Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy 3

Abstract

The Conclusion of the First Meditation and Descartes’ Discovery of Himself as a Res Cogitans in the Second Meditation

The Conclusion of the First Meditation and Descartes’ Discovery of Himself as a Res Cogitans in the Second Meditation

§ 1: Concluding the First Meditation—Descartes’ genius malignus

Let us jump forward to the conclusion of the First Meditation. You will see that it ends with Descartes’ claiming to have shown that our empirical knowledge is ‘doubtful’, ‘dubious’ or ‘dubitable’, i.e., lacks adequate justification. Yet Descartes has still not made really clear what precisely he understands by an adequate justification. As the second stage or phase of the argument in the First Meditation shows, Descartes fully appreciates that our individual empirical knowledge claims are fallible, that is, such that even if one should have the best possible justification for such a claim in the world, it is still possible for one’s claim to be false. This means that if one has the kind of justification which such empirical claims require, then, notwithstanding the fallibility of the claim, it is simply irrational to doubt such claims and stop using these claims in reasoning for fear of error. By all ordinary standards of justification, the ones bound up with our everyday, pre-philosophical understanding of perceptual experience, such fear of error is unfounded—so much so that to succumb to or persist in this fear would be as irrational as confidently claiming to be a king when one has all the necessary perceptual grounds for believing that one is a pauper—see First Meditation, p.19.

In general, it is built into our ordinary everyday concept of perceptual experience that unless one has reason to the contrary, it is perfectly and completely rational to accept the testimony of the senses as veridical.1 As we ordinarily and pre-philosophically understand it, perceptual experience just is a creature’s means of accessing the world—of genuinely accessing the world, i.e., of accurately or truly representing the world, at least to the degree the creature needs in order to live its particular kind of life—as a fish, as a dog, or as a human being.2 This is the job of perceptual experience, its function, and perceptual experience is defined by this its job or function. Naturally, perceptual experience can mislead; it is not always accurate. This point is, however, that it only misleads at the margins. Most situations in which one calls upon perceptual experience will be ones in which it yields true belief and it is for this reason that one is always adequately justified in accepting the testimony of the senses if one has no reason to think that one’s current situation is an exception to the rule.3

Let me emphasise again: Descartes knows all this.4 And the fact that he knows this shows that he is not trying to suggest, not even implicitly, that any knowledge-claim is only adequately justified if the justification one has for it entails that the claim is true, hence that one simply cannot be wrong. At times, it might look like as if he were maintaining this, for example, in the very first paragraph of the First Meditation.5 But the second stage of the argument of the First Meditation, in the paragraph beginning “But despite the fact …” (p.19), shows that Descartes fully appreciates that it is wrong to maintain that an empirical belief, i.e., one based on perceptual experience, can only be adequately justified, hence ‘certain’ in any ordinary sense, if the reasons one has for it entail truth, hence exclude all possibility of error.6

Once this is appreciated, one can better understand the third and fourth stages of the First Meditation. These are the argument from dreaming (and its limitations), from p.19 to p.20; and the radicalisation of this argument in the appeal to the possibility of being radically deceived, from p.20 to p.21. These stages or phases are only there because, while the commonsense response given in stage two to the claim that the everyday perceptual error entitles one to mistrust the senses is perfectly correct, Descartes believes that the correctness of this response presupposes that a conceptually prior question has been answered appropriately. This question is as follows: “Do I, Descartes, know that the various experiences I am having right now (thoughts in Descartes’ wide sense of the term, i.e., cogitationes) really are perceptual experiences, hence reliable (but of course not infallible) guides to truth (such that by and large, if not always, they are veridical)?” With this, the point of the argument from dreaming (and, by extension, the question as to whether he is being radically deceived) becomes clearer: it is meant to show that there is indeed this prior question to answer, this question of whether the items in Descartes’ mind, all now flashing before his mind’s eye, really are reliable perceptual experiences he can trust rather than items occurring to him while he is asleep (or, to bring the four phase or stage of the Meditation into the picture, while he is being radically deceived).

But why does Descartes think that the argument from dreaming shows there to be this prior question? Last time I pointed to a crucial assumption Descartes makes in the argument from dreaming, namely, that even if he really is dreaming, it still makes sense to speak of there being various experiences which he is currently undergoing—currently undergoing in the sense that he is genuinely aware of himself as having certain experiences occur in his mind, of which he is now genuinely wondering whether they are to be trusted or not, i.e., whether they are or are not dream-experiences or genuine perceptual experiences. Descartes makes this assumption at those points in the argument from dreaming at which he makes clear that he is assuming himself to be capable of having the very same experiences and similar thoughts in a dream as in waking life. Why does Descartes think he is entitled to this assumption? Is it self-evidently true?

