Descartes 2 Essay, Research Paper
FROM: Descartes, Philosophy of Rene Descartes: Meditations on First Philosophy, Monarch Notes, 1 Jan 1963.
The Meditations were written in Latin and first published in Paris in
1641. Descartes dedicated this book to the Dean and Faculty of Theology at the
University of Paris. He believed that the approbation of those theologians
would constitute a public testimony of approval and support of the truth in
the content of his work.
The Meditations are the most important of all of Descartes’ works. They
contain his full metaphysical and epistemological position. He considers the
problems of the sources and nature of knowledge; the validity of truth; the
nature and destiny of man; the existence of God, and the creation of the
universe. This work is detailed far more than the Discourse.
In the first meditation Descartes explains the reasons for his
methodological doubts. The second meditation describes the nature of the human
mind. The third meditation presents Descartes’ chief argument for the
existence of God. The fourth meditation shows the nature of error and points
out the requirements for conforming truths. The fifth meditation illustrates
the essence of corporeal nature and presents another demonstration of the
existence of God. The sixth and final meditation differentiates the soul from
In a preface to the reader, Descartes replies to some of the
philosophical criticisms of his earlier book, the Discourse. He continues in
the preface to describe his effort to meditate seriously upon the important
questions of God and the human soul. His readers are advised to detach their
minds from sense pursuits. When they are enabled to remove all prejudices from
their characters, it becomes possible to realize the maximum benefit of these
Descartes declares that it was vital for him to wait until he was a
mature man prior to undertaking the great task embodied in the purpose of this
book. Initially he felt that all of his earlier beliefs must be removed.
Attacking the underlying assumptions of his former beliefs, he asserts that
everything he knew in the past was based upon sense perception. The senses,
however, may be deceptive in that the minute objects are apprehended they may
appear differently from various points of view. It is highly probable that
other things which appear certain through sensation may in reality be the
products of illusions.
Yet there are some objects of sensations which must be accepted as true.
For instance, Descartes affirms that he is seated by the fire clothed in a
winter dressing gown. It would be insane to deny his knowledge of his own
body. We must admit certain characteristics of objects. For instance,
extension, figure, quantity, number, place, time, may be imputed to objects.
In addition, there are mathematical truths relative to objects. We know a
square has four sides and not five.
The sciences which are concerned with composite or complex objects, are
less reliable in the truth of their propositions than the sciences which are
concerned with simple and general objects like arithmetic and geometry. Yet,
Descartes asks, how can I be certain that the knowledge I possess is in
reality true? In order to build a valid structure of knowledge he affirms that
he will consider all external reality as illusion. Even the perfect God will
be questioned in this universal doubt. He will assume the possibility that God
is a malignant demon who deliberately attempts to deceive him. In effect,
Descartes intends to suspend all judgment.
Descartes concludes this meditation with the observation that it is
extremely arduous to accomplish this doubtful state of mind. There is a
tendency for the human mind to return to former beliefs as a secure means of
resolving its problems. In the event that man permits this regression, he may
find it impossible to ever dispel the intellectual darkness.
The Cartesian doubt reflects a contempt for an erudition based upon the
literature of the past. Descartes is not concerned with the arguments from the
great authorities of the past. He bases knowledge upon individual
intelligence. While Descartes approaches philosophy from an a priori position
independent of sense experience, his position regarding the attitude of doubt
necessary for the mind to arrive at truth is the unique contribution which he
makes to science and modern philosophy.
This initial meditation summarizes the earlier position of Descartes
found in the Discourse. In this first meditation, the foundation of Descartes’
philosophy has been restated in the detailed explanation of the rationale
behind his universal doubt. The real beginning of this book is the second
Descartes declares that the acceptance of his universal doubt likens him
to a swimmer plunged suddenly into deep water. He is unable to touch bottom
and unable to see the surface. In this floundering fashion he must achieve
the security of one certain fixed position by which he will know from whence
to proceed. In ancient times, Archimedes thought that it would be possible
for him to move the entire earth if only he could establish one fixed
absolute point. The search for a certain point of departure is vital if one
is to arrive at truthful knowledge from a position of universal doubt.
