Truth suffers from too much analysis

Descartes’ Second Meditation

Posted by allzermalmer on April 1, 2012

This is the second blog, of a series of blogs, on Descartes’ Meditation on First Philosophy. This is Descartes second meditation, which is titled, “Of the nature of the human mind; that it is more easily known than the body”

To read the first meditation, click here. He is trying to find some new general principles now that he has sufficiently broken the other general principles to bring the rest of the house down. He tries to build up from another point, and obtain some truth.

He comes from his First Meditation and pick up from there.

“I will try the same path again as the one I set out [in first meditation], that is to say, eliminating everything in which there is the smallest element of doubt, exactly as if I had found it to be false through and through; and I shall pursue my way until I discover something certain; or, failing that, discover that it is certain only that nothing is certain…if I can find just one little thing that is certain and unshakeable.”

He has found sufficient grounds in which to doubt the foundation of his previous beliefs. The general principles that made up his former beliefs are now to be considered false through and through. He is going to start up from this situation he is found in, from his previous doubts. He is going to try to discover one thing that is certain, whether this be either something is certain or nothing is certain. He is just seeking that one unshakeable thing to form the corner stone of his beliefs. What is interesting is that he could find one thing that is certain, which could be like “The mob killed Jimmy Hoffa” or it could be something like “Nothing is certain”. This looks to be a very important passage.

He has put him self back into the framework in which this evil-demon, or being in a dream, are still haunting him.

“But I convinced myself that there was nothing at all in the world, no sky, no earth, no minds, no bodies. Did I therefore not also convince myself that I did not exist either? No: certainly I did exist, if I convinced myself of something.—But there is some deceiver or other, supremely powerful and cunning, who is deliberately deceiving me all the time.—Beyond doubt then, I also exist, if he is deceiving me; and he can deceive me all he likes, but he will never bring it about that I should be nothing as long as I think I am something…I can finally decide that this proposition, ‘I am, I exist’, whenever it is uttered by me, or conceived in the mind, is necessarily true.”

Since he is doubting things, he wants to find out what this “I” or “Me” is that he talks about. Try to find out more about this one thing that is certain. This is going to form his corner stone and wants to figure out some more about it. He doesn’t want to mistake the “me” for something that is not “me”. He doesn’t want to confuse it with something else, or what it is not. He is going to try to get rid of those old beliefs of what he thought the “me” was, or what this “I” was. In his method of doubt that he started out with, he can’t have a general foundation of this “I” that has sufficient grounds to doubt as well. He “shall then subtract whatever it has been possible to cast doubt on, even in the slightest degree…so  that in the end there shall remain exactly and only that which is certain and unshakeable.”

He originally thought he was a “rational animal”, or his “I” or “me” was a rational animal. He is going to try to question this, which is that what is a “rational” and what is “animal”? He would have to examine what rational is and what animal is. From starting with this one question, he is going to start down a road of questioning that leads to more and more difficult questions about what is “rational” or “animal”, and thus what is a “rational animal”. He says that he doesn’t have the leisure to go further into this type of criticism of what constituted the “I” or “me” under the “rational animal” idea.

He next  moves on to what else comes immediately to his mind, which is the body and soul. For the body he gets the idea of face, hands, arms, and mechanical limbs, and he can even see this in corpses, which he referred to as body. He also came up with the idea of soul, which is what motioned, perceived with the senses,  and thought. He finds that the soul is something that is hard to nail down, it is like “something very rarefied and subtle, like a wind, or fire, or thin air, infused into my coarser parts.” With the body, he finds that he has some better idea of it than he did of the soul. So he is going to question this thing itself.

“I thought I distinctly knew [the bodies] nature, which, if I had attempted to describe how I conceived it in my mind, I would have explained as follows: by body I mean everything that is capable of being bounded by some shape, of existing in a definite place, of filling a space in such a way as to exclude the presence of any other body within it; of being perceived by touch, sight, hearing, taste, or smell, and also of being moved in various ways, not indeed by itself, but by some other thing by which it is touched; for to have the power of moving itself, and also of perceiving by the senses or thinking, I judged could in no way belong to the nature of body; rather, I was puzzled by the fact that such capacities were found in certain bodies.”

