PHL220: Descartes's Meditations I and II
Descartes's Meditations I and II
Background on Descartes
- Lived 1596-1650
- Accomplished mathematician, devoted to the development of
science, but appears also to have eagerly wanted to reconcile
science with the Christian beliefs of his time
- Schools were dominated by a set of views called
"scholasticism," which was a combination of Aristotle and
- Descartes aims to reject scholasticism with a radical new
start to human knowledge (rejection of Aristotleanism and
scholasticism was a key feature of the early scientific
thinking, such as in Galileo). The Meditations are his most
compelling attempt to develop this new foundation
- Descartes decides to begin by withholding belief in
opinions which are not certain. This can be done through
systematic doubting - by attacking his most fundamental
- He has always assumed that sense were his primary source
of knowledge, BUT
(Note that in dreams and imagination we compound things to
make new things - this suggests that compound beliefs are more
dubious than simple ones.
- Mad people see things that aren't there
- Dreams seem real when we have them
- But cannot one assume God exists? Descartes piously says
that we can, but agrees to set this issue aside.
- A thought experiment: assumer there is an evil demon or
power that generates a complete deception occurring all around
me, and for all of my senses, for the duration of my life.
Now, is anything certain?
- Descartes begins by doubting everything, and asking what
remains (what cannot be doubted)
- "Cogito ergo sum"
- What is the thing that thinks? Descartes goes through all
the features of Aristotle's Psyche. He points out the features
that are not necessary for this thinking thing:
- Not a "rational animal" (scholasticism's definition,
and a definition that appears in Aristotle's works)
- Not a thing that takes in food (nutrition Psyche)
- Not a sensing thing (as are all animal Psyche)
- BUT: a thinking thing. I exist as long as I am thinking
(this is known only for the Psyche of humans, and the
Greek word was Nous).
- Descartes has created a divide between
- the features of Psyche that explain the body's
form, its biological functions other than those of the
traditional notions of the capabilities of mind, and
the capabilities which we share with non-human animals;
- the features of Psyche that explain my subjective
experience, rational action (especially language), and
perhaps other uniquely human abilities.
- Descartes has replaced the question of soul with one
about mind (Nous) alone. This is the birth of the modern
philosophy of mind.
- Note: this mind is known through introspection!
Through self-consciousness we identify the essential elements of
what we are.
- Imagination cannot tell me what I am
- Doubt, understanding, affirmation and denial, will,
refusing, imagination are all features of thought that cannot
be without me
- How do we then understand bodies? Primarily through
reason. The example of the ball of wax.
- I know that infinite variations in form are
possible for wax, but these cannot be perceived or
- Perception is mental inspection
- This is his rationalism about knowledge, which
has an important role to play in the philosophy of
- Truth is known when we understand clearly and distinctly
- Judgment leaps beyond what is given in perception