Lecture Supplement on Descartes’ Meditations [1641]


     Copyright © 2014 Bruce W. Hauptli



1. Introduction to Descartes:


Descartes lived from 1596 to 1650.  Between 1618 and 1621 he pursued a study of mathematics which resulted in the discovery and formulation of what we now call “analytic geometry”—that branch of mathematics which relates the algebraic and geometric studies.  The “Cartesian Coordinate System” you were taught in High School gets its name from him.  He also did important work in the fields of physics, astronomy, and optics, and his Meditations on First Philosophy was published in 1641.  Descartes was a very well-known scientist of his age.  In his Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity, Stephen Toulmin notes that:


Newton issued his Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy in 1687.  It was in three parts, and most of Book II is devoted to a detailed examination of Descartes’ theory of planetary motion.  In Newton’s day, that theory—according to which the planets are carried around the sun by the circulation of “vortices” (eddies) in a weightless interplanetary substance—was the most plausible forerunner of Newton’s own account, and was the “one to beat”; but Newton shows that it can fit the known facts about planetary motion, only if we make a dozen highly improbable assumptions about the density of the interplanetary substance, and other crucial points.[1] 


     As we have seen, one of the core goals Descartes sets for himself is to address skepticism and establish that human knowledge which attains the level of certainty is possible.  In her “Othello’s Doubt/Desdemona’s Death: The Engendering of Scepticism,” Naomi Scheman maintains that:


as narrated by Richard Popkin, sixteenth-century Europe underwent a three-fold sceptical crisis: theological, sparked by the Reformation and fueled by fideistic defenses of Catholicism; humanistic, as a relativistic response to learning about the different ways of life in the recently discovered new world and recently rediscovered ancient world; and scientific, with the undermining of the bases of Aristotelian science and the debates about what, if anything, could replace them.  Popkin situates Montaigne, especially The Apology for Raymond Sebond, in this context:

By extending the implicit sceptical tendencies of the Reformation crisis, the humanistic crisis, and the scientific crisis, into total crise pyrrhonienne, Montaigne’s genial Apologie became the coupe de grace to an entire intellectual world.  It was also to be the womb of modern thought, in that it led to the attempt either to refute the new Pyrrhonism, or to find a way of living with it.[2] 

  Montaigne himself chose to live with it, and his Essays are largely a record of the sort of life thereby chosen: forgiving of oneself and others, discursive, amused, literate, and nondogmatically conservative, a place from which the world is attentively observed, but never definitely known.[3] 


Descartes’s world, as Popkin notes, is in the throes of scepticism.  Although we may read Descartes as self-confidently working toward the overthrow of Scholasticism and the institutalionalization of the epistemology of modern science, he saw his project equally as one of warding off the threat of epistemic nihilism, a threat he perceived the Montaignean sceptic as posing.[4] 


Descartes’s doubt in the Meditations is clearly self-induced, and he confidently expects to regain the world he has willed away.  But, as Popkin argues, we need to take seriously the threat of scepticism posed to Descartes.  Epistemic dependency was both intolerable and increasingly unreliable, and his central interest in the growth of science demanded foundations more secure than the scepticism of Montaigne would allow.[5] 


To achieve this goal Descartes’ must clarify the nature of justification.  The area of philosophy called epistemology is especially concerned with the justifiability of our knowledge claims.  In his Theaetetus Plato approaches the question of justification by asking “How we can tell whether we are dreaming or awake?” Remember that we rarely take “dream reports” as indicative of the true character of reality, while we far more frequently (but, of course, not always) take “awakened reports” as indicative of true states of affairs.  The “dreaming” question, like all philosophical questions seems trivial, yet its deceptive simplicity belies the complexity which arises as one tries to answer it. 


     Since we base most of our knowledge claims upon our sensory experience, if we can not tell whether our experiences are the fluff of dreams or the reports of the senses when we are awake, it seems that the experiences we rely upon may not be very reliable ones.  No one, for example, would write his or her chemistry lab reports on the basis of last night’s dreams. 


Well, how do we tell whether we are awake or asleep?  If we can’t tell which state we are in, then can we place any reliability, credence, or worth in the reports? 


When the foundations of our knowledge claims are unclear some philosophic work is necessary.  Descartes undertakes the project of trying to find a firm and rational foundation for our knowledge claims.  He does this because, in part, of the times in which he lives. 


     As we have seen, the Medieval period marked a significant departure from the Ancient one—thinkers like St. Anselm maintained that reason must take its cues from certain truths of faith.  They held that philosophy is important as we try to come to understand what we antecedently believe (through faith).  Ancient thinkers like Plato, by contrast, held that we should believe what we can rationally establish.  Thus contrast Plato’s Socrates’ statement that “I am the kind of man who listens only to the argument that on reflection seems best to me” [Crito, 46b] with Anselm’s desire to come to understand what he antecedently believes.  The Modern period is characterized by an immense “faith” in our ability to rationally uncover universal and general truths about the world—it is, then a return to the philosophical view of the Ancients.  As such a return, however, it is conditioned by the loss of both the feelings of security and of certainty which the Medieval period provided with its “faith-based” foundation.  This loss did not occur because of the development of a clear-cut and widely-accepted “replacement” methodology however.  The methodology of the new empirical sciences was still under development in Descartes’ time.


     Descartes agrees with Galileo that the “book of nature” is written in the language of mathematics[6]—he believes the world was created according to mathematical formulae.  His ability to hook together geometry and algebra reinforced this view.[7]  He wants to firmly ground his knowledge claims, and thus wants to establish that they are truly beyond doubt—that they are certain.  There are several different senses of certainty (psychological certainty, logical certainty, and metaphysical certainty), and it is the latter which Descartes wants.[8] 


     Descartes believes he can show that there is one claim which legitimately has this “highest” degree of certainty—his cogito argument (his famous “I think, therefore I am,” or “cogito, ergo sum” argument) is to give us this level of certainty.  He will go on to justify much of human knowledge (including knowledge of a deity) and to develop a dualistic metaphysics.  Central to his methodology, however, is the strategy of beating the skeptics at their own game: his procedure is to doubt everything tinged with any “possibility of doubt” (to reject everything which he can) until he finds something which absolutely can not be doubted.  With this claim he will have a foundation upon which other knowledge claims may rest securely.[9]  Descartes wants to do more than refute skepticism however.  He wants to show that the foundation which he “uncovers” is one which can be built upon, and this means he must get beyond subjectivity.  Here his proof of the existence of a deity comes in—the argument he develops for the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, and benevolent deity provide him with the intellectual tool to move with certainty beyond knowledge of subjectivity. 


     Thus far this introduction to has covered only the “epistemological” aspects of Descartes’ thought, and it is already too long.  The Meditations are as well-known and important for their “metaphysical” content as they are for their epistemological however, and we need to understand this before we look at the text.  The general introductory story regarding Descartes’ metaphysics maintains that he offers a “dualistic metaphysic” which offers a picture of reality as bifurcated into two distinct categories of “things:” the mental and the physical. 


To see the difference between these two categories of reality, begin by considering your “visual field” (the images you experience when you pay attention to your visual experience.[10]  Concentrating on this “field,” try and answer the question “Where, in physical space, does this visual field reside?”  Is it to be located in the brain? 


Descartes holds that “physical things” all have one central characteristic: they are extended (or have some shape or other).  While they can change their shapes (surely this is what we want to do when we visit our health clubs), they always have some shape or other.  According to Descartes, however, “mental things” are not correctly characterized as having a shape.  Instead, they are characterized as having “experiences.”  Descartes holds that the mental and physical are distinct categories of things, and any thing (or, more strictly speaking, any created thing) must be one or the other (but not both). 


     This “dualistic picture” is right as far as it goes, but Descartes actually holds a more complex metaphysical picture.  In addition to physical and mental substance, there is also a deity according to him.  Strictly speaking, this “thing” is a mind, but it is significantly different from the sorts of mental substances which we are—it is infinite, and it is not dependent upon anything else.[11] 


     Mention of Descartes’ deity, however, seems to take us right back to the “picture” of the world offered by the Medieval world-view!  It is important to note, however, that while he was a Catholic, the deity he discusses in the Meditations is better seen as a “god of the philosophers”[12]—this deity fulfills a particular role, and this role is what is important not any “personalistic” characteristics of the deity.  For Descartes, the deity will provide a causal and explanatory terminus (and end for all questions of causation and justification), but this deity will be bereft of most of the medieval adornments. 


