Instructor: Dr. Bob Zunjic
Meditations On First Philosophy
Meditation II capitalizes on the negative outcome of the preceding examination by turning the mounting doubt into a proof of absolute certainty. This operation, known as the Cogito, is based on the peculiar connection between consciousness and existence: we cannot be aware that we do not exist. The underlying assumption is that our mind is strictly distinct from our body and that it can be cognized directly.
Of the Nature of the Human
Mind and That It Is More Easily Known Than the Body
| Upshot of Meditation One:
Skeptical, somber mood. Unsettled doubts. Descartes
cannot forget or suppress the uncertainties of the previous day's
meditation. But no solution for his doubts is in sight either: "Nor
do I yet see how I will be able to resolve them."
Therefore the thinker feels disoriented and dizzy. Yet the resulting
state of mind is only a temporary disconcertedness - not
a paralyzing desperation.
Quest for Certainty Continues:
Despite the negative outcome of his initial attempt, Descartes
is determined to conform to the plan commenced in the first Meditation:
"to put aside every belief in which I can imagine the least doubt"
until "something certain" emerges ("a single truth which is certain
and indubitable"). Even if it turns out that there is nothing certain,
that finding would be something valuable.
Descartes would still prefer to adopt a radical skeptical conclusion
rather than a delusion with some pleasing but false assertions.
But he hopes for more than a negative minimalist claim.
Restating the Objective: A firm point of
certainty (C) is needed to carry the burden of all human knowledge
(K) as a fixed immovable point (fulcrum = F) was sought after by
Archimedes to support the lever (L) long and big enough to move
the Earth. This analogy entails the following proportion:
C : K = F : L.
|Certainty : Knowledge =
|| = Fulcrum : Lever
| General Doubt Exercised Again:
|| Neither the world nor the body are known beyond any
doubt through the senses. Therefore, I cannot assume that anything
of what my "deceitful memory" presents to me "has ever existed". On
the contrary, I better suppose "that everything that I see (or recall)
is false", including my body. Consequently, "I think that I have no
senses and I believe that body, shape, extension, motion, and location
are merely inventions of my mind."
| Tentative Conclusion:
|| No certainty is attainable about the world or my body.
Perhaps the only certainty is that "nothing is certain". As this is
tantamount to the capitulation of knowledge the "I" is on the verge
to end up in a self-refuting skepticism.
Note: The formulation "until I have learned
with certainty that there is nothing certain in this world" should
be understood strictly with regard to the object-world and corporeal
existence. If the statement is viewed as a universal proposition
about all contents of consciousness it becomes a self-refuting
statement, a kind of performative contradiction.
||Descartes obviously takes seriously skeptical ruminations
of the first Meditation. The decisive difference with the previous
skeptical scrutiny being that he is now going to examine his beliefs
about himself rather than his opinions about the external world.
II A DIALOGUE OF TWO SELVES
Instead of alternating consecutively between the two separated roles of
the prosecutor and of the defense for the reliability of human knowledge,
Descartes now splits his Ego into two Selves (S1 and S2) that will
at once (simultaneously) represent the skeptical and the constructive part of his
subjectivity. The ensuing inner dialogue passes through the following
(I) Existential Nihilism:
|S1: If your senses are unreliable and if
your memories are deceitful, you cannot be certain about anything.
Strictly speaking you cannot assume that anything exists. On
the contrary, in keeping with the strategy of expanded doubt
you should admit that "nothing exists".
||S2: By doubting our corporeal existence we cannot exclude something beyond
our senses and our body, some entity which resists doubt, "some God or some
other power who gives me these (skeptical) thoughts"?
(II) Creative Interiority:
|S1: You do not "need to think this
to be true". You yourself, imprisoned in your mental inwardness,
could be the author of these thoughts including the idea of
"some God" or "some other power".
||S2: In that case there will be still something - you. "Then, at the very least, am I not
then an entity (something) myself?" Only so I could make these thoughts up.
(III) Intellectual Independence:
|S1: But you "have already denied that you
have any senses and any body". Therefore you cannot be something.
||S2: "What follows from that?" "Am I so dependent
upon the body and the senses that I could not exist without
them?" Maybe I can? (As a character from "The Matrix"
says, "the body cannot live without the mind", but
not the other way round.)
(IV) Persuasion Power:
|S1: But you have convinced yourself "that nothing whatsoever existed in the world", hence no "I" did exist.
||S2: "Not at all; without doubt I existed if I was convinced or even if I thought anything." In other words: I thought, therefore I existed. (past tense)
(V) Deceiver's Impotence:
|S1: What if there is a "very powerful and tricky" deceiver "who bends all his efforts" in deceiving you? He fools all your thoughts and ideas.
||S2: That would be very beneficial to break the circle of doubt. If he is deceiving me then (there is no doubt that) I exist. Nothing could deceive me if I did not exist.
||After applying the strongest test possible of
doubt Descartes can triumphantly challenge the evil demon in a tenseless
account: "And let him deceive me as much as he will, he can
never make me be nothing as long as I think that I am something."
||The proposition "I am, I exist, is necessarily
true every time that I pronounce it or conceive it in my mind." (a
III THE COGITO
Although the famous formula "I think, therefore I am" (Latin:
Cogito, ergo sum) does not occur verbatim in the second
Meditation, it is clearly entailed by the foregoing reasoning.
