Mediations on first philosophy
The First Meditation, subtitled "What can be called into doubt," opens with the Meditator
reflecting on the number of falsehoods he has believed during his life and on the subsequent
faultiness of the body of knowledge he has built up from these falsehoods. He has resolved to
sweep away all he thinks he knows and to start again from the foundations, building up his
knowledge once more on more certain grounds. He has seated himself alone, by the fire, free of
all worries so that he can demolish his former opinions with care.
The Meditator reasons that he need only find some reason to doubt his present opinions in order
to prompt him to seek sturdier foundations for his knowledge. Rather than doubt every one of his
opinions individually, he reasons that he might cast them all into doubt if he can doubt the
foundations and basic principles upon which his opinions are founded.
Everything that the Meditator has accepted as most true he has come to learn from or through his
senses. He acknowledges that sometimes the senses can deceive, but only with respect to objects
that are very small or far away, and that our sensory knowledge on the whole is quite sturdy. The
Meditator acknowledges that insane people might be more deceived, but that he is clearly not
one of them and needn't worry himself about that.
However, the Meditator realizes that he is often convinced when he is dreaming that he is
sensing real objects. He feels certain that he is awake and sitting by the fire, but reflects that
often he has dreamed this very2qq sort of thing and been wholly convinced by it. Though his
present sensations may be dream images, he suggests that even dream images are drawn from
waking experience, much like paintings in that respect. Even when a painter creates an imaginary
creature, like a mermaid, the composite parts are drawn from real things--women and fish, in the
case of a mermaid. And even when a painter creates something entirely new, at least the colors in
the painting are drawn from real experience. Thus, the Meditator concludes, though he can doubt
composite things, he cannot doubt the simple and universal parts from which they are
constructed like shape, quantity, size, time, etc. While we can doubt studies based on composite
things, like medicine, astronomy, or physics, he concludes that we cannot doubt studies based on
simple things, like arithmetic and geometry. On further reflection, the Meditator realizes that even simple things can be doubted. Omnipotent
God could make even our conception of mathematics false. One might argue that God is
supremely good and would not lead him to believe falsely all these things. But by this reasoning
we should think that God would not deceive him with regard to anything, and yet this is clearly
not true. If we suppose there is no kmGod, then there is even greater likelihood of being
deceived, since our imperfect senses would not have been created by a perfect being.
The Meditator finds it almost impossible to keep his habitual opinions and assumptions out of his
head, try as he might. He resolves to pretend that these opinions are totally false and imaginary
in order to counter-balance his habitual way of thinking. He supposes that not God, but some evil
demon has committed itself to deceiving him so that everything he thinks he knows is false. By
doubting everything, he can at least be sure not to be misled into falsehood by this demon.
The First Meditation is usually approached in one of two ways. First, it can be read as setting the
groundwork for the meditations that follow, where doubt is employed as a powerful tool against
Aristotelian philosophy. Second, it can, and often is, read standing on its own as the foundation
of modern scepticism (questioning attitude of knowledge, facts, or opinions/beliefs) . We will
briefly discuss these complementary readings in turn.
Descartes saw his Meditations as providing the metaphysical (branch of philosophy concerned
with explaining the fundamental nature of being and the world) underpinning of his new physics.
Like Galileo, he sought to overturn two-thousand-year-old prejudices injected into the Western
tradition byAristotle. TheAristotelian thought of Descartes' day placed a great weight on the
testimony of the senses, suggesting that all knowledge comes from the senses. The Meditator's
suggestion that all one's most certain knowledge comes from the senses is meant to appeal
directly to theAristotelian philosophers who will be reading the Meditations. The motivation,
then, behind the First Meditation is to start in a position theAristotelian philosophers would
agree with and then, subtly, to seduce them away from it. Descartes is aware of how
revolutionary his ideas are, and must pay lip service to the orthodox opinions of the day in order
to be heeded.
Reading the First Meditation as an effort to coaxAristotelians away from their customary
opinions allows us to read different interpretations into the different stages of doubt. For
instance, there is some debate as to whether Descartes intended his famous "DreamArgument" to
suggest the universal possibility of dreaming--that though there is waking experience, I can never
know which moments are dreams and which are waking--or the possibility of a universal dream--
that my whole life is a dream and that there is no waking world. If we read Descartes as
suggesting the universal possibility of dreaming, we can explain an important distinction
between the DreamArgument and the later "Evil DemonArgument." The latter suggests that all
we know is false and that we cannot trust the senses one bit. The DreamArgument, if meant to
suggest the universal possibility of dreaming, suggests only that the senses are not always and
wholly reliable. The DreamArgument questions Aristotelian epistemology, while the Evil
DemonArgument does away with it altogether. The "Painter's Analogy," which draws on the
DreamArgument, concludes that mathematics and other purely cerebral studies are far more
certain than astronomy or physics, which is an important step away from theAristotelian reliance
on the senses and toward Cartesian rationalism.
The Meditations can be seen to follow the model of St. Ignatius of Loyola's Spiritual Exercises.
