Thursday, January 28, 2010

Meditations on First Philosophy in which the Existence of God and the Distinction Between the Soul and the Body are Demonstrated
Descartes, 1641

Background: As Marion notes, it would be incorrect to think of Descartes as, “a solitary, or even autistic thinker, soliloquizing, in the manner, perhaps, of a Spinoza.” The bulk of the meditations was written in 1637. Descartes then had it circulated to a series of theologians at the Sorbonne, requesting that they raise any objections that came to mind. (My intuition and hazy memory suggests to me that Adorno mocked Descartes for this procedure in Minima Moralia, when he claimed that a true thinker should aim at losing every philosophical argument). He particularly wanted a Jesuit to read it, both because of their notorious scholarly rigor, influence, and frat boy-like sense of community, but also because of his own education by Jesuit teachers. One of the readers was Hobbes, who dismissed the book’s method as rehashing old forms of skepticism, and Descartes’s dualism more generally, insisting that the mind was dependent on the body. Descartes then dismissed Hobbes. The key thing to note, then, is that the book premiered in a very Catholic context, and was originally published in one volume with the objections and replies to it. Hence, the opening letter of dedication.

Letter of Dedication

Addressed to the Faculty of Theology at the University of Paris, Descartes begins by situating his work as a defense of theism/Christianity. He claims that philosophers, not theologians, ought to establish proofs for the existence of God and the immortality of the soul in order to convince non-believers, since arguments reliant on Scripture will be rejected out of hand by those not touched by God’s grace. He supports the orthodoxy of his venture (i.e. proving the existence of God through natural reason) by referencing to Scripture which claims that anyone should be able to deduce the existence of the creator by reference to its creatures. Likewise, his efforts to seek out and arrange the best proofs for the existence of the soul (here he denies originality) is simply a response to the Lateran Council, which enjoined all philosophers to find rational proofs thereof.

The next section expresses Descartes doubts about being properly understood by the untrained masses, while simultaneously asking the theologians to critique his work. Crucial to properly understanding his work, he claims, is reading it as a whole, for logical connections, and a sort of monastic/ascetic withdrawal from the senses.

The rest of the letter sums up the meditations, so, for the sake of brevity, I’ll omit it and move on.

Meditation One: Concerning Those Things That Can be Called into Doubt

The text begins with an autobiographical confession. Sever years prior to publishing the text, Descartes claims to have been seized by the realization that all of his knowledge was built on “false opinions,” and decided to embark on a project of absolute skepticism, once he acquired a period of suitable solitude and leisure. (Or, as Serres once put it, beautifully, “Take everything away so I can see.”)
Rather than prove his opinions all false, Descartes decided to start from nothing and withhold assent from opinions that couldn’t be proven absolutely true. If he found reason to doubt, he would reject them. Thus, opinions built on the sense were the first to go, as the senses could be mistaken. He initially resists the idea that he could be utterly deceived about large, basic things - that he sits in a room, writing, next to a candle, etc, thinking that he would be like the insane to believe that. But then he remembers that dreams often reproduce these images, incorrectly. Unable to decide if he is dreaming or awake, he decides he has to reject the details of his physical presence as doubtful. The upshot of this is that certain sciences, such as mathematics and logic, are given priority of natural sciences, like astronomy.
Next, then, he turns to the possibility that God is deceiving him, constantly. It would be contrary to the nature of a good and omnipotent god to do so; thus, he entertains the possibility that God is not omnipotent. But if that is so, everything is up to be doubted.
Still, sustaining this doubt is difficult. Habit keeps turning him back to old prejudices. Unable to escape all thoughts, Descartes decides to confront them, and imagine that these opinions are all false, the product of an evil, manipulative, omnipotent demon, who desires nothing but to deceive him. The first meditation ends in total doubt.

