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Descartes opens Meditation Two by reflecting on how disorienting the doubts of Meditation One have been – something we can relate to if we have been following closely so far! But, he says, there is hope that his project can succeed if he can find “just one thing, however slight, that is certain…” (AT 24)
In the third paragraph, Descartes starts considering what he might know for certain, and very quickly he finds something: if he has persuaded himself of anything, then he cannot doubt that he exists. This is true even if there is an evil genius who directs his entire effort at deceiving him, since he must exist in order to be deceived. This insight is sometimes referred to as “the Cogito,” since, in his Discourse on Method (AT 32), he stated it as “I think, therefore, I am” (“Cogito, ergo, sum” in Latin). The wording in the Discourse has (understandably) been misunderstood as saying that one exists because one thinks – a statement about what makes one real. In Meditation Two, he is more careful, saying, “this pronouncement ‘I am, I exist’ is necessarily true every time I utter it or conceive it in my mind” – a statement about what one can know. Already, Descartes has found one thing that is certain.
It can take several passes to get a firm grasp on what Descartes is actually trying to convey. This short video gives a great thumbnail sketch of his line of thought in the First Meditation and the beginning of the Second. Watch it before you read to give you the lay of the land, so to speak. I recommend watching it after you read as well, to see if it seems like the video is saying the same thing you read. If it doesn’t seem like it is, reread the First Meditation. (Captions are available by hovering over the bottom of the screen and then clicking on the three dots.)Over the next four paragraphs, Descartes explores the nature of the Cogito. The general drift of this exploration is that none of the ways he would have understood himself before beginning the meditations are certain given all that was called into doubt in Meditation One. He lists all that can be known for sure about the Cogito in a short paragraph in AT 28: “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.”
At this point, Descartes has accomplished two things: (1) he has found one thing that is certain (the Cogito); and (2) he has determined its nature. A consequence of these accomplishments is that one’s existence as a thinking thing is known better than corporeal things. (‘Corporeal’ comes from the Latin word corpus, meaning “body.” Corporeal things are things which have a body – in other words, material or physical things.) This means that we know our minds more certainly than we do our bodies. (Does this match your pre-philosophical viewpoint?)
The last half of Meditation Two develops the idea that we know our minds more certainly than we do our bodies in a different way. Admitting that even he is still inclined to believe that corporeal things are better known than the Cogito, he proposes to “just this once allow [my mind] completely free rein” (AT 30) so that it will later permit itself to be controlled. While he’s not saying it as clearly as he could, Descartes means that he’s going to step outside of the careful mediating that he’s been doing and look at things as though he wasn’t concerned about an evil genius.
Descartes considers an example of a corporeal thing – a piece of wax. This is the kind of thing that seems to be better known than the Cogito. So, Descartes gives it a close inspection with his senses. He finds that each of the five sense modalities offers distinct information about the wax: it smells like flowers (smell), it tastes like honey (taste), its color shape and size are evident (sight), it is hard and cold (touch), and if you rap on it with a knuckle, it will make a sound (hearing).
Next, Descartes brings the wax close to the fire, and each of the five sense modalities now gives different information about the wax: the scent of flowers disappears (smell), the trace of honey flavor disappears (taste), the size increases (sight), it’s hot (touch), and it won’t emit a sound when he raps on it (hearing).
At this point, Descartes asks whether the same wax remains, and admits that it does. He even says, “no one doubts it; no one thinks otherwise.” (AT 30) But how do we know this? It can’t be because of what our senses tell us, because our senses tell us totally different things before and after the wax is brought near the fire. They can’t tell us that it’s the same wax. So, he thinks, none of these sensory characteristics actually belong to the wax. What’s left over if we strip them all away? Something that exists in three dimensions, that’s flexible, and that’s prone to change. (Does this seem right to you?) But how is this essence known? Could it be through the imagination? Descartes thinks not, because he understands that the wax is capable of taking on more shapes than he’s capable of imagining. What’s left? Descartes says, “I perceive it through the mind alone.” (AT 31) Later he says more fully, “when I distinguish the wax from its external forms, as if stripping it of its clothing, and look at the wax in its nakedness, then, even though there can still be an error in my judgment, nevertheless I cannot perceive it thus without a human mind” (AT 32).
What does all of this mean? Well, if Descartes’ reasoning sound, it shows that we know our minds better than we know corporeal things. Because, when we stop to consider who it is that perceives the wax so distinctly (after all of this reasoning), we find that we know ourselves as thinking beings much more evidently than we know the wax. (AT 33) So, Descartes has come to the same place that he had in the first part of Meditation Two, but he’s done it by a different route – one that doesn’t require us to work inside of all of the doubt that the evil genius supposition requires.
All of this may seem kind of subtle and abstract, but there’s something pretty interesting going on here. At AT 32, Descartes emphasizes the idea that what seems to be grasped by the senses is “actually grasped solely with the faculty of judgment, which is in my mind.” He says he looks out his window and observes men crossing the square. But, if he thinks about it carefully, all he really sees is hats and clothes – which could hide automata. An automaton is a mechanical device that appears to move on its own initiative. Descartes is writing 400 years ago, but you can see that he might have been a good science fiction writer. He sees hats and clothes and judges that they cover humans. However, they could cover clever machines. (In which case, his judgment would be wrong.)
Today, we don’t talk about automata. We talk about androids (or AI robots, or something like that). If we update it to our contemporary point of reference, the same insight follows: We might look out on the school quad, see clothed objects moving about, and judge that humans were walking on the quad. However, we could be wrong. Perhaps one (or more) of them are actually very well-designed androids. The fact that it’s possible for our judgment to be wrong in this way shows that our senses aren’t the primary source of our understanding of corporeal objects. Our judgment gets involved. And that’s why our minds are the primary source of our understanding of corporeal objects. If you think of how often we jump to erroneous conclusions about people – which often happens in first impressions, for instance – you can see that Descartes is pointing to something very real here. Our understanding of the world is not just about what we sense, it’s also about how we interpret what we sense.
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