I myself think it is not self-evidently true. In fact, I think both that this assumption is false and that we need to ask just where Descartes gets it from. But for the moment, let us just accept this assumption and see what moves Descartes makes on the basis of it. Clearly, if this assumption is acceptable, then Descartes has indeed shown that in addition to the usual question of justification attaching to perceptual experience, namely, whether it is veridical or not, whether in this particular perceptual situation, at this particular moment, one’s perceptual organs are functioning to yield truth, there is another question, namely, whether, right now, the experience one has in one’s mind, and knows oneself to have in one’s mind, is really perceptual experience at all. This other question is indeed a prior question—prior in the sense that he must answer it before he can rationally set out to answer the empirical question as to whether any individual perceptual experience he is having is veridical or not.

Importantly, this determination to show that there is such a prior question is shown by the criticism Descartes goes on to make of the argument from dreaming. This criticism occurs across pp.19-20, where Descartes writes,

… (I)t must be admitted that the things we see while asleep are like certain familiar images, which can be painted only as copies of things which are real. Therefore at least these general things—eyes, head, hands, the whole body—exist as real things rather than as some kind of imaginary things. (pp.19-20)

That is, if the experiences, the thoughts in Descartes’ wide sense of the term (cogitationes), he is having now are dream experiences, then he knows at least one empirical thing, namely, that at some time he has been awake and had veridical perceptual experience of the kinds of thing he is currently having dream experience of. For dream experiences, thoughts had in a dream are, claims Descartes, always composed of notions which he has by and large derived from veridical perceptual experience. Dream experiences or thoughts are, as Descartes puts it, essentially copies of real things and are understood as such. So if the experiences Descartes is now currently having are only ever either dream experiences or genuine perceptual experiences, then he has not yet overturned literally all his previous empirical beliefs. Even if the experience he has before his mind right now is a dream experience, the very fact that it is a dream experience entails that at some point of time he, Descartes, has had veridical perceptual experience since to dream is to have been at one time awake. Also, the various kinds of thing, the properties and relations exhibited by the things experienced in the experience he is having right now must have been experienced by him in waking life (even if these kinds, properties and relations are, in this current dream experience, combined in novel ways).

For these reasons, the dreaming argument is not enough. And so Descartes radicalises things even more. How does he know, he asks, that the experience he is having right now, and knows himself to be having right now, is not just a mere dream experience, but a deceptive experience planted in his mind by God? If he can have the very same experiences and thoughts in a dream as he has in waking life, then surely he can have the very same experiences and thoughts, just as coherently organised, even as these experiences and thoughts, indeed the whole coherent stream of experience to which they belong, are a massive charade inflicted on him by God. Now it seems that even his conviction that he has at some time or other been awake, having veridical experience of at least the kinds of things, properties and relations he is experiencing now, is inadequately justified. For perhaps the experiences and thoughts he is having, and knows himself to be having right now have been planted in his mind by God. How can he rule this out?7

Yet Descartes has another reason for introducing the question of whether God might be deceiving him: it permits Descartes to call into question a whole set of beliefs and opinions which the argument from dreaming was unable to touch. For by raising this question he can now argue that even his non-empirical mathematical knowledge is not adequately justified. If it is possible for God to deceive him radically about empirical matters, why might not God do the same for Descartes’ knowledge about such non-empirical matters as whether two plus three equals five? Might not God be able to deceive him into thinking this, say, by manipulating his mind whenever he counts or does arithmetic?8

Of course, one might want to argue that the idea of God’s radically deceiving is logically incoherent. Surely, God is a perfect Being who, although He has the power and capacity to deceive Descartes, would not in fact use this power in this way because such use of it is ruled out by His supreme goodnesss. Descartes objects to this argument that if God’s goodness prevents Him, logically speaking, from deceiving Descartes radically, why should it not also prevent God from allowing Descartes to be deceived occasionally? (p.21) Descartes’ objection here does not strike me as particularly good since what Descartes describes as his occasional error is in fact the kind of everyday error in perceiving and calculating for which Descartes himself is responsible and which Descartes himself can, given time and effort, himself uncover and correct (e.g., through further sense experience). So arguably God would want to Descartes to be capable of this kind of error since it reflects Descartes’ freedom and the concomitant responsibility and accountability which this freedom brings with it. It is precisely an expression of God’s goodness that He should permit Descartes to make this kind of error. By contrast, the kind of radical error which Descartes is conceiving is such that Descartes is not responsible for it. So God’s goodness would prevent Him from subjecting Descartes to radical, global error.

One can only conclude that Descartes resorts to this poor objection because he is so determined to show that, lurking behind the usual questions of justification (“Is this perceptual experience veridical or non-veridical?”, “Have I made a mistake in reasoning of the usual kind, due, say, to my being particularly tired?”, etc.) there are prior questions of justification: “Is this experience I am having now a genuine perceptual experience as opposed to a dream perceptual experience?”; “Is this experience I am having now a perceptual experience or an experience deceptively induced in my mind by God?”, etc. At any rate, Descartes himself seems not to be convinced of his own argument because he shows himself prepared to grant that some might want to deny that God could deceive Descartes: “There may be some people who would prefer to deny the existence of such a powerful God rather than believe that everything else is uncertain.” (p.21) Instead he goes on to try to turn the tables on such people. For he now seems to argue that if God is not sufficiently powerful to deceive him radically, then this only shows that He is not sufficiently powerful to prevent Descartes being deceived radically.