Meditation Two: Concerning the Nature of the Human Mind: That it is Better Known than the Body

The second meditation begins with an interesting intrusion of the temporal. “Yesterday’s meditation,” Descartes asserts, “has thrown me into such doubt that I can no longer ignore them.” It’s curious that Descartes feels the need to narrate his meditations day-by-day, given that temporality should be in much as doubt as anything. It implies a rootedness that the project seems intent on denying. But, a digression.
He claims a crisis, when faced with the idea that everything is false, and first seeks certainty in the idea that nothing is certain, but moves restlessly away from that thought to the idea of some transcendent God, securing his existence, putting thoughts in his head. That, however, denies the possibility of solipsism. Finally, then, Descartes arrives at the idea that his existence is the only certainty.
Yet, “I am, I exist,” provides no content for the “I.” Though the body and senses may seem certain, those could equally be the product of some demonic deceiver. The only thing he can affirm is that he is “a thinking thing,” at least so long as he thinks.
This thinking thing is not dependent on the specific thoughts of his imagination; rather, it is an active “I.” “But what then am I? A thing that thinks? What is that? A thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies , wills, refuses, and that also imagines and senses.”
From there, Descartes moves on to the question of what we deny, grasp, perceive, etc. Here is his discussion of wax. Because it changes shape, form, smell, consistency, etc., under different circumstances, without ceasing to be wax, Descartes concludes that wax is an “extended, flexible, and mutable subject.” The wax is grasped through the mind, not through the imagination. His argument for this is the peculiar one that he knows the wax is capable of more permutations than his imagination allows. Nor, he argues, can objects be known solely through the eyes. After all, despite seeing only moving hats and cloaks below, he judges the figures in the street to be men, not robots. Therefore perception is always really the mind grasping an object.
This act of the intellect throws Descartes back on himself. The more clearly he understands the way in which his intellect understands object, the more clearly he understands the functioning of his intellect. Since everything comes back to the intellect, Descartes then decides to turn his attention to his intellect, as the most direct route to (self)knowledge.

Meditation Three: Concerning God, that He Exists

Descartes returns inward, secure in the knowledge that he is a “thinking thing,” wondering if he might know anything as securely as he knows that he possesses these modes of thought. Thinking about the way in which he knows, he posits as a general rule that “everything I very clearly and distinctly perceive is true.”
This leads him back to notions of geometry, which he had rejected out of the principle that everything could be simply put there by some deceitful God. It becomes increasingly clear, then, that he can’t get very far without settling the question of the nature and existence of God.
Rather than go directly to that, though, Descartes stops to classify his thoughts and to ask in which truth or falsity reside. Things that appear in his mind as images he labels ideas. Ideas (i.e. Representations) can’t be wrong in themselves, since they don’t immediately pose the question of whether their referent exists. Thus, only judgments can be false.
The question, then, is what is the origin of ideas. They seem to come from some external source, but all Descartes can definitely say is that they come from some faculty other than his will. That doesn’t exclude the possibility that they come from some other faculty, as dreams do. In sum, up to this point, it was only a blind impulse to believe that things existed outside of Descartes and send their images into him.
Backtracking, Descartes decides to rate ideas by their content. Thus, ideas such as omnipotence must have more objective reality than those that represent modes or accidents, or finite substances.
Here he enters his version of the cosmological argument. There must be as much reality in the efficient and total cause as in its effect. Thus, nothing comes from nothing. A stone can’t suddenly come into existence out of nothing; there must be something that precedes it, which has all of the essential material/qualities of the stone. Likewise, ideas must come from some sort of archetype that exceeds them. No infinite regress of ideas is permitted.
“But what am I ultimately to conclude? If the objective reality of any of my ideas is found to be so great that I am certain that the same reality was not in me, either formally or eminently, and that therefore I myself cannot be the cause of the idea, then it necessarily follows that I am not alone in the world, but that something else. Which is the cause of these ideas, also exists.” These ideas include in/corporeal things, angels, animals, God, other men. The ideas of men, animals, and angels, could be fashioned from his ideas of God, self, and corporeal things.
Corporeal things, he thinks, could easily have originated within himself, because if they are false, they represent nothing, and the creation of falsity could easily be ascribed to some lack in his nature. If, however, they are true, they exhibit so little reality and are so illusory, and transient that there’s no reason to assume they can’t come from him. He could simply have borrowed the idea of substance from himself and applied it to a stone. Therefore, all corporeal things could just be modes of thinking of his own being.
But is there anything in the idea of God that could not have originated within him? The idea of the infinite substance. There’s no reason for a finite creature to think of an infinite substance unless it existed. One could imagine the idea of the infinite as simply the negation of the finite, if not for the fact that the idea of the infinite clearly has more reality than the finite. How could he know that he doubt, desires, and lack, if not by virtue of the idea of a more complete substance?
God must exist, then, because the idea of God is the most clear and distinct of all ideas, and contains the most real. It’s no objection to say that he cannot understand any number of things about God because, as a finite creature, his understanding is necessarily too flawed to grasp the infinite.
But what if he is something greater than he understands, a la Feuerbach? Isn’t it possible that he might obtain the qualities of God through infinite progress? He would answer yes, except that one of the qualities of God is that nothing in him is potential. As actually infinite, nothing can be added to his perfection.
Descartes toys with the idea that maybe he’s mistaken, and that he really derives his existence from something other than God. Had it been himself, he would have made himself perfect, God. Nor is the idea that he always existed a plausible counter-argument, because existing requires the same force and action maintain something’s existence, as would have been necessary to create it. Put otherwise, he cannot guarantee his future existence, and, thus, is dependent on something outside of himself.
Parents are no help, because even if one shuffle’s one’s existence off on to them, one has to ask all over again about whether they had the power to be self-generating. The answer is no, leaving us with God. God can’t be a name put to a series of finite causes, because God is defined by his simplicity and unity.
In sum, turning inward reveals both his finitude and dependence on something more perfect.

