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Second, Descartes is offering a broadly representational picture of how ideas might relate to reality. Ideas of particular objects 'represent' the world. This in turn has several consequences. (a) Ideas are different from things in the world. (This already moves Descartes towards a broadly realist epistemology, and thus can be interestingly contrasted with the idealism of Berkeley.) (b) Ideas (at least of secondary qualities) do not resemble the world: my idea or feeling of hunger (to take one of Descartes' favorite examples) has no resemblance to whatever may be happening in my stomach, if I have a stomach. Because of this lack of resemblance, there is no intrinsic difference between an idea that does not correspond to a real world, and one that does. Without that intrinsic difference, Descartes is initially unable to trace his ideas of things back to their source. (The situation is more complicated in the case of primary qualities, however. Although my idea of a triangle is not triangular, nevertheless Descartes suggests it does have a relation of adequacy that ideas of secondary qualities often or always lack [see the beginning of Meditation 5].) Issues of this type, as we shall see, lead Descartes to worry about the notion of innate ideas. (c) Finally, representation means that there are two different ways in which an idea can be 'false'. First, it can represent real things falsely (as in the case of distant objects appearing smaller). Second, it can represent as existing things that do not exist. Again, there is no intrinsic way of distinguishing between these cases. Our inability to distinguish between these two types of falsehood is what makes the dreaming and malevolent demon hypotheses so powerful. For, if in any case I could so distinguish, then I would be able to eliminate some of the hypothetical sources of my ideas. Descartes' concerns about the various modes of falseness return in his discussion of judgement and will, beginning in Meditation 3. Metaphorically speaking, we might say that this representational model of the relation between ideas and the world has placed Descartes 'at a distance' from his world, and made both possible and necessary the method of doubt.


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Meditation 2



Descartes opens Meditation 2 by describing the extent of his doubt. Virtually every item of knowledge he previously believed is subject to some kind of doubt for reasons given in the previous meditation. The ancient Greek engineer Archimedes said 'give me a fulcrum and a firm point, and I alone can move the earth.' Analogously, Descartes believes that if he finds one indubitable truth, together with a means for employing it, then this will be the foundation of a true philosophical system. The 'firm point' is his existence: 'this proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived by my mind' (II, 17). Even an evil genius cannot deceive him in this matter. In his Discourse on the Method, Descartes summarizes his line of reasoning in the famous phrase, 'I think, therefore I am' (or in Latin, 'cogito ergo sum'). (The 'fulcrum' - or as we expressed it above, the 'means for employing' his foundation - is clarity and distinctness, which we discussed above in the context of Meditation 1. Descartes will be employing this 'rule of truth' throughout the Meditations, although he is not fully explicit about its importance until the beginning of Meditation 3.)

Descartes borrowed this strategy from Augustine's attempt to refute scepticism in his own day. Augustine writes, 'On none of these points do I fear the arguments of the sceptics of the Academy who say: what if you are deceived? For if I am deceived, I am. For he who does not exist cannot be deceived. And if I am deceived, by this same token I am' (City of God, 11:26).

Much of the philosophical debate about Descartes' famous move revolves around how it is appropriate to analyse Descartes' argument, and even whether it is an 'argument' as such at all. For example, we might think that Descartes move is a miniature argument, which would go from 'I think' to 'I exist'. But that assumes a missing premise, namely, that 'Thinking things exist'. Descartes himself helps clarify this in his reply to the second Objections to his Meditations. In these Objections, the critic contends that all demonstrative knowledge depends on God, which isn't proven until Meditation 3; but, Descartes deduces his existence in Meditation two. Descartes replies that the cogito is not deduced, but is recognized, in any particular case, by a simple and immediate act of mental intuition. The intuition exhibits perfect clarity and distinctness. Presumably, this is one of the notions Descartes has in mind when using such phrases as 'whenever' I think, I must exist (Meditation 2, II, 17)) - or similarly 'at the same time as' I think, I must exist (Principles part one, ¡±7, I, 195)). From such simple intuitions, we can then generalise in order to say 'thinking things exist', but the generalisation is founded on our initial, simple intuition. Descartes makes a similar point about general or abstract knowledge concerning what is thinking, or what is existing, in the sixth Replies. Such knowledge is always preceded by, and grounded on, unmediated 'inner awareness'.