This, too, is not a very good argument and so the First Meditation ends in a curiously ambivalent fashion. On the one hand, Descartes claims that he has been forced

to concede eventually that there is nothing among my former beliefs that cannot be doubted and that this is so not as a result of levity or lack of reflection but for sound and considered reasons. Therefore, I should carefully withhold assent in from those beliefs just as much as from others that are clearly false, if I wish to discover anything that is certain. (p.21)

On the other hand, it remains unclear just how seriously we are meant to take his argument from the power of God to radically deceive him. And so one may well want to ask why Descartes has even raised this issue of whether God could radically deceive him. After all, the very way he ends the First Meditation suggests that he need never have mentioned God at all. For right at the end, he concedes that, in order to show that even those claims to know which the argument from dreaming left untouched lack adequate justification, he need never have mentioned God at all. For now he drops all reference to God, imagining instead that the source of radical, global error is

some evil mind [genius malignus], who is all powerful and cunning, [and] has devoted all its energies to deceiving me. I will imagine that the sky, air, earth, colours, shapes, sounds and everything external to me are nothing more than the creatures of dreams by means of which an evil mind entraps my credulity. I shall imagine myself as if I had no hands, no eyes, no flesh, no blood, no senses at all, but as if my beliefs in all these things were false. I will remain resolutely steady in this meditation and, in that way, if I cannot discover anything true, I will certainly do what is possible for me, namely, I will take great care not to assent to what is false, nor can that deceiver—no matter how powerful or cunning it may be—impose anything on me. (p.22; translation modified)

If this suffices as the argument he needs in order to get beyond the argument from dreaming, then why did he not simply introduce it from the outset? Why talk about God at all as the source of radical, global error? The answer seems to be that Descartes is insinuating a line of argument which is yet to come. This line of argument is as follows: if it is even merely possible that there be an all-powerful evil mind which is causing in him entirely erroneous experiences and thoughts, then the only way in which he can have genuine knowledge of the world is if there actually is an all-powerful good mind which is preventing him from being globally deceived. If, however, this is the case, then Descartes can only have genuine knowledge if he can know (and not merely have faith in) the existence of such a mind. This all-powerful but non-deceptive, hence benevolent mind is, of course, God. Descartes is clearly setting us up for the conclusion that genuine knowledge is only possible for us if, firstly, God exists and, secondly, we can prove, hence know that He exists.

§ 2: That the Mind is better known than the Body

By the beginning of the Second Meditation Descartes claims to have convinced himself that everything he had previously thought is not certain, is dubitable. That is, it is not truly or adequately justified, in that, while he may be able to answer satisfactorily the usual questions concerning justification, these standard answers presuppose answers to prior questions which he cannot give. He can, in the standard way, justify his perceptual knowledge claims, i.e., appeal to his having the appropriate perceptual experience while at the same time having nothing which speaks against the veridicality of his perceptual experience. But this justification presupposes, thinks Descartes, an answer to the question as to whether the experience in question really is a perceptual experience and not a dream experience or, even more radically, an experience caused in his mind by an evil mind. So, too, thinks Descartes, with arithmetic and mathematical knowledge claims. He can provide the usual justifications for a certain mathematical calculation, but these all presuppose that he is calculating without the interference of an evil mind who is deceiving him into making false moves he cannot discover (because everything he goes back to check things over, the evil mind intervenes to trick him once again).

It is important to understand precisely the situation in which Descartes claims to have got himself. He thinks that when he find himself undergoing what he would ordinarily take to be a veridical perceptual experience, he has not only to be able to provide a justification for it being a veridical perceptual experience, he has also to be able to provide a justification for its being any kind of perceptual experience, as opposed to a dream experience, or an experience planted in his mind by an evil mind. Once again, I stress that in thinking this, Descartes is assuming that he can have this one and the same experience in his mind, lying so to speak there before him as something he can interrogate, whether or not it is a veridical perceptual experience, a non-veridical perceptual experience, a mere dream-experience or even some kind of fantasy experience produced in his mind by an evil mind. Whichever of these scenarios is true, there it is, this one experience, existing in his mind and known by Descartes to be in his mind. And so, precisely because this experience is there, in his mind, and known by him to be in his mind, whichever of these four scenarios is true, so, too, Descartes exists, and knows himself to exist, as asking himself questions about it, whichever of these four characterisations are true. In other words, implicit in Descartes’ reflections is the assumption that whichever of these four scenarios is true, experiences are genuinely passing before his mind, are genuinely available to his self-conscious awareness, just as he, too, genuinely exists as having items of experience, thoughts, etc., pass before his mind, of which he is genuinely wondering whether they are deceiving him in all four ways or not.

