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Descartes 2 Essay, Research Paper


FROM: Descartes, Philosophy of Rene Descartes: Meditations on First Philosophy, Monarch Notes, 1 Jan 1963.


The Meditations were written in Latin and first published in Paris in

1641. Descartes dedicated this book to the Dean and Faculty of Theology at the

University of Paris. He believed that the approbation of those theologians

would constitute a public testimony of approval and support of the truth in

the content of his work.

The Meditations are the most important of all of Descartes’ works. They

contain his full metaphysical and epistemological position. He considers the

problems of the sources and nature of knowledge; the validity of truth; the

nature and destiny of man; the existence of God, and the creation of the

universe. This work is detailed far more than the Discourse.


In the first meditation Descartes explains the reasons for his

methodological doubts. The second meditation describes the nature of the human

mind. The third meditation presents Descartes’ chief argument for the

existence of God. The fourth meditation shows the nature of error and points

out the requirements for conforming truths. The fifth meditation illustrates

the essence of corporeal nature and presents another demonstration of the

existence of God. The sixth and final meditation differentiates the soul from

the body.


In a preface to the reader, Descartes replies to some of the

philosophical criticisms of his earlier book, the Discourse. He continues in

the preface to describe his effort to meditate seriously upon the important

questions of God and the human soul. His readers are advised to detach their

minds from sense pursuits. When they are enabled to remove all prejudices from

their characters, it becomes possible to realize the maximum benefit of these


Meditation I


Descartes declares that it was vital for him to wait until he was a

mature man prior to undertaking the great task embodied in the purpose of this

book. Initially he felt that all of his earlier beliefs must be removed.

Attacking the underlying assumptions of his former beliefs, he asserts that

everything he knew in the past was based upon sense perception. The senses,

however, may be deceptive in that the minute objects are apprehended they may

appear differently from various points of view. It is highly probable that

other things which appear certain through sensation may in reality be the

products of illusions.

Yet there are some objects of sensations which must be accepted as true.

For instance, Descartes affirms that he is seated by the fire clothed in a

winter dressing gown. It would be insane to deny his knowledge of his own

body. We must admit certain characteristics of objects. For instance,

extension, figure, quantity, number, place, time, may be imputed to objects.

In addition, there are mathematical truths relative to objects. We know a

square has four sides and not five.

The sciences which are concerned with composite or complex objects, are

less reliable in the truth of their propositions than the sciences which are

concerned with simple and general objects like arithmetic and geometry. Yet,

Descartes asks, how can I be certain that the knowledge I possess is in

reality true? In order to build a valid structure of knowledge he affirms that

he will consider all external reality as illusion. Even the perfect God will

be questioned in this universal doubt. He will assume the possibility that God

is a malignant demon who deliberately attempts to deceive him. In effect,

Descartes intends to suspend all judgment.

Descartes concludes this meditation with the observation that it is

extremely arduous to accomplish this doubtful state of mind. There is a

tendency for the human mind to return to former beliefs as a secure means of

resolving its problems. In the event that man permits this regression, he may

find it impossible to ever dispel the intellectual darkness.


The Cartesian doubt reflects a contempt for an erudition based upon the

literature of the past. Descartes is not concerned with the arguments from the

great authorities of the past. He bases knowledge upon individual

intelligence. While Descartes approaches philosophy from an a priori position

independent of sense experience, his position regarding the attitude of doubt

necessary for the mind to arrive at truth is the unique contribution which he

makes to science and modern philosophy.

This initial meditation summarizes the earlier position of Descartes

found in the Discourse. In this first meditation, the foundation of Descartes’

philosophy has been restated in the detailed explanation of the rationale

behind his universal doubt. The real beginning of this book is the second


Meditation II


Descartes declares that the acceptance of his universal doubt likens him

to a swimmer plunged suddenly into deep water. He is unable to touch bottom

and unable to see the surface. In this floundering fashion he must achieve

the security of one certain fixed position by which he will know from whence

to proceed. In ancient times, Archimedes thought that it would be possible

for him to move the entire earth if only he could establish one fixed

absolute point. The search for a certain point of departure is vital if one

is to arrive at truthful knowledge from a position of universal doubt.

