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