Descartes asserts that he assumes at this stage that everything is
false. He assumes there is no memory, senses, body, or any reality. It is
therefore possible that he is being deceived by the illusion of reality.
However, if he is being deceived, it follows that he must exist as a deceived
person. In this state of existence I ask, what am I?
Descartes asserts that in the past he believed that he was a man and
that a man was a rational animal. At present he cannot accept this. It would
be necessary for him to prove what an animal was and then determine the nature
of rationality. This is too complicated a problem at this moment of universal
doubt. In similar fashion all the attributes of the body, including his face,
hands, and arms, his senses and feeling that he occupies space as a unique
body separate from all others, must be held in doubt. The only proposition
that he can make at this juncture is that he is a thinking thing. He knows
that he exists only when he is thinking.
I am conscious that I exist. I who know, says Descartes, that I exist
ask the question, “what am I?” Having established that he is a thinking
thing, he proceeds to the problem of what a thinking thing actually is. He
concludes that he is the same being who performs the intellectual activities
of doubting, understanding, affirming, denying, willing, refusing, imagining
He then proceeds to the more difficult task of proving the existence of
a material body beyond his mental state. He asserts that the body appears more
certain to men because they are able to touch and see a particular body. Yet
when we consider a piece of wax fresh from the beehive, we assume that this
wax possesses the definite characteristics that its color, figure, and size
present to our senses. It seems to have the odor of flowers and is cool and
hard to the touch. But when we place this wax in the fire, all that seems
real to the senses regarding the nature of wax disappears. All that can be
asserted about it is that it is extended, movable, and flexible. The
perception of this wax is not an act of sight, touch or imagination. It is an
intuition of the human mind. All material objects are understood by the mind
It is very difficult to eliminate one’s reliance upon sense knowledge.
Yet we must accommodate ourselves to a reliance upon our minds. Descartes
marvels at the source of error in the mind which occurs from the use of
language. For instance, the same word “wax” is used to describe the same
substance before and after its subjection to the fire. The meaning of words
may create ambiguity and error in thought. In man’s effort to build
knowledge, he must introspectively look within his mind, erasing all sense
Descartes admits intuition as a source of knowledge. While deduction is
admitted as a reliable source of truth, this is considered more complex.
Deduction requires inference and relationships. Deduction, therefore, cannot
be the source by which Descartes asserts his first principle. Existence is
something that is intuited. That is, it is apprehended immediately by an
attentive intellect as true. There exists no possible doubt regarding its
truth. Since this assurance does not proceed from a sensation of external
reality, this rational knowledge is independent of sense experience.
Descartes makes a clear distinction between faith and reason. He cannot
assert his belief in reality on faith at all. Faith to Descartes pertains to
the will alone. It is not an intellectual matter. Faith is something that is
accepted upon trust because we choose to believe it.
Descartes affirms that he is a thinking being who doubts and affirms,
denies and knows. He is certain that he thinks because his knowledge is both
clear and distinct. Although he knows himself, he must establish the
existence of God in order to proceed further into a clear and distinct
knowledge of reality. While no evidence exists to support the supposition
that God deceives his mind into believing in an extra-mental reality,
Descartes states that he must first demonstrate the existence of God prior
to making any inquiry into the possibility of deception.
Descartes proceeds in his demonstration of the existence of God by
analyzing the nature of thought. An idea may be an image, a form, or a
judgment. The image or the apprehended form is never false. The source of
error lies in our judgment. It is necessary to formulate a judgment that this
given idea conforms ith the object it represents. Here resides the most
common source of error in judgment.
Some ideas may be innate. Some ideas are adventitious in that they come
involuntarily into the mind from outside. Other ideas are factitious in that
they are manufactured by myself by combining innate and adventitious ideas.
My innate ideas are guaranteed by nature – a spontaneous force that compels
my assent to the resemblance between my idea and the object my idea
represents. In the act by which I believe my idea of the object represents
the reality of the object, I am motivated by a blind impulse as the source of
my belief. Therefore, I cannot prove rationally that objects exist outside my
mind on this basis.