Of course, this assumption is the one we saw Descartes already to make in the argument from dreaming, namely, that he can have all the experiences he currently thinks he is having whether or not he is dreaming. If this assumption is right, then mental items like perceptual experiences and thoughts can exist indifferently to whether they were part of a dream world or part of the real world. Relatedly, Descartes can know about, reflect on and interrogate perceptual experiences and thoughts irrespective of whether these experiences and thoughts were part of a dream world or part of the real world. Since Descartes’ knowings about, his reflection on and his interrogations of, his perceptual experiences and thoughts just as much occur in his mind as the perceptual experiences and thoughts they are directed at, it follows that these, too, exist indifferently to whether they are or are not parts of some such massive illusion as a dream.

Just as this assumption permits Descartes to argue that in addition to the usual questions of justification he must be able to answer about the veridicality of perceptual experience there are prior questions to answer about whether he is currently having genuinely perceptual experience at all, so, too, this assumption determines the results of what Descartes does next, at the beginning of the Second Meditation. He has resolved to set aside, i.e., not to make use of, any knowledge claim which he can doubt. And this assumption, since it entails that there genuinely are these further questions of justification to answer, also entails that he must put to one side even the proposition that he is now and has ever had genuinely perceptual experience at all, whether veridical or not (since there is the question to answer whether or not this mental item here, this experience he is having now, and is aware of himself as having now, is or is not the product of an evil mind). So now, when Descartes asks himself whether there is anything which he cannot put to one side, i.e., cannot treat as if he did not believe it, it seems to him at first as if there is nothing left.

Thus I will assume that everything I see is false. I believe [i.e., hereby declare that I will act as if I believed, in order to see what is left over] that, among the things that a deceptive memory represents, nothing ever existed; I have no senses at all; body, shaped extension, motions and place are unreal. Perhaps that is all there is, that there is nothing certain. (p.23)

Is there nothing, apart from all the things he has just listed, about which there can be no opportunity to doubt, i.e., which he simply cannot put to one side? Given the way Descartes has set things up—and this is primarily because of the assumption just mentioned—, Descartes finds that he could still have all the same experiences and thoughts he is having now even if he had no perceptual organs (senses) or body (p.23) and so he is treating himself as if he had, and believed himself to have, no senses or body. Indeed, given the way he has set thing up, he recognises that he need assume nothing external at all, neither God nor an evil mind, as the cause of all these experiences and thoughts he is having now. Perhaps he himself could be the author of these experiences and thoughts.9

Yet even if all this should be true—that he does not in fact have any perceptual organs or body, that the experiences and thoughts he is currently having are in fact not caused by anything external to him, etc.—, even so precisely in order for these things to be true, he himself must exist.

Nonetheless I convinced myself that there is nothing at all in the world, no sky, no earth, no minds, no bodies; is it not therefore also true that I do not exist? No, not all, [imo] I certainly did exist, if I convinced myself of something. But there is a deceiver, I know not who, all powerful and cunning, who is dedicated to deceiving me constantly. If he deceives me, then it is therefore not at all dubitable that indeed I am. And let him deceive me as much as he wishes, still, he will never bring it about that I am nothing as long as I think I am something. Thus, having weighed up everything adequately, it must finally be stated that this proposition ‘I am, I exist’ is necessarily true whenever it is stated by me or conceived in my mind. (pp.23-24; translation corrected)

Descartes’ claim here is that he knows himself with certainty merely to exist. No matter how deceived he may be, he has to exist in order to be deceived. But this says nothing about what Descartes exists as if he is deceived, i.e., what properties or characters accrue to Descartes simply in virtue of his existence as the victim of radical global error. And so Descartes sets out to determine what he must exist as if he is (as of course he does not know himself to be) radically deceived. Here, it is important, he says, not tacitly to slip into his account of who or what he is something to which he is not entitled, i.e., something which can only be true of him if he is not radically in error. And so Descartes turns to discuss what he has ostensibly understood himself to be up till the time of undertaking his Meditations and withdrawing assent from all those beliefs and opinions which Descartes has found to lack adequate grounding.

I speak of what Descartes has ostensibly understood himself to be because it is clear from what Descartes now turns to discuss is the classic Aristotelian and Scholastic ‘definition’ of the human being as a rational animal. In other words, Descartes is not really turning to discuss what he, personally, has previously understood himself to be, but rather that conception of self which an educated person of Descartes’ time might have been expected to have learnt at school. This shows once again that the autobiographical character of the Meditations is only a literary device or style; Descartes’ real concern is to depict the intellectual stance of someone with a traditional Aristotelian and Scholastic schooling whom Descartes would like to convince of the superiority of Galilean natural philosophy—of what many call today the ‘scientific’ world-view. Note his stance here: he says that he has not got the time to get into debates about what this definition and its component notions could mean. Thereby he implies that he thinks this kind of discussion is not all that productive.