The Cogito argument results from an extended analytical
demonstration. It is analytical in the sense that throughout the
Meditations Descartes takes apart skeptical propositions
and removes all hurdles to unravel an inner tie between being
conscious and existing.
Finally, the analysis has brought us to consciousness / subjectivity
as (the) absolutely certain ground for existence claims.
|Doubt Engenders Certainty:
The doubt fueled by the presence of an evil demon completely
shattered our confidence regarding everything corporeal, but eventually
it stumbled upon itself because it could not subvert
the logic of the following questions.
|How can I be persuaded into non-existence of
anything without being myself something existent?
|How can the demon deceive me unless I exist?
|How can I sensibly say I seem to be thinking but I doubt
that I am thinking?
One cannot be wrong that one is thinking even when their thinking
is inherently mistaken. Every person has indubitable knowledge
of their own thoughts and, through it, of their own existence.
This is the first certainty discovered - buried in one's
I would be deceived about my existence only if I believed "I
exist" (sum) when "I exist" was false -
but that contradicts the very idea of being convinced or deceived.
It is logically impossible for there to be an occasion on which
a person considers the statement "I exist" (sum) and
on which that statement is false.
So "I exist" (sum) is indubitable even or especially when
being (self-) questioned.
Note: Since a thinker's existence necessarily
follows even from the existence of erroneous thoughts, their deceptiveness
is made not only harmless, but extremely effective for the demonstration
of a much more fundamental truth. (Foucault)
Descartes exposes thinking as "the
most general form of all those thoughts we term error or illusion"
so that their sheer existence irrefutably establishes the existence
of the thinking subject.
||This certainty of the Cogito is higher than the certainty
of mathematical propositions (remember the promise given in the
Dedicatory letter) because it does not depend on any propositional
content and can withstand even the challenge of an evil genius who
can be deceiving us about the existence of the entire world..
||Is the Cogito an analytic logical truth or just a synthetic
|Synthetic Necessary Conclusion:
Descartes claims it is necessarily true, which suggests that
it is an analytic proposition. But it differs from analytic propositions
in many respects. Even after recognizing this proposition as indubitable
it still makes sense to ask whether existence is included in the
concept of thinking. This indicates that existence is not simply
analytically explicated in the Cogito. Moreover, the denial
of "I think" or "I exist" (sum) alone does not produce a
formal (logical) contradiction which would be the case with an analytic proposition.
In that regard the Cogito appears to be just a synthetic
proposition. To be sure, a synthetic derivation or attribution
is less than to be affirmed by an analytic proposition
which is a priori true (for instance, the proposition
"Triangle is a plane figure with three sides" provides
analytic backdrop for the following deductive reasoning: "This
is a triangle, therefore it has three sides"). But it is
also more, because the propositional content of the Cogito
entails existential certainty, whereas analytic propositions lack
existential implication (force).
||All in all, "I think, therefore I am" seems to be
something special, a third category "in between" analytic
and synthetic propositions. It is a synthetic conclusion
but with a stronger connection between the terms than the one we
find in synthetic statements like: "I fish, therefore I smell" or
"I sweat, therefore I am thin". The latter are contingent,
the Cogito is necessary.
(1) There is a necessary connection between being aware
(thought) and being (existence). Based on this, Descartes has
discovered an existential inconsistency in pronouncing the statement
"I do not exist" with regard to the existential self-verifiability
of the underlying "I am". A person can never be aware that s/he
does not exist. On the contrary, one exists whenever one believes
to exist or even doubt it
(2) My existence is not a timeless logical truth stating
that I am someone (a being) capable of thinking, but a consequence of an
ongoing though contingent mental activity. Hence the most accurate
rendering of the Cogito ergo sum statement would be: "I
am thinking, therefore I am." The statement holds only as long as we entertain or utter
it. What makes me certain of my existence is the fact that I am
at this moment engaged in thinking. "But for how long do I exist?
For as long as I think; for it might perhaps happen, if I totally
ceased thinking, that I would at the same time completely ceased
means that the Cogito secures certainty only moment by
moment; it does not imply the continuance of existence beyond
particular enunciations of "I am thinking".
IV A PUZZLING INTUITION
The Cogito purports to state a very special conceptual
connection: synthetic but non-contingent, necessary but not analytic.
But is it valid as a (deductive) argument? Or at least how good it is? These
are the questions behind the objections raised both by Descartes'
contemporaries and many subsequent philosophers and scholars.
