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PHIL110A Study Guide - Final Guide: Tabula Rasa, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Transcendental Philosophy

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Jacqueline Feke
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PHIL 110A Selena Latchman
2. What can we know about the external world?
Rene Descartes (born in 1596 in France) was inspired to be a philosopher in 1619
when he had three dreams and then wrote his meditations where he adjudicates opinions
that are doubtful against opinions that are certain.
He wrote Le Monde (“the World”) in 1633 which he didn’t publish as it defended the
controversial cosmology view of Copernicus (the sun was at the centre of the solar
In 1641 he published his text Meditations on First Philosophy which is an exercise in
philosophical reflections. It is written in first person and we are invited to identify with
it, making it a type of fictionalization.
Descartes uses the method of doubt in his texts as he adopts skepticism (withholding
belief). He isn’t proving any beliefs are wrong, but is choosing to not belief in them in order
to find out which beliefs he has are certain.
Page 144 is Descartes aim for the text – the meditations do in fact prove the external world
exists, but an even greater benefit is that they prove arguments about the external world are
not as solid as arguments about the nature of us and God.
In the first meditation, the protagonist realizes that the only true way to come to knowledge
is to start from a clean slate and build a new framework for true beliefs.
This is because some past beliefs can been proven false, so we must dismantle these
false ideas. But maybe there are still more we’ve yet to dismantle. So we must
dismantle everything (all that in which we have doubt).
Our beliefs are developed in response to what we perceive with our senses. However, we
can experience illusions that distort our realities, meaning our sense perception can
deceive us.
Descartes argues we should doubt even those beliefs about sense perception that may be
difficult to doubt (e.g. I am sitting). He argues this by likening reality to dreams. In dreams,
we think the reality is true. So how can we prove we’re not dreaming right now? “I know that
I’m awake, but when I’m dreaming I think I’m awake. So suspend your beliefs!”
The protagonist believes God is good and omnipotent. But could God have created us such
that he deceives us? And if this is true, how can God be good? Deception (such as optical
illusions or the possibility that the world does not even exist) is evil. Therefore, everything
that is attributed to God and the external world is put into doubt.
Descartes supposes that God is an evil demon meant to impair judgement, rather than a
source of goodness and truth.
The first meditation concludes that the protagonist can’t be certain of anything!
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PHIL 110A Selena Latchman
However, in the second mediation he realizes there is one thing he can be certain of – he is
being deceived, so he must be thinking, therefore he must exist!
But the question is, what is he?
Cogito ergo sum (“I think therefore I am”) is a famous quote by Descartes.
Descartes theory of mind-body dualism says the mind (which is immaterial and
encompasses a range of activities) is totally separate from the body (which is extended in
space). It is the mind that experiences the deception of our senses.
We should be most familiar with the nature of ourselves.
We’d assume the things we are most familiar with are the things that we sense. But
Descartes claims our senses provide us with no knowledge of the essence of things!
On page 149 he puts forth the PIECE OF WAX example! Is the melted wax the same wax
as before it was melted? It does not have the same perceptible qualities, but it is the same
thing. Therefore, our senses are essentially useless.
Our imagination is limited and not even that tells us about the nature of the wax.
Aside from our senses and imagination, only the cognitive reasoning faculty of our mind is
left. So that is what allows us to know the essence of a thing.
A short summary of Rene Descartes’ MEDITATIONS…
Put into doubt all beliefs based on sensory perception
Realize that thinking means existing
Assume God is a demon of deception
Mind-body dualism (the mind is indivisible)
Use your intellect to adjudicate between true and false beliefs
Understanding and imagining are distinct things
Withhold judgement without concrete proof
Use the cognitive faculty to know the essence of a thing
On page 165, Descartes describes imagination as a visualization in our minds between
sensing (immediate experience) and understanding. We can still understand objects we
can’t imagine because imagination requires an effort of mind that is not required for
Going back to the wax example, our imaginations can’t totally grasp the wax or visualize
every possible state of it, but our minds can understand the essence of it.
Therefore, the things we can be certain about don’t have their foundation in what we
Descartes make a distinction between objective reality (which is representational and
includes ideas or mental images) and formal reality (which is actually real and includes
Note that this is not the same distinction Plato makes with originals and forms!
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