     It is also important to note that from the “modern” view-point of Descartes, the most appropriate way to approach (one almost wants to say “worship”) this deity is via reason—the goal is to come to know (rather than to worship) this “thing” and to try to know reality as this deity knows it.  Such knowledge, it should be clear, is not to be developed by examining texts or consulting religious or scriptural authorities.  Instead, it is to be had by rationally examining the “book of nature.”  To see this clearly, however, we must turn to the text itself. 


2. Dedication, Preface, and Synopsis:




47 His deity and the soul are to be proved by natural reason.[13] 


49 Demonstrations of the highest certainty and evidence require a mind entirely free from prejudice and detached from the senses. 




51 Descartes (very) briefly responds quickly to two critiques of his earlier Discourse on Method [1637]:


-The first criticism is that: “...from the fact that the human mind, when turned in on itself, does not perceive itself to be anything other than a thinking thing, it does not follow that its nature or essence consists only in its being a thinking thing....”  He responds that he did not intend to prove this there, but he will show this (presumably in this work). 


-The second criticism is that: “...it does not follow from the fact that I have within me an idea of a thing more perfect than me, that this idea is itself more perfect than me, and still less that what is represented by this idea exists.”  He answers that if ‘idea’ is taken only “materially,” this is so; but if it is taken “objectively” (that is “representationally”), this is not so—as he will show in this work.  What he will show is that (p. 52): “...from the mere fact that there is within me an idea of something more perfect than me, it follows that this thing really exists.” 


--In his Philosophy As Social Expression, Albert W. Levi maintains that: “it is indeed ironic that in the Cartesian system, while the authority of natural science derives ultimately from the establishment of two basic propositions of metaphysics, these propositions themselves are the most questionable and the most vulnerable to external philosophical criticism.  In the “Preface to the Reader”...he refers back to the Discourse of 1637 of which he had freely solicited criticism, and to the two chief criticisms which he had in fact received. These were (1) that from the fact that the human mind, reflecting on itself, does not perceive itself to be other than a thing which thinks it does not follow that its nature or its essence does indeed consist only in thinking; and (2) that from the fact that I have in myself the idea of something more perfect than I am, it does not follow that this idea is more perfect than I am, and even less that what is represented by this idea exists.  The Cogito and the ontological proof are the ultimate foundations of Descartes’ philosophy of science, as they are the cornerstone of his metaphysics, but they are just those elements which subsequent philosophers have been most reluctant to certify as acceptable components of the Cartesian system.”[14] 


52 Descartes notes again, that his inquiry here will be one in “first philosophy,” and will require that the reader give it serious attention. Indeed, he notes, he publishes a set of “Objections” with the Meditations, and he asks the reader to withhold final judgment until they have been considered also.




The appropriate paragraphs of the “Synopsis” need to be read before and after each of the Meditations. 


54-55 The discussion of the status of mental and physical substances is important, though it becomes clear only upon completion of the “Sixth Meditation.” 


3. The First Meditation:


59 Goal—he desires to establish firm knowledge in the sciences. 


59-60 Type of doubt—doubt whatever is not indubitable or entirely certain—even what is only slightly tinged or possibly tinged!  It is general—he doesn’t doubt each proposition but, rather, doubts them in groups. 


60 Sometimes the senses mislead us! 


-But, perhaps, sometimes the senses don’t—then we are “close” to the object, etc. 


The dreaming argument: but I do dream: “I have been deceived in sleep by similar perceptions.” 


-May I suppose that dream images represent?  May I suppose that there are simples like the elements in a picture (that the structure of the painting may be all wrong, as it were, but that the elements in it actually correspond or represent)? 


-60-61 Surely “simples” are true whether one is awake or dreaming?  That is, whether my experiences are dreaming or awakened ones, surely the “simple components” of the experiences (those out of which the “complexes” are formed) provide me with a solid (and valid) base of knowledge claims.  Can’t I suppose that dream images still represent the world somewhat?  That is, may I suppose that there are simples like the elements in a picture (that the structure of the painting may be all wrong, as it were, but that the elements in it actually correspond or represent?) 

61 “Be that as it may, there is fixed in my mind a certain opinion of long standing, namely that there exists a God who is able to do anything and by whom I, such as I am, have been created.  How do I know that He did not bring it about that there is no earth at all, no heavens, no extended thing, no shape, no size, no place, and yet bring it about that all these things appear to me to exist precisely as they do now?  Moreover, since I judge that others sometimes make mistakes in matters that they believe they know most perfectly, may I not, in like fashion, be deceived every time I add two and three or count the sides of a square, or perform an even simpler operation, if that can be imagined? 


-62 If one believes there is not such a powerful deity, then, since the author of our being is less powerful, it is increasingly probable that we easily fall into error. 


-“...long standing opinions keep returning, and, almost against my will, they take advantage of my credulity, as if it were bound over to them by long use and the claims of intimacy.” 


-62-63 I will suppose an evil genius who is at once exceedingly potent and deceitful and who employs all his artifice to deceive me—note that the sense of ‘evil’ here is epistemic, not moral or theological! 


63 I will be a skeptic—I will withhold my assent. 


4. Comments on the First Meditation:


(A). Avoid Error vs. Embrace Truth. 


(B). Dreams and Deceivers:


A possible origin of the Deceiver Hypothesis,


Alice, Wonderland, and dreaming,[15]


Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Circular Ruins,”[16] and the Star Trek Next Generation episode entitled “Ship In A Bottle” where Professor Moriarty (a holodeck character) manages to take control of both a holodeck fantasy program and of the Starship Enterprise.  At the end of the episode, one of the crew-members is not at all sure that the “program” is not continuing, and (sheepishly) worries that his “life” might be a fantasy. 


In his Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy, Jostein Gaarder reminds us that:


the old Chinese sage Chuang-tzu...said: Once I dreamed I was a butterfly, and now I no longer know whether I am Chuang-tzu, who dreamed I was a butterfly, or whether I am a butterfly dreaming that I am Chuang-tzu.[17] 


As Gaarder’s overall story develops, it appears as if one of his characters may “take control” of the novel, and the overall discussion clearly has Descartes in mind. 


(C). The problem of representationalism:


Imagine you are a physicist, astronomer, chemist or psychologist, and you are charged with discovering certain fundamental laws of the universe—that is, you are attempting to discover the laws which govern the behavior of unobservable phenomena (electrons, quanta, black holes, molecules, minds, etc.).  How will you proceed? 


-Do chemical reactions, behavioral responses, and gross macroscopic events which we can observe provide us with representations of what occurs at the unobservable level?  Here is something parallel to the problem Descartes confronts and would resolve.  The scientist is, literally, confined to his or her observations—what is observed differs radically from the fundamental particles discussed in the theories. 


Descartes looks for a characteristic of some of his ideas which would guarantee that they (truly) represent (things in the world). 


In his “Idealism and Greek Philosophy: What Descartes Saw and Berkeley Missed” M.F. Burnyeat notes that: “Greek philosophy does not know the problem of proving in a general way the existence of an external world.  That problem is a modern invention....The problem which typifies ancient philosophical enquiry in a way that the external world problem has come to typify philosophical enquiry in modern times is quite the opposite.  It is the problem of understanding how thought can be of nothing or what is not, how our minds can be exercised on falsehoods, fictions, and illusions.[18] 


I discuss this further in Appendix III. 


(D). Descartes and the “Egocentric Predicament:”


It is important that we note that Descartes’ new (“scientific”) epistemology explicitly begins with the isolated self.  As C.A.J. Coady notes his Testimony: A Philosophical Study:


it is interesting to contrast [Thomas] Reid’s attitude with Descartes’s.  In the Discourse on the Method, Descartes says in discussing the influence of custom and example upon belief, ‘And yet a majority vote is worthless as a proof of truths that are at all difficult to discover; for a single man is much more likely to hit upon them than a group of people’….The confident individualism of this passage will be relevant to my discussion of the influences of individualist ideology upon the neglect of testimony.  Descartes’s thought here is not only at odds with the (surely genuine) phenomenon to which Reid draws attention but also with the facts of scientific co-operation and mutual dependency in the uncovering of truths that are (often extremely) difficult to discover.[19] 


Whereas Thomas Reid [1710-1796] and today’s scientists begin squarely in a social epistemology which sees the knower in a world which includes, and, more importantly, accepts the testimony of others, Descartes begins his epistemic journey alone and isolated from both others and the world.  From Descartes’ time to our own, many epistemologists have believed that to achieve justified knowledge about the world we must begin from this “egocentric” predicament and work our way out ward.  Some contemporary naturalistic epistemologists follow the line of thought of Reid, however.  They emphasize that humans begin their epistemic journey learning from others, and they point out that testimony is as common, and strong, a source of justification as individual experience.  We shall see that Descartes has little to say about the role of testimony, because he has significant difficulty even getting to the existence of others, let alone to utilizing them as a possible source of epistemic justification. 


