Home > Book Review, Philosophy, Skepticism > Lecture series: Pt.1 – Descartes’ First And Second Meditations.

Lecture series: Pt.1 – Descartes’ First And Second Meditations.

Let us take a moment out of discussion of the word faith to discuss philosophy.

I’ve decided that to aid in my course work for university (a graduate certificate in Philosophy), in ‘Critical Metaphysics’, I would do a blog on each lecture, lecture notes, and readings – this will not only help with my assignments, but will also similarly, help with my understanding.

Let us begin with Descartes:

First Meditations: What can be called into doubt

Descartes begins by elaborating his method of doubt, how he came to this method, which he did by seeing “a large number of falsehoods that I had accepted as true, and by the highly doubtful nature of the whole edifice that I had subsequently based on them.” (Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans John Cottingham, pg. 12, 1985) Our lecturer Paul MacDonald claims this discussion of doubt to be one of the most profound ever spoken in philosophy, and led to influence a “ground-breaking revolution in 17th century thought.” (MacdDonald, PHL128 Critical Metaphysics: Unit Information and Learning Guide, pg, 18, 2012) From this basic skepticism Descartes followed his reasoning to demolish his entire worldview, his interpretive system of the world, and perhaps more importantly, the one society had built and given him – in an effort to find pure, basic truth, in effect, what could be known with certainty.

MacDonald outlines how Descartes uses the metaphor of architecture to relay his “grounded scientific knowledge into a coherent whole” (MacDonald, PHL128 CriticalMetaphysics: Unit Information and Learning Guide, pg, 18, 2012). Which we see as Descartes describes the process by which he will come to find doubt – instead of searching all of his opinions, he will simply focus on undermining the foundations of his building, and once done, all that is built upon that foundation will crumble and he will be brought to “the basic principles on which all my former beliefs rested.” (Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans John Cottingham, pg. 12, 1985)

Descartes now moves on to why he rejects sense experience, one of those foundational beliefs: all he knew was acquired by sense experience (or through the senses), and sense experience Descartes claims can, from time to time, be deceived, and upon Descartes’ view it is wise to “never trust completely those who deceived us even once.” (Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans John Cottingham, pg. 12, 1985) Descartes then leads us down a tongue in cheek example of how our senses are deceived when we are asleep, and if that is the case, it is possible our senses are deceived when we wake, or rather, we have found an example that demonstrates uncertainty in our sense experience. MacDonald is an aid here, in helping us understand how Descartes relates the world of the senses to algebraic geometry (MacDonald cites Descartes’ Discourse on the Method as the source to see Descartes go through this process), we see Descartes analyse the physical world and come to the conclusion that deductive processes, those primarily involved with mathematics (he uses the terms “extension”, “the shape of extended things”. the quantity, size and number of these things”, “the place in which they may exist”, and “the time through which they may endure”) are the most certain. From this Descartes concludes that inductive enterprises, that is, probabilistic enterprises such as physics, astronomy, medicine etc, which depend on the study of composite things, are doubtful:

while arithmetic, geometry and other subjects of this kind, which deal; with the simplest most general things, regardless whether they really exist in nature or not, contain something certain and indubitable. (Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans John Cottingham, pg. 14, 1985)

This brings us to Descartes discussion of God, not a positive argument for God, at this stage, but rather how God would be involved in Descartes ability to come to knowledge. Again it is MacDonald who helps us discern Descartes point: to MacDonald’s understanding it is memory that holds our reasoning together, but memory can be altered with, although this would take an extremely powerful agent, and God is defined as being supremely good, hence for now, we withhold or suspend assent in regards to the proposition that God could interfere with Descartes route to knowledge.

According to Descartes to counter his “powerful conviction” that his deductive reasoning is sound, he will need an equally powerful doubt, this is where we are introduced to the famous ‘Cartesian Demon’. Descartes assumes this demon to have used its “utmost power and cunning” to deceive him, he will assume that all his sense experience is merely the delusion of a dream so devised to snare his judgement, in an attempt to so discover what is true, irrespective of the cunning influence of the malicious demon. Descartes admits, this is a taxing enterprise and one that requires his constant attention, lest he slide back into established and old opinions.