Descartes asserts that he assumes at this stage that everything is

false. He assumes there is no memory, senses, body, or any reality. It is

therefore possible that he is being deceived by the illusion of reality.

However, if he is being deceived, it follows that he must exist as a deceived

person. In this state of existence I ask, what am I?

Descartes asserts that in the past he believed that he was a man and

that a man was a rational animal. At present he cannot accept this. It would

be necessary for him to prove what an animal was and then determine the nature

of rationality. This is too complicated a problem at this moment of universal

doubt. In similar fashion all the attributes of the body, including his face,

hands, and arms, his senses and feeling that he occupies space as a unique

body separate from all others, must be held in doubt. The only proposition

that he can make at this juncture is that he is a thinking thing. He knows

that he exists only when he is thinking.

I am conscious that I exist. I who know, says Descartes, that I exist

ask the question, “what am I?” Having established that he is a thinking

thing, he proceeds to the problem of what a thinking thing actually is. He

concludes that he is the same being who performs the intellectual activities

of doubting, understanding, affirming, denying, willing, refusing, imagining

and perceiving.

He then proceeds to the more difficult task of proving the existence of

a material body beyond his mental state. He asserts that the body appears more

certain to men because they are able to touch and see a particular body. Yet

when we consider a piece of wax fresh from the beehive, we assume that this

wax possesses the definite characteristics that its color, figure, and size

present to our senses. It seems to have the odor of flowers and is cool and

hard to the touch. But when we place this wax in the fire, all that seems

real to the senses regarding the nature of wax disappears. All that can be

asserted about it is that it is extended, movable, and flexible. The

perception of this wax is not an act of sight, touch or imagination. It is an

intuition of the human mind. All material objects are understood by the mind


It is very difficult to eliminate one’s reliance upon sense knowledge.

Yet we must accommodate ourselves to a reliance upon our minds. Descartes

marvels at the source of error in the mind which occurs from the use of

language. For instance, the same word “wax” is used to describe the same

substance before and after its subjection to the fire. The meaning of words

may create ambiguity and error in thought. In man’s effort to build

knowledge, he must introspectively look within his mind, erasing all sense



Descartes admits intuition as a source of knowledge. While deduction is

admitted as a reliable source of truth, this is considered more complex.

Deduction requires inference and relationships. Deduction, therefore, cannot

be the source by which Descartes asserts his first principle. Existence is

something that is intuited. That is, it is apprehended immediately by an

attentive intellect as true. There exists no possible doubt regarding its

truth. Since this assurance does not proceed from a sensation of external

reality, this rational knowledge is independent of sense experience.

Descartes makes a clear distinction between faith and reason. He cannot

assert his belief in reality on faith at all. Faith to Descartes pertains to

the will alone. It is not an intellectual matter. Faith is something that is

accepted upon trust because we choose to believe it.

Meditation III


Descartes affirms that he is a thinking being who doubts and affirms,

denies and knows. He is certain that he thinks because his knowledge is both

clear and distinct. Although he knows himself, he must establish the

existence of God in order to proceed further into a clear and distinct

knowledge of reality. While no evidence exists to support the supposition

that God deceives his mind into believing in an extra-mental reality,

Descartes states that he must first demonstrate the existence of God prior

to making any inquiry into the possibility of deception.

Descartes proceeds in his demonstration of the existence of God by

analyzing the nature of thought. An idea may be an image, a form, or a

judgment. The image or the apprehended form is never false. The source of

error lies in our judgment. It is necessary to formulate a judgment that this

given idea conforms ith the object it represents. Here resides the most

common source of error in judgment.

Some ideas may be innate. Some ideas are adventitious in that they come

involuntarily into the mind from outside. Other ideas are factitious in that

they are manufactured by myself by combining innate and adventitious ideas.

My innate ideas are guaranteed by nature – a spontaneous force that compels

my assent to the resemblance between my idea and the object my idea

represents. In the act by which I believe my idea of the object represents

the reality of the object, I am motivated by a blind impulse as the source of

my belief. Therefore, I cannot prove rationally that objects exist outside my

mind on this basis.