5. Problems with Descartes’ Arguments for Skepticism:


(A). G.E. Moore raises this criticism of Descartes’ dreaming argument: “...can he consistently combine this proposition [a] that he knows that dreams have occurred, with his conclusion [b] that he does not know that he is not dreaming?  Can anybody possibly know that dreams have occurred, if, at the time, he does not himself know that he is not dreaming?  If he is dreaming, it may be that he is only dreaming that dreams have occurred; and if he does not know that he is not dreaming, can he possibly know that he is not only dreaming that dreams have occurred?  Can he possibly know therefore that dreams have occurred?  I do not think that he can; and therefore I think that anyone who uses this premise and also asserts the conclusion that nobody ever knows that he is not dreaming, is guilty of an inconsistency.”[20] 


(B). Philosophical argumentation and modeling:


senses sometimes mislead us → perhaps they always do;

some paintings are forgeries → perhaps they all are.[21] 


Gilbert Ryle provides a version of this criticism:


I must say a little about the quite general argument from the notorious limitations and fallibility of our senses to the impossibility of our getting to know anything at all by looking, listening and touching. 

  A country which had no coinage would offer no scope to counterfeiters.  There would be nothing for them to manufacture or pass counterfeits of.  They could, if they wished, manufacture and give away decorated disks of brass or lead, which the public might be pleased to get.  But these would not be false coins.  There can be false coins only where there are coins made of the proper materials by the proper authorities. 

  In a country where there is a coinage, false coins can be manufactured and passed; and the counterfeiting might be so efficient that an ordinary citizen, unable to tell which were false and which were genuine coins, might become suspicious of the genuineness of any particular coin that he received.  But however general his suspicions might be, there remains one proposition which he cannot entertain, the proposition, namely, that it is possible that all coins are counterfeits.  For there must be an answer to the question ‘Counterfeits of what?’”[22] 


In his “I Only Am Escaped Alone to tell Thee:’ Epistemology and the Ishmael Effect,” David Stove maintains:


well, it is true, and also contingent, that some of us sometimes hallucinate.  But it does not follow from that, (even if Descartes thought it did), that it is logically possible that all of us are always hallucinating.  Some children in a school-class may happen to be below the average level of ability of children in that class, but it is not logically possible that all of them are.  Neither is it logically possible that we are all always hallucinating.  For we—that is, all human beings—are perceived by (unless indeed we are hallucinations of) at least one human being: ourselves if no other.  Whence, on the supposition that we—that is, all human beings—are always hallucinating, it follows that all human beings are hallucinations of at least one human being.  And that is not logically possible.[23] 


(C). J.L. Austin offers a related sort of criticism.  He claims that “...it is important to remember that talk of deception only makes sense against a background of general non-deception.  (You can’t fool all of the people all of the time.)  It must be possible to recognize a case of deception by checking the odd cases against the more normal ones.”[24] 


(D). In his Bright Air, Brilliant Fire, Gerald Edelman notes that: “one matter Descartes did not explicitly analyze, however, was that to be aware and able to guide his philosophical thought, he needed to have language.  And for a person to have language, at least one other person must be involved, even if that person is the memory of someone in one’s past, an interiorized interlocutor.  This requirement shakes Descartes’ notion that his conclusions depended on himself alone and not on other people.  Moreover, Descartes was not explicit as to when a human being first has access to a thinking substance in his development.  Perhaps he should have pondered further the likelihood of a French baby concluding, “Je pense donc je suis.””[25] 


(E). Do the congenitally blind have “visual images?”  In his “Even Blind People Can Draw,” Daniel Zalewski maintains that:


early this year [2002], at the museum of Modern Art, scholars gathered to witness an astonishing presentation by an untutored “outsider” artist named Tracy Carcione.  At first glance, Carcione’s simple ballpoint-pen drawings of geometric objects did not seem so impressive—they looked like preparatory sketches for a still-life painting.  What made them remarkable, however, is the fact that Carcione has been blind since infancy.  Although she could only touch, not see, the wooden objects placed on a table in front of her, Carcione’s drawings featured easily recognizable cones, cubes and spheres—all infused with a deft use of perspective that even Leonardo would have admired. 

  All people blind since birth, cognitive scientists now say, share her basic ability to create realistic drawings of everyday objects: a Coke bottle, an armchair, a toothbrush.  But how can visual art possibly be made by people without vision?  The emerging idea is that picture-making is a cognitive ability so deeply embedded in our brains that it flourishes even when our eyes fail us.[26] 


What has really shocked cognitive scientists, however, is that many blind artists seem to have tricks of the Renaissance buried inside their brains.  Foreshortening, vanishing points and other devices of modern pictorial realism—techniques that artists in the Middle Ages lacked—can be found in blind art.  At the Modern, when Kennedy asked Carcione to draw a cube balanced on a point with three faces toward her, she began by drawing a Y shape: three angles converging to a point.  When a cube was placed in front of a cone on the table, Carcione drew the cone smaller, to convey distance.  This discovery suggests that realistic art isn’t just a nifty cultural invention; it’s based on hard-wired systems of perception. 

  But if that’s true, why did it take Italian artists well into the 14th century to develop what Carcione came upon through intuition.  Its still a mystery, but Kennedy theorizes that it has to do with the fact that many blind people, out of necessity, develop an acute ability to imagine physical space.  In other words, visual artists before the Renaissance were too bedazzled by sensory overload to grasp the fundamental architecture of pictorial space.[27] 


(F) If the dreaming argument is so powerful (and it seems through the ages to be so), then why are Berkeley and solipsism so implausible? 


6. The Second Meditation:


63 Doubt...until I shall find something that is certain. 


63-64 The Cogito. 


-Cf., Descartes’ Discourse On Method.[28] 


-What of “I walk therefore I am a body with legs?”[29] 


-What if Hamlet says “I think therefore I am”? 


-What of Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Circular Ruins,”[30] or Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass?[31] 


-Discuss the difference between the “occurrent “and the “substantial” senses of ‘I.’  Indicate why the distinction is important here, and why it is the “substantial” sense which Descartes wants and needs (but doesn’t seem entitled to). 


--Memory and the occurrent conception of the self: Christopher Nolen’s movie Memento [2000]—the movie centers on the trials undergone by a character who lacks the form of “short-term” memory which allows us to have plans for the future or remember what we did recently.  While he can speak language, drive cars, and interact with the world, he can not remember whether he is chasing someone or being chased, who he is, or what he is doing.  While he writes and even tattoos notes to himself, he has to try and fight against his lack of memory to understand what is going on in “his life.”  Without short-term memory, we get a very different “self!”  Of course there is also “long-term” memory, and other sorts!  Moreover, does memory entail any sort of certainty? 


--Identity and Theseus’ ship—my “updated case” would have one imagine a ship (Theseus’) which is rebuilt plank by plank (with the original planks saved and then reassembled according to the original plan.  The question is: “Which of the resultant ships is Theseus’ ship?” 


-Nonetheless, Descartes concludes that he knows he is an enduring thing—a substance:


--On p. 65 he says: “For it is so obvious that it is I who doubt, I who understand, and I who will, that there is nothing by which it could be explained more clearly.  But indeed it is also the same “I” who imagines; for although perhaps, as I supposed before, absolutely noting that I imagined is true, still the very power of imagining really does exist, and constitutes a part of my thought.  Finally, it is this same “I” who senses or who is cognizant of bodily things as if through the senses….” 


