Meditations on First Philosophy (with Objections and Replies) | Study Guide

René Descartes

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Meditations on First Philosophy (with Objections and Replies) | Preface to the Reader | Summary

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Summary

Descartes references an earlier work, Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One's Reason and of Seeking for Truth in the Sciences, which "touched on" the topics mentioned in the dedication letter: God and the mind (or soul). He declares his aim there was not to investigate those topics in depth but simply to offer "a foretaste of them" in order to generate reader responses. Moreover, the work was written in French for the unlearned reader, and Descartes did not think it the opportune occasion for deeper investigation.

Descartes goes on to address two reader responses to the Discourse relevant to the current project. One reader claims it is erroneous to conclude there is nothing else to the mind's nature than thinking simply because thinking is all the mind perceives. Descartes's response is that this perception was all that concerned him. It is the task of the present work, the Meditations, to "show how, from the fact that I know nothing else as belonging to my essence, it follows that nothing else in fact belongs to it."

The second objection concerns Descartes's inference from the idea of perfection to there existing anything the idea represents. His response is to focus on the term idea. This, he says, can be taken "in the material sense," in which case "as an operation of the understanding" it is not more perfect than the mind in which it exists. Alternatively, it can be taken objectively, as a representation of a thing either internal or external to one's understanding. In either case, Descartes claims, it can "be more perfect than me in virtue of its essence." In Meditations he plans to show how the thing actually exists from the fact he possesses the very idea of the said thing.

Descartes comments that objectors have not only focused on his conclusions—rather than his arguments—but have also borrowed their objections from "the stock of atheists' commonplaces." These objections "always depend on one of two things": attributing human emotions to God or assuming an intellect capable of understanding God. Since, however, "our minds have to be considered as finite," God, as infinite and incomprehensible, remains unknowable to us.

Along with the aforementioned topics, Descartes promises to "deal with the foundations of the whole of first philosophy." He says he knows, however, that only the readers "able and willing to meditate seriously alongside me" and disconnect themselves from their senses and preconceived beliefs are the ones he seeks. Since these readers are few in number, he knows his work will not enjoy a popular reception.

Lastly Descartes instructs the reader to pay attention to the sequence and connection of the arguments—rather than individual sentences—to see if they are convinced. If not, the Objections and Replies should address every serious objection.

Analysis

Descartes's reference to the Discourse is of interest to readers who want a direct account of how his method works. In the Meditations the method is employed but not thoroughly explained. Consequently, the reader comes to understand it by reflecting upon its implementation and outcome. As it is an intellectual biography, the Discourse provides the reader with an explicit connection between his method and the foundations for scientific knowledge.

Descartes's first argument for God's existence occurs in the Third Meditation. It is this argument to which his Preface alludes. It is also worth noting he repeats in his Preface a comment made in his dedication letter to the Sorbonne. He declares he will not gain a wide audience.

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