In fact, while Descartes always admired the rigour and intellectual discipline of the late Mediaeval Scholastic philosophy in which he had been brought up, he is also convinced that it is a false path as far as achieving real understanding of the world and indeed of us human beings is concerned. Like many of his time, Descartes sees a stark contrast between the new emerging way of studying nature (Galilean natural philosophy) and the old. In particular, he thinks the new kind of natural philosophy offers the possibility of uniform, intersubjectively recognised methods for solving problems which permit practitioners to reach consensus about central theses, which consensus then serves as a common platform for tackling new problems and for reaching a new consensus about new issues, and so on, ad indefinitum. By contrast, the older style of natural philosophy did not and could not progress: it got bogged down in irresoluble controversies and verbal disputes. In particular, it could not provide explanations and predictions of anywhere near the same power as the new kind of natural philosophy.

So Descartes turns his back on these Scholastic notions in order to explore “what used to come to my mind spontaneously and naturally whenever, formerly, I wondered about what I was.” (p.24) It is crucial to note just what Descartes is out to explore: what natural, untutored understanding he has of himself when he thinks or uses the expression ‘I’ in reference to himself. Mostly, of course, he uses this expression in ordinary, everyday discourse. And so here he understands the term as referring to a certain animate being, precisely the person René Descartes. And René Descartes, looked at one way is just one more material body amongst others; we human beings all have material bodies which obey the same natural laws as things like stones. Of course, looked at another way, namely, as animate, René Descartes is quite different from a stone: René Descartes is the kind of material body that, unlike a stone, needs nourishment and can sense (perceive). Finally, looked at yet another way, namely, as a human being, René Descartes is a material body in which in some way, in some sense, a power of thinking is manifest.

Descartes points out that his natural inclination is to explain the features which distinguish him from a stone in terms of the possession of a soul. But, he acknowledges, just what the soul is he does not rightly know. In fact, it seems to be, he says, much less clear than the general idea of body. He can only imagine the soul to be “some unknown thing, which was subtle, like wind, fire or ether, and which was infused into the more observable parts of me.” (p.24) The notion of a material body seems, however, to be a much more straightforward idea: anything is a body if it

… can be limited by some shape, can be circumscribed in a place, and can so fill a space that every other body is excluded from it. It can be perceived by touch, sight, hearing, taste or smell and can be moved in various ways—however not by itself but by whatever else touches it. (p.25)10

But the fact that it is, as he thinks, possible for him to be radically deceived and yet still to be able to refer to himself in the first person, as in his certain knowledge of himself as existing, then when he uses the first person singular ‘I’ in thinking to himself “Even if I am being deceived, at least I cannot be deceived in this, namely, that I exist,” he cannot mean by the expression ‘I’ the human, animate and material being René Descartes. After all, he is withholding assent from all such clearly empirical opinions and beliefs on the grounds that these are not adequately justified (since he has not yet shown that he is not in fact being radically deceived by an evil mind). So when he uses the first person singular term ‘I’, to refer to himself, he cannot be referring to himself as something which is or has has a material body. Nor can he be referring to himself as something which needs nourishment or senses since these latter presuppose that one is an animal with a material body. Consequently, he is not referring to himself as animal at all, and to this extent, he is not referring to himself in his capacity as a rational animal, i.e., a human being, specifically, René Descartes.

But there must be some feature or property which he presupposes himself as having or doing when he refers to himself in the first person. What could this be, given that it cannot be features or properties like needing nourishment or being able to sense (perceive) in that it does not require having(since these features and properties all entail having a material body)? Descartes has already mentioned what this feature is:

It is thought. This alone cannot be detached from me. I am, I exist; that is certain [and indeed has already been established back at the top of p.24. But there must be, Descartes rightly presupposes, some feature or property as bearing which he, Descartes, refers to himself as ‘I’. As so he continues … ] But for how long? As long as I think, for it might possibly happen if I ceased completely to think that I would thereby cease to exist at all. I am, therefore, precisely only a thinking thing, that is, a mind, soul, intellect or reason—words the meaning of which was formerly unknown to me. But I am a genuine thing and I truly exist. But what kind of thing? I have just said: a thinking thing. (p.25; translation modified)

Note what Descartes is saying here: even if he is being radically deceived, the very fact that he is being radically deceived entails that he exists, which he therefore knows with certainty. Furthermore, he knows that he exists as thinking, indeed thinking precisely those thoughts and experiences which have perhaps been caused in him by the evil mind. These, too, must exist because just as he has to exist in order to be deceived, so, too, his thoughts and experiences have to exist as that which regard to which the evil mind is deceiving him. The picture which emerges is thus as shown in the following diagram:

How Descartes thinks of himself

Even if there is an evil mind deceiving him, not only does Descartes exist but he exists as having thoughts and experiences, indeed having thoughts and experiences in exactly the same sense as he would were he not deceived. Here his thoughts and experiences are, and here is his self-conscious awareness of them, with his mind’s eye he is genuinely perusing these thoughts and experiences and genuinely wondering about or asking of them whether they are not the products of radical deception and if they are, what this means for his capacity to know anything with certainty at all. And then he realizes that even so, he himself must exist and so he thinks “I am, I exist.” And then he asks just what, at least on this occasion of its use, the first person singular term ‘I’ refers to. And he answers that it refers to him simply in his capacity as instantiating this picture.