Once Descartes recognizes the indubitable truth that he exists, he then attempts to further his knowledge by discovering the type of thing he is. Trying to understand what he is, Descartes recalls Aristotle's definition of a human as a rational animal. This is unsatisfactory since this requires investigating into the notions of 'rational' and 'animal.' Continuing his quest for identity, he recalls a more general view he previously had of his identity, which is that he is composed of both body and soul. He can't refer to himself as a thing that has a body, though, since this involves sensory perception. According to classical philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, the key attributes of the soul involve eating, movement, and sensation. He can't claim to have these attributes of the soul since this involves a body, knowledge of which, in turn, is based on the senses. Descartes continues examining other theories of human existence and attributes about himself that he can imagine. Descartes concludes that the attribute of thinking is the only quality that he can justifiably claim at this point. But he is quick to point out that thinking is the only attribute about which he is sure - not that thinking is the only attribute that he has. I am, then, at least a thing that thinks.

Despite this caution, the attribution of thought to the soul is the starting point of a radical ontological distinction which carries Descartes through his Meditations. That distinction is between thinking substance (res cogitans) and extended substance (res extensa). The two substances are mutually exclusive. A thinking substance is nonphysical or spiritual in nature, and an extended substance is physical, but not capable of consciousness or thought. Descartes has not yet offered proof of these ideas, but the reader should keep them in mind. For Descartes, a thinking thing is 'a thing which doubts, understands, [conceives], affirms, denies, wills, refuses, which also imagines and feels.'

Note Descartes' general strategy for adding to his knowledge. He is first concerned with the issue of our inner, mental nature, and will only much later address the issue of external objects (in Meditation 6). As we noted above, this ties in nicely with the first-person 'narration' of many of his philosophical works. Descartes then anticipates the criticism that he is going about his investigation backwards. For, it seems that knowledge of external objects is more obvious and distinct than knowledge of the mind, and much more obvious than knowledge of my personal identity (the continuity or sameness of the mind as it thinks now this, now that). Everyone knows what an apple is (an external object), but few people can properly answer the question 'who am I'. Thus, it seems that Descartes should tackle the easier problem of external objects first.

Descartes does not agree that he proceeding in a backwards fashion, and argues that the properties and identity of our mind are actually more clear and fundamental than perception of external objects. He makes his case by comparing our perceptions of a piece of wax at two times: once while the wax is in a solid state, and later after the wax has been melted by a fire. Between these two states, the wax somehow loses its hardness, colour, shape, odour, and so forth. That is to say, we must forgo all the sensible properties that might allow us to identify it as the same substance. Thus, our senses alone cannot inform us of the continuity of the two states of the wax, so what does? The continuity of the wax cannot be established though the faculty of the imagination either, since we could imagine an infinite variety of changes the wax could go through - and however powerful my faculty of imagination it is not infinite. Descartes concludes that the continuity of the wax is established neither by sight, nor touch, nor imagination, but by an act of the mind alone. Knowledge within the mental realm precedes knowledge of the material realm.

Descartes considers possible criticisms to his conclusion that we understand the physical world through an act of the mind. In common language we claim that we 'see' the same wax in its two states (as opposed to 'mentally intuit' the same wax in its two states). Thus, common language seems to suggest that the continuity of the wax is a function of 'seeing' (i.e., the senses). When I look out the window, I conclude that we see people crossing the road. All that appears to my senses, though, is clothing; and why could the clothing not be covering machine: automata or 'robots'? Nothing in the senses renders that unlikely; the judgement that these are people (or the judgement that this is still wax, and the same piece of wax) is 'actually grasped solely with the faculty of judgement, which is in my mind.' Furthermore, even if Descartes' analyses are wrong, even if he determines through sight or imagination that the wax continues after all, then this still presupposes that Descartes himself exists and thinks. However you cut it, the direct awareness of the mind is prior to any awareness of external objects.


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Meditation 3



Descartes notes that when he contemplates the certainty of his existence, he knows the truth of his existence clearly and distinctly. He proposes a general rule: everything he perceives clearly and distinctly is true. This rule has in effect been in operation throughout the previous discussions. Descartes would like to use this general rule in order to move beyond the 'I think, I exist', for example to show both the existence of external objects and the truth of mathematics. Unfortunately, knowledge of external objects does not rise to the level of clarity and distinctness. Sensory judgments about particular things in the external world at first seemed vivid and immediate, but later proved to be questionable. By contrast, mathematical judgments are perceived in a manner that appears to be clear and distinct. Such judgements were thus able to pass unscathed through most of the tests in the procedure of hyperbolic doubt. However, an obstacle remains: it is still just possible that God may be deceiving him irrespective of this initial appearance of clarity and distinctness. To put the general rule of clarity and distinctness on sound footing, Descartes must (a) prove God's existence, and then (b) show that God is not a deceiver. It thus appears that, important as it is for other reasons, the proof for God's existence is not really a central issue of the Meditations but is merely a device for establishing methodology.

In constructing his argument for God's existence, Descartes makes several prefatory comments about the nature and content of human thought. He begins by outlining the various types of thoughts we have, which include ideas, thoughts,
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