He points out that he considers body to have a shape and excludes other bodies, and one body moves another when it comes into contact with another, and body doesn’t have the nature to move itself, while also not perceiving by senses or thinking. It also is known by the five senses, as well as being moved in various ways. These things he said he came to know of before clearly and distinctly, and part of what he considered to be the “I” or “me”.

Now we have to pull back the evil-demon or dreaming, because with all these things that Descartes knew about bodies, they are all suspect now with the evil-demon or dreaming. Now he comes to think if this “I” or “me” he discovered has any of these attributes. He searches through his mind and he comes up with nothing of these things known as bodies to stand up to what he finds with the “I” or “me”. He also tries to do the same with what he understood as soul, which was based on nourishment and movement. He searches through his mind and doesn’t find this either in the “I” or “me” that he found is certain. The body and the soul are cast down as not what he finds in this “I” or “me”. These former beliefs of what was body and what was soul are found not to be in this “I” or “me”.

He comes to question sense perception. Could this sense perception be this “I” that he is talking about? He says no, and this is because sense perception is related to the body and the body was considered suspect by the evil-demon and dreaming. For he has dreamed about things and he had a body in those dreams, but he was not having a sense perception of his body but was projecting some body. Next he comes to ask about thinking, and he thinks he has found something here that meets with the “I” or “me” that he was talking about that is certain. Thought cannot be stripped away from him, I am, I exist, that is certain.

“Certainly only for as long as I am thinking; for perhaps if I were to cease from all thinking it might also come to pass that I might immediately cease altogether to exist. I am now admitting nothing except what is necessarily true: I am therefore, speaking precisely, only a thinking thing, that is, a mind, or a soul, or an intellect, or a reason… I am therefore a true thing, and one that truly exists; but what kind of thing? I have said it already: one that thinks.”

He finds that this “I” is a thinking thing, something that thinks. But there is a catch, which is that it only exists when it thinks. As long as thinking, this “I” or “me” is existing. This means that he could be thinking now, which means he exists, or the next think he stops thinking, which means he stops existing. So long as thinking, “I exist”.

It might be the case that he does really have a body after all, even with the supposition of the evil-demon and dreaming. But that has nothing to do with anything he is talking about at present. But he can only pass judgment on what he has before him. As he says, “I can pass judgement only on those things that are known to me.” He knows that he exists, but he is trying to figure out what this “I” is. He knows it does not depend on those things that he does not yet know. He knows that the “I” doesn’t depend on the imagination, because when he imagines something they usually have some shape or color. But he is supposing that those things are all undercut by the evil-demon or dreaming. Shape and color are projected from dreams or the evil demon.

“But what therefore am I? A thinking thing. What is that? I mean a thing that doubts, that understands, that affirms, that denies, that wishes to do this and does not wish to do that, and also that imagines and perceives by the senses.”

Descartes comes to the final conclusion, by checking with his previous beliefs, that those things that he considered to be the “I” was not actually part of the “I” when he goes through his method of doubt. When he comes to the “I am, I exist”, he found that the “I” was a thinking thing that only existed when it was thinking. We come to find that the “I” is something that doubts, understands, that affirms, that denies, that which wishes x and doesn’t wish to x, and it also imagines and perceives by the senses. Whenever doing any of these things, “I” exists. When not doing any of those things, “I” doesn’t exist.

