René Descartes, in his work of Meditation on First Philosophy, sets the foundation for modern philosophy. Through the distinct style of writing in first person narrative, Descartes introduces radical skepticisms, proves the existence of God, distinguishes the soul from the body, and establishes levels of certainty in knowing the material world. With the Meditations intending to be a guide to exercising intellectual understanding and practice, there is a strong connection between the literary form and philosophical content, as one supplements the other. The use of meditation and narrative is especially important in delivering and emphasizing Descartes’ arguments on first philosophy because it offers an epistemological journey for the reader to undertake and experience along with the narrator.
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Meditation is an introspective process that involves the mind turning back in and upon itself, withdrawing from the material world and focusing attention inward. Traditionally, works of meditation are meant to be guides for spiritual exercises, especially in the Christian religion, and not for intellectual or philosophical purposes. However, Descartes departs from this tradition and employs meditation as a way to detach the minds from external influences, to think and analyze philosophy from the original foundations. This is emphasized in the preface to the reader, where Descartes writes “I do not advise anyone to read these things except those who have both ability and the desire to meditate seriously with me, and to withdraw their minds from the senses as well as from all prejudices” (52). This leads into Meditation One, with the introduction of method of doubt to free the mind and demolish deception. As well, meditation is aimed to achieve self-transformation, and this is demonstrated throughout work as Descartes transforms the readers’ ways of thinking and understanding.
Descartes uses first person narrative to engage and relate to the readers. As the narrator and guide, Descartes is the embodiment of the general audience, sharing many of the same characteristics and motivations as the readers. For instance, the readers can easily identify with events such as dreaming and questions such as the existence of God. With this, Descartes can take on the challenge of demonstrating how the process of self-transformation in thinking and understanding unfolds through his own experiences. He writes, “I will first of all narrate in the Meditations the very thoughts by means of which I seem to have arrived at a certain and evident knowledge of the truth” with the intention that “the same arguments that persuaded me can be useful in persuading others” (52). Therefore, the readers, when reading the Meditations, will be able to experience a similar psychological and epistemological journey in understanding first philosophy.
The Meditation begins with the introduction of the method of doubt in Meditation One. Realizing many of his former opinions are falsehoods, and how subsequent opinions are built upon them, Descartes notes the need to doubt the truth of everything, and “raze everything to the ground and began again from the original foundations, if I wanted to establish anything firm and lasting in the sciences” (59). This architectural metaphor of razing and establishing serves to introduce Descartes’ purpose in building a firm groundwork for rational scientific inquiry and modern philosophy that cannot be further doubted. Since it is not practical to show all opinions are false individually, it is sufficient to “attack straightaway those principles which supported everything,” “because undermining the foundation will cause whatever has been built upon them to crumble of its own accord” (60). And Descartes does this through three levels of doubt: perception, dreaming, and God’s deceive.
First, Descartes points out that senses with respect to judgments of the external world may be deceptive, especially of small and distant objects. This, when elaborated to the extreme, is exemplified in the hallucination of insane men. Therefore, it is prudent to not place wholly trust in what is perceived. Second, Descartes moves onto a more comprehensive level of doubting senses and perception, and that is through dreams. Though in dreams there are events even less plausible than the ones insane people perceive when awake, “there are no definitive signs by which to distinguish being awake from being asleep” (60). This means that, it is possible that everything perceived is in fact hallucination and imagination. The only exceptions are disciplines that “are the simplest and most general things andâ€¦are indifferent as to whether these things do or do not in fact exist” (61), such as mathematics. Extending doubt even further, lastly, Descartes introduces the possibility of deception by God, as there exists “not a supremely good God, but rather an evil genius, supremely powerful and clever, who has directed his entire effort at deceiving me” (62). With these three levels of radical doubts, one is able to purge all prejudices and be skeptical of all truths. This in turn sets the foundation for Descartes future arguments and claims in the coming meditations, as it will be without falsehood and doubts.
Despite the previous comprehensive skepticism, Descartes moves on to Meditation Two to demonstrate that some things can still be known with certainty, such as our own existence and the superiority of the mind to the body. No matter what the deceptions are, to be deceived and to doubt implies existence, and similarly vice versa, one must exist in order to be deceived. Therefore, “‘I am, I exist’ is necessarily true every time I utter it or conceive it in my mind” (64). This is a certain truth as it does not depend on sensory or perception in the external world, but purely on intellectual substance and thought. More specifically, because the certainty of existences comes from doubts, which is itself a form of thinking, “I am therefore precisely nothing but a thinking thing; that is, a mind, or intellect, or understanding, or reason” (65). As well, this mind also senses and imagines, though often sensory perceptions and imaginations are not reliable and cannot be trusted. Taking the wax analogy for example, when the wax melts, it changes form, and so do the sensible qualities, as “whatever came under the sense of taste, smell, sight, touch or hearing has now changed; and yet the wax remains” (67). Thus, the insight on the sameness of the wax does not come from the senses as it is deceptive, nor the faculty of imagination as it is impossible to know the infinitely possible forms of the wax, but perceived through the intellect alone, “grasped solely with the faculty of judgment, which is in my mind” (68). This also further proves the superiority of the mind to the body as “even bodies areâ€¦perceivedâ€¦by the intellect aloneâ€¦and through their being understood,” and with the act of judgment and thought confirming the existence of the mind, “nothing can be perceived more easily and more evidently than my own mind” (69). Meditation Two concludes with the certainty of knowing one’s own existence as a thinking thing, having a mind better known than the body, and perceiving through the faculty of intellect, not sensory or imagination.