"I am thinking,
therefore I am" is not a logically valid argument because
in its first part (premise) we encounter an "I" which is supposed
to be derived only in the second part -
i.e. its conclusion.
If there are thoughts, thinking exists. This is the gist of an objection formulated by G. Leibniz. In
other words, by making the above existential presupposition in the premise, the
cogito argument commits a fallacy known as begging the question
Reply 1: The first occurrence of the "I" is just
a linguistic coincidence. In the Latin original there is no "I" (Ego)
in the premise. Strictly speaking, it is not necessary to mention
the "I" (Ego) in the premise; all the more so as the "I" does not
refer to a Self existing separately from the thinking act. The premise
"I think" should be understood rather in the sense of "There are
thoughts" or "Thinking is occurring" (Russell).
If the real meaning
of the premise is "There are thoughts", then from that impersonal
statement we cannot conclude "I exist", only (if at all) that
"something exists" or "thinking exists". But this existential conclusion
requires a general proposition that would precede the Cogito.
A. Thinking is is the only thing, as Schelling claimed, that the Cogito proves. It is noteworthy that Descartes nowhere establishes that thoughts
logically require a thinker. Thus his implication linking his thinking and his existence seems to be purely
A logically correct inference about my existence from
the fact that "I" (or anything) am (is) thinking (minor
premise) would be impossible without a major premise:
"Whatever is thinking, must exist" (id quod cogitat est).
However, if that major is accepted it would precede the conclusion
without being known immediately and without the same level of certainty
as the supposed first truth of the cogito (this was the objection of Burman).
Reply 2: The Cogito argument is not a syllogistic inference.
Descartes' knowledge that he is thinking is entirely intuitive and
non-inferential. His conclusion that he exists is so interwoven
with that intuition of thinking that it emerges simultaneously and
immediately along with his awareness of being engaged in thinking.
The general principle "whatever thinks, must exist" might be logically
prior to the particular statement "I am thinking, therefore I am",
but the latter comes first in the order of discovery. The Cogito
states in the first person a general assertion of the aforementioned
major premise, whose truth is in fact derived from it.
It is mistaken to believe that we can logically prove somebody's existence from their thoughts.
This is the objection of Kant. Existence cannot be proved (demonstrated),
only shown (posited). He accepted the necessity of the Cogito, but denied its primacy. The Cogito states a necessary condition
of all my thoughts: it is an unavoidable part of our thinking not
only about ourselves but also about all other things. I think
accompanies all my perceptions and thoughts. But I cannot
know the contents of my mind unless I first unify them into a simple
consciousness. Thus that act of unification (transcendental apperception
= perception + consciousness) precedes the Cogito. The Cogito is just a fragment
of our consciousness that is at best indicative for the way how our mind works. If we isolate somebody's self-consciousness from
their awareness of other things, we inevitably reach absurd conclusions,
as when one would contend (in accord with the Cogito) that it is
true to say "Caesar thinks, therefore he exists", although he evidently does not exist any longer.
Reply 3: The Cogito is less a proof than a demonstrative
performance of existence. This is probably the reason why
Descartes in the second Meditation says only I am, I exist.
This statement simply manifests an impossibility or existential
inconsistency which arises as soon we deny our own existence. The
undeniable character of "I exist" is not a function of its logical
status or of its truth, but a consequence of the existentially self-defeating
character of utterance "I do not exist". Descartes' idea was not
to prove "I am" (sum) - only to show that the thinker's existence
is certain whenever he/she performs any reflexive mental activity.
The rationale of the cogito, ergo sum consists consequently
in the proof that the sum ("I am") can never reasonably be doubted
(Hintikka). The Cogito argument is an argument from the immediate
reflexive perception of mental acts to the perception of one's own
existence. To think anything is equal to exist, especially if thinking
is thinking of oneself as thinking. In me experior ut cogito,
ergo sum = I experience myself as thinking, therefore I am.
If the cogito is a proof of something at all, it is a proof of certainty
rather than existence. In that respect there is no difference between
first rank thoughts and the thoughts of the thoughts, or between
consciousness and self-consciousness for that matter. To think and
to be thinking is the same thing. Therefore one can start with 'I think'.
The Cogito is not unique and indispensable.