This conclusion throws up some crucial questions, as Descartes himself fully appreciates. In particular, it throws up the question of just what Descartes thinks he has shown. Does he think that he has shown merely that even if he is being radically deceived, he must at least exist as thinking, and in particular, as instantiating this picture? That this is what he thinks he has shown is indicated by what he says in the next paragraph. For in this next paragraph he asks whether there is anything else he might be. And he answers,

I shall imagine that I am not a collection of limbs that is called a human body, nor some subtle air that is infused into those limbs; I am not a wind, fire, vapour or breath, nor anything that I imagine, for I have supposed that those things do not exist. That supposition stands but, nonetheless, I am still something. [And now come the crucial lines:] Is it possible that these very things, which, I am supposing, do not exist because I have no knowledge of them, are not in fact distinct from the me that I knew? I do not know, and I am not discussing that issue for the moment. I can make a judgement only about those things that I do know. I know that I exist, and I am asking who this ‘I’ is whom I know. I can be quite sure that knowledge of this ‘I’, in that precise sense, does not depend on things that I did not know existed, nor therefore on any of those things that I construct in my imagination. (pp.25-26; incorrect use of indirect speech corrected)

In this passage, Descartes recognises that everything he has thus far said shows only that he must at least be a thinking thing, it does not show that he is nothing more than a thinking thing. Or, to put the point in a way which resembles what Descartes himself says right at the end of this passage, everything Descartes has thus far said shows that his knowledge of himself as a thinking thing does not depend on knowledge of himself as anything more than a thinking thing—in which case knowledge of himself as a thinking thing does not presuppose any empirical or other substantive knowledge, hence is suited to serve as the Archmidean point of which Descartes speaks right at the beginning of the Second Meditation.

Yet the matter is not completely clear. For in the paragraph prior to the passage just quoted, he does says, “I am, therefore, precisely only a thinking thing, that is, a mind, soul, intellect or reason … .” And this does suggest that he has discovered himself to be nothing more than a thinking thing. I will come back to these issues next time.11

§ 3: Hints in the Second Meditation as to Descartes’ Goal of Undermining Aristotle and Aristotelianism

Throughout the Second Meditation there are clear intimations as to Descartes’ polemical intention of advocating the Galilean and mechanist conception of nature against the (more or less organicist) Aristotelian one upon which the Church had thus far relied. Thus, Descartes speaks of how he has previously thought of himself as a “whole machine of limbs.” (p.24) Evidently, this is not at all a commonsense view, at least not in Descartes’ times, and Descartes clearly knows that it is not. In fact, here Descartes is insinuating a mechanist view of the human body as a kind of machine. Similarly, he speaks a sentence or two before of how he does not have time for such subtleties as reflection on what it is to be rational, what it is to be an animal, etc. This is a not-so-subtle dig at the sterility many progressive, scientifically oriented thinkers of Descartes’ time felt about the mediaeval Scholastic philosophy which they regarded as useless speculation in comparison to the new forms of inquiry into nature which were emerging at the time.

But perhaps the most explicit intimation of Descartes’ preferred view of empirical reality, of nature, occurs on p.25. Here, Descartes speaks of how a material body “can be perceived by touch, sight, hearing, taste or smell and can be moved in various ways—however not by itself but by whatever else touches it.” (p.25) Note the qualification “however not by itself but by whatever else touches it.” Evidently, there are two claims here: (1) the movement of a material body never originates in the material body itself, in other words, is always due to some other material body acting upon it; and (2) the movement which this other material body induces in it occurs through direct contact, i.e., through this other material body’s literally touching it. Claim (1) is a generally mechanist claim which all mechanists would make against Aristotle. Claim (2) reflects Descartes’ specific brand or kind of mechanism.

More specifically, claim (1) is a direct challenge to Aristotelian and thus to mediaeval Scholastic views concerning those material bodies which are organic, i.e., plants and animals. According to Aristotle not all movement or change in material bodies can be explained solely in terms of some material body other than the material body which moves or changes working upon the latter to induce this movement or change. In particular, those material bodies which are organic have a capacity to originate movement and change in themselves.12 Thus, plants and animals grow. And animals move around. Finally, human beings can think, which activity Aristotle regards as spontaneous in the sense of being self-causing or self-originating.