In Meditation Three, transcending to a higher topic beyond man, Descartes proves the existence of God. Descartes begins with the discussion of the theory of ideas, first by grouping thoughts into different classes: idea, volition or affects, and judgment, then breaking down ideas into three categories: innate, adventitious, and factitious. Descartes asserts that “something cannot come into being out of nothing, and also that what is more perfect cannot come into being from what is less perfect”, and this is true for both “effects whose reality is actual or formal, but also for ideas in which only objective reality is considered” (73). Using this logic, the existence of ideas with objective reality so great must come from causes with more reality, either formally or eminently, than possessed, and necessarily implies that “something else, which is the cause of this idea, also exists” (74). One such idea is that of God. God is a substance that is “infinite, independent, supremely intelligent and supremely powerful”, therefore, the cause of the idea of God must also be infinite, as it would it is insufficient to be explained by men through adventitious or factitious ideas because they are finite beings (76). Therefore, it can be concluded that only God, who is infinite, can be the origin and provider of this idea that is ultimately innate, and thus God necessarily exists. Furthermore, contrary to the doubt of God as the deceiver imposed in Meditation One, Descartes, after proving the existence of God, also begins to prove that God cannot be a deceiver, since “all fraud and deception depend on some defect” and God is supremely perfect, with “nothing can be added to his perfection” (80 ,77). This serves as a important building block for First Philosophy, as this is Descartes’ first attempt to establish reliable knowledge of what is outside the self, paving the foundation for further attempts.
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Reflecting on the certainties reached, of the power of the intellect and the existence of God, Descartes explains the reasons for truth and falsity in Meditation Four. As proved in the last meditation, it is impossible for God to deceive as that would imply imperfection, which contradicts the nature of God. The reason for erring is not due to God, but rather, the lack of perfection from God. Since man is a finite being, “a kind of middle ground between God and nothingness, or between the supreme being and non-being,” the errors are due to the nothingness, that is “the greatest possible distance from any perfection” (82). Inquiring further, into the nature and the sources of the errors, reveals that errors relate to both the intellect and the will. Intellect alone, though limited, is free of err as it merely perceives ideas, without judgment. Will alone, on the other hand, is unlimited but also perfect as it is just as bountiful as God’s. Error does not stem from each of these faculties independently, instead, stems from the difference in scope of the two faculties. “Since the will extends further than the intellect…I also extend it to things I do not understandâ€¦and in this way I am deceived and I sin” (84). Therefore, often at times, misuse of free will on decisions without clear and distinct ideas leads to false judgments.
Understanding the cause of the possibility of error leads to the next discussion of the judgment and certainty regarding material things in Meditation Five. Regardless of the actual existence of an object in the material world, the object “cannot be said to be nothingâ€¦and has a certain determinate nature, essence, or form which is unchangeable and eternal” (88). This essence is a property that is independent of human mind and senses, as it is perceived clearly and distinctly through pure thought, thus free of falsity. An example is the triangle, and this further validates Descartes assertion in Meditation One that the field of mathematics is the most certain and not subjected to hallucination. By analogy, this is used as another way to prove the existence of God. It is clearly and distinctly understood that “it belongs to God’s nature that he always exists”, therefore, God must exist in order for it to be God. This meditation ties together the human understanding and perception with material world, leading the reader one step closer to regaining certainty of the external objects.
In the last meditation, Meditation Six, Descartes rebuts the doubts posed by dreams in Meditation One, and demonstrates the existence of external bodies as well as the dualistic nature of the mind and the body. In determining the existence of material things, Descartes examines the realm of the intellect, imagination, and senses. “The mind, when it understands, in a sense turns toward itself and looks at one of the ideas that are in it; whereas when it imagines, it turns toward the body” (93). Therefore, this raises the conjecture that a body must exists to make imagination possible. Through the faculty of sensory perception, the body experiences sensations from external sources involuntarily. These are much more vivid and distinct than those formed internally and voluntarily. Since “it seemed impossible that they came from myselfâ€¦thusâ€¦they came from other things” (94). And from this argument by the means of senses, it can be concluded that external objects must exist, contrary to the complete hallucinatory state of dreaming in Meditation One. Descartes further explains the relation between the dualism between the mind and the body. Firstly, the mind and body are conceived to be distinctly apart from one another, with the body as an extension. Secondly, the mind is a single indivisible unit despite its many faculties, while the body has infinite divisibility as the extension can be broken into parts. In navigating the external world, it is insufficient to rely on sheer sensory experience, as the intellect must be employed to conduct inquiry and form correct judgment. The last meditation concludes that in fact, many of what was doubted in the beginning of the meditation can be in fact reached with certainty. However, due the impossibility of constant careful inquiry, man is subjected to infirmity and prone to committing errors.
In Meditation on First Philosophy, Descartes integrates literary style with philosophical content. Using meditation as a mean for the readers to partake with him in this self-introspective process of psychological transformation, Descartes overthrows previous prejudices and misconception through radical doubt in order to formulate the foundation for First Philosophy. As well, using first person narrative to engage the readers and offering realistic and personal examples that can be easily related, Descartes discusses the topics of existence and knowledge of God, body, soul, and material world.
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