"I exist" can
be derived from any other action, since "it is known by natural
light that whatever acts exists." (Gassendi)
For instance: Ambulo, ergo sum. ("I am walking, therefore
Reply 4: "I exist" does not follow from any phrase in which
the pronoun "I" occurs. "I exist" cannot be inferred from a sheer
physical activity. In itself "I am walking" is not an indubitable
premise (could be a sensory illusion). Therefore it does not provide
the same level of certainty of ourselves as "I think". Only mediated
through thoughts and with regard to the awareness of something extraneous
to thoughts ("I think I am walking") could a non-intellectual activity
lead to the conclusion "I exist". The existence of the "I" is secured
only if related to the awareness of walking, not to the bodily movements
we call "walking". However, if sensations and imaginations are grasped
in my mind as thoughts, they could not be separated from the thinking
Self. I can doubt that I imagine or sense something, but I cannot
doubt that I am sensing or imagining. I attain the absolute certainty
of the Cogito as soon as I turn away from all sensory objects
and focus solely on my mental activity. To say: "I think that I
am walking, but I am not walking" makes sense at least under certain
circumstances. Under no circumstances is it possible to claim "I
think that I am thinking, but I am not thinking". "I think" (cogito)
is inseparable from "I exist" (sum), whereas "I walk"
(ambulo) is not.
one of his letters Descartes considers the example "I breath, therefore
I am" and claims that it is not viable reasoning unless it is previously proved
that "I exist". By the same token, "you have no right to make the
inference I am walking, hence I exist, except in so far as
our awareness of walking is a thought". The
stoic philosopher Antipater claimed that from 'you are breathing'
necessarily follows 'you are alive', but the commentators retorted
that this necessity was not logical, but physical.
||The existence of the thinking subject is
secured with the existence of his thoughts (cogitations). The
"I" is the subject insofar as it is the subject of various
states of consciousness. Descartes believes that any of his thoughts
establishes his existence, not only those thoughts that raise doubts
about his own existence.
|I am deceived
|I am not
||The negative separation of doubtful
statements has reached its limit. All cogitatio-statements are certain
beyond any doubt.
All beliefs about one's own thoughts enjoy a special status that
renders them immune to the skeptical doubts of the previous Meditation.
This makes it unnecessary for Descartes to differentiate between various
cogitations. In his broad concept of thinking he lumps up everything
Aristotle had previously separated as different levels and kinds in his scale of knowledge (Metaphysics,
|1st Truth in the Order of Reasons:
The Cogito is an inference of reflective consciousness.
But it is not reflexive itself in the sense of requiring a thought which
is certain of an earlier thought.
The Cogito is not an act of natural consciousness. The self-consciousness of
the Cogito is not an ordinary psychological (empirical) consciousness
in the widest possible sense. Every cogito-utterance must
be singular and empirical, but Descartes does not deal with an individual
introspective consciousness. The "I" of the Cogito
is a general Self that does imply the others . Descartes
wants to determine the necessary conditions of every intellection
and therewith the universal validity of our scientific (metaphysical)
statements. The Cogito is general enough to serve as the
required foundation of knowledge because the certainty provided
by the awareness of cogitations exceeds the certainty of the simple
and universal natures (primary qualities and analytic truths) from
the first Meditation. The Cogito is in fact more
universal and more simple than those "simple and universal concepts".
Once we attain full certainty of its certainty, we will be ready
to lay down the basis of First Philosophy.
(1) The reliability of one's own mental self-perception
does not depend on any assumptions concerning the corporeal world
or our sensory organs.
(2) The indubitability of consciousness circumvents the
difference between dream and wake or appearance and reality; the
latter becomes a factor in the process of knowing external things
(cf. the "real wax" versus its "superficial appearance").
(3) One can experience one's own existence through perception
of one's mental acts. (Perception is in Descartes' vocabulary something
more reliable than sheer sensation.)
(4) How do we know that the Self previously deceived is
the one that now realizes its own existence? Obviously, memory,
though labeled as "deceitful", becomes necessary to supplement for
our extended identity in time (cf. the 6th Meditation).
Historical Question: Is
the Cogito argument a complete novelty given Aristotle's reasoning:
"We sense that we sense and we understand that we understand and because
we sense this, we understand that we exist." (EN 1170a 30)? Augustine's
dictum Si fallor sum ("If I doubt, I am"), clearly points
to the same idea. Compare also St. Thomas Aquinas: "No one can
assent to the though that he does not exist: for, in thinking something
he perceives himself as existent." (De veritate, X, 12, ad 7) However,
all these precursors only cursorily confront the stream of consciousness
as an object of exploration. Descartes provides the first truly phenomenological
inspection of human mind inspired by overriding epistemological concerns.
In addition, he draws a clear demarcation line between mental interiority
and the external world. Because of the gap that was thus opened between
what is going on "in here" and "out there", Descartes had to deal with
a new problem of purely epistemological nature: "whether any of the objects
of which I have ideas within me exists outside of me?"
Existence - from the Latin existere = emerge; that
which exists; the subject matter of ontology; asserting existence
means asserting that a thing is - in contrast with essence, which
states what a thing is.
Essence - from the Latin essentia which originally
renders Greek ousia = that which makes a thing what it is
(substance); that which a thing possesses and which makes
it identifiable as the particular thing it is.
Performative - pertaining to the act done as a part of what
is being said; a statement whose meaning includes the act of uttering
Inferential - from the Latin in + ferre = bring in;
stemming from the logical process of deriving a statement from one
or more statements.
