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«Richard L. W. Clarke LITS2306 Notes 05A RENÉ DESCARTES MEDITATIONS ON FIRST PHILOSOPHY (1641) Descartes, René. Meditations on First Philosophy. ...»

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Richard L. W. Clarke LITS2306 Notes 05A


Descartes, René. "Meditations on First Philosophy." Selected Philosophical Writings.

Trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff and Dugald Murdoch. Cambridge: CUP, 1988.


Meditation I: What can be called into Doubt

(“The General Demolition of My Opinions” [76])

Here, Descartes’s concerns are epistemological in nature as he plunges into the depth of

skepticism, coming to the view that almost everything can be called into doubt. He begins by recounting that, many years before, he came to the realisation that there was a “large number of falsehoods that I had accepted as true in my childhood” (76) and that the “nature of the whole edifice that I had subsequently erected on them” (76) was “highly doubtful” (76). He subsequently came to the conclusion that if he wanted to “establish anything at all in the sciences that was stable and likely to last” (76), he had to find an indisputable basis for certitude, some foundation that was beyond all possible dispute.

With this in mind, Descartes decided that he would put every one of his assumptions to the test until he stumbled upon one unassailable truth which would then serve as the foundation upon which to erect other truths. To this end, he argued, it was unnecessary to prove that each individual opinion is wrong: it was sufficient to show that the “basic principles on which all my former beliefs rested” (76) may be disproved in some way for the individual opinions themselves to be seen as baseless: once the “foundations of a building are undermined, anything built on them collapses of its own accord; so I will go straight for the basic principles on which all my former beliefs rested” (76).

Acknowledging the force of “custom” (79) which encourages him to assent to these long and deeply-held beliefs, he resolves to put them to the test by imagining ways, no matter how ridiculous-sounding, in which they may be doubted.

Descartes first considers that whatever “I have up till now accepted as most true I have acquired from the senses” (76). Although he acknowledges that the senses can deceive him, he stresses that “there are many other beliefs about which doubt is quite impossible, even though they are derived from the senses – for example, that I am here, sitting by the fire, wearing a winter dressing gown holding this pieces of paper in my hands, and so on” (76-77). It is at this point that his first possible doubt arises: what if he is suffering from the illusions of the insane who often “firmly maintain they are kings when they are paupers, or say they are dressed in purple when they are naked, or that their heads are made of earthenware, or that they are pumpkins, or made of glass” (77)? He then imagines a second possibility: that he may be asleep. Surely, he wonders, it is possible to distinguish the sleeping state from that of waking consciousness, as a result of which what he thinks he experiences “would not happen with such distinctness to someone asleep” (77). His response: “Indeed! As if I do not remember other occasions when I have been tricked by exactly similar thoughts while asleep!... I see plainly that there are never any sure signs by means of which being awake can be distinguished from being asleep” (77).

Descartes then proposes that even if the things he is dreaming of (e.g. hands, paper, pen, tables, etc.) may be illusions, surely “they must have been fashioned in the likeness of things that are real, and hence that at least these general kinds of things...

are things which are not imaginary but are real and exist” (77). He imagines that sleep may very well be similar in this respect to the imagined worlds created by artists: what one experiences in sleep is much like the case where artists paint pictures of fictitious Richard L. W. Clarke LITS2306 Notes 05A creatures such as sirens and satyrs but who, to do so, “cannot give them natures which are new in all respects” (77) and accordingly must “jumble up the limbs of existing animals” (77). Even where they arguably come up with entirely novel creatures “so new that nothing remotely similar has ever been seen before” (77), they utilise “other, even simpler and more universal things” (77) which are fundamentally real, such as the “real colours from which we form all the images of things, whether true or false, that occur in our thought” (78). Descartes also has in mind not just colours per se, but all the forms of “corporeal nature in general, and its extension: the shape of extended things, the quantity, or size and number of these things; the place in which they may exist, the time through which they may endure” (78), etc. Shape, size, number, place, time are fundamental qualities of reality that human imagination can remould in various ways to create novelties that are not found in the real world. However, the existence of the component elements can surely not be doubted.