-Indubitability—three senses: psychological, logical, metaphysical: “psychological” certainty would be where a specific individual finds herself unable to raise doubts (because of her psychological constitution, or her deeply felt convictions, or her predispositions, etc.); “logical” certainty would be where no individual could raise doubts (because logic rules them out); and “metaphysical” certainty would be where absolutely no doubts could be raised (where error is absolutely inconceivable).  “While we thus reject all that of which we can possibly doubt, and feign that it is false...we cannot in the same way conceive that we who doubt these things are not; for there is a contradiction in conceiving that what thinks does not at the same time as it thinks, exist.”[32] 


--Descartes asks “Do I exist?”  The American philosopher, Morris Cohen, asks “Who wants to know?”[33] 


-In his “Arguments Demonstrating the Existence of God and the Distinction Between Soul and Body, Drawn Up In Geometrical Fashion,” published as part of the “Objections and Replies” in 1641 with the Meditations, Descartes maintains that: “Everything in which there resides immediately, as in a subject, or by means of which there exists anything that we perceive, i.e., any property, quality, or attribute, of which we have a real idea, is called a Substance; neither do we have any other idea of substance itself, precisely taken, than that it is a thing in which this something that we perceive or which is present objectively in some of our ideas, exists formally or eminently.  For by means of our natural light we know that a real attribute cannot be an attribute of nothing.”[34]  In his Principles of Philosophy [1644], Descartes defines ‘substance’ more carefully (and this is taken as the Cartesian definition) as follows: “by substance, we can understand noting else than a thing which so exists that it needs no other thing in order to exist.  And in fact only one single substance can be understood which clearly needs nothing else, namely God.  We perceive that all other things can exist only by the help of the concourse of God.  That is why the word substance does not pertain univoce to God and to other things, as they say in the Schools, that is, no common signification for this appellation which will apply equally to God and to them can be distinctly understood.”[35] 


--Discuss the notion of the “natural light.”  What guarantees the truth of the “dictates” of the natural light?[36] 


-In his City of God [426], St. Augustine offers a version of the cogito.  I discuss his version and the difference between it and Descartes’ version in Appendix IV. 


65-66 Sum Res Cogitans.  But I do not yet know with sufficient clearness what I am, though assured that I am.  What, then, did I formerly think I was? 


-A “rational animal”—this leaves us with two questions to answer (“What is rationality?” and “What is an animal?”) and we have no way of getting started here. 


-64 Body:


--Discuss the notion of an essential characteristic—Descartes is endeavoring to discover what he is “essentially.”[37] 


-65 Soul: nutrition, walking (locomotion), perception? 


-Thinking:....I am a thinking thing. 


“...in the strict sense the knowledge of this “I” does not depend upon things of whose existence I do not yet have knowledge.” 


-In his Principles of Philosophy, he says: “And when I stated that this proposition I think, therefore I am is the first and most certain which presents itself to those who philosophize in orderly fashion, I did not for all that deny that we must first of all know what is knowledge, what is existence, and what is certainty, and that in order to think we must be, and such like; but because these are notions of the simplest possible kind, which of themselves give us no knowledge of anything that exists, I did not think them worthy of being put on record.”[38] 


66 A thing which thinks is a thing which understands, affirms, denies, wills, refuses, imagines, and perceives. 


-Note: if this is what he has discovered with the cogito, then it is fairly clear that he has the “substantial” conception of the self in mind—few can undertake this many complex cognitive tasks all at the same time!  No “occurrent” self would be able to “understand, affirm, deny, will, refuse, imagine, and perceive” all at once! 


-Note: In his On the Equality of the Two Sexes [1673, anonymously], Francois Poullain de la Barre maintains that:


it is easy to see that the difference between the two sexes is limited to the body, since that is the only part used in the reproduction of humankind.  Since the mind merely gives its consent, and does so in exactly the same way in everyone, we can conclude that it has no sex. 

  Considered independently, the mind is found to be equal and of the same nature in all men, and capable of all kinds of thoughts.  It is as much exercised by small concepts as by large; as much thought is required to conceive of a mite as an elephant….Since there seems not to be any greater difference between the minds of the two sexes, we can say that the difference does not lie there.  It is rather the constitution of the body, but particularly education, religious observance, and the effects of our environment which are the natural and perceptible causes of all the many differences between people. 

  A woman’s mind is joined to her body, like a man’s, by God himself, and according to the same laws.  Feelings, passions, and the will maintain this union, and since the mind functions no differently in one sex than in the other, it is capable of the same things in both.[39] 


67 The Wax Experiment: the wax is something extended.  Here Descartes lets his mind “wander” and, clearly, stops, for the moment, adducing claims to certain knowledge.  In this passage he clarifies the essential characteristic of non-mental substance (the physical realm of corporeal things)—shape, divisibility, occupation of space, having location, etc.  The background picture of the physical is provided by the emerging science of the day—by Galileo’s “mechanics.” 


-68 Descartes claims that he knows the wax by his reason—not by the use of his senses or of his imagination! 


-69 “Each time I know the wax, I know myself better (than I know the wax).” 


“...I manifestly know that nothing can be perceived more easily and more evidently than my own mind.” 


7. Critical Comments on the Second Meditation:


(A). Attributes without substances?  Substances without attributes?  Modes? 


Bernard Williams notes that “a mode presupposes its attribute, but equally an attribute which is really present implies the presence of a mode—a thing can not be extended without being extended in one way rather than another.[40] 


In his Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz: The Concept of Substance in Seventeenth-Century Metaphysics, R.S. Woolhouse maintains that: “but even if modes and accidents need substances, don’t substances also require modes?  Can we, as Descartes says, ‘clearly perceive a substance apart from the mode which we say differs from it’?  Descartes’s point here is merely that substances do not require the particular modes that they happen to have.  It is not that they do not require some modes or other.  It is clear that they do; for modes are accidental variations of an attribute, and the distinction between a substance and at least some of its attributes is so close as to be ‘merely a conceptual one’.  One substance can exist apart from another; it can exist apart from the particular modes it happens to have; but it cannot exist with no modes, for there are certain attributes without which substances are ‘unintelligible’.  For many substances the attribute of extension (the attribute of being spatially dimensioned or of having length, breadth, and depth) is one such.  Though a given substance is intelligible without the particular modal shape it has, it will be unintelligible with no shape at all, for it is unintelligible apart from the attribute of extension.”[41] 


(B). Descartes’ goal is the validation of reason, but isn’t any such attempt question-begging? 


(C). Does Descartes prove that the mind and the body are different? 


(D). Multiple personalities and the cogito. 


(E). We need to discuss what sort of claim Descartes makes with his cogito—is it (A) an inference, (B) an intuition, or, finally, (c) is an epistemic interpretation of the cogito the right way to see it?[42] 


(i) if the cogito is an inference, it must look something like this:


(a) I think. 

     Whatever thinks exists. 

     Therefore, I exist. 


(b) Note, however, that if Descartes is presenting us with an inference, the conclusion can not be the first thing he is certain of—the premises themselves become the first certainties (or else, they are themselves in need of justification). 


(c) Moreover, the universal premise may be questioned—especially if the evil genius hypothesis and the dreaming argument are considered. 


(d) Also, if the premises are certain, there is still the question of whether or not Descartes (or ourselves) might be deceived regarding the validity of the inference.  Surely the evil genius could mislead us as we consider a complex inference. 


(f) Furthermore, we should note that the inference might not in fact hold.  Consider the following comment by Bertrand Russell: “let us begin by examining Descartes’ view.  “I think, therefore I am” is what he says, but this won’t do as it stands.  What, from his point of view, he should profess to know is not “I think,” but “There is thinking”....He would say that thoughts imply a thinker.  But why should they?  Why should not a thinker be simply a certain series of thoughts, connected with each other by causal laws?”[43] 


(g) Finally (in regard to the inference interpretation), we should note that Spinoza raised an important objection to Descartes’ “argument.”  Feldman clarifies Spinoza’s objection as follows:


I am convinced that you could not come to know that you had a headache by the use of [a similar] argument [similar, that is, to the cogito].  The problem is not that the argument itself is defective....you would undoubtedly know that you have a headache before you could go through the various steps of the argument.  Furthermore, you would already be so certain that you have a headache that you could not increase your certainty by the use of this argument.  Your knowledge that you have a headache would be more direct.  The headache itself is all the evidence you need for the conclusion that you have a headache. 