Descartes asks that our ideas be viewed as modes of consciousness. The
idea is purely subjective in that it resides only in the mind. If we consider
those ideas that are images, we observe a variety of ideas all varying in
perfection. Since the idea is an effect, the cause of this effect must possess
as much reality as the effect. It may be asserted that any cause must have as
much perfection as its effect. For instance, a stone cannot exist unless it
is produced by a cause at least as perfect as the stone. The idea of heat
must be produced in my mind by a cause with as much perfection as the heat.
When this principle is applied to his idea of God, Descartes asserts that the
cause, God, must have as much reality and perfection as his idea of God which
is in the effect. It is of the nature of perfection that a thing is perfect
only if it exists. Therefore, a perfect God must exist.
Descartes knows that he is not the cause of his own idea of God. He
thinks that any idea of an infinite, perfect, all-knowing God transcends his
own mental ability. God, therefore, causes the idea of God in his mind.
Because God is the cause, and the cause possesses as much perfection and
reality as the effect (the idea of God), and an object is perfect only if it
includes the concept of existence, Descartes asserts that the perfect cause,
God, truly exists.
Descartes demonstrates additionally that God exists by reason of the fact
that he himself exists as a thinking being having a concept of God. He asserts
that if he existed as an independent being possessing every perfection, he
would be God. Obviously his lack of perfection precludes the possibility of
this. However, what exactly is the cause of his existence? As a dependent
being, he asks upon whom he depends. If it is stated that he is dependent upon
some other less perfect being than God, then the question will arise as to the
source of this being’s dependence. Eventually it is necessary to state that an
all-perfect necessary being, possessing all the attributes of God, exists as
the cause of Descartes’ own contingent existence.
Since Descartes believes he has established that God caused the idea of
God in his mind, he next inquires into the problem of how he received this
idea from God. Descartes concludes that this idea is innate in him. At the
moment of his creation, God imposed the idea of himself in the mind of
Descartes very much like a worker stamping his name to the product of his
making. Descartes apprehends this idea in the same intuitive way that he
understands the fact of his own thinking existence. He does not deduce God’s
existence. He knows this immediately and intuitively.
Descartes concludes that the contemplation of the idea of God is the
source of greatest happiness in life. Although he admits that this is
incomparably less perfect than the contemplation of God in the life to come as
faith suggests, it is a fact of experience that the contemplation of God
provides great happiness.
It is important to note that Descartes proceeds from the idea of the
infinite to the idea of the finite. This idea of God is the source of his
belief in the reality of objects that are extra-mental. The innate truth of an
infinite and perfect God is considered to be in the highest degree true.
However, Descartes does not assert that he knows God in the same manner in
which he knows his own selfhood. Because God is infinite, He is
incomprehensible to the finite mind. Descartes declares his pleasure in
contemplating this idea of the infinite God but does not suggest that he knows
the infinity of perfections that exist formally in God. There is a real
distinction or a real dualism that exists between the finite and the infinite
consciousness. Man is not identical with God. He is separate from God by
reason of his limitation and finite nature.
Descartes asserts that his idea of God and the infinite is more clear and
distinct than any idea of finite reality. This idea of God provides a path for
the discovery of the treasures of science and wisdom which reside perfectly in
God. His belief in extra-mental reality cannot be due to any deceptive action
of God. God is a perfect being and deception is imperfect by its nature. Any
mental errors that exist in his mind find their sources in his imperfect
nature. Errors do not proceed from God from the fact that any error is lacking
in reality. It is a defect or privation of knowledge.
It is conceivable that God might have created him as a being incapable of
being deceived. However, any inquiry into this area must presume some
understanding and judgment of the actions of God. God is infinite and
incomprehensible in His nature. The final cause or the purpose for the
creation of things as they are transcends the limited and finite understanding
of man. Descartes asserts that his mind is totally incapable of understanding
God’s actions. Therefore, it is pointless to ask why he has been created in
such a way that he is capable of falling into error. However, each individual
creature must be viewed not as an individual but as a part of the universe as
a whole. Somehow, the imperfections of the individual contribute to the
creation of the perfect universe.