Now he wants to see, under his method of doubt, if doubting, thinking, understanding, affirming, denying, wishes x or doesn’t wish x, and imagines and perceives by the senses really belong to this “I”. That is a lot of things that belongs to the “I”, but is it proper to say that it really belongs to the “I”? These things are always found to be with the “I”, even if one is being deceived by the evil-demon or if he is dreaming. The imagining is also part of him, because whether the things he imagines do or don’t exist with the evil-demon or not, the imagining is still there and so still a part of this “I”. And as he says what he means by the senses, he states, “for example, I am seeing a light, hearing a noise, feeling heat. —But these things are false, since I am asleep! —But certainly I seem to be seeing, hearing, getting hot. This cannot be false. This is what is properly meant by speaking of myself as having sensations; and, understood in this precise sense, it is nothing other than thinking.” He has things that appear, which is what he means by “senses” in the “I am”. Now there is the difference between something appears X and something is X. Something appears X is part of the “I”, but the something that is x, which is in doubt because dreaming argument, is not part of the “I”.

“But it still seems (and I cannot help thinking this) that the bodily things of which the images are formed in our thought, and which the senses themselves investigate, are much more distinctly recognized than that part of myself, whatever it is, that cannot be represented by the imagination. Although, indeed, it is strange that things that I realize are doubtful, unknown, unrelated to me should be more distinctly grasped by me than what is true and what is known—more distinctly grasped even than myself. But I see what is happening. My mind enjoys wandering off the track, and will not yet allow itself to be confined within the boundaries of truth. Very well, then: let us, once again, slacken its reins as far as possible —then, before too long, a tug on them at the right moment will bring it more easily back to obedience.”

He pointed out, in the first meditation, that he has  become accustomed to opinions which continually creep back into his mind, and take possession of his belief, which has been enslaved to them by long experience and familiarity. One of these beliefs includes that “bodily things of which the images are formed in our thought, and which the senses themselves investigate, are much more distinctly recognized than that part of myself.” This is one of his accustomed opinions, but this has been cast into based on the evil-demon and dreaming argument. This things couldn’t have been known distinctly to him, especially beyond that of the “I”. False beliefs have lead him to become accustomed to such a belief.

Now Descartes will see how he gets to the idea, in particular, of a body. The argument is even more devastating on a general level. This is to find out where the idea of body comes from. It is commonly thought, at least by the old beliefs that Descartes held, that the idea of body was one of the most clear and distinct things that we could know. This is what has become known as Descartes’ Wax.

Descartes takes out a piece of wax from a bee hive. He finds that this particular body has the qualities of “tast[ing] of honey…the scent of the flowers…colour, shape and size…hard, cold and…handled without difficulty…it makes a sound.”. All of these things are properties that we need to know of a body clearly and distinctly. But now he takes the piece of wax and puts it in a fire. He takes the wax out and he finds that it has none of the properties that the body of wax had before. The “taste is eliminated, the smell goes away, the colour changes, the shape is lost, the size increases; it becomes liquid and hot; you can hardly touch it, and if you strike it, it no longer makes a sound.” All the qualities it had before has now changed. This was all the information that Descartes received from the senses, and he found that the body changed it’s qualities and so he can’t come up with the idea of a body, which would seem to be something that persists from all these changes, are not derived from his senses.

Now that Descartes finds that he doesn’t get the idea of a particular body from the senses, he comes to check the imagination and see if he can find the idea of body from there. He finds that there are three things that make up the qualities from the imagination that one gets of a particular body. He finds it relies on being “flexible”, “changeable”, or “extended”. All of these things are what seems to be derived from the imagination. But when he looks into what flexible and changeable, he finds that his imagination can manipulate these things very easily with his imagination. He can imagine it as a circle or then as a triangle. It changes it’s qualities, or positions, as well. It doesn’t remain when these changes happen. He even finds that it is possible for there to be many different ways it can act without him his current imagination. The same goes with it being extended. He finds that his imagination doesn’t allow for him to derive the idea of body from his imagination.

Descartes finds that the idea of body isn’t derived either from the senses or from the imagination. This means that he would have had to have gotten it from somewhere else. This is where his mind directly perceives the body, even though it is not through the imagination or the senses. This is another faculty of the mind.