  As I understand him, Spinoza wants to make something like this point concerning the Cogito argument.  Perhaps there is nothing wrong with the argument itself.  The problem is that Descartes could not have used that argument to come to know that he exists.  He undoubtedly knew that he existed before he made use of that (or any other) argument.  His knowledge of his own existence could not have been dependent upon any premises.  He know immediately, and without evidence, that he existed.[44] 


(ii) if the cogito is an intuition, there are still problems (there are places in Descartes’ works where the intuition interpretation is warranted: “by intuition I understand, not the fluctuating testimony of the senses, nor the misleading judgment that proceeds from the blundering constructions of imagination, but the conception which an unclouded and attentive mind gives us so readily and distinctly that we are wholly freed from doubt about that which we understand.  Or, what comes to the same thing, intuition is the undoubting conception of an unclouded and attentive mind, and springs from the light of reason alone; it is more certain than deduction itself in that it is simpler, though deduction, as we have noted above, cannot by us be erroneously conducted.  Thus each individual can mentally have intuition of the fact that he exists, and that he thinks; that the triangle is bounded by three lines only....”[45]  The main problem, of course, is that intuiting something does not seem to grant it metaphysical certainty [or truth]. 


(iii) the “epistemic” interpretation of the cogito treats the “argument” as neither an inference nor as an intuition but, rather, as an “epistemic discovery.”  As Feldman says, “this belief is metaphysically certain, not because it has been derived from indubitable premises, and not because it has been intuited.  Rather, it is metaphysically certain simply because there is no reason to doubt it.”[46]  This, of course, suggests a view the Meditations which would have Descartes seeking to find claims which we can not doubt, but which need not be metaphysically certain.  This sort of interpretation avoids some of the problems which Descartes encounters on the other interpretations of the cogito, but it is inconsistent with other things which he says.  Besides this, the basic problem with this sort of interpretation is with the claim that there is no reason for doubting—establishing that the reasons for doubting adduced thus far do not provide such a rationale for doubt does not establish that there is no reason for doubt—just that such a reason for doubting has not yet arisen! 


(F). In his Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy, Jostein Gaarder suggests that when thinking of Descartes sum res cogitans, one remember Sartre’s “existence takes priority over essence.”  As he notes that: “throughout the entire history of philosophy, philosophers have sought to discover what man is—or what human nature is.  But Sartre believed that man has no such eternal “nature” to fall back on.  It is therefore useless to search for the meaning of life in general.  We are condemned to improvise.  We are like actors dragged onto the stage without having learned our lines, with no script and no prompter to whisper stage directions to us.  We must decide for ourselves how to live.”[47] 


(G). In his Tragic Sense of Life, Miguel de Unamuno offers the following critique of Descartes: “the defect of Descartes’ Discourse on Method lies in his resolution to empty himself of himself, of Descartes, of the real man, the man of flesh and bone, the man who does not want to die, in order that he might be a mere thinker—that is, an abstraction.  But the real man returned and thrust himself into his philosophy.... 

  The truth is sum, ergo cogito—I am, therefore I think, although not everything that is thinks.  Is not conscious thinking above all consciousness of being?  Is pure thought possible, without consciousness of self, without personality?”[48] 


8. Some Questions on Meditations I and II:


(A). What right of his to the statement that he is a thinking substance? 


(B). What of his right to talk in terms of the substance-attribute distinction at all? 


(C). What of his right to talk about a continuous substance—the problem of multiple selves? 


(D). What of the other propositions he accepts as certain in the argument for the cogito? 


(F). If you are negative on these points, where does it leave you? 

9. Preparation for the Third Meditation:


Part IV of Descartes’ Discourse on Method[49] (pp. 18-23 of our text) provides an excellent (and brief) summary of the argument of the Meditations (both up to this point and through the rest).  It may be a good idea to read it at this point. 


     As I noted above, Descartes’ deity is a philosophical deity![50]  We should contrast this sort of conception with Pascal’s “personalistic” deity, for example. 


     This Meditation involves “building a bridge” from the “subjective world” of the self to the “objective world”—that which is “beyond” the self. 


Note: the evil genius may be considered to be the “troll” under the bridge! 


He seeks the identification of a characteristic of some ideas which assures that they [truly] represent. 


(A). Dark Pool Analogy: if you are swimming alone in a dark pool and you feel something brush your leg, it is natural to reach the (alarming) conclusion that you are not alone. 


(B). The “anthropology example“:[51] find a tribe that has a picture of a pile of stones and a picture of a complex machine:


tells us something about the level of development of the tribe.  They must have such machines of the imagination necessary to conceive of them.  Higher order understanding exhibited by the second picture. 


degrees of reality and how this applies to ideas. 


objective reality of an idea → the referential content the idea. 


(C). The “Causal Principle” and “Ideas:”


ex nihilo nihil fit (Descartes believes it and the principle are equivalent) and, it is important to note, he will be applying this principle to ideas in his argument. 


Aristotelian analysis of causation: the efficient cause explains the existence of a thing, while the formal cause explains the nature of that thing. 


(D). Causation without transfer—think of force and of deduction:


Cause, reason, and explanation. 


Together the causal principle, the idea of the degrees of reality of ideas (objective reality), the idea of a deity and Descartes’ knowledge that he does not have the power to cause this idea yield the proof that this deity exists! 


10. The Third Meditation:


70 “I am a thing that thinks....these modes of thinking...insofar as they are merely modes of thinking, do exist in me.”  Substance metaphysics! 


“...there is nothing but a certain clear and distinct perception of what I affirm.  Yet this would hardly be enough to render me certain of the truth of a thing, if it could ever happen that something that I perceived so clearly and distinctly were false.  And thus I now seem able to posit as a general rule that everything I very clearly and distinctly perceive is true.” 


-What ‘clear’ and ‘distinct’ mean here: “I term that clear which is present and apparent to an attentive mind, in the same way as we assert that we see objects clearly when, being present to the regarding eye, they operate upon it with sufficient strength.  But the distinct is that which is so precise and different from all other objects that it contains within itself nothing but what is clear.”[52] 


But, he came to doubt things which he had previously thought to be perceived clearly and distinctly—for example, he believed that besides his ideas, there were “external things” which these ideas represented. 


70-71 Similarly, he wonders, might he not be wrong about mathematical “truths?” 


71 The doubts he has, however, are founded upon the supposition of the existence of an evil genius, and he has no reason to believe that there is such a creature.  He terms this sort of doubt “...very tenuous and, so to speak, metaphysical.”[53] 


-In this extended passage we confront a “conflict” between the “metaphysical doubt,” on the one hand, and the “cogito” and “clear and distinct ideas,” on the other—we might say that we encounter Descartes’ “epistemological schizophrenia.” 


-Moreover, we confront a serious problem for Descartes here—the potential problem of circularity.  He says that to remove the doubt, he “...should at the first opportunity inquire whether there is a God, and, if there is, whether or not he can be a deceiver.  For if I am ignorant of this, it appears I am never capable of being completely certain about anything else.”  Note that Cress’ translation has Descartes saying “...anything else,” but other translations have Descartes saying, simply, “anything.”[54]  The difference, of course, is significant!  The latter engenders what is known as the problem of “circularity.”[55]   


71 Ideas alone (without a representational claim) are not false.  [Also, p. 73]. 


The possibility of falsity arises with an idea’s representational claim. 


72 Ideas are generally considered to be either innate, adventitious (caused from without), or produced by me (factitious). 


We must inquire into the grounds for the representational claim of our ideas:


-Could the representational claim of my ideas be grounded in the fact that I am taught by nature that my ideas are representations of things?  “When I say here “I have been so taught by nature” all I have in mind is that I am driven by a spontaneous impulse to believe this, and not that some light of nature is showing me that it is true.” 


-72-73 Could the representational claim be justified by the fact that various of my ideas are not dependent upon my will?  “I may have powers I don’t know of....” 


-73 “Finally, even if the ideas did proceed from things other than myself, it does not follow that they must resemble those things.” 


“...insofar as these ideas are merely modes of thought, I see no inequality among them; they all seem to proceed from me in the same manner.  But insofar as one idea represents one thing and another idea another thing, it is obvious that they do differ very greatly from one another.  Unquestionably, those ideas that display substances to me are something more and, if I may say so, contain within themselves more objective reality than those which represent only modes or accidents.” 


-“Objective reality” refers to the representational capacity of ideas.  Consider two different “ideas” (say the plots for an episode of “Married With Children” and a plot for an episode of “Seinfeld”).  Insofar as two “ideas” (or “plots”) are considered simply as “ideas,” they are “equal.”  When one considers what they represent (the interactions of actors, the motivations for behavior, the very behaviors themselves), however, it is difficult to say they are “equal.”  They represent things of greatly varying complexity. 