Regarding the source of error, Descartes declares that he discerns that
he possesses a faculty of cognition and one of election or free choice. There
is no possibility of error in the understanding or cognition by itself. The
understanding merely apprehends the idea. When error enters into the
situation, it does this through the action of the will. However, it is not the
power of willing, but the failure of the individual to restrain his will that
creates errors. The will must be restrained or limited to choosing only those
objects which are fully understood by the intellect. Clear and distinct ideas
are necessarily true. These ideas move the will to action when the ideas
reside in the intellect. Descartes asserts that the great clarity of the
concept of his own existence residing in the intellect moved his will to
accept this truth.
Whenever any idea is lacking clarity or distinction it is necessary to
restrain the will from judging the idea as either true or idea until such time
that the idea may become clear and distinct false. The individual must assert
a state of doubt regarding the Descartes concludes that the action by which he
abstains from judgment of an unclear idea is correct. Failure on his part to
limit his will opens the door to possible error.
Descartes concludes this meditation by asserting that any errors that he
accepted in the past were the result of his own imperfections and limitations.
He cannot complain or blame anyone else for those errors which were the result
of his own choosing. He possessed always the power to restrain his will. He
had the advantage of obtaining clear and distinct knowledge. This knowledge
would incline his will to choose the right act or object. In addition, he
possessed the resolution to suspend all judgment whenever a truth was not
clearly known to him.
This meditation examines the nature of matter. Descartes analyzes his
idea of matter and reasserts his ontological proof for the existence of God.
Descartes declares that he will abandon the important questions regarding
the nature of God and the nature of the human mind for the moment. In this
meditation he undertakes the question of the certainty of his knowledge of
He proceeds by examining his conscious ideas regarding corporeal nature
in order to ascertain which of these ideas are clear and distinct. Because
clear and distinct ideas proceed from God, they may be accepted upon all
occasions as truth.
Descartes affirms that he can imagine distinctly the characteristic of
quantity which is called continuous in the philosophical sense, when he
reflects upon the idea of matter. In addition, he can imagine the extension of
the material object with its correlate length, breadth, and depth.
Furthermore, it is clear to him that he can enumerate all the many attributes
of matter. These attributes constitute size, figure, situations, and local
motions. Each motion, he asserts, can be assigned certain degrees of duration.
Therefore, Descartes accounts for the phenomena of time.
Continuing his analysis, introspectively regarding his ideas concerning
matter, Descartes asserts that all material objects contain a definite nature.
There is a determined form or essence to each object. This essence is
immutable and eternal. For instance, he can formulate a clear and distinct
idea of a triangle. The triangle possesses a distinct form or essence. My
knowledge of this essence proceeds from my reason alone, asserts Descartes.
Obviously he can never sense an essence. The form is abstracted through the
intellectual processes of the mind. Since the idea in the mind is both clear
and distinct, he knows it is a true idea of material reality. Material objects
must therefore exist. The qualities which he imputes to material objects must
Descartes demonstrates the existence of God in the same manner. He has an
idea in his mind of a perfect God. This is a clear and distinct idea. Because
the clear ideas are true, he may proceed with an analysis of the concept of
perfection. A thing cannot be perfect if it is merely imagined in his mind. A
perfect object is truly perfect only when it includes the attribute of
existence. Therefore, the idea of a perfect God necessarily includes
existence. Hence, God exists.
Having demonstrated the existence of God to his own satisfaction,
Descartes uses this knowledge to strengthen his affirmation that material
objects have a real existence. It is evident that if material objects had no
real existence and I possessed a clear and distinct idea of their existence,
God would be guilty of deception. All clear and distinct ideas proceed from
God. However, God is perfect and cannot possess any imperfection. We would be
forced to assume He was imperfect if he deceived us into believing the clear
and distinct idea regarding the existence of material objects. Therefore, the
existence of a perfect God insures our belief that material objects truly
exist as our clear and distinct ideas reveal.
