gave me free will, which is infinite and therefore extends beyond my finite intellect. This is why it is possible to deceive myself: I am free to jump to conclusions or to proclaim as knowledge things that I don't know with absolute certainty.

I therefore know now that if I know something with absolute certainty (clearly and distinctly), then I cannot be mistaken, because God is no deceiver. The correct way to proceed is to avoid mistakes and limit my claims to knowledge to those things I know clearly and distinctly. The Meditator also questions why a supremely good God would not create us with infinite being. In sum, we are given a variant on the answer, "The Lord works in mysterious ways. " The Meditator suggests that God's motives are beyond our meager comprehension.

While on our own, we may be seen as imperfect, we are only a small part of a much larger creation. We might think of a steering wheel on its own as rather useless and imperfect, but when we see it in the larger context of a car, we understand that it is perfectly designed to suit its purpose.

Meditation V: Of the Essence of Material Things; and again of God that He Exists

The Fifth Meditation opens with the Meditator turning his attention toward material objects.

Rather than inquire into the things themselves, he inquires into her ideas regarding material things. He concludes that he can distinctly imagine extension, size, shape, position, and local motion, which is associated with duration. The Meditator has reasons here that a triangle must have all the properties he ascribes to it, because the triangle exists as an idea in his mind and he clearly and distinctly perceives all these properties. He then reasons by analogy that God exists as an idea in his mind and he clearly and distinctly perceives all of his qualities.

One of these qualities is existence, so it follows from his clear and distinct perception that God must exist. If existence is the essence of God, then God would not be God if he did not exist, just as a triangle would not be a triangle if it were not three-sided. At the very least, then, the existence of God must be as certain as the properties of mathematical and geometrical objects since he can prove them in the same way. Does this mean that thinking of something means that it exists? According to the meditator; If I conceive of a triangle, I must conceive of a figure whose angles equal two right angles.

But it doesn't follow that the triangle must exist. But God is different. God, being perfect, is the one being to whom existence must belong. Thus, when I conceive of God, I must conceive of a being that exists. Because God, being perfect, is not a deceiver, I know that once I have perceived something clearly and distinctly to be true, it will remain true, even if later I forget the reasoning that led me to that conclusion. I could not have this certainty about anything if I did not know God. 12 The proof of God's existence found here is a version of a proof that was popular among the Scholastic philosophers.

Our idea of God is the idea of a perfect being, and one of the attributes of a perfect being would be existence, since it is more perfect to exist than not to exist. In Descartes' formulation, existence is not just an attribute, but an essential property of God's, so that God cannot be conceived of without existence. This proof, however, rests on the faulty assumption, first pointed out by Kant, that existence is a predicate or a property, like "being red" or "being tall. " In fact, "exists" is a very different kind of predicate than "is red" or "is tall. " The predicate "exists" does not Anderson, ‘Summary of... Philosophy. ’ op. cit. modify an object so much as it modifies the world. If I say "the red car exists," the property of redness is something that modifies the car. On the other hand, "exists" does not modify the car so much as it says that the world is such that the car is in it. In that sense, "exists" is not a property of the car.

Meditation VI: Of the Existence of Material Things, and of the Real distinction between the Mind and Body of Man

The meditator starts his sixth and last meditation by drawing a line between imagination and pure understanding.

In the case of a triangle, he can perceive that a triangle is three-sided and derive all sorts of other properties using the understanding alone. He can also perceive these properties with the imagination, by picturing the triangle in his mind's eye. However, the weaknesses of the imagination become clear when he considers a thousand-sided figure which the meditator calls a ‘chiliogon. ’ It is very difficult to picture it in his mind's eye, and more difficult still to differentiate that mental image from the mental image of a 999-sided figure.

The pure understanding, however, dealing only in mathematical relations, can perceive all the properties of a thousand-sided figure just as easily as it can a triangle. The imagination cannot be an essential property of his mind, since the Meditator could still exist even if he could not imagine. Therefore, the imagination must rely on something other than the mind for its existence. The Meditator conjectures that the imagination is connected with the body, and thus allows the mind to picture corporeal or tangible objects.