-As noted above, In his “Arguments Demonstrating the Existence of God and the Distinction Between Soul and Body, Drawn Up In Geometrical Fashion,” Descartes maintains that: “everything in which there resides immediately, as in a subject, or by means of which there exists anything that we perceive, i.e., any property, quality, or attribute, of which we have a real idea, is called a Substance; neither do we have any other idea of substance itself, precisely taken, than that it is a thing in which this something that we perceive or which is present objectively in some of our ideas, exists formally or eminently.  For by means of our natural light we know that a real attribute cannot be an attribute of nothing.”[56] 


-In his “Translator’s Preface” to Spinoza’s Ethics, Samuel Shirley discusses Spinoza’s use of “formal” and “objective” essences maintaining: “these are difficult terms not only to translate but to understand.  Here Spinoza takes over a Cartesian distinction which in turn is rooted in Scholastic philosophy.  Consider some existing thing, say the planet Saturn.  As an existing thing revolving around the sun Saturn has formal essence or reality….The formal essence, or being, of something is its very existence.  But in considering this planet we have made it an object of our thought.  As such it has objective essence or reality….Clearly, Saturn in the sky and Saturn in our mind are different things, although the latter is supposed to represent to us the former. 

  What makes this terminology confusing is that in current usage the term ‘subjective’ is often employed to express what the Scholastics meant by ‘objective.’  But the reader of Descartes and Spinoza should realize that when these philosophers use the term ‘objective’ they are talking about a mental representation of a thing, the thing as an object of thought.”[57] 


73-74 Descartes’ Causal Principle:


-Note the appeal to the natural light (of reason).[58] 


-Dependency of attributes and modes on substances; dependence of finite substances upon infinite substance: Everything which exists has a cause, or ex nihilo nihil fit. 


-Efficient, formal, eminent, and total causes; objective and formal reality:


--the “efficient cause” is the cause of the existence of an effect;


--the “formal cause” is the cause of character (or nature) of an effect.  The contrasting notion of a “formal or eminent cause” is clarified by Jean-Marie Beyssade in her “The Idea of God and the Proofs of His Existence” when she refers to the Second Replies: “who can give three coins to a beggar?  Either a poor man who has [formally] the coins in his purse, or a rich banker who has [eminently] far greater assets in his account....If I dream of three coins, they have only an “objective” reality (in my mind); if I wake up and either find them in my purse or their equivalent in my bank account, they also have “formal” reality (outside my mind); the three coins that existed “objectively” in my mind will now also exist “formally” (in my purse) or “eminently” (in my account).”[59]  One might also think of the difference between “being infected with a disease” (correlated with “formal reality”) and “carrying a disease” (correlated with “eminent reality”). 


--the “objective reality” of an idea is its representational capacity (‘objectif’ in French may be translated as “intentive” and designates an idea’s capacity of referring to something other than or more than itself); and


--the “formal reality” of a thing is its “nonideational reality”.  All ideas, as ideas (and not at representations of something else) have the same degree (or level) of reality—they are dependent upon minds (or thinking substances). 


In his Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry, Bernard Williams maintains that in this principle, “Descartes is in fact making two logically distinct assumptions: not only that the cause of any idea must have as much reality as the idea has objectively, but also, and more basically, that ideas must have causes at all.  Descartes does not in fact think that there are two different principles at work here.  He thinks that everything must have a cause, and he supposes that this is entailed by the causal principle...which states that the cause must contain as much reality as the effect; from which ‘it follows...that something cannot proceed from nothing’.  Descartes regarded it as self-evident that if the cause must have as much reality as the effect, then no real thing can proceed from ‘something’ that has no reality at all.  This reasoning indeed did appear self-evident to very many thinkers for a very long time; it was Hume who detected that the argument is circular.”[60] 


-The causal principle asserts that the cause of an idea must be at least real enough to cause this sort of idea—e.g., one which has this sort of objective reality (or representational capacity). 


-Our ideas have formal reality as modes of thought—as such, of course, they are neither true nor false however.  It is their objective reality which is in question, then, when we are discussing truth and falsity. 


--“It is a first principle that the whole of the reality or perfection that exists only objectively [representationally] in ideas must exist in them formally or in a superior manner in their causes.”[61] 


--Anthropology Example: find a tribe which has a picture of a pile of stones and a picture of a complex machine.[62]  The latter tells us something about the level of development of the tribe.  They must have such machines (or the imagination necessary to conceive of them).  “Higher order understanding” is exhibited by the second picture. 


74 If some idea is such that I can’t cause it—then I am not alone.  Dark Pool Analogy: if you are swimming alone in a dark pool and you feel something brush your leg, it is natural to reach the (alarming) conclusion that you are not alone. 


75 I have ideas of “...other men, animals, or angels” which I could have caused. 


I have various ideas of physical objects—I could cause them. 


76 There remains, then, only his idea of a deity. 


-Proof that Descartes could not be its cause. 


-Note the reasons offered and the strength of the conclusion!  Is the argument strong enough to legitimate the claim that “I must conclude that God necessarily exists?”[63] 


--Note that Descartes here says that “something can not come from nothing,” suggesting that “everything has a cause.”  Of course, he can not actually maintain this—his deity is not to be caused by anything! 


--Note that additional (and more powerful reasons are offered after the conclusion—both as the sentence continues and in the following pages:


-Positive and negative conception of a deity. 


-77 “Nor can it be said that this idea of God is perhaps materially false, and thus can originate from nothing....On the contrary, because it is most clear and distinct and because it contains more objective reality than any other idea, no idea is in and of itself truer and has less of a basis for being suspected of falsehood.  I maintain that this idea of a being that is supremely perfect and infinite is true in the highest degree true.  For although I could perhaps pretend that such a being does not exist, nevertheless I could not pretend that the idea of such a being discloses to me nothing real, as was the case with the idea of cold which I referred to earlier.” 


-Perhaps I am (potentially) this deity?  No—not even potentially!  Were I so, I would have made me different (no doubts)!  He says that: “...the objective being of an idea cannot be produced by a being, that is merely potentially existent, which, properly speaking is nothing, but only by a being existing formally or actually.” 


-78 Indeed, there is nothing in all these things that is not manifest by the light of nature to one who is conscientious and attentive.  But when I am less attentive, and the images of sensible things blind the mind’s eye, I do not so easily recall why the idea of a being more perfect than me necessarily proceeds from a being that really is more perfect. 


-79 Something must have created (and must “conserve”) me.  It couldn’t be myself! 


-Could I have been created by a lesser deity—there would, then, be the need for a (“perfect”) deity to cause this positive idea in that other being! 


-A cause—why not many?  Not a committee because of the simplicity and relatedness of the various conceptions contained in the idea of his deity.  [A camel is a horse made by a committee]. 


80 “Thus the only option remaining is that this idea is innate in me, just as the idea of myself is innate in me.  Recall the earlier distinction (p. 72) between innate ideas, adventitious (caused by something external) ideas, and ideas which are caused by oneself. 


Another appeal to the natural light “establishes” that this deity is not a deceiver. 


-Criticism: In his Working Without A Net: A Study of Egocentric Epistemology, Richard Foley maintains that:


…even were we to grant to Descartes his proof, his attempt to use God as an epistemic guarantee would still be problematic.  For even granting that there is a God who is by nature benevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient, it does not follow that God would not allow us to be deceived about what is clear and distinct.  To get this conclusion we would need detailed assurances about God’s ultimate aims and methods.  But, of course, it is no simple matter to get such assurances.  After all, for some reason that is beyond our ken, allow us to be deceived for our own good?  Might not God even allow us to be regularly deceived? [64] 


…regardless of how we marshal our cognitive resources, there can be no non-question-begging assurances that the resulting inquiry is even reliable, much less flawless.  This applies to metaphysical inquiry as much as it does to any other kind of inquiry.  A fortiori it applies to any metaphysical inquiry that purports to rule out the possibility of extensive error.  Any such metaphysics is likely to strike us as implausible, but even if it did not, even if were wholly convinced of its truth, it cannot provide us with a non-question-begging guarantee of its own truth.  Nor can it provide us with a non-question-begging guarantee of its likely truth.  And nothing else can either.[65] 

--Cf., p. 92 (in Fifth Meditation).  I discuss this conflict further in a supplement on the course website: A Brief Note On Descartes, Eternal Truths, and Rationality.