Note what this distinctively Aristotelian conception of thinking, hence of self-conscious subjectivity and rationality, means: Aristotle regards thinking as a species or kind of organic behaviour; it is thus essentially a property or capacity of something is animate, an animal, hence material. Because he thought of thinking, hence of the self-conscious subjectivity and rationality of human beings, in this way—as essentially a property, capacity or behaviour of material beings—Aristotle defined the soul (psyché13) as the form of the (distinctively human) body. From an orthodox Christian and Catholic position, this is intensely problematic. For if the soul is merely the form of the body, then it cannot exist without the body: as a form, it must have some matter to inform. The problem is that Aristotle thinks of the material character and the rational, thinking character of the human being as two aspects or moments of the full human being. But if this is so, then there is thinking without the human body, just as there is no distinctively human movement of and change in the body without thinking (since thinking enables the human body to move around in the world and to change and develop in a distinctively human way).

Now what Descartes is doing here is suggesting, so to speak on the side, that this Aristotelian conception of the human being is completely wide of the mark because it contradicts that concept of a material body generally, whether organic or inorganic, or indeed thinking or unthinking, to which one naturally comes when one frees oneself from the tradition of Aristotle, hence of mediaeval Scholastic philosophy. Needless to say, this ‘natural’ concept of a material body, a concept which according to Descartes much better corresponds to our everyday intuitions about and pre-philosophical understanding of matter, is the one used in Galilean natural philosophy. On the Galilean concept of a material body and of matter, movement and change in nature never occurs in virtue of the kinds of property, kind, relation or behaviour which Aristotelians called ‘formal’: the everyday perceptible kinds of things, e.g., ‘dog’, ‘cat’, ‘carrot’, ‘stone’, etc.; the sensuous properties borne by such things, e.g., redness and hardness; and finally such everyday behaviours as ‘seeking a mate’, ‘defending its territory’, or indeed ‘self-consciously thinking of how best to travel from Canberra to Melbourne’, etc. Descartes regards all such superficially observable kinds, properties, relations and behaviours as having ultimately no real or non-derivative causal role; whatever causal role one might be inclined to ascribe to them could ultimately be explained in terms of arrangements of matter; indeed, he thought that insofar as such properties as redness were genuinely objective, they were simply identical with certain types of arrangement of the material constituents of things.

Now if one has this view, then a certain view of how material bodies move and change at least seems to be forced upon one. For if all the superficially observable, everyday properties, relations and behaviours of material things are really just products of the arrangement of, and changes to, the matter out of which these things are composed, then surely the causes of a particular arrangement and any changes to it cannot themselves by these arrangements themselves. The causes of a particular arrangement or re-arrangement of the material constituents of material things must surely come ‘from outside’, i.e., by induced by some other material body. If a material body moved or change in any way, this could only be because some other material body had caused it thus to move or change—to move or change through the re-location or re-arrangement of the matter out of which it is composed. Precisely for this reason—because according to them all movement and change was at bottom externally induced change in the location or arrangement of the constituents of material bodies—mechanists like Descartes described matter as inert.14

Importantly, Descartes added his own distinctive twist to this general mechanist picture: according to him, not only can movement of, or change in, a material body only occur from without, by some other body interacting with it, but this body must do so directly, i.e., by touching the first body directly. A material body can, of course, move and change in all sorts of ways but according to Descartes it can only do so if some other material body directly impacts upon it. This is of course claim (2) in the qualification contained in the sentence with which the passage quoted from p. 25 ends. And it entails one of Descartes’ most problematic theses, namely, that there can never be interaction at a distance of the kind Newton (1642-1727) introduced when he introduced the notion of gravity. We encounter here the crucial difference between Descartes’ specific brand of mechanism and the kind of mechanism which was influenced by the (later) ideas of Newton.

Evidently, the general mechanist position entails that material bodies have certain ultimate constituents. Now different mechanists had different views on this. What, then, did Descartes regard as the ultimate constituents of material things? Like his friends and collaborators Isaak Beeckman and Marin Mersenne, who were also mechanists, Descartes believed that all material bodies were composed of what he called corpuscles15—what, in effect, we today would call atoms, only without the internal differentiation and structure which we today attribute to atoms, namely, protons, electrons, neutrons, etc. Because material bodies were thus composed and because all superficially observable, everyday properties, relations, capacities and behaviours of a material body were, properly understood, simply the arrangements and re-arrangement of these corpuscles, all movement and change could never be self-originated: every change of a material body, and every change of place it underwent, had to be caused by something else acting upon it—according to Descartes, by this latter’s directly acting upon it (touching it).


© Carleton B. Christensen, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014

  1. Perceptual experience is said (by philosophers at least) to be veridical or non-veridical rather than true or false. It is certainly sometimes strange to describe a perceptual experience as true or false (as opposed to, say, right or wrong, accurate or inaccurate, etc.).

  2. That a creature should have come to possess a capacity for epistemically reliable perceptual experience has an obvious kind of explanation: creatures such as fish, dogs and humans would simply not exist had not they been given, either through evolution or God, a capacity for perceptual experience in this sense. (Note that it is completely irrelevant for this discussion whether one would appeal here to God, as Descartes did, or to evolution, as we would today.)