Descartes asks that our ideas be viewed as modes of consciousness. The

idea is purely subjective in that it resides only in the mind. If we consider

those ideas that are images, we observe a variety of ideas all varying in

perfection. Since the idea is an effect, the cause of this effect must possess

as much reality as the effect. It may be asserted that any cause must have as

much perfection as its effect. For instance, a stone cannot exist unless it

is produced by a cause at least as perfect as the stone. The idea of heat

must be produced in my mind by a cause with as much perfection as the heat.

When this principle is applied to his idea of God, Descartes asserts that the

cause, God, must have as much reality and perfection as his idea of God which

is in the effect. It is of the nature of perfection that a thing is perfect

only if it exists. Therefore, a perfect God must exist.

Descartes knows that he is not the cause of his own idea of God. He

thinks that any idea of an infinite, perfect, all-knowing God transcends his

own mental ability. God, therefore, causes the idea of God in his mind.

Because God is the cause, and the cause possesses as much perfection and

reality as the effect (the idea of God), and an object is perfect only if it

includes the concept of existence, Descartes asserts that the perfect cause,

God, truly exists.

Descartes demonstrates additionally that God exists by reason of the fact

that he himself exists as a thinking being having a concept of God. He asserts

that if he existed as an independent being possessing every perfection, he

would be God. Obviously his lack of perfection precludes the possibility of

this. However, what exactly is the cause of his existence? As a dependent

being, he asks upon whom he depends. If it is stated that he is dependent upon

some other less perfect being than God, then the question will arise as to the

source of this being’s dependence. Eventually it is necessary to state that an

all-perfect necessary being, possessing all the attributes of God, exists as

the cause of Descartes’ own contingent existence.

Since Descartes believes he has established that God caused the idea of

God in his mind, he next inquires into the problem of how he received this

idea from God. Descartes concludes that this idea is innate in him. At the

moment of his creation, God imposed the idea of himself in the mind of

Descartes very much like a worker stamping his name to the product of his

making. Descartes apprehends this idea in the same intuitive way that he

understands the fact of his own thinking existence. He does not deduce God’s

existence. He knows this immediately and intuitively.

Descartes concludes that the contemplation of the idea of God is the

source of greatest happiness in life. Although he admits that this is

incomparably less perfect than the contemplation of God in the life to come as

faith suggests, it is a fact of experience that the contemplation of God

provides great happiness.


It is important to note that Descartes proceeds from the idea of the

infinite to the idea of the finite. This idea of God is the source of his

belief in the reality of objects that are extra-mental. The innate truth of an

infinite and perfect God is considered to be in the highest degree true.

However, Descartes does not assert that he knows God in the same manner in

which he knows his own selfhood. Because God is infinite, He is

incomprehensible to the finite mind. Descartes declares his pleasure in

contemplating this idea of the infinite God but does not suggest that he knows

the infinity of perfections that exist formally in God. There is a real

distinction or a real dualism that exists between the finite and the infinite

consciousness. Man is not identical with God. He is separate from God by

reason of his limitation and finite nature.

Meditation IV


Descartes asserts that his idea of God and the infinite is more clear and

distinct than any idea of finite reality. This idea of God provides a path for

the discovery of the treasures of science and wisdom which reside perfectly in

God. His belief in extra-mental reality cannot be due to any deceptive action

of God. God is a perfect being and deception is imperfect by its nature. Any

mental errors that exist in his mind find their sources in his imperfect

nature. Errors do not proceed from God from the fact that any error is lacking

in reality. It is a defect or privation of knowledge.

It is conceivable that God might have created him as a being incapable of

being deceived. However, any inquiry into this area must presume some

understanding and judgment of the actions of God. God is infinite and

incomprehensible in His nature. The final cause or the purpose for the

creation of things as they are transcends the limited and finite understanding

of man. Descartes asserts that his mind is totally incapable of understanding

God’s actions. Therefore, it is pointless to ask why he has been created in

such a way that he is capable of falling into error. However, each individual

creature must be viewed not as an individual but as a part of the universe as

a whole. Somehow, the imperfections of the individual contribute to the

creation of the perfect universe.