11. Summary of and Comments on the Third Meditation:


First, here is a “quick” summary of the core argument for the existence of a deity in Meditation Three:


1. He relies upon his knowledge of himself and his ideas, and upon the fact that he knows he is not perfect (he has, for example, doubts).  This knowledge is guaranteed by the cogito. 


2. He relies upon the ideas (which he has).  The mere “having” of them makes any doubt about them (as ideas) irrelevant.  Note that in this sense, however, the ideas are “merely had,” and are not “true or false.” 


3. He accepts the “causal principle” as guaranteed by the natural light of reason—that is, as clearly true, and as true as the cogito.  This is “new” (not established by earlier “meditations”). 


4. He accepts that (as it applies to “ideas”) this principle indicates that we must discuss both the “formal” and “objective” (that is, representational) reality of our ideas.  It is the latter sense which is relevant as the proof continues—individual ideas are distinguished in terms of their representational capacity (or “degree of objective reality). 


5. He relies upon his idea of the deity—a perfect, infinite, all-knowing, all-powerful, all-moral being.  The idea, as an idea, needs no justification.  As the most complex idea (speaking in terms of its representational reality), it is important that his “description” (characterization, depiction, etc.) of the idea be right. 


6. He contends that this idea is infinite in the “positive” sense.  Given this, it is unlikely he, a finite substance could have caused such an idea. 


7. He contends that this idea could not have been caused by multiple causes. 


8. He contends that he is not even potentially infinite, but if he were, that would not assign him sufficient objective reality to be able to cause an actually infinite idea. 


9. Thus, he concludes, he must conclude that his deity exists.  Only it could cause the idea he has. 

10. Since, by the natural light deception is an imperfection, this deity can not be a deceiver. 

     Secondly, here are a number of points we need to consider critically as we reflect on this Meditation:


(A). Is it always an imperfection to deceive?  Doctor-patient cases; Plato’s “noble lie;” Kant’s problem regarding the innocent individual who is being hunted by a vicious person; parents telling their children about Santa Claus and the tooth-fairy; etc. 


(B). Cosmological vs. ontological proofs of a deity’s existence. 


(C). Bernard Williams notes that:


an idea, even when viewed from the point of view of its objective reality, is still an idea, and hence, in Descartes’ metaphysical classification, is a mode, a mode of the attribute of thought.  It must, therefore, by an ontological ordering, possess less reality than a substance, (in particular, than himself).  To bring about this mode (and it is after all the existence of the idea that is at issue) surely cannot demand quite as much reality or perfection as is required by, or possessed by, its object.[66] 


(D). In his David Hume, Anthony Flew offers a succinct criticism of the sort of argument offered by Descartes in this Meditation:


the form of these arguments is egregiously unsound in as much as the desired conclusions, not merely do not follow from, but are also actually incompatible with, the proffered premises….[for example] arguing that, since everything must have a cause, and since the chain of causes allegedly cannot extend indefinitely backwards in time, therefore there must have been, in the beginning, a First Cause![67] 


(E) When Descartes says that he needs to establish that his deity exists and is not a deceiver if he is to be certain of anything other than the cogito (and suggests that even that might be in doubt without such knowledge), and when he speaks of his deity’s power as utterly unlimited and beyond our scope of understanding, he almost seems to allow for what he explicitly postulates at other times—that the deity is not necessarily limited by logic (or anything else).  This suggests that his “epistemological schizophrenia” runs very deep in his view—he both wants to found his theory upon what is [absolutely] clear and distinct and revealed by the “light of nature,” and he wants to allow that these deliverances are truthful only if guaranteed by his deity.  He can’t have it both ways, however.  I discuss this conflict further in a supplement on the course website: A Brief Note On Descartes, Eternal Truths, and Rationality. 


Notes: [click on note number to return to the text for the note]

[1] Stephen Toulmin, Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 1990), p. 73.

[2] Scheman is quoting from Richard H. Popkin, The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Descartes (N.Y.: Harper & Row, 1964), p. 55.  

[3] Naomi Scheman, “Othello’s Doubt/Desdemona’s Death: The Engendering of Scepticism,” in Epistemology: The Big Questions, ed. Linda Alcoff (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), pp. 365-381, p. 366.  The essay originally appeared in Power, Gender, and Values, ed. Judith Genova (Edmonton: Academic Pub. Co, 1987), pp. 57-74. 

[4] Ibid., p. 369. 

[5] Ibid., p. 371. 

[6] Cf., Galileo Galilei, “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina” [1615], trans. Stillman Drake, in The Philosophy of the 16th and 17th Centuries, ed. Richard H. Popkin (New York:  Free Press, 1966), p. 62. 

[7] See Appendix I for an account of the metaphysical view Descartes was reacting against. 

[8] “Psychological” certainty would be where a specific individual finds herself unable to raise doubts (because of her psychological constitution, or her deeply felt convictions, or her predispositions, etc.), for example, she might be certain that her significant other was faithful to her; “logical” certainty would be where no individual is able to raise valid doubts (because logic rules them out), for example, regarding the claim that bachelors are unmarried males of the age of consent; and “metaphysical” certainty would be where no doubts whatsoever could be raised (where error is absolutely inconceivable). 

[9] For a bit more detail on his method of doubt, see Appendix II. 

[10] I will not be as careful as I should be in distinguishing between “experiences” and “ideas.”  There are translators of Descartes who take his talk of mentality to be talk of experience generically (all “contents of consciousness”), while others point out that he is primarily concerned with our “ideas” (in the sense of “propositions”).  While I think Descartes himself is sometimes unclear on this issue, I believe that he is primarily concerned with our “ideas” in the latter sense and with trying to ensure that they are true.  Ultimately, of course, if he is concerned with developing a deductive structure to ensure the justification of his claims, it must be propositions which he is concerned with.  A proposition is a sentence which is capable of being true or false (thus, commands and questions are not such). 

[11] Ultimately, Descartes’ definition of ‘substance’ is that it is something which is not dependent upon anything else, and, given his views of divine creation, it follows that both [finite] ‘physical substance’ and [finite] ‘mental substance’ are oxymorons. 

[12] For clarification of the distinction between the sort of deity discussed by philosophers and the deity as many conceive it cf. Anthony Kenny, The God of the Philosophers (Oxford: Oxford U.P., 1979). 

[13] The phrase ‘natural reason’ needs clarification here.  In using this phrase, Descartes means to indicate that he wishes to prove these things without appeal to revelation or faith.  It is reason alone that is to be the court of appeal—it alone is to provide justification for our beliefs and theories. 

[14] Albert W. Levi, Philosophy As Social Expression (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 1974), p. 209.  Levi has it wrong at one point here—he terms the poof in the of the deity’s existence in the Third Meditation “ontological,” whereas that is the proper designation of the Fifth Meditation proof. 

[15] Cf., “Chapter IV Tweedledum and Tweedledee” in Louis Carroll, Through The Looking Glass [1871], in The Annotated Alice: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, ed. Martin Gardner (N.Y.: Meridian, 1963), pp. 229-244. 

[16] Cf., Jorge Luis Borges, “The Circular Ruins,” in The Light Fantastic, ed. Harry Harrison (N.Y.: Scribners, 1971). 

[17] Jostein Gaarder, Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy, trans. Paulette Moller (N.Y.: Farr, Straus and Giroux, 1994), p. 177. 

[18] M.F. Burnyeat, “Idealism and Greek Philosophy: What Descartes Saw and Berkeley Missed,” The Philosophical Review v. 91 (1982), pp. 3-40, p. 19—emphasis is added to the passage twice. 

[19] C.A.J. Coady, Testimony: A Philosophical Study (Oxford: Oxford U.P., 1992), p. 12, footnote. 

[20] G.E. Moore, Philosophical Papers (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1959), pp. 248-249.  D. Blumenfeld and J.B. Blumenfeld’s “Can I Know That I Am Not Dreaming,” in Descartes: Critical and Interpretive Essays, ed. Michael Hooker (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), pp. 234-255, has an excellent discussion of the dreaming argument.  Norman Malcolm has a more complex discussion of Descartes’ “dreaming argument” in his “Dreaming and Skepticism,” which is collected in Descartes: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Willis Doney (Garden City: Anchor, 1967), pp. 54-79—this essay originally appeared in The Philosophical Review v. 65 (1956), pp. 14-37. 