Synthetic - from the Greek synthetikos = put together;
referring to a statement that asserts something about the real world;
its predicate adds something which is not contained in the subject
and so its truth is empirical. ("I fish, therefore
A priori - from the Latin ab and prior = from
that which is prior (from the cause to the effect); that which precedes
sense experience; in contrast to a posteriori = that which
proceeds from the latter (effect).
Petitio principii - Latin for "begging the question"; a
fallacy that emerges when we take conclusion as a premise ("God
exists because it says so in the Bible, which is true because God
Cogitationes - Latin for "thoughts"; for Descartes, cogitations
are all thoughts referring to our thoughts, and include, doubts,
assertions, judgments, imaginations or beliefs by means of which
we express our own (present) state of mind.
Dualism - the doctrine that the universe is made up of two
different substances, typically mind and matter.
V WHAT AM I?
The successful resolution of the dilemma "Do I really exist?"
leads now to the question "What I am - I, who am sure that I exist?" In
other words, what is that vacuous "I" whose existence I am certain of?
Having established the existence of his "I", Descartes now proceeds
to tackle the question of its essence.
||In doing this he needs to pay utmost attention not to
compromise the certainty he has just achieved: "So I must henceforth
take very great care that I do not incautiously mistake some other
thing for myself and to make an error even in that knowledge which
I maintain to be more certain and more evident than all other knowledge
that I previously had."
||Any satisfactory answer to the question about his nature
must therefore match the level of evidence and indubitability attained
with the Cogito: "I am now admitting nothing except what is necessarily
true." Descartes asks four times the question "what am I?" and goes
to as many stages in the progressive rebuttal of prejudices regarding
|Point of Departure:
||In a striking parallel to the first Meditation
Descartes starts with his "former opinions" about himself - what he
thought himself to be before he began these last deliberations.
He lists four typical answers ranging from ordinary notions
up to the more learned and sophisticated considerations of the old
question "Who am I?"
||"What then have I previously believed myself to be?"
|I Common Sense:
I am a Man. "Clearly, I believed that I was a man."
This seems to be a self-evident answer.
However, it is good only so long as nobody questions it further.
"But what is man?" (Cf. the Sphinx' question) All of a sudden the
semblance of perspicuity that radiated from this answer disappears.
|II Traditional Definition:
I am a rational animal (Animal Rationale). "Shall I say a rational animal?"
This is an allusion to the scholastic definition of man based on
the Aristotelian method of defining things by genus and difference.
Things were believed to be best defined when we refer to their proximate
genus and indicate their specific difference (in
this case, the animality would the genus, rationality the
But this definition raises more questions than it solves.
"For I would have to determine what an 'animal' is and what is meant
by 'rational'; and so, from a single question, I would find myself
gradually enmeshed in an infinity of others more difficult and more
inconvenient…" Instead of struggling with very difficult questions
raised by the concepts of the Schools, it is better to try something
less complicated (Descartes ironically refers to these intellectual
|III Spontaneous Self-Perception:
I am a Body. "I thought of myself first as having a face, hands,
arms, and all this mechanism composed of bone and flesh and members,
just as it appears in a corpse, and which I designated by the name
of 'body'." This is the answer that comes to mind first (children
perceive themselves that way). It is also a natural way of looking
at our corporeal existence. "How there could be any doubt about
it" when the bodily aspect is recognized "very distinctly" (with
size, shape, etc.). This reasoning has all advantages of pointing
to something that, for its part, could be easily delineated and
defined. A few lines later Descartes explains that body includes
"all that can be bounded by some figure; that can be located in
some place and occupy a space in such a way that every other body
is excluded from of it; that can be perceived by touch or sight
or hearing or taste or smell, that can be moved in various ways,
not by itself but by some other object..."
Body does not move - it is being moved because, to put it in the
language of Aristotle, it does not possess the principle of movement
in itself. In sum, body is extended, tangible, inert matter =
|Definition of Body
|Bounded by Shape
|Enclosed in Space
|Filling up a Position
|Excluding other Bodies
||However, I cannot identify myself with the body. "I
am not this assemblage of members which is called a human body." Important
features of my subjectivity, like the power "to feel or to think",
are not "attributes of corporeal nature" (assuming that body is inert
matter capable only of being touched and receiving external "impulses"). Moreover, body in itself is not capable to move without being moved, either internally or externally. Thus moving, sensing and thinking transcend the bodily nature of the "I". "I" cannot be reduced to the body since body does not account for the functions of walking, feeling and thinking , as evidenced by dead bodies.
||"I" cannot be identified with body for cognitive reasons as well. In addition, when we press the issue in terms of self-certainty, body proves elusive due to its dependency on the senses. "Can I be sure that I possess the smallest fraction of all those characteristics which I have just now said belonged to the nature of body?" The answer is negative as long as there is a possibility of being tricked by "an extremely powerful" and "malicious" spirit. The introduction of an evil genius proves again very useful in maintaining high standards f knowledge. Unlike the previous moment in which Descartes was able to fend off the evil demon precisely when the demon was intent to deceive him in regard to the bodily existence, now he remains susceptible to his externally induced deception. The demon is not only powerful and malicious but equally tricky and determined to deceive the thinker. This requires to continue search for those "powers" of our Self that are responsible for other obvious faculties and ultimately our identity.