Regarding the source of error, Descartes declares that he discerns that

he possesses a faculty of cognition and one of election or free choice. There

is no possibility of error in the understanding or cognition by itself. The

understanding merely apprehends the idea. When error enters into the

situation, it does this through the action of the will. However, it is not the

power of willing, but the failure of the individual to restrain his will that

creates errors. The will must be restrained or limited to choosing only those

objects which are fully understood by the intellect. Clear and distinct ideas

are necessarily true. These ideas move the will to action when the ideas

reside in the intellect. Descartes asserts that the great clarity of the

concept of his own existence residing in the intellect moved his will to

accept this truth.

Whenever any idea is lacking clarity or distinction it is necessary to

restrain the will from judging the idea as either true or idea until such time

that the idea may become clear and distinct false. The individual must assert

a state of doubt regarding the Descartes concludes that the action by which he

abstains from judgment of an unclear idea is correct. Failure on his part to

limit his will opens the door to possible error.

Descartes concludes this meditation by asserting that any errors that he

accepted in the past were the result of his own imperfections and limitations.

He cannot complain or blame anyone else for those errors which were the result

of his own choosing. He possessed always the power to restrain his will. He

had the advantage of obtaining clear and distinct knowledge. This knowledge

would incline his will to choose the right act or object. In addition, he

possessed the resolution to suspend all judgment whenever a truth was not

clearly known to him.

Meditation V

This meditation examines the nature of matter. Descartes analyzes his

idea of matter and reasserts his ontological proof for the existence of God.

Descartes declares that he will abandon the important questions regarding

the nature of God and the nature of the human mind for the moment. In this

meditation he undertakes the question of the certainty of his knowledge of

material objects.

He proceeds by examining his conscious ideas regarding corporeal nature

in order to ascertain which of these ideas are clear and distinct. Because

clear and distinct ideas proceed from God, they may be accepted upon all

occasions as truth.

Descartes affirms that he can imagine distinctly the characteristic of

quantity which is called continuous in the philosophical sense, when he

reflects upon the idea of matter. In addition, he can imagine the extension of

the material object with its correlate length, breadth, and depth.

Furthermore, it is clear to him that he can enumerate all the many attributes

of matter. These attributes constitute size, figure, situations, and local

motions. Each motion, he asserts, can be assigned certain degrees of duration.

Therefore, Descartes accounts for the phenomena of time.

Continuing his analysis, introspectively regarding his ideas concerning

matter, Descartes asserts that all material objects contain a definite nature.

There is a determined form or essence to each object. This essence is

immutable and eternal. For instance, he can formulate a clear and distinct

idea of a triangle. The triangle possesses a distinct form or essence. My

knowledge of this essence proceeds from my reason alone, asserts Descartes.

Obviously he can never sense an essence. The form is abstracted through the

intellectual processes of the mind. Since the idea in the mind is both clear

and distinct, he knows it is a true idea of material reality. Material objects

must therefore exist. The qualities which he imputes to material objects must

similarly exist.

Descartes demonstrates the existence of God in the same manner. He has an

idea in his mind of a perfect God. This is a clear and distinct idea. Because

the clear ideas are true, he may proceed with an analysis of the concept of

perfection. A thing cannot be perfect if it is merely imagined in his mind. A

perfect object is truly perfect only when it includes the attribute of

existence. Therefore, the idea of a perfect God necessarily includes

existence. Hence, God exists.

Having demonstrated the existence of God to his own satisfaction,

Descartes uses this knowledge to strengthen his affirmation that material

objects have a real existence. It is evident that if material objects had no

real existence and I possessed a clear and distinct idea of their existence,

God would be guilty of deception. All clear and distinct ideas proceed from

God. However, God is perfect and cannot possess any imperfection. We would be

forced to assume He was imperfect if he deceived us into believing the clear

and distinct idea regarding the existence of material objects. Therefore, the

existence of a perfect God insures our belief that material objects truly

exist as our clear and distinct ideas reveal.