Descartes anticipates several possible objections to his position. It
might be argued that there is a real distinction between essence and
existence. Hence, my idea of the essence of a perfect God does not include the
concept of existence. Descartes replies that in God essence is existence.
Existence is the supreme perfection and can never be separated from essence.
Since essence and existence are one, the argument has no weight.
Another argument might be proposed from the possibility that Descartes
cannot be certain that his analysis of corporeal nature does not proceed from
a dream state. In fact, what he considers material might be pure illusion.
Descartes replies that it is irrelevant whether he is dreaming or awake. He
still has a clear and distinct idea in his mind. Clear and distinct ideas are
necessarily true. Consequently, his idea of material nature must be true.
When Descartes reflected upon the nature of intuition, he evolved his
criteria of truth. An object is truthful when the idea of it in the mind is
clear and distinct. An idea is clear when the concept stimulates the will to
accept it as true. This is a forceful stimulation. An idea is distinct when
the concept is so precise and so different from all other ideas that the will
is moved and the intellect is forced to comprehend it.
In this, the final meditation, Descartes continues his demonstration of
the validity of his idea of the existence of material reality. He finally
discusses the difference between the soul and the body in man.
While his ideas regarding material things must certainly be accepted as
true, Descartes wonders if material things have a real existence independently
of his ideas. Although he is more certain regarding the idea of his own
existence and the existence of God, Descartes believes that it is certain that
there is a material existence. The fact that mathematics describes material
objects with clear and distinct ideas supports the fact of the objective
existence of material reality.
Descartes begins his intellectual demonstration of the certainty of
material existence by distinguishing between the imagination and intellection
or conception. It is possible for him to imagine the existence of a triangle
or even a pentagon. Through his imagination he is able to conceive a picture
of three sides or another picture of five sides. However, he asserts it is
impossible for his to imagine a chiliagon, which is a thousand-sided figure.
Although he cannot imagine a chiliagon, he can conceive it intellectually.
Evidently there is a special effort of the human mind which adds to the action
of imagination. This suggests to Descartes that imagination indicates the
mere probability of material existence while intellection may infer the
necessity of material existence. It is not possible to make a necessary
inference of corporeal existence from imagination because intellection is
necessary to the act of imagination.
Proceeding further, Descartes recalls many of the concepts which he
believed were true in the past upon the basis of sense information alone. It
is his intention to examine the reasons for doubting the existence of these
things in order to inquire into those ideas he ought to accept as clearly
and distinctly true.
In the past Descartes asserts that he believed that he had no
knowledge unless it proceeded through the senses. As a result, his ideas were
lacking in clarity and distinction. Such a belief leads inevitably to
skepticism and complete doubt of everything.
It was natural for him to accept the erroneous belief that knowledge
proceeded through the senses. His first perception indicates that he
possesses a head, hands, feet, composing a material body. His sensations,
further indicated that he enjoyed pleasure and suffered pain. He experienced
sensually the variety of passions such as joy, sadness, and anger. These
sensations occur through no deliberation or act of his will. They appear
involuntarily and therefore suggest the existence of an outside cause. Yet
Descartes asserts that it is not possible to affirm the existence of material
objects which exist independently of himself with clear and distinct truths.
As he grew older and acquired many more experiences, Descartes realized
the weaknesses inherent in thinking that material reality exists as a result
of sense knowledge alone. With increasing experiences, Descartes’ faith in the
validity of sense knowledge weakened by degrees. It was apparent to him that
the same object appeared differently upon separate occasions when sensed. For
instance, a tower might appear round when viewed on one occasion and again
seem square when inspected from another vantagepoint upon a different
occasion. It is evident that sense information leads to errors in human
If he were to depend upon sense knowledge alone, it would be impossible
for him to determine whether or not he was asleep or awake. The same senses
present a reality to the dreaming mind that is pure illusion, but that
indicate extra-mental reality to the awakened mind. How then can anyone be
certain as to the existence of material reality? Although my sense impressions
are independent of my will, Descartes states, I cannot draw the conclusion
that what senses reputedly represent has real existence. Descartes believes
that he cannot be certain that his sensation proceeds from a sensed object.