I am the Soul. The soul is to be credited for the difference between a dead body (inanimate matter) and a living being that I am capable of walking, sensing and thinking. "In addition, I thought of the fact that I consumed
nourishment, that I walked, that I perceived and thought, and ascribed
all these actions to the soul."
The "actions" of the soul mentioned here point to three major non-corporeal
functions in the traditional (Aristotelian) account of the powers
attributed to the soul:
1 - The power of growth and nutrition ("I consumed nourishment").
The ability to grow and to be nourished is a characteristic of the
nutritive/vegetative soul (that is to say, it is common for
all living organisms including plants).
2 - The power of sentience and motion ("I perceived", "I
Sensation and locomotion are characteristics of the sensitive/volitive
soul (animals and humans share these powers).
3 - The power of thinking and understanding ("I thought").
Thinking is an exclusive capacity of the rational soul, or
the mind (mens) and thus defining for man only.
Note: Descartes regarded animals as "thoughtless brutes" deprived of intelligence. From the supposed thoughtlessness he derived the conclusion that their sensitivity is purely mechanical (not mental and emotional). This view determined for centuries the way how animals were treated in the West.
|Soul = Fine Substance
||Soul is the source of life (the principle of being alive). Insofar as being alive requires to breath it is associated with air, wind or ether. In general, soul is responsible for actions that
entail body, but are not reducible to the body (nourishment, movement,
perception). Despite its union with the body, the soul displays much
more complexity than the body. This is why its nature remains typically
undefined or becomes subject to misleading materialistic associations:
"either I did not stop to consider what this soul was or else, if
I did, I imagined that it was something very rarified and subtle,
such as wind, a flame, or a very much expanded air which penetrated
into and was infused throughout my grosser components". But all these
connotations are inappropriate as features of the soul. It is better
not to define soul than to describe it in this manner. "I am not a
rarefied and penetrating air spread throughout all these members;
I am not a wind, a flame, a breadth, a vapor, or anything at all I
can imagine or picture to myself…" These are very fine substances,
but they are nonetheless corporeal. Soul must be a pure substance which
cannot be just a rarefied or dilated matter. The only dimension of its existence that meets this requirement is thinking - our mental activity.
|I am a man.
|I am a rational animal.
|I am a body.
|I am the soul.
|| Hence, before lumping up together very different manifestations
of the soul and before resorting to the aforementioned animistic comparisons
with elements it is necessary to consider those aspects of the soul
that are directly related to the nature of the Cogito. It is
clear that the mysterious "I" could not be subsumed under any of the
first two powers of the soul (nutrition or sentience) especially not
if corporeal existence is under constant suspicion. The "I" cannot include
corporeality and the sensory attributes of the soul. They are subject
to sensory delusions. "If it is true that I do not have a body, these
also are nothing but the figments of my imagination." The same applies
to perception which requires the functions of a body (except in dreams
where I have only thought "I perceived various things"?).
dismissal of his body and of the traditional ethereal concept of soul
should be understood in strict conjunction with the ascription of
absolute certainty exclusively to the performance of the thinking
ability. Quite consistently, he believed in the existence of the "rational"
soul only. However, despite the initial announcements in the Dedicatory
Letter, he has not managed to prove that the soul is immortal and
independent from the body. As the title of the second Meditation
indicates (added in later editions) he has instead switched to a less
ambitious objective - to demonstrate that it is distinct from the
|2nd Truth in the Order of Reasons:
||The true nature of my soul and consequently of the "I" is intellection.
(Descartes basically identifies soul with mind - no surprise the book was condemned by religious authorities who conceive soul as the seat of our personal and corporeal identity.)
|Final Answer: Mind
The only characteristic that could be ascribed to the "I" on the
basis of the Cogito is thinking. "To think? Here I
find the answer. Thought is an attribute that belongs to me. It
alone is inseparable from my nature." Not only that I can safely identify myself with thinking - in fact I cannot separate my existence from it.
Thus the soul becomes reduced to intellection which is not conditioned
by corporeal elements or objects of perception. Beginning with the
Cogito and in keeping with the rational analysis of my nature
the intellectual moment of the soul is finally validated in the insight that
I am thinking, or a mind.
"I am therefore, to speak precisely, a thinking being, that is to
say, a mind…" To be a mind includes a whole host of other synonymous terms:
|(1) Thinking Being:
||Thus the entire self-inquiry gets contracted into the following
"I am something real and really existing, but what thing am I? I have
already given the answer: a thing which thinks."