With all this in mind, Descartes wonders whether the mathematical disciplines (he was a mathematician by training) which “deal with the simplest and most general things, regardless of whether they really exist in nature or nor” (78) are superior to the sciences such as physics which study “composite things” (78). Whether or not it corresponds to the real world, the mathematical realm forms a coherent whole in which all the parts make sense. Maths, he argues, may “contain something certain and indubitable. For whether I am awake or asleep, two and three added together are five, and a square has no more than four sides. It seems impossible that such transparent truths should incur any suspicion of being false” (78). Descartes then imagines that God, in whom he has long believed, may have made it so that there is “no earth, no sky, no extended thing, no shape, no size, no place, while at the same time ensuring that all these things appear to me to exist” (78). Moreover, since others often “go astray where they think they have the most perfect knowledge, may I not similarly go wrong every time I add two and three or count the sides of a square” (78)? He then deals with the objection that a “supremely good” (78) God would not allow such a large-scale deception to occur “such that I am deceived all the time” (78). However, would not even the occasional deception, the existence of which would seem to be indisputable, “seem equally foreign to his goodness” (78)? Last but not least, Descartes imagines that “everything said about God may be a fiction” (78) and that it is “fate or chance or a continuous chain of events” (78) which has brought him to this point in his life. He even considers the possibility that instead of God being responsible for his deception, “some malicious demon of the utmost power and cunning has employed all his energies in order to deceive me” (78) as a result of which the “sky, the air, the earth, colours, shapes, sounds and all eternal things are merely the delusions of dreams which he has devised to ensnare my judgement” (78).

Descartes concludes that “there is not one of my former beliefs about which a doubt may not properly be raised; and this is not a flippant or ill-considered conclusion, but is based on powerful and well thought-out reasons” (79). He resolves to “withhold my assent from these false beliefs just as carefully as I would from obvious falsehoods” (79).

Because his “habitual opinions keep coming back, and, despite my wishes, they capture my belief, which is as it were bound over to them as a result of long occupation and the law of custom” (79). He resolves to “turn my will in completely the opposite direction and deceive myself, by pretending for a time that these former opinions are utterly false and imaginary” (79) until the “weight of preconceived opinion is counter-balanced and the distorting influence of habit no longer prevents my judgement from perceiving things correctly” (79). Descartes proposes to believe that “not God, who is supremely good and the source of truth, but rather some malicious demon of the utmost power and cunning has employed all his energies in order to deceive me. I shall think that they sky, the air, Richard L. W. Clarke LITS2306 Notes 05A the earth, colours, shapes, sounds and all external things are merely the delusions of dreams which he has devised to ensnare my judgment” (79). In an obvious allusion to

Plato’s famous allegory of the cave, Descartes writes:

I am like a prisoner who is enjoying an imaginary freedom while asleep; as he begins to suspect that he is asleep, he dreads being woken up, and goes along with the pleasant illusion as long as he can. In the same way, I happily slide back into my old opinions and dread being shaken out of them, for fear that my peaceful sleep may be followed by hard labour when I wake, and that I shall have to toil not in the light, but amid the inextricable darkness of the problems I have now raised. (79) In the absence of any certain way out of the maze, in other words, it might be better to hold on to certain cherish assumptions rather than interrogate them and turn them inside out.