Second Meditation: The nature of the human mind, and how it is better known than the body

In this meditation Descartes reflects upon the seriousness of his earlier enterprise, and that he is resolute to find certainty, by dropping any knowledge which is merely probable. It is here that we see Descartes heading toward his famous “cogito ergo sum” (“I think therefore I am”), Descartes analyses thought, and where it comes from, and what conclusions may be had from the analysis of such, that even in the face of his deceiver, his demon, it cannot be brought about that he is not a thinking thing, for even to be deceived is a deception of thought, which can only occur in the mind of a thinking thing.  From this Descartes sees that the proposition “I am, I exist” whenever it is put forward by him, or conceived in a mind is “necessarily true”. But this is not the end of the discussion, Descartes must answer several questions: what does it mean to be a thinking thing? What is a thinking thing? Is that a man? Most importantly, what is this “I” that Descartes speaks of? Descartes searches, rationally, through the list of possible candidates to what the “I” could mean, a man? A rational animal? But theres terms led Descartes down a path that asks more questions than they solve. Could the “I” be a body? Well, a corpse has a body. This needs further unpacking. To Descartes being a body would be more appropriately defined as containing “a determinable shape and a definable location and can occupy a space in such a way as to exclude an other body; it can be perceived by touch, sight, hearing, taste or smell, and can be moved in various ways, not by itself, but by whatever else comes into contact with it.” (Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans John Cottingham, pg. 12, 1985) Descartes however, in light of his demon, cannot accept this definition, so its back to the drawing board. A being who possess sense experience perhaps? Descartes yet again dismisses sense experience as a route to the definition of the “I”, even though prima facie it makes sense to define himself that way, as surely sense perception does not occur without a body? Until we come back to Descartes earlier musings in which we remember our defeater for the certainty of sense experience: dreams, and sleep – where we appear to experience sense perception, but are deceived by our minds.

It is here where Descartes makes his pivotal breakthrough, he proposes the notion of thought, Descartes reasons that thought is inseparable from him, he is he as long as he is a thinking thing:

At present I am not admitting anything except what is necessarily true. I am, then, in the strict sense only a thing that thinks, that is, I am a mind, or intelligence, or intellect, or reason – words whose meaning I have been ignorant of until now. But for all that I am a thing which is real and which truly exists. But what kind of thing? As I have just said – a thinking thing. (Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans John Cottingham, pg. 19, 1985)

More specifically to Descartes this thing that thinks is also a thing that “doubts, understands, affirms, denies, is willing, is unwilling, and also imagines and has sensory perceptions.” (Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans John Cottingham, pg. 19, 1985) To Descartes these additional attributes are necessary and absolutely part of the thinking thing, the “I”, they are just as true as the fact the he exists, and they are discovered a priori.

Next, to further discuss sense perception Descartes uses a piece of wax, he demonstrates the malleability of the senses, he holds the hard piece of wax, melts it, and we see its components change, this begs the question; is it the same piece of wax? The look has changed, the tastes and smells have changed, but the wax remains, even though the features of the wax remain, its form, which we perceive by our senses has changed. Perhaps the take home message is: if we were to define the wax, purely by sense experience, we might have to change the label of the wax – it is by reason, by the intellect, by “mental scrutiny” to use Descartes term, that we understand the wax is still the same piece of wax. It is from this piece of wax, that Descartes turns to the exterior world, that it is reason that dictates, for example, the men he sees in hats and coats outside his window as men, they could just as easily be automatons, for all his eyes can see, but it is by judgement, solely in the mind, that he recognises that they are men. To Descartes, what separates animals from humans is not our ability to perceive by senses, which animals and humans both surely can, but it is the intellect, the ability to be able to consider the wax, as an extended, grasped, flexible and changeable thing, this consideration requires a human, thinking thing, perhaps the “I” we discussed earlier.

Descartes concludes this meditation by stating that bodies are not strictly perceived by the senses, by rather by the intellect alone, and that this understanding comes from understanding, not by touch, or sight. Moreover that it his is own mind that Descartes can come to know the most, above anything else.


From Descartes musings we come to understand more about the nature of the relationship between the senses and reason, and how much we take for granted the combination of both, in constructing our worldview (consider the wax, and the men outside Descartes window). The concept of the demon Descartes used is an example of truly unique thought, to be able to deconstruct the current science, the current thought, to move to a realm of skepticism is truly astonishing, just as was Descartes “cogito ergo sum”, to conclude that he is a thinking thing, through pure reason, was a fascinating journey to follow.


Descartes R., (1985). Meditations of First Philosophy trans John Cottingham,. Cambridge. Pp. 12, 14, 18, 19.

MacDonald P., (2012).  PHL128 CriticalMetaphysics: Unit Information and Learning Guide, P, 18.

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