[21] Cf., Jay Rosenberg, The Practice of Philosophy (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1984), pp. 15-17.  Note that this argument applies to both the “evil demon” and the “dreaming” arguments (it can’t all be a dream without the notion of a dream being undercut). 

[22] Gilbert Ryle, Dilemmas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960), pp. 94-95. 

[23] David Stove, “‘I Only Am Escaped Alone to Tell Thee:’ Epistemology and the Ishmael Effect” in his The Plato Cult (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991), pp. 61-82, p. 75. 

[24] J.L. Austin, Sense and Sensibilia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962), p. 11.  Cf., Anthony Kenny, Descartes: A Study of His Philosophy (New York: Random House, 1968), p. 25; and O.K. Bouwsma, “Descartes’ Evil Genius” in Meta-Meditations, ed. A. Sesonske (Belmont: Wadsworth, 1965)—this essay originally appeared in The Philosophical Review v. 58 (1949), pp. 141-151. 

[25] Gerald Edelman, Bright Air, Brilliant Fire (N.Y.: Basic Books, 1992), pp. 34-35. 

[26] Daniel Zalewski, “Even Blind People Can Draw,” New York Times Magazine, December 15, 2002, p. 88. 

[27] Ibid. 

[28] Cf., Rene Descartes, Discourse on the Method for Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and for Seeking Truth in the Sciences [1637], trans. Donald A. Cress, in Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy, trans. Donald A. Cress (fourth edition) (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998), p. 18. 

[29] Cf., Descartes, Principles of Philosophy [1644] I 9, in The Philosophical Works of Descartes v. 1 [1911], trans. E.S. Haldane and G.R.T Ross (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1969), p. 222. 

[30] Cf., Jorge Luis Borges, “The Circular Ruins,” op. cit. 

[31] Cf., The Annotated Alice, ed. Martin Gardner, op. cit. 

[32] Descartes, Principles of Philosophy, op. cit., I 7, p. 221. 

[33] Cited in Avrum Stroll and Richard Popkin, Introduction to Philosophy (N.Y.: Holt Rinehart, 1972) (second edition), p. 44. 

[34] Rene Descartes, “Arguments Demonstrating the Existence of God and the Distinction Between Soul and Body, Drawn Up In Geometrical Fashion,” published as part of the “Objections and Replies” in 1641 with the Meditations, in The Philosophical Works of Descartes v. 2, op. cit., p. 53.  Emphasis [bold] added to the passage. 

[35] Descartes, Principles of Philosophy I 51, op. cit., pp. 239-240. 

[36] Cf., John Morris, “Descartes’ Natural Light,” Journal of the History of Philosophy v. 11 (1973), pp. 169-187. 

[37] Note that the question “What is the essential characteristic of a knife?” presumes that there is an essential characteristic of knives.  Aristotle makes such an assumption, and assumes that the essence of knives is “to cut well.”  Those of us who live in a “peanut butter age” might maintain that knives have a variety of functions and that there is no one of them which is essential.  Similarly, one might contend, there might be a variety of characteristics which are relevant when Descartes’ question is asked regarding the self. 

[38] Descartes, Principles of Philosophy, op. cit., I 10, p. 222.  Note that he here allows that there are things which need to be known prior to the cogito.  Does this undercut his argument in any way? 

[39] Francois Poullain de la Barre, On the Equality of the Two Sexes [1673, anonymously], in Francois Poullian de la Barre: Three Cartesian Feminist Treatises, ed. Marcelle Welch, trans. Vivian Bosley (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 2002), pp. 49-121, p. 82. 

[40] Bernard Williams, Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry (Harmonsworth: Penguin, 1978), p. 125.  Cf., pp. 124-129. 

[41] R.S. Woolhouse, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz: The Concept of Substance in Seventeenth-Century Metaphysics (London: Routledge, 1993), pp. 18-19. 

[42] The discussion of the status of the cogito which follows is largely lifted from Fred Feldman, A Cartesian Introduction to Philosophy (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1986). 

[43] Bertrand Russell, An Outline of Philosophy (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1927), p. 7.  With this objection Russell is bringing to bear the distinction we raised earlier regarding the difference between the occurrent and substantial conception of the self.  The question here is: what entitles Descartes to assume that there is anything more than the mere occurrence of thinking? 

[44] Fred Feldman, A Cartesian Introduction to Philosophy, op. cit, p. 66. 

[45] Rene Descartes, Rules For the Direction of the Mind [posthumous, 1628], in The Philosophical Works of Descartes, v. 1, op. cit., p. 7. 

[46] Ibid., p. 70. 

[47] Jostein Gaarder, Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy, trans. Paulette Moller (N.Y.: Farr, Straus and Giroux, 1994), p. 350.  

[48] Miguel de Unamuno, Tragic Sense of Life, trans. C.J. Flitch (N.Y.: Macmillan, 1921), p. 34. 

[49] Rene Descartes, Discourse on the Method for Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and for Seeking Truth in the Sciences, op. cit.—Part IV is on pp. 18-23. 

[50] For clarification of the distinction between the sort of deity discussed by philosophers and the deity as many conceive it, cf. Anthony Kenny, The God of the Philosophers, op. cit. 

[51] This example is discussed in detail in Bernard Williams, in his Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry, op. cit, pp. 138-142. 

[52] Descartes, Principles of First Philosophy, I 45, op. cit., p. 237. 

[53] This is why it makes sense to speak about a level of certainty beyond the “psychological” and the “logical”—he needs certainty which is greater than that provided by logical truths, certainty which “survives” such “metaphysical doubts.” 

[54] Cf., Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy [1641], trans. E.S. Haldane and G.R.T. Ross, in their edition of The Philosophical Works of Descartes v. 1, op. cit., p. 159 and pp. 183-184.  Cf., also “Reply to Objections II,” op. cit., pp. 38- 39.  Most telling here, where there is a question raised by Cress’ translation, is a long paragraph from “Meditation Five” on p. 91 of Cress’ translation.  Whichever translation is correct, the supporting citations from Descartes show that his “epistemological paranoia” is extensive. 

[55] Cf., Alan Gewirth, “The Cartesian Circle,” Philosophical Review v. 50 (1941), pp. 368-395; and Edwin B. Allaire, “The Circle of Ideas and the Circularity of the Meditations,” Dialogue v. 2 (1966), pp. 131-153. 

[56] Rene Descartes, “Arguments Demonstrating the Existence of God and the Distinction Between Soul and Body, Drawn Up In Geometrical Fashion,” op. cit., p. 53. 

[57] Samuel Shirley, “Translator’s Preface” to his translation of Baruch Spinoza’s Ethics, Treatise on The Emendation of the Intellect, and Selected Letters (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992), pp. 21-29, pp. 26-27. 

[58] Cf., John Morris, “Descartes’ Natural Light,” op. cit. 

[59] Jean-Marie Beyssade, “The Idea of God and the Proofs of His Existence,” trans. James Cottingham, in The Cambridge Companion to Descartes, ed. James Cottingham (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1992), pp. 174-199, p. 197, footnotes 13 and 14. 

[60] Bernard Williams, Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry, op. cit., p. 141. 

[61] Descartes, “Replies to Second Objections,” The Philosophical Works of Descartes v. II, op. cit., p. 35. 

[62] As noted above, this example is discussed in Bernard Williams, Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry, op. cit., pp. 138-142. 

[63] Note that Descartes clearly overstates what he has demonstrated here.  He has not established the necessary existence of his deity—his proof begins with the contingent facts of his [Descartes’] existence, the existence of his idea [of a deity], and the contingent fact of his limitations.  No proof of necessary existence is possible given such contingent foundations!  What Descartes may claim (I will not say “legitimately claim,” since the proof may have serious problems) is that “we must conclude that God exists”—here the ‘must’ (or ‘necessarily’) modifies the concluding, not the deity’s existence! 

[64] Richard Foley, Working Without A Net: A Study of Egocentric Epistemology (N.Y.: Oxford U.P., 1993), p 74. 

[65] Ibid. 

[66] Bernard Williams, Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry, op. cit., p. 143. 

[67] Anthony Flew, David Hume (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), p. 33. 

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Last revised on: 09/15/2014