Or in Latin: Ego sum Res Cogitans.
This is not a definition, only a partial description of the "I", but
it establishes that the essence of the "I" who is certain
of its existence is thought.
contention that I am a "thinking thing" does not mean that
I am not a body as well. Especially not that my body does not exist.
Such a conclusion would be a fallacy based on an inference from the
dubiety of the body. That I am uncertain about my body does not establish
that I am not a body. The emphasis should be laid on the contention
that the knowledge of the body, being sensory, could not be counted
as the knowledge required by the standards of the Cogito.
Thus the reason why Descartes has to "abandon"
the natural supposition that the "I" has a body is the impossibility
to maintain the level of certainty already attained by the Cogito.
Conversely, he is certain of being something without this supposition
that he has a body, which means that it is not necessary even though
it remains very probable.
||Is thinking the only (an exclusive) characteristic of
the "I"? No! In fact, Descartes allows that he could be
something else apart from being a thinking thing: "And what more?
I will stimulate my imagination to see if I am not something beyond
this." (= something that belongs to the nature of the soul only or both to the soul and
to the body) To no avail: "all these images"
he produces could be "only dreams and illusions" no matter how convincing he could be in picturing them (effingo). Picturing as such
is dependent on sense-based cognitions. Descartes concedes that the
real nature of those "other things" that potentially might be part of
his "I" is "no different from the self which (he) knows",
but since he does not know that with certainty he rather refrains
from passing any judgment on this matter. He does not want to bind
his own existence "on things whose existence is not yet known to (him)"
or perhaps "do not belong" to him at all.
||Therefore, he cannot use his imagination to find out
"what else" he might be. "I know manifestly that nothing
of all that I can understand by means of the imagination is pertinent
to the knowledge which I have of myself." To imagine means to envision
"the shape or image of a bodily entity". Imagination is
not the faculty that can secure a reliable self-knowledge because
it cannot operate without visualizing, that is to say, without producing
sensory images. But sensation and imagination both imply and presuppose
corporeal existence which is dubious.
||On the other hand, imagination and sensation are intricately
tied to thinking. The content of imagination is uncertain, but imagining
is as certain as the awareness of thinking. This explains a surprising
twist in what immediately follows: although everything that I imagine
could be untrue, "the power of imagination cannot fail to be
real" and thus, when exercised, it yields the same self-certainty
as other forms of thinking ("it is part of my thinking").
Nature of the Mind:
|Based on this insight Descartes now includes into the
concept of thinking as different mental activities as understanding,
doubting, affirming, willing, imagining and perceiving. In other words, he broadens
the concept of thinking via the subject who performs all these acts.
"What is a thinking being?" he asks rhetorically and immediately answers: "It is
a being which doubts, which understands, which conceives, which affirms,
which denies, which wills, which rejects, which imagines also, and
which perceives." Thus thinking proves to be more inclusive that we might have thought:
||Thinking modes, as enumerated here, are
obviously conceived wider than pure intellectual activity (intelligere)
and include all mental acts, even those that entail the presence
of the body. What is the basis for this expansion of the concept of
thinking? Does this stretch inadvertently compromise the quality of the attained certainty?
||The answer is no. We now realize why Descartes regards all these actions,
mediated through consciousness and thought, to be as certain as the
Cogito. All subjective thoughts, entail the existence
of me as the knowing subject no matter whether I am asleep or
being deluded by a powerful demon or a creator. Even if the content
of my understanding, imagination and will is not true, the very fact
of having wishes and imaginations entails my existence. Thus the existential
statements beginning with "I imagine, "I feel", "I love", "I
will" produce the same level of self-certainty as "I think".
|(2) The Irrefutable 'Seems':
||These statements could not be separated from my nature
because they are forms of thinking (based or at least mediated through
thinking). I cannot trust the results of imagining and sensing but I can be absolutely sure in the workings of my mind as mental facts. By the same token, I could be wrong in believing that what
I am perceiving is real/true, but I cannot be mistaken that "it seems
to me" that I am perceiving something. Therefore "it seems
to me that I see" is much more reliable/certain that the simple "I
see" (which could be a product of an illusion). The insertion
of a small qualification "it seems" changes dramatically
the status of my reports about the external world because it is basically a statement of the mind. Perception is thinking insofar as it turns into self-awareness indicated by the phrase "it seems". In this sense a
mediated perception is thinking while consciousness of it provides
the same level of certainty as self-consciousness due to the direct access to the mind.
|"I see X."
|"I seem to be seeing X"
|(3) Identity of the Subject:
||We now understand the content of the expanded notion of "I", but one
question is still lingering: What makes Descartes believe that conceiving,
doubting, understanding, will, imagination and perception belong to
one and the same mind?