  3. I hasten to add that it always remains in principle possible that one can find no reason to think that one’s current situation is an exception to the rule even in a situation which, unbeknownst to one, actually is an exception to the rule and so, unbeknownst to one, there actually is a reason to think that one’s current situation is an exception to the rule.

  4. Indeed, it would be surprising did he not know this. For the ordinary, everyday concept and understanding of perceptual experience is made explicit in Aristotle’s epistemology, biology and psychology. In the second stage or phase of the First Meditation, Descartes appears to me to be giving a standard, Aristotelian and Scholastic response to some not particularly good sceptical arguments which attempt to justify scepticism by appeal to ordinary, everyday perceptual error. These arguments had been around since antiquity and they appear to have been used by Montaigne—see Clarke’s discussion of scepticism in his Introduction, pp.xvii-xxi, especially p.xix, where a passage from Montaigne is quoted with striking resemblance to the way Descartes ends the first stage or phase of the First Meditation, which he then goes on to criticise in the second stage or phase.

  5. What was described in my second set of notes as the critical lesson Descartes extracts from his recognition of past error (pp.18-19).

  6. Note that if Descartes did think this, then it would be impossible to explain why he regards the subsequent two phases or stages of the First Meditation—phases three and four—as at all necessary. It would be completely mysterious why Descartes should have been at all bother with the argument from dreaming and the question whether God might be radically deceiving him.

  7. Here, in this question of whether God might be radically deceiving him, we see once again just how determined Descartes is to show that, in addition to the usual questions of justification, there are prior questions to be answered: before I can take what is before my mind to be a genuinely perceptual experience, with that character of reliability (but of course not infallibility) which suffices to make it something I can rationally trust in the absence of reasons to the contrary, I must show that it is not just not a dream experience, but also not just a deceptive experience implanted in my mind by God (or, if this is theologically unacceptable), by a supremely powerful malicious or evil being—by Descartes’ genio maligno.

  8. In this connection, it is important to note that Descartes endorsed the views of those nominalist mediaeval philosophers like William of Ockham who insisted that even the laws of mathematics and indeed of logic were subject to God’s power, i.e., that He could have decreed that different mathematical and logical laws hold good in His creation. In this spirit, Descartes writes to his friend Marin Mersenne that God stands to the laws of logic and mathematics as a king stands to the laws of his kingdom: just as the latter could have enacted different laws, so, too, God could have enacted different laws of mathematics and logic.

  9. In all consistency, Descartes should also allow that perhaps these experiences and thoughts do not have any cause at all, whether external or internal. But Descartes does not allow this because he assumes from the outset that everything must have a cause, i.e., that it is necessarily, and not merely contingently or factually true that if something x exists, there is something y which caused x to exist. The great Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) points out that this assumption is false—see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Hume.

  10. Note the way Descartes qualifies the second sentence in this passage: a material body can be moved, but always only by something other than itself, and by this latter directly touching. Here, Descartes is alluding to his own mechanist understanding of the concept of a material body. In § 3 below, I explain what this concept is and why Descartes thinks, perhaps rather puzzingly, that at this point in his deliberations he is perfectly entitled to appeal to this specific understanding of what a material body is.

  11. In the meantime, if you feel up to a challenge and wish to prepare for next time, you might have a look at the following excellent discussion: Jaako Hintikka “Cogito, ergo sum: Inference or Performance?”, in Willis Doney (ed.), Descartes: A Collection of Critical Essays, London: Macmillan, 1968, pp.108-139.

  12. In addition, Aristotle and Aristotelians generally believed that all material bodies, whether living or not, had certain ways of behaving which they would engage in if so to speak left to themselves. Thus, a stone would inexorably fall towards the centre of the Earth unless prevented from so doing by, say, the hand holding it. Fire, by contrast, would naturally move upwards.

  13. This is, of course, where such words as ‘psychology’, ‘psychic’, etc., come from.

  14. The doctrine of matter as inert has two elements to it: on the one hand, the claim that no body is self-moving, but needs causal action from without; on the other, the claim that what acts from without acts upon it in virtue of its own corpuscular arrangement as well that upon which it acts. This latter claim explains Descartes’ ‘reductionist’ attitude to non-natural scientific properties like colour: colours, according to Descartes, do exist but what they objectively are is a certain arrangement of corpuscles, such that this arrangement reflects only that type of light into the eyes of a perceiver which causes such and such a colour sensation.

  15. Interestingly, Descartes rejected (or at least came to reject) one feature of the standard mechanist view of matter, namely, that the corpuscles out of which ordinary material objects are composed are indivisible. Thus, in the Principles of Philosophy of 1644, he writes, “We likewise discover that there cannot exist any atoms … . For however small we suppose these parts to be, yet because they are necessarily extended, we are always able in thought to divide any one of them into two or more smaller parts … .” (Book I, Part II, § 20). Evidently, Descartes is understanding the term ‘atom’ to imply indivisibility. Our own modern understanding of atoms shows that one need not understand the term in this way.