Meditation Four: Concerning the True and the False

Having ascertained that God exists and Descartes is utterly dependent upon him in his finitude, he turns to contemplating his qualities. First, God cannot deceive, because deceiving is the mark of an imperfect being. Next, he received his faculty of judgment from God; ergo, he can trust it, because God is trustworthy. That he makes mistakes simply shows that his faculty of judgment is lacking, because finite. (Interestingly, Descartes has shifted the traditional definition of evil as a lack over to the idea of the mistake). That begs the question as to why a perfect God would give an imperfect faculty of judgment. It seems the mark of a shitty craftsman.
Answers: might not know God’s reasons, imperfection might only be relative (that is, necessary when viewed in the context of the universe). He may conclude reasonably that the creator God may have created him as part of a universal scheme.
Furthermore, errors occur when the faculty of knowing corresponds with the faculty of choosing. He can’t complain about the deficiencies of his faculty of knowing, for reasons listed above; likewise, he can’t complain about his free will, because it’s his most ample and perfect possession. Taken as simply the capacity to choose, it’s equal to God’s. If he feels indifferent, it’s because he lacks clear knowledge in certain instances of the good. Were his knowledge perfect, he would always choose the good.
The only correct response to the finitude of his knowledge, Descartes thinks, is gratitude to God, who, after all, did not need to create him at all. While the world might seem more perfect if Descartes were given unerringly clear knowledge, in truth, that neither takes into account the possibility of some greater or schema, or that God endowed him with perfectibility. So he ends this meditation, resolving to try harder.

Meditation Five: Concerning the Essence of Material Things, and Again Concerning God, That He Exists

Descartes begins this meditation by launching into an almost Platonic notion of memory. Turning inward, he recalls thing such as shape, quantity, geometry, and so on, which all have immutable, eternal essences, and, consequently could not have been fabricated by him.
To reiterate the line of argument: What he knows clearly is true, and everything that he clearly and distinctly perceives as its property belongs to it. What is true is clearly something, rather than nothing. Therefore he must assent to everything he knows clearly, such as logic, mathematics, and, now, God.
Here he basically launches into a version of the ontological argument. God’s existence is clearly and distinctly perceived as inseparable for God’s essence, and it would be impossible to think of God without the property of existence. Therefore, God exists.
In the end, his argument in this section comes down to faith in his sight, in what he clearly perceives. God is both that which he most clearly perceives, and that which grounds all knowledge. The fact that God exists as creator, and as good, guarantees that Descartes is not so made as to be mistaken when he clearly perceives something. So is God the foundation of the subject or the cogito?