Descartes anticipates several possible objections to his position. It

might be argued that there is a real distinction between essence and

existence. Hence, my idea of the essence of a perfect God does not include the

concept of existence. Descartes replies that in God essence is existence.

Existence is the supreme perfection and can never be separated from essence.

Since essence and existence are one, the argument has no weight.

Another argument might be proposed from the possibility that Descartes

cannot be certain that his analysis of corporeal nature does not proceed from

a dream state. In fact, what he considers material might be pure illusion.

Descartes replies that it is irrelevant whether he is dreaming or awake. He

still has a clear and distinct idea in his mind. Clear and distinct ideas are

necessarily true. Consequently, his idea of material nature must be true.


When Descartes reflected upon the nature of intuition, he evolved his

criteria of truth. An object is truthful when the idea of it in the mind is

clear and distinct. An idea is clear when the concept stimulates the will to

accept it as true. This is a forceful stimulation. An idea is distinct when

the concept is so precise and so different from all other ideas that the will

is moved and the intellect is forced to comprehend it.

Meditation VI

In this, the final meditation, Descartes continues his demonstration of

the validity of his idea of the existence of material reality. He finally

discusses the difference between the soul and the body in man.


While his ideas regarding material things must certainly be accepted as

true, Descartes wonders if material things have a real existence independently

of his ideas. Although he is more certain regarding the idea of his own

existence and the existence of God, Descartes believes that it is certain that

there is a material existence. The fact that mathematics describes material

objects with clear and distinct ideas supports the fact of the objective

existence of material reality.

Descartes begins his intellectual demonstration of the certainty of

material existence by distinguishing between the imagination and intellection

or conception. It is possible for him to imagine the existence of a triangle

or even a pentagon. Through his imagination he is able to conceive a picture

of three sides or another picture of five sides. However, he asserts it is

impossible for his to imagine a chiliagon, which is a thousand-sided figure.

Although he cannot imagine a chiliagon, he can conceive it intellectually.

Evidently there is a special effort of the human mind which adds to the action

of imagination. This suggests to Descartes that imagination indicates the

mere probability of material existence while intellection may infer the

necessity of material existence. It is not possible to make a necessary

inference of corporeal existence from imagination because intellection is

necessary to the act of imagination.

Proceeding further, Descartes recalls many of the concepts which he

believed were true in the past upon the basis of sense information alone. It

is his intention to examine the reasons for doubting the existence of these

things in order to inquire into those ideas he ought to accept as clearly

and distinctly true.

In the past Descartes asserts that he believed that he had no

knowledge unless it proceeded through the senses. As a result, his ideas were

lacking in clarity and distinction. Such a belief leads inevitably to

skepticism and complete doubt of everything.

It was natural for him to accept the erroneous belief that knowledge

proceeded through the senses. His first perception indicates that he

possesses a head, hands, feet, composing a material body. His sensations,

further indicated that he enjoyed pleasure and suffered pain. He experienced

sensually the variety of passions such as joy, sadness, and anger. These

sensations occur through no deliberation or act of his will. They appear

involuntarily and therefore suggest the existence of an outside cause. Yet

Descartes asserts that it is not possible to affirm the existence of material

objects which exist independently of himself with clear and distinct truths.

As he grew older and acquired many more experiences, Descartes realized

the weaknesses inherent in thinking that material reality exists as a result

of sense knowledge alone. With increasing experiences, Descartes’ faith in the

validity of sense knowledge weakened by degrees. It was apparent to him that

the same object appeared differently upon separate occasions when sensed. For

instance, a tower might appear round when viewed on one occasion and again

seem square when inspected from another vantagepoint upon a different

occasion. It is evident that sense information leads to errors in human


If he were to depend upon sense knowledge alone, it would be impossible

for him to determine whether or not he was asleep or awake. The same senses

present a reality to the dreaming mind that is pure illusion, but that

indicate extra-mental reality to the awakened mind. How then can anyone be

certain as to the existence of material reality? Although my sense impressions

are independent of my will, Descartes states, I cannot draw the conclusion

that what senses reputedly represent has real existence. Descartes believes

that he cannot be certain that his sensation proceeds from a sensed object.

