Philosophy: On Descartes’ Meditations

As I finished my degree in philosophy a year ago next week, I thought it would be a good idea to look back on some of the things I’ve learned, and so I will be posting some of my more successful essays. Here is the first… The question was:

Give a brief summary of Descartes’ Meditations. What are the aims of the book? Which arguments do you find particularly interesting and why?

Synopsis of The Six Meditations.

  1. Descartes highlights why we should call into doubt all things (in particular, material things). By doing this, we are able to build fresh foundations on which to build new knowledge. In other words, ‘…it frees us of all prejudices and paves an easy path for leading the mind away from the senses.’ (Meditations, p.8)
  2. In the Second Meditation, it is suggested to us that we should dismiss anything that the mind can have even the slightest doubt about. In order for us to conceive of any concept of the immortality of the soul, we must first accept that it is distinct from the body. This subject is covered in the Second Meditation. It is also brought to our attention that ‘…everything we clearly and distinctly understand is true…’ (ibid) However, he goes on, this could not be fully understood until the Fourth Meditation. Descartes distinctively writes here that ‘…the annihilation of the mind does not follow from the corrupt state of the body’ (ibid), essentially reiterating that mind and body are distinct.
  3. Here, Descartes sets out to prove and explain the existence of God, or at least presents an argument for it. One of his principal problems is thus: ‘how can the idea that is in us of a supremely perfect being have so much objective reality that it must be from a supremely perfect cause?’ (p.9) This question is mostly answered in the Replies, but Descartes does offer some sort of reply in the Third Meditation. He argues that we all have an idea of God within us and that can only have come from God himself.
  4. Once again Descartes returns to his theory that whatever is clearly and distinctly perceived is true. He also explains ‘…wherein the nature of falsity consists.’ (ibid)
  5. Descartes declares a new proof for the existence of God whilst also illustrating ‘…corporeal nature in general…’ (p.10) In addition, he seeks to prove that the truth of geometry is dependent upon one’s awareness of God.
  6. Conclusively, Descartes presents a distinction between understanding and imagination. He finally proves that mind and body are distinct, although they are in some way conjoined and therefore the mind ‘…forms one thing with the body.’ (ibid) He touches again on the unreliability of the senses but believes that such errors can, in fact, be averted. At last he adds the foundations on which material things can be understood. He does not, however, believe that such foundations can conclusively prove that there is an actual world that actually exists, and so on. Although we can firmly believe that both our mind and God exist, we cannot accept such things as the existence of material objects with the same sincerity and authority. We can still call them into doubt. Our knowledge alone of our mind (distinct from our body) and of God are ‘…the most certain and the most evident.’ (ibid) On this note, Descartes believes he has fulfilled the principal goal of the Meditations.

The main aims of The Meditations.

As I mentioned above, Descartes’ primary aim of the Meditations was to prove the existence of the mind- as distinct from the human, material, body- and of God. He also sought to disprove the information provided to us by the senses, which most of us would believe to be reliable. Descartes believed the opposite.  Another goal of the Meditations was for Descartes to prove that whatever we clearly and distinctly perceive is true, and anything that we do not perceive clearly and distinctly is false.

Coming back to one of Descartes’ principal aims, his proof for the existence of the mind and how it is distinct from the body, I believe this to be not only his most successful argument, but also, for myself, the most interesting of all his proofs. The question is: Why?

To begin with, it seems like a self-evident truth that every time I have a thought, I am existing. As Descartes put it, even when I doubt I surely exist, for something has to be doing the doubting. On another note, Descartes postulates the idea of a Deceiver. At first, he somewhat briefly believes that he may doubt his own existence based on this idea that he is being deceived. However, he soon realises that ‘the very attempt at thinking away my thinking is indeed self-stultifying.’ (SEP) This argument is interesting because it seems that there is no way Descartes’ theory of the Cogito can be false if we take into consideration what is written above. It makes no sense to assert a lack of existence when you are actually thinking. Certainly, it is essential that we reach this point of a belief in the self (or, at least, the mind) if we are to gain any further knowledge about anything at all. If we have no belief in our own existence, then what is the point in pursuing further knowledge and, moreover, is it even possible to attain knowledge of other things if we don’t believe that we exist? I think not.

A brief conclusion

To summarise, as I have argued, by far Descartes’ most (and arguably his only) successful theory is his Cogito. Whenever I utter the words ‘I am thinking’ then I must actually be thinking.

There must also be some truth in his lack of support for the senses. Information provided by the senses is forever failing us. What reason do we have to trust them? Imaginably, none.

But as for Descartes’ argument for the existence of God, it is just not as convincing as the previous two arguments I have discussed. We weren’t born with the image or thought of God inside us; it was more likely planted there by man over centuries, beginning with the Sun God. God does not exist just simply because I have the idea of him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A brief conclusion

 

To summarise, as I have argued, by far Descartes’ most (and arguably his only) successful theory is his Cogito. Whenever I utter the words ‘I am thinking’ then I must actually be thinking.

There must also be some truth in his lack of support for the senses. Information provided by the senses is forever failing us. What reason do we have to trust them? Imaginably, none.

But as for Descartes’ argument for the existence of God, it is just not as convincing as the previous two arguments I have discussed. We weren’t born with the image or thought of God inside us; it was more likely planted there by man over centuries, beginning with the Sun God. God does not exist just simply because I have the idea of him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

  1. Descartes, R, ‘Meditations on First Philosophy’, Trans. Donald A. Cress, Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Co. , 1979.
  2. Newman, L, ‘Descartes’ Epistemology’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2010/entries/descartes-epistemology/>.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 Comment on "Philosophy: On Descartes’ Meditations"

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