In understanding, the mind turns inward upon itself, and in imagining, the mind turns outward toward the body. The Meditator admits that this is only a strong conjecture, and not a definitive proof of the existence of body. The Meditator then turns to reflect on what he perceives by means of the senses. He perceives he has a body that exists in a world, and that this body can experience pleasure, pain, emotion, hunger, etc. , Sparknote Editors, ‘Sparknotes on... Philosophy. ’ op. cit. Descartes, ‘On... Philosophy. ’ op. cit. kobo file. nd can perceive other bodies with extension, shape, movement, hardness, heat, color, smell, taste, etc. He thinks it not unreasonable to suppose that these perceptions all come from some outside source. They come to him involuntarily, and they are so much more vivid than the perceptions he consciously creates in his own mind. It would be odd to suggest that he can involuntarily create perceptions so much more vivid than the ones he creates voluntarily. And if they come from without, it is only natural to suppose that the source of these sensory ideas in some way resemble the ideas themselves.

From this point of view, it is very easy to convince oneself that all knowledge comes from without via the senses. What Descartes understands by "body" is somewhat counter-intuitive and is closely linked to his physics, which is not made readily apparent in the Meditations. This section of commentary will depart a bit from the text it comments on in order to clarify some concepts of Cartesian physics. The entirety of Cartesian physics rests on the claim that extension is the primary attribute of body, and that nothing more is needed to explain or understand body. Extension" means extended in space, and so a body is anything that occupies space. We should recall that Descartes was also a great mathematician, and invented both analytic geometry and the coordinate system that now bears his name. Descartes' physics is highly mathematical, and we should understand bodies as anything that could be graphed in coordinate space.

On the Mind Body Dualism

The Meditator muses that he has been puzzled as to why his mind seems particularly attached to one particular body, which he calls his own. Why does he feel pain and tickling in this body but not in any body external to it?

And why should a tugging in the stomach of that body suggest to his mind that he should eat, since there is no obvious connection between the tugging and the decision to eat? He concludes that he is inclined by nature to assume the things he does about his body and about the world external to it, since he accepts these assumptions prior to developing any arguments regarding them. The Meditator reasons that imagination and sensory perception are modes of thought. He could conceive of himself without imagination or sensory perception, so they are not essential to him, but Sparknote Editors, ‘Sparknotes on... Philosophy. ’ op. cit. ibid imagination and sensory perception could not exist without a mind to contain them. Similarly, there are modes of extension that cannot exist without a body to contain them. The Meditator next considers those ideas about body that he perceives only confusedly and obscurely, hoping that his knowledge that God is not a deceiver will help him further. First, he reasons that he must have a body, as nature teaches that to him more vividly than anything. Further, mind and body are intermingled to form one unit.

If the mind were in the body like a sailor in a ship, he would be able to perceive pains and hungers by purely intellectual understanding. Instead, he feels these sensations sharply and directly as if his mind itself were suffering. The confused modes of thinking that arise with respect to these sensations result precisely because the mind and body are intermingled and the mind cannot survey the matter disinterestedly. The Meditator argues that mind and body have nothing in common, so they must be two totally distinct substances.

We could point out that Clark Kent and Superman are very dissimilar and are yet the same thing, and so argue by analogy that mind and body might be two very different ways of looking at the same thing. However, even the primary attributes of mind and body are different. Body is essentially extended, whereas mind is non-extended and essentially thinking. Since the two are totally different, the Meditator concludes that he is only mind, and not body. This is a step beyond what is stated by the sum res cogitans in the Second Meditation, as there the Meditator asserts that he only knows that he is a thinking thing.

This sharp distinction between mind and body is called "mind-body dualism" and has had tremendous impact on Western philosophy ever since. If sensory experience is in the mind and the bodies that cause our sensations are in the world, the question arises as to how the two can causally interact. What is the connection between mind and world? This has been a great concern in particular for the rationalist philosophers that followed Descartes--Malebranche, Spinoza, and Leibniz being the most important--as well as for philosophy of mind in general ever since.


The mind and the body if held as totally distinct from each other leaves no room for interaction. The mind becomes a separate entity as well as the body. The body is extended and occupies space, it is measureable, visible and degenarates hence the body is matter. The mind however is a direct opposite. It cannot be measured, it is not visible and does not occupy space. Also, since the body is extended in three dimensional space, it can be divided into specific parts, the mind however does not occupy space and cannot be divided. The nature of the body according to Descartes was that, unlike the mind it was divisible. "There is a great difference between mind and body, inasmuch as body is by nature always divisible, and the mind is entirely indivisible. "How then an immaterial mind (that Descartes denied had a location in space) moves a physical body that does, how a body consisting of space-occupying matter influence an immaterial mind remains a philosophical problem, I dare say, beyond any discuss in the philosophy of mind, a metaphysical problem that the whole discipline of philosophy up till date is yet to find a solution to.

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