Nor can he be certain that the object exists in reality as the senses report


At present, Descartes asserts that he knows clearly that he was produced

by God as a thinking being. With the certain knowledge of his own thinking

existence, he began to know himself better and to recognize the Author of his


Descartes declares that he possesses a passive faculty by which he is

enabled to receive sense impressions. This suggests the presence of an active

faculty existing independently of his mind. The active faculty produces the

images which are received in my mind. Now, this active faculty must be either

God or some object existing independently of my mind. Descartes affirms that

it could never be God. Sense knowledge is frequently erroneous, and

obviously God cannot be the source of error. Therefore, he concludes that

these ideas arise from the presence of a corporeal object which exists in


There are some material objects which are particular in nature. For

example, objects such as the sun are not so clearly understood. Descartes

asserts that the source of belief resides in God. God cannot deceive because

deception is an imperfection. Because of His perfect nature, God presents

ideas that are clear and distinct to the mind. Consequently, we ought to

accept these ideas as true. There exists, therefore, a material reality

composed of material and at times corporeal existence. Furthermore, God is the

cause of nature and nature teaches one that material reality exists. Nature

teaches Descartes that he possesses a material body. The feelings of hunger,

thirst, and pain are real and exist because he has a material body. Evidently

the mind is not the source of hunger. Therefore we ought to accept the

evidence of material existence which nature dictates.

Descartes believes that he is lodged in his body as a pilot lives in a

ship. As a result, his mind and his body compose a certain type of unity. The

feelings he experiences, such as those that evoke pleasure and pain, are a

confusing mode of thinking which results from the interaction of the mind with

the body. The needs of the body exist because of the materialistic and

mechanical nature of the body. These are known by the mind.

Nature teaches that other bodies exist. It is apparent that they exist

from the interaction between his body and other material bodies. Some material

objects are a source of pleasure and other objects represent a source of pain

to the body. Although nature may lead man to desire the wrong thing, nature is

never the cause of error. Error resides in human judgment. For instance,

nature may lead one to desire poisoned food. Nature impels one to desire this

food because of the agreeable taste of food, not because there is poison in

the food. It is human judgment that determines whether or not the food ought

to be taken. Therefore, neither nature nor our bodies deceive us.

There are enormous differences between the mind and the body. The mind of

man is not divisible. The body may lose one of its parts, such as a foot, but

will continue to function. However, the mind may never be diminished. The mind

may receive sense impressions from the brain, and as a result act in its

thought processes with unity. It does not receive impressions directly from

the separate parts of the body.

Descartes asserts his clear conviction that he is a thinking being and

therefore spiritual in nature. He is therefore distinct in kind from the

material nature of his body. His mind inhabits the body. Because the mind

must interact with the body, it is understandable that errors might be

possible due to the weakness and imperfection of such a union. Realizing this

imperfection places the mind on guard against the possibility of error. The

importance of restraining the will to move only towards those ideas that are

clear and distinct is imperative if we are to avoid error.


Descartes affirms that the nature or essence of matter is extension. The

essence of mind is thinking. Consequently, the two realities exist. Both are

different from each other in kind. This position of metaphysical dualism is

central to the question of man’s nature.

Since the mind and the body are distinct in kind, the problem arises

regarding the interaction of the two. How is it possible for an immaterial

substance to come into contact with a material substance? Descartes affirms

simply that they do.

The statement of Descartes that he inhabits his body like a pilot in a

vessel is revealing in the light of the above question. The body is

strictly a mechanical and machine-like substance. Its functions are entirely

different from those of the spirit. The spirit is synonymous with mind. The

purposes of this mind are unique. The mind serves as the director of the body.

It functions as the intellectual agent of the body. However, the purpose of the spirit or mind is not limited to any functional operations of a united

body and spirit. The mind is the source of one’s individual ego or identity.

This ego is distinct from the spirit of the infinite ego which is God.

Therefore, another dualism exists in Descartes’ view. This latter dualism

distinguishes Descartes from the metaphysical view of Hegel.


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