The first step in the Jesuit exercises is to purge oneself of one's attachment to the material, sinful
world. In the First Meditation, Descartes leads us through a similar purgation, though with a different purpose. Here he wants to persuade his Aristotelian readers to purge themselves of their
prejudices. He also hopes to lead the mind away from the senses that are so heavily relied upon
by theAristotelians. In the meditations that follow, he will argue that our most certain knowledge
comes from the mind unaided by the senses. Lastly, this process of radical doubt will hopefully
rule out any doubts from the positive claims Descartes will build up in the next five meditations.
Read in the wider context of the Meditations, these skeptical doubts are a means to the end of
preparing a resistant audience to the metaphysics Descartes plans to build.
Read on its own, the First Meditation can be seen as presenting skeptical doubts as a subject of
study in their own right. Certainly, skepticism is a much discussed and hotly debated topic in
philosophy, even today. Descartes was the first to raise the mystifying question of how we can
claim to know with certainty anything about the world around us. The idea is not that these
doubts are probable, but that their possibility can never be entirely ruled out.And if we can never
be certain, how can we claim to know anything? Skepticism cuts straight to the heart of the
Western philosophical enterprise and its attempt to provide a certain foundation for our
knowledge and understanding of the world. It can even be pushed so far as to be read as a
challenge to our very notion of rationality.
No one actually lives skepticism--no one actually doubts whether other people really exist--but it
is very difficult to justify a dismissal of skepticism. Western philosophy since Descartes has been
largely marked and motivated by an effort to overcome this problem. Particularly interesting
responses can be found in Hume, Kant, and Wittgenstein.
We should note that Descartes' doubt is a methodological and rational doubt. That is, the
Meditator is not just doubting everything at random, but is providing solid reasons for his doubt
at each stage. For instance, he rejects the possibility that he might be mad, since that would
undercut the rationality that motivates his doubt. Descartes is trying to set up this doubt within a
rational framework, and needs to maintain a claim to rationality for his arguments to proceed.
2 meditation – part 1
The Second Meditation is subtitled "The nature of the human mind, and how it is better known
than the body" and takes place the day after the First Meditation. The Meditator is firm in his
resolve to continue his search for certainty and to discard as false anything that is open to the
slightest doubt. He recalls Archimedes' famous saying that he could shift the entire earth given
one immovable point: similarly, he hopes to achieve great things if he can be certain of just one
thing. Recalling the previous meditation, he supposes that what he sees does not exist, that his
memory is faulty, that he has no senses and no body, that extension, movement and place are
mistaken notions. Perhaps, he remarks, the only certain thing remaining is that there is no
Then, he wonders, is not he, the source of these meditations, not something? He has conceded
that he has no senses and no body, but does that mean he cannot exist either? He has also noted
that the physical world does not exist, which might also seem to imply his nonexistence.And yet
to have these doubts, he must exist. For an evil demon to mislead him in all these insidious ways,
he must exist in order to be misled. There must be an "I" that can doubt, be deceived, and so on.
He formulates the famous cogito argument, saying: "So after considering everything very thoroughly, I must finally conclude that this proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true
whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind."
The Meditator's next question, then, is what this "I" that exists is. He initially thought that he had
a soul, by means of which he was nourished, moved, could sense and think; and also that he had
a body.All these attributes have been cast into doubt, except one: he cannot doubt that he thinks.
( mind is the only truth) He may exist without any other of the above attributes, but he cannot
exist if he does not think. Further, he only exists as long as he is thinking. Therefore, thought
above all else is inseparable from being. The Meditator concludes that, in the strict sense, he is
only a thing that thinks.
The cogito argument is so called because of its Latin formulation in the Discourse on Method:
"cogito ergo sum" ("I think, therefore I am"). This is possibly the most famous single line in all
of philosophy, and is generally considered the starting point for modern Western philosophy. In
it, the Meditator finds his first grip on certainty after the radical skepticism he posited in the First
Meditation. The cogito presents a picture of the world and of knowledge in which the mind is
something that can know itself better than it can know anything else. The idea that we know our
mind first and foremost has had a hypnotic hold on Western philosophy ever since, and how the
mind can connect with reality has ever since been a major concern. In this conception, the mind
ceases to be something that helps us know about the world and becomes something inside which
we are locked.
We should note, however, the distinction between the "I think, therefore I am" as stated in the
Discourse on Method and the formulation we get in the Meditations: "So after considering
everything very thoroughly, I must finally conclude that this proposition, I am, I exist, is
necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind." Neither "therefore"
nor "I think" appear in the Meditations. The absence of "therefore" is important, since it
dissuades us from reading the cogito as a syllogism, that is, as a three-step argument as follows:
(1) Whatever thinks exists
(2) I think
Therefore (3) I exist
The trouble with a syllogistic reading, which Descartes explicitly denies elsewhere in his
writings, is that no reason is given why (1) should be immune from the doubt that the Meditator
has posited.Also, the syllogistic reading interprets the cogito as a reasoned inference at a point in
the Meditator's doubt when even reasoned inferences can be called into doubt.
