Meditation XXI, René Descartes (1596-1650) – Meditations on the First Philosophy, and “Objections and Replies”

René Descartes

~ When two people meet, they unconsciously affect one another in ways the mind cannot even begin to comprehend. The meeting may be brief and uneventful with nothing fruitful happening as a result of it. But the die is cast and the wheels of time have turned. The present as we know it is now the past and the future is always just beyond reach. Looking backwards, we see the roads we travelled and everything is fated. Looking forward, we see nothing but mist and mazes.  Nothing happens out of mere coincidence and randomness. No effect is without a cause just as no cause is without an effect. For every action there is a reaction and we find that events of the past are necessary and certain. Our meeting today is inevitable.

~

French philosopher René Descartes sparked the seventeenth century intellectual revolution which destabilized the traditional doctrines of medieval and Renaissance scholasticism. Widely credited with laying down the foundations of the ‘modern’ scientific age, Descartes received his early education from the Jesuits in scholastic philosophy. In his early adulthood, Descartes came to see that traditional philosophy lacked the precision and certainty of mathematics and tried to incorporate mathematical or logical methods and reasoning into his philosophy.

His work in the early 1630s, Le Monde (The World, or The Universe), was a treatise on physics and cosmology, that offered a ‘comprehensive explanatory schema’ invoking simple mechanical principles in the absence of old scholastic apparatus (substantial forms, and real qualities). In the religious climate of the seventeenth century, such views on the world were rather dangerous and Descartes withdrew his work from publication after hearing the condemnation of Galileo by the Roman Inquisition.

Yet religious intolerance would not stop Descartes’s Geometry, Optics and Meteorology from coming into publication in 1637 which was released anonymously to the public. The preface of these three works was to become a philosophical classic called the Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting Reason and Reaching the Truth in Science that presented an intellectual biography, a summary of Descartes’s scientific views and some of the central themes in his treatise Le Monde. However, it was not on all these that the fame of the book laid but on the discussion of the foundations of knowledge, the existence of God, and the distinction between mind and body. From this work, Descartes expanded his ideas and produce his intellectual masterpiece, the Meditations of the First Philosophy, which is still widely read today.

The Meditations which included the core philosophical principles of the Cartesian system were published in Latin in 1641, along with six sets of Objections by various well-known philosophers together with the Replies of Descartes himself. Both the Discourse and the Meditations aim to establish an epistemologically reliable foundation to which human knowledge should stand upon and to answer the problems presented by scepticism. The revival of classical scepticism in the seventeenth century put forth problems like, ‘How do I know I am really awake?’, or ‘Can all reality be just a dream?’ Although some of these questions were present in his philosophical framework, Descartes main aim was to show how the principles of physics and mathematics can reliably be used to understand reality in contrast to relying on often misleading data obtained from our senses.

The First Meditation itself starts by leading the mind away from the senses. Descartes observed that the senses deceive us from time to time and it is prudent not to trust fully those who have deceived us even once. The straight stick that appeared bent in the water was one of the examples that he gives to prove that visual appearances may be misleading. In his ‘dreaming argument’, he states how nothing distinguishes being awake from being asleep and that he is uncertain on whether he is really sitting beside his fireplace thinking when he might in reality be asleep in bed. Even things that he knows for certain, like mathematics, may be a trick played continuously by a malin genie or a misleading demon to deceive him.

In the Second Meditation, Descartes maintains that the certainty of his own existence is something that he cannot doubt. Known as the Cogito argument and perhaps the most famous philosophical dictum, Cogito Ergo Sum (I think, therefore I exist) means that the certainty of his Cogito proves his existence. From this first truth, Descartes attempts to reconstruct a whole system of reliable knowledge. By general consensus, however, his attempt to recover much of the ground lost to scepticism in the Third Meditation was considered a failure. However, the ‘father of modern philosophy’ will always be remembered for his ‘wax argument’ that clearly shows how the senses without the mind would be unable to understand the truth of things.

The Wax Argument

Let us take this wax. It has just been extracted from the honeycomb. It has not yet completely lost its taste of honey and it still retains some of the scent of the flowers from which it was collected. Its color, shape and size are obvious. It is hard, cold, easy to touch and, if tapped with a finger, it emits a sound. Thus it has everything that seems to be required for a body to be known as distinctively as possible. But notice that, as I speak, it is moved close to the fire. It loses what remains of its taste, its smell is lost, the color changes, it loses its shape, increases in size, becomes a liquid, becomes hot and can barely be touched. Nor does it still emit a sound if tapped. But does not the same wax remain?

I cannot perceive the wax correctly without a human mind.

~ Descartes

All philosophy after Descartes was different because of him. In short he pose to us a simple question, is there anything that we can know for certain? Some say that Descartes did for philosophy what Martin Luther did for religion. Both men asserted the importance of the individual, its subjective consciousness, above all else. Philosophers before Descartes asked, what can we know? While other philosophers asked, what can we know with certainty? But for Descartes, what was important was, what can I know with certainty? By doing so, he awaken the world of philosophy from its dogmatic slumber.

~ Ee Suen Zheng

Bibliography

  • Peter E. Cooper & Peter S. Fosl, eds, 2010, Philosophy: The Classic Readings, Wiley-Blackwell, United Kingdom.
  • Tom Honderich, ed, 2005, The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Second Edition, Oxford University Press, United States.
  • Will Durant, 2005, The Story of Philosophy, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, United States.
  • Robert Paul Wolff, ed, 2002, Ten Great Works of Philosophy, Signet Classic, Penguin Group, United States.

“I think, therefore I am.”

~ Descartes

Comments
5 Responses to “Meditation XXI, René Descartes (1596-1650) – Meditations on the First Philosophy, and “Objections and Replies””
  1. How do I know I’m not really a honey bee having a dream that I’m human-I’ve always admired Descartes-he exposed the fallibility of utilizing linear logic singularly, without amassing metaphysical erudition. Subjectivism, indeed has its place.

  2. jamesesz says:

    Good point..Our Consciousness and our senses is the only way we can know this..That we can observe a honey bee when we are conscious proves we are not the honey bee..

    The same way that by observing another individual we know that we cannot be that said individual..The subject that perceives cannot be the object that is being perceived..

    See my essay on the certainty of consciousness: https://jamesesz.wordpress.com/2009/12/01/introduction-the-certainty-of-consciousness-and-its-relation-to-time/

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