Literature Study GuidesMeditations On First Philosophy With Objections And RepliesSecond Meditation Of The Nature Of The Human Mind That It Is More Easily Known Than The Body Summary

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

René Descartes

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Meditations on First Philosophy (with Objections and Replies) | Second Meditation: Of the Nature of the Human Mind; That It Is More Easily Known Than the Body | Summary

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Summary

The next day the Meditator resolves to engage in doubt once again. He is seeking one thing only that is "certain and indubitable," even if this one thing is that nothing is certain.

The Meditator doubts everything: the external world, his own body, and his own existence. Then he wonders how, under these conditions, he could doubt his existence. Indeed he can doubt there is a world and that he has a body, but can he doubt his existence entirely? Perhaps not, and if this is the case then he has convinced himself of something. Nevertheless, what if the evil genius is deceiving him into believing he exists? He asks, "Beyond doubt then, I also exist, if he is deceiving me ... he will never bring it about that I should be nothing as long as I think I am something."

The Meditator has one certainty: he exists as a thinking thing. This is his identity, and it is true, so far as he knows, only when he thinks "if I were to cease from all thinking it might also come to pass that I might immediately cease altogether to exist." At this point, however, he doesn't know what this means—he doesn't know what this thinking thing is. He has to be careful, too, since he is not sure what follows from this one truth.

As he further examines what it is to be "a thing which thinks," he finds it involves "doubting, understanding, wishing." He is inclined to believe he has a body. Although not only has he no proof of this, it is also odd that this inclination persists despite how dubious it is to consider. All he knows is real is himself as a thinker—an immaterial substance.

Although this is all the Meditator is certain of, his "mind enjoys wandering off the track," which means it loves to believe in corporeal objects. So he decides to consider material objects to see what he learns. Here he arrives at the wax argument.

When considering a piece of wax through various changes, the Meditator wants to know what it is in the wax that compels him to assert it is the same despite various changes sensed. He realizes 1.) it is not any sensory quality, since all those change. Moreover, 2.) it is not that he maintains an image of it through all its changes—he couldn't possibly compass the infinitude of physical alterations. He concludes that 3.) it is an intuition of the mind that tells him the wax is the same, even though the language used suggests the senses. This intuition is a judgment drawn from the act of seeing, just as he judges that the men below his window are not mere automatons. Specifically, his judgment determines the wax is the same. Sense perception, imagination, and judgment, then, are different modes of thinking.

Analysis

The intensification of doubt at the start of the Second Meditation can be thought of as a sort of reductio ad absurdum, the logical process by which one shows a contradictory (absurd) conclusion from a set of premises. A related process in formal logic is called an indirect proof. Here a statement is shown to be true because denying it leads to a contradiction. The Meditator's doubt involves assuming all his beliefs are false. This status will be impossible to sustain since it yields a contradiction. One formulation of the reasoning goes like this: "If I don't exist, I don't think. But it's not the case that I don't think. So, it's not true that I don't exist." Eliminating the double negatives yields the following: "If I don't exist, I don't think. I do think. Therefore, I exist."

It is worth pointing out that in Meditations, Descartes does not use the formulation enlisted in the Discourse, which is an inference: "I think, therefore, I am." Instead he asserts an intuition: "I am; I exist." The realization of existence is concurrent with the awareness of thinking.

The doubt moved from skepticism about ordinary empirical things—like dressing gowns, fires, and paper (First Meditation)—to a wholesale doubt of the physical world and mathematical truths. Plunged into the hyperbolic doubt brought on by the possibility of the evil genius, the essential (and presently exclusive) certainty is that thinking and being are one and the same.

After the certainty of the Cogito ("I think"), there is the passage concerned with the attempt to classify what sort of entity this thinking thing is. Here Descartes aims to critique Aristotle's conception of soul. On Aristotle's account, living things have souls, and a soul is a capacity for nutrition, reproduction, locomotion, perception, and thought. Human beings have all five capacities. Nonhuman animals have the first four, and plants have the first two. If, however, Descartes is correct, then the "I" cannot be identical to a human body and so cannot be a soul of the sort Aristotle has in mind.

It is also worth pointing out that the certainty of the "I think" is certainty of existence as an activity. The Meditator is a "thinking thing," the certainty of which could very well disappear, along with existence, were the thinking to cease. This active awareness leads to the modes of thinking that teach the Meditator more about what it is to be a thinking thing.

Why not stop here? Why continue to talk about bodies when the material world is still in doubt? As the Meditator points out, despite the fact the only certainty to be had is that he exists as a thinking thing, there is still the tendency to consider knowledge of bodies to be even more distinct than knowledge of himself (the thinking thing). The wax example also teaches the Meditator about the essential features of bodies, even if it is not yet guaranteed they exist, which highlights the impending mind-body distinction. For the purpose of the Third Meditation, the knowledge of error as a feature of his thinking is equally important. This is partly because, if people can know the essential properties of bodies, they do so not by sense perception but by judgment, which is an act of the intellect. As the Meditator points out, people's judgment is not always correct. Consequently, understanding how and why errors in judgment occur is crucial to advancing knowledge.

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