René Descartes' Meditations Essay

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René Descartes' Meditations

René Descartes’ argument that he does not know his piece of wax through his senses is rather straightforward. First, his sensory perceptions of the wax are its color, scent, sound, texture, temperature and the like. However, these purported properties of the wax are not constant; if the wax is brought close to a flame, its color, sound, texture and all the rest will change. Nevertheless, Descartes claims, no one would deny that the object now by the fire is the same wax that was first away from the fire. Descartes implies that it is evident and obvious that the wax, though its appearance to the senses is wholly changed, is still the same wax. Let us grant this. Because the wax is still the same wax even …show more content…

“Flexibility” and “mutability” refer to the wax’s ability to take on any of an indefinite number of shapes—indeed, an infinite number. We cannot know these properties of the wax through our imaginations because our imagination is incapable of cataloguing all the possible shapes the wax may take. (The imagination, remember, consists in discrete mental images of the wax with certain shapes.) Likewise, with the property of “extension”—we cannot imagine all of the sundry sizes and dimensions of which the wax is capable of taking, but nevertheless we know that it has this same ability. Because we cannot account fully for the three essential properties of the wax with our imagination we conclude that we do not know the wax through our imagination.

The wax, so conceived, is merely a substance with the essential properties of being extended, flexible, and mutable—properties general enough that the wax can be taken to stand for a generic, supposedly physical, objects. Descartes concludes that he knows the wax through “an inspection of the mind” alone. To understand this reasoning, first note that by this point in the Meditations, Descartes is operating under the understanding that, insofar as he knows, he is only a thinking thing. Therefore, if we perceive, we do so with powers that are innate in us as a thinking thing. These powers of thought are earlier enumerated to include the capacity to doubt, understand, affirm, deny, will, refuse, sense, and imagine.

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