Nor can he be certain that the object exists in reality as the senses report
At present, Descartes asserts that he knows clearly that he was produced
by God as a thinking being. With the certain knowledge of his own thinking
existence, he began to know himself better and to recognize the Author of his
Descartes declares that he possesses a passive faculty by which he is
enabled to receive sense impressions. This suggests the presence of an active
faculty existing independently of his mind. The active faculty produces the
images which are received in my mind. Now, this active faculty must be either
God or some object existing independently of my mind. Descartes affirms that
it could never be God. Sense knowledge is frequently erroneous, and
obviously God cannot be the source of error. Therefore, he concludes that
these ideas arise from the presence of a corporeal object which exists in
There are some material objects which are particular in nature. For
example, objects such as the sun are not so clearly understood. Descartes
asserts that the source of belief resides in God. God cannot deceive because
deception is an imperfection. Because of His perfect nature, God presents
ideas that are clear and distinct to the mind. Consequently, we ought to
accept these ideas as true. There exists, therefore, a material reality
composed of material and at times corporeal existence. Furthermore, God is the
cause of nature and nature teaches one that material reality exists. Nature
teaches Descartes that he possesses a material body. The feelings of hunger,
thirst, and pain are real and exist because he has a material body. Evidently
the mind is not the source of hunger. Therefore we ought to accept the
evidence of material existence which nature dictates.
Descartes believes that he is lodged in his body as a pilot lives in a
ship. As a result, his mind and his body compose a certain type of unity. The
feelings he experiences, such as those that evoke pleasure and pain, are a
confusing mode of thinking which results from the interaction of the mind with
the body. The needs of the body exist because of the materialistic and
mechanical nature of the body. These are known by the mind.
Nature teaches that other bodies exist. It is apparent that they exist
from the interaction between his body and other material bodies. Some material
objects are a source of pleasure and other objects represent a source of pain
to the body. Although nature may lead man to desire the wrong thing, nature is
never the cause of error. Error resides in human judgment. For instance,
nature may lead one to desire poisoned food. Nature impels one to desire this
food because of the agreeable taste of food, not because there is poison in
the food. It is human judgment that determines whether or not the food ought
to be taken. Therefore, neither nature nor our bodies deceive us.
There are enormous differences between the mind and the body. The mind of
man is not divisible. The body may lose one of its parts, such as a foot, but
will continue to function. However, the mind may never be diminished. The mind
may receive sense impressions from the brain, and as a result act in its
thought processes with unity. It does not receive impressions directly from
the separate parts of the body.
Descartes asserts his clear conviction that he is a thinking being and
therefore spiritual in nature. He is therefore distinct in kind from the
material nature of his body. His mind inhabits the body. Because the mind
must interact with the body, it is understandable that errors might be
possible due to the weakness and imperfection of such a union. Realizing this
imperfection places the mind on guard against the possibility of error. The
importance of restraining the will to move only towards those ideas that are
clear and distinct is imperative if we are to avoid error.
Descartes affirms that the nature or essence of matter is extension. The
essence of mind is thinking. Consequently, the two realities exist. Both are
different from each other in kind. This position of metaphysical dualism is
central to the question of man’s nature.
Since the mind and the body are distinct in kind, the problem arises
regarding the interaction of the two. How is it possible for an immaterial
substance to come into contact with a material substance? Descartes affirms
simply that they do.
The statement of Descartes that he inhabits his body like a pilot in a
vessel is revealing in the light of the above question. The body is
strictly a mechanical and machine-like substance. Its functions are entirely
different from those of the spirit. The spirit is synonymous with mind. The
purposes of this mind are unique. The mind serves as the director of the body.
It functions as the intellectual agent of the body. However, the purpose of the spirit or mind is not limited to any functional operations of a united
body and spirit. The mind is the source of one’s individual ego or identity.
This ego is distinct from the spirit of the infinite ego which is God.
Therefore, another dualism exists in Descartes’ view. This latter dualism
distinguishes Descartes from the metaphysical view of Hegel.