But if everything is to be doubted, how can the Meditator know the cogito?Anumber of readings
have been given to understand this step. One is to read it as an intuition rather than an inference,
as something that comes all at once, in a flash.Another reading interprets the cogito as a
performative utterance, where the utterance itself is what confirms its truth. That is, I could not
say "I exist" if I did not exist or if I did not think, and so the act of saying it is what makes it true.
Thus, I can only affirm my own existence (not anybody else's) and I can only do so in the present
tense: I cannot say "I thought, therefore I was/am."
It should be noted that the cogito only works for thought. I cannot say, "I walk, therefore I am,"
since I can doubt I am walking. The reason I cannot doubt that I am thinking is that doubt itself is
a form of thought.
After the cogito, the Meditator advances the claim that he is a thing that thinks, an argument
called the sum res cogitans, after its Latin formulation. There are three controversies regarding the claim "I am...in the strict sense only a thing that thinks," which we will examine in turn:
whether the claim is metaphysical or epistemological, what is meant by "thing," and what is
meant by "thinking."
It is more plausible to read the sum res cogitans as an epistemological remark, saying that,
"whatever else I may be, I know only that I am a thing that thinks." However, in some of his
writings, Descartes makes it plausible to read him as making a metaphysical remark, that "I am
only a thing that thinks." His reasoning might go something like this: "I know that I am a
thinking thing, and I do not know whether I am a bodily thing. My body and my mind cannot be
one and the same, because I should either know both of them or know neither of them. Since I
know I am a thinking thing, and know that my body and my mind are two separate things, I can
conclude that I am not a bodily thing. Therefore, I am only a thing that thinks." In so arguing,
however, Descartes would commit the so-called "intentional fallacy" of basing an argument on
what one does not know. If two things had to be either both known or both not known in order to
be identical, we could argue that Bruce Wayne and Batman are not one and the same as well.
"Thing that thinks" also carries some ambiguous baggage. By "thing," Descartes could simply be
using the word as we do today, as an ambiguous throwaway word when we don't want to be
more specific. More likely, though, he is using it to mean substance, the fundamental and
indivisible elements of Cartesian ontology. In this ontology, there are extended things (bodies)
and thinking things (minds), and Descartes is here asserting that we are minds rather than bodies.
Of course, "thinking" is also highly questionable. Does Descartes mean only the intellection and
understanding that is characteristic of theAristotelian conception of mind? Or does he also
include sensory perception, imagination, willing, and so on?At the beginning of the Second
Meditation, the Meditator has cast sensory perception and so on into doubt, but by the end of the
Second Meditation, sensing, imagining, willing, and so on are included as attributes of the mind.
This question is further explored in the commentary on the next section.
2 meditation – part 2
The Meditator tries to clarify precisely what this "I" is, this "thing that thinks." He concludes that
he is not only something that thinks, understands, and wills, but is also something that imagines
and senses.After all, he may be dreaming or deceived by an evil demon, but he can still imagine
things and he still seems to hear and see things. His sensory perceptions may not be veridical, but
they are certainly a part of the same mind that thinks.
The Meditator then moves on to ask how he comes to know of this "I." The senses, as we have
seen, cannot be trusted. Similarly, he concludes, he cannot trust the imagination. The imagination
can conjure up ideas of all sorts of things that are not real, so it cannot be the guide to knowing
his own essence. Still, the Meditator remains puzzled. If, as he has concluded, he is a thinking
thing, why is it that he has such a distinct grasp of what his body is and has such a difficult time
identifying what is this "I" that thinks? In order to understand this difficulty he considers how we come to know of a piece of wax just taken from a honeycomb: through the senses or by some
He first considers what he can know about the piece of wax by means of the senses: its taste,
smell, color, shape, size, hardness, etc. The Meditator then asks what happens when the piece of
wax is placed near the fire and melted.All of these sensible qualities change, so that, for
instance, it is now soft when before it was hard. Nonetheless, the same piece of wax still
remains. Our knowledge that the solid piece of wax and the melted piece of wax are the same
cannot come through the senses since all of its sensible properties have changed.
The Meditator considers what he can know about the piece of wax, and concludes that he can
know only that it is extended, flexible, and changeable. He does not come to know this through
the senses, and realizes that it is impossible that he comes to know the wax by means of the
imagination: the wax can change into an infinite number of different shapes and he cannot run
through all these shapes in his imagination. Instead, he concludes, he knows the wax by means of
the intellect alone. His mental perception of it can either be imperfect and confused--as when he
allowed herself to be led by his senses and imagination-- or it can be clear and distinct--as it is
when he applies only careful mental scrutiny to his perception of it.
The Meditator reflects on how easy it is to be deceived regarding these matters.After all, we
might say "I see the wax," though in saying that we refer to the wax as the intellect perceives it,
rather than to its color or shape. This is similar to the way in which we might "see" people down
in the street when all we really see are coats and hats. Our intellect--and not our eyes--judges that
there are people, and not automata, under those coats and hats.
The Meditator concludes that, contrary to his initial impulses, the mind is a far better knower
than the body. Further, he suggests, he must know his mind far better than other things.Aft