“So then, what is this wax, which is only perceived by the mind? Certainly it is the same wax I see, touch, and imagine, and in short it is the same wax I judged it to be from the beginning. But yet—and this is important—the perception of it is not sight, touch, or imagination, and never was, although it seemed to be so at first: it is an inspection by the mind alone, which can be either imperfect and confused, as it was before in this case, or clear and distinct, as it now is, depending on the greater or lesser degree of attention I pay to what it consists of.”

It is the mind alone, through some natural light, that leads Descartes to come up with body in particular, which means with body in general as well. It is neither from the senses or imagination he comes to this idea of a body in particular. He originally held that he knew of the body, but it was not through the senses and imagination. What this teachers him, the perception of the wax based on sight, touch, or imagination was the source of this idea, even though they thought came to the idea of it through the senses and imagination. When he inspected his mind, he found that the idea of a body in particular was thought to originally derive from the senses or imagination. But he imperfectly and confusedly thought that, and it was not till he investigated it more that it became clear and distinct that it came from the mind alone.

“For we say that we ‘see’ the wax itself, if it is present, not that we judge it to be there on the basis of its colour or shape. From this I would have immediately concluded that I therefore knew the wax by the sight of my eyes, not by the inspection of the mind alone—if I had not happened to glance out of the window at people walking along the street. Using the customary expression, I say that I ‘see’ them, just as I ‘see’ the wax. But what do I actually see other than hats and coats, which could be covering automata? But I judge that they are people. And therefore what I thought I saw with my eyes, I in fact grasp only by the faculty of judging that is in my mind.”

He finds that common speech helps mislead someone to think that they encounter a body from the senses or imagination. We say there is a wax, but we don’t make this basis on the color or shape. But he finds that he didn’t learn of the wax that way, and this shows up in another interesting example. For if it were by the color and shape that he came to “see” the body of wax, then when he looks out the window and sees two human shapes with coats and hats on, he would say that he “sees” these people. But by the sight of things, he cannot tell the difference between them and automatons. It is that he judges that they are people. So what he thought he saw with this eyes, like seeing a body of wax or other people, it was only “by the faculty of judging that is in [his] mind.” He also find that he is able to perceive the wax except for int his way of the human mind alone.

“For, if I judge that the wax exists, for the reason that I see it, it is certainly much more evident that I myself also exist, from the very fact that I am seeing it. For it could be the case that what I am seeing is not really wax; it could be the case that I do not even have eyes with which to see anything; but it certainly cannot be the case, when I see something, or when I think I am seeing something (the difference is irrelevant for the moment), that I myself who think should not be something. By the same token, if I judge that the wax exists, for the reason that I am touching it, the same consequence follows: namely, that I exist.”

He comes back to the “I” after going over how he obtains the idea of a particular body like the wax. He finds that he judges that the wax exists because he sees it, and it is more evident that he himself also exists by the fact that he is seeing it. For it might be that he is not really seeing the wax, which is based on the evil-demon and dreaming, but it can’t be the case that when he sees something that he should not be something. What he also learns is that he can apply this same type of thinking to anything existing outside of him. See if he comes of it through the senses or imagination, or by the human mind alone (natural light).


Descartes find that he is stuck with the evil-demon and dreaming. In this scenario he finds that he is being deceived by something, but the main point is that something is being deceived. This thing that is being deceived is the “I think”, and “I think, I exist”. Descartes goes on to try to figure out what this “I” is. He goes through his old ideas of what the “I” was, and he finds that they all fail to give him the idea of this “I”, under the demon and dreaming hypothesis. He comes to find that the “I” is a thinking thing, and only exists as long as it is thinking. A thinking thing is something which thinks, doubts, understands, affirms,  denies, wishes x and doesn’t wish to x, and also imagines and perceives by the senses. What it perceives by the senses is what appears and not what is beyond what appears. He use to think that he came to see through the body, but he tries to figure out how he came to the idea of body. He finds that neither the senses or imagination lead him to the idea of a particular body (or in general). It is only through mind alone (i.e. natural light) that he comes to the idea of body.


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