Meditation II:

The Nature of the Human Mind, and How it is Better Known than the Body Having cast doubt on all his most cherished beliefs by undermining the principles upon which they are founded, Descartes recounts that the next day he found himself in an unshakeable funk: “[s]o serious are the doubts into which I have been thrown... that I can neither put them out of my mind nor see any way of resolving them. It feels as if I have fallen unexpectedly into a deep whirlpool which tumbles around me so that I can neither stand on the bottom nor swim up to the top” (80). Nevertheless, whatever the consequences, he resolves that anything which admits of the slightest doubt I will set aside just as if I found it to be fully false; and I will proceed in this way until I recognise something certain, or, if nothing else, until I at last recognise for certain that there is no certainty. Archimedes used to demand just one firm and immovable point in order to shift the entire earth, so I too can hope for great things if I manage to find just one thing, however slight, that is certain and unshakeable.

I will suppose then, that everything I see is spurious. I will believe that my memory tells me lies, and that none of the things that it reports ever happened. I have no senses. Body, shape, extension, movement, and place are chimeras. (80) “So what remains true?” he asks. “Perhaps just the one fact that nothing is certain” (80).

Descartes longs to know, however, if “there is not something else which does not allow even the slightest occasion for doubt” (80), i.e. doubt concerning the ‘fact’ that nothing is certain. Is there, for example, a God, who “puts into me the thoughts I am now having” (80), fit the bill? Or is it Descartes himself who is the “author of these thoughts” (80)? If the latter, “am not I, at least, something” (80) as long as I think? But what about his intention to pretend that he has “no senses and no body” (80)? “Am I not so bound up with a body and with senses that I cannot exist without them? But I have convinced myself that there is absolutely nothing in the world: no sky, no earth, no minds, no bodies. Does it now follow that I too do not exist?” (80). Even if nothing else in the world exists and even if he is being deceived in some way about the existence of such things (perhaps by a maleficent demon), this in no way casts doubt on the fact that he must exist if he is to be deceived or mistaken in some way. He concludes that “if I convinced myself of something then I certainly existed” (80) for the simple reason that even if he is being deceived by some maleficent power, the fact remains that “I too undoubtedly exist, if he is deceiving me” (80). Indeed, “let him deceive me as much as he Richard L. W. Clarke LITS2306 Notes 05A can, he will never bring it about that I am nothing so long as I think that I am something” (80). In the final analysis, whatever the nature of his doubts, what is indisputable is that “I am, I exist” (80). This is because, if he did not exist, there would be no one doubting.

Because the doubting is not in doubt, so too is the existence of the doubter. This is the crucial indisputable foundation which Descartes had long sought.

It is at this point that Descartes admits that he does “not yet have a sufficient understanding of what this ‘I’ is” (81) whose existence he has concluded is indisputable.

He resolves to be careful not to make a “mistake in the very item of knowledge that I maintain is the most certain and evident of all” (81) and to “go back and meditate on what I originally believed myself to be” (81). “What then did I formerly think I was?” (81). He begins by observing that it is insufficient to conclude that man is merely a “rational animal” (81). Such a definition will lead him, he argues, down a complex path, whereby he will have to offer definitions for each term advanced (e.g. ‘rationality,’ ‘animal’) that he wants to avoid. This is something for which he does not have time, he says. Rather, he proposes to “concentrate on what came into my thoughts spontaneously whenever I used to consider what I was” (81), that is, on what is seemingly self-evident (i.e. things about the nature of which he has no doubts and which he believes he perceives distinctly). The first thought which comes to his mind is that “I had a face, hands, arms, and the whole mechanical structure of limbs which can be seen in a corpse, and which I called a body” (81). The next thought Descartes had was that “I was nourished, that I moved about, and that I engaged in sense-perception and thinking, and these actions I attributed to a soul” (81), the nature of which he either did not think about or else thought of as “something tenuous, like a wind or fire or ether, which permeated my more solid parts” (81). “As to the body” (81), Descartes writes, “I had no doubts about it, but thought I knew its nature distinctly” (81). This is his “mental conception” (81) of it: “by a body I understand whatever has a determinable shape and a definable location and can occupy a space in such a way as to exclude any other body; it can be perceived by touch, sight, hearing, taste or smell, and can be moved... by whatever else comes into contact with it” (81).

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