Meditation Six: Concerning the Existence of Material Things, and the Real Distinction Between Mind and Body

Descartes now knows that material things do exist, at least insofar as they are the objects of pure mathematics. And as God can bring anything into existence, there is no reason he could not have done so for material things. Moreover, he seems to have perceived it clearly through the faculty of imagination, which is “a certain application of the knowing faculty to a body intimately present to it.”
Imagining, as Descartes describes it, is literally the power to embody a thought in an image. It’s a certain way of accessing a thought, but, he thinks, ultimately unnecessary to knowledge. The intellect turns to a mind to consider an idea’ the imagination turns to the body.
Initially, Descartes took the senses for granted. After all, they impressed on him clearly and distinctly such ideas as tactility, heat, cold, etc., in such a way that they seemed to come from something external to him. In addition, nature had preconditioned him to associate certain physical desires - hunger - with physiological reactions.
And yet, experience taught him to mistrust his senses. As he said, seeming square towers turned out to be round upon closer inspection, and so on. Then came the doubts of the first meditation (dreaming, etc).
Here he establishes his mind body dualism. He knows that he is a thinking thing, and while he perceives that he has a body intimately linked to him, it also has a series of properties that aren’t necessary to a thinking thing. It has extension, substance, the capacity to move, imagination, etc - none of which really impact his identity as a thinking thing. All of these sensations of corporeal things could either come from God or from a body. As it would be a form of deception for God to implants these sensations of corporeality, without that being their true origin, it makes sense that the true origin is the world.
Likewise, since God does not deceive, it seems plausible to hope that the material world not only exists, but can also be known. Trusting now in nature, he concludes that his mind and body must be so tightly conjoined as to be the same thing. Why else would he experience pain when his body is injured?
He then goes on to clarify what he means by nature. Rather than referring to the totality of everything bestowed on him by God, he takes it to simply mean “what God has bestowed on me insofar as I am composed of mind and body.” This knowledge, perhaps better thought of as instinct, prevents man from harm, by inducing pain when burnt and so on. The mistake, however, lies in using this knowledge to deduce anything about the essence of things or reality. This nature can sometimes be deceived, as in when eats poison concealed in pleasant food, or desires certain foods or water when ill that would be detrimental to it. Yet, all that shows is that nature is not omniscient. He uses the example of a faulty clock.
On the whole, Descartes thinks, the mind-body relation is well constructed. The two maintain are different, in the sense that the mind is indivisible, while the body could easily have some limbs lopped off without that disturbing the mind. (Presumably). And the two are connected by nerves that reach a particular corner of the mind. So when the foot suffers, it communicates to the mind the idea of pain, and it reacts accordingly. When it thirsts, it likewise communicates that desire to the mind. All of this is optimally designed to preserve the body’s well-being, at least on the whole. The occasional mistake is justified by the efficacy of the system as a whole.
The meditation ends with a reaffirmation of knowledge, and the goodness of God, who by nature cannot deceive.


  1. Thanks, great summary, Liane. I would only add a few things:

    1) In the middle of the third meditation, it's important to note that when Descartes puts forth his "objective reality" argument, it's not really "backtracking" so much as it is starting in a different direction. He's decided that it is impossible to know if the ideas in my head correspond to things out there, and so he starts on a new path of inquiry, deciding to call the essential (as opposed to accidents/modes) "objective reality." It's a move away from validation in the world and toward validation of reality acc. to the differentiation of ideas within the mind itself.

    2) The argument that the idea of God could not have been produced by me (by approximation) is one that must posit God as wholly other. Angels for instance, despite being part of the divine, could come from me, from my imagination pasting wings on human beings. But a substance radically other from me could not.

    3) In my version, Michael Moriarty sums up the two main criticisms of Descartes, which I might as well reproduce along with this post. The first is the CIRCLE argument: we can know things we clearly and distinctly perceive are true because God exists, but we can only be certain God exists because he is clearly and distinctly perceived? The second is the problem of DUALISM: how do the two substances interact? Malebranche offered up the occasionalist theory. Spinoza reduced the two substances to one. But the problem obviously persists.

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  3. Late addition:

    In reference to Liane's point about the injection of temporality into the beginning of the second meditation. I think it helps to understand it if you think of the meditations as that - meditations. Descartes is not just offering arguments, but trying to get his reader to engage in type of reflective practice. This is particularly evident in the early meditations, hence the focus on the difficulty of sustaining the doubt, etc.