February 17, 2010
Descartes and Plato seem to suggest that knowledge comes from the mind or the intellect alone.
Their arguments are wrong, yet they are correct in suggesting one of the factors to approach knowledge.
Knowledge is a process of seeking truth, which involves four factors: senses, reasoning, action or
experiment, and experience. Without any of these factors to seek the truth that A, one cannot know A.
However, completing all of the factors does not guarantee complete knowledge, but only a certain degree
of knowledge. That being said, the process is still worthwhile and significant because at least at the end of
it, one is in a position that he is closer to fully knowing something than where he started.
In the second meditation of his book
Meditations on First Philosophy
, Descartes argued that
knowledge about the external world could only be perceived by the intellect alone. To illustrate his point,
Descartes used an example of the piece of wax. The original piece of wax has distinct characteristics: “it
still tastes of honey and has the scent of the flowers from which the honey was gathered; its color, shape
and size are plain to see; it is hard, cold and can be handled easily; if you rap it with your knuckle it
makes a sound”. Yet when he held the wax near fire, it changed its appearance: “the taste and smell
vanish, the color changes, the shape is lost, the size increases; the wax becomes liquid and hot; you can
hardly touch it, and it no longer makes a sound when you strike it” (Meditations on First Philosophy 6).
Although the wax looks, smells and feels different, it is still perceived by us as the same wax. Descartes
also asserted that when we “see” a piece of wax on the table, we really “judge” that there is a piece of
wax on the table. He then concluded “something that I thought I saw with my eyes, therefore, was really
grasped solely by my mind’s faculty of judgment” (Meditations on First Philosophy 7).
Although his argument sounds convincing, it still contains a few weak points. First, Descartes
seems to overlook the fact that in order for us to make judgments about the outside world, we need to use
our senses first. For example, Tom is a person without sight, smell, hearing, taste or touch. Because Tom
has never seen, smelled, tasted or touched a piece of wax, he would never understand what attributes to
“wax.” Therefore, he cannot make any judgment about the wax, no matter how much he uses his
judgment. We cannot get knowledge from the intellect alone. Secondly, Descartes stated that the
conclusion that “everything which I clearly and distinctly perceive is of necessity true” (1) is true if God