"Am I not the same person who now doubts almost everything, who nevertheless
understands and conceives certain things, who is sure and affirms
the truth of this one thing alone, who denies all others, who wills
and desires to know more about them, who rejects error, who imagines
many things, sometimes even against my will, and who perceives many
things, as through the medium of the senses or the organs of the body?"
Answer: Yes, I am the same person. But what guarantees my identity? The sameness of
the "thinking", "imagining", "willing" and "sensing" subject.
However, this sameness is not as obvious as Descartes claims: "I
am the same being which perceives" different objects, "because
I do really see light, hear noises, feel heat". His assertion
proves only the certainty of his consciousness, not its identity.
||In grounding the identity of the "I"
on the thinking substance Descartes exposes himself to a type of criticism
Hume exercised on our assumption that we are simple and continuous
selves whose unity is established through the consciousness of the
knowing subject. Consider the following questions:
Is Descartes justified in concluding that the substance he is deriving
from thinking is "I"? No, because the fact that "thought exists" allows
different conclusions about its agent: that could be you, "world soul",
a brain in a vat, or whatever else.
Did Descartes manage to prove that there is such a thing as a purely
thinking substance? No, from the fact that he can doubt the existence
of matter, but cannot doubt his own existence, he has jumped to the
assertion that he is a purely thinking substance, but that is an unwarranted
|Substance Theory Transformed:
||The sameness is rather an inference (claim) that one
and the same person performs all these different mental acts occurring
at different times. Throughout all different moments one and the same
"I" endures. How? As the underlying subject of different
attributes (mental acts). The "I" as a thinking subject
is in fact conceived as a substance whose main attribute is thinking
in the aforementioned broad sense. We observe thoughts, desires, volitions,
perceptions and imaginations as perceptible qualities that must be
qualities of something they inhere to, qualities of something that
as it were "bears" them. This substratum/subject is nothing
else but the substance as described in Aristotle's Metaphysics.
The only difference is that Cartesian substance is not concrete but
very abstract and mental.
One privileged object has become the subject (Ego) while the subject
(Ego) has become the privileged object of examination.
|| How could we know the 'thinking substance'
According to Descartes, it could be known only through its attributes
- thinking and its cognates, understanding, intellection, etc. Consequently,
the Cogito could be understood as an argument from the existence
of a property (thinking) to the existence of the substance bearing
that property. Looking from that angle, we understand why Descartes
retains the old distinction between a property and the substance,
along with the traditional view that the mind is an immaterial ("pure")
substance. That substance is now called Ego = the "I".
Note: This circumstance
explains why the Cogito could not have been conceived simply
as a grammatical convenience. The reasoning "there is thinking, therefore
there is something that thinks" reflects a grammatical custom that
adds a doer to every deed (Nietzsche). But this peculiarity of Indo-European
grammar, for Descartes, reflects a substance-attribute structure of
reality. Why does Descartes cling to the old
substance theory amidst his radically new approach? For the same reason
Aristotle has introduced it: To account for change or, better to say,
to account for the identity in change.
||How do I know my substance? There are in fact two that could be
cognized by means of different faculties:
|(4) Cartesian Dualism:
||There are two parts of myself, one that I cannot picture
because it is pure mind, and the other one that I can describe by
means of corporeal attributes. The first one is placed in the empty
"I think" shell , which accompanies every representation of an object.
On the other hand, this "thinking thing" is linked to its material
counterpart, "extended thing". After all, thinking includes imagination
and sensation that in turn presuppose corporeal existence.
(The physiological point of their interaction was located in the pineal
gland while the place of their mental interaction is to be sought
|| Note: Thus, there
are two res: cogitans & extensa (Descartes' doctrine that
we are made of two different but juxtaposed
substances). Mind is un-extended and thinking res, while body
is extended and unthinking substance. One can view this doctrine as
a modern version of Plato's dualism. but it is something more than
a resuscitation of an old ontological cleavage. Cartesian dualism
both fosters scientific approach to the universe and leaves an open
space for religion. Due to the lack of spiritual component in the
brute matter we are not bound to look for final causes in the realm
of physics: science can focus on efficient causality that does not
reveal anything about the soul and its immortality. Nonetheless the
obvious material destruction of the body does not rule out the possibility
that the soul survives (does not corroborate it though). The distinction
between the two, apart from providing an unorthodox support for Christian
religious tenets, opens a door for the idea that minds could be implanted
into artificially produced bodies and so endowed with the same Cartesian
self-certainty (cf. the movie "Blade-Runner" where a replicant - Pris
-, whose status is questioned by a human, responds ironically "I think,
therefore I am"). Of course, one can ask whether the thinking substance
can be an absolutely unmediated seat of self-consciousness.
||The "I" is now known "somewhat better and with a little
more clarity and distinctness". But natural attitude still assumes
that images and sensations of "corporeal things" represent the best
products of cognition. How can I better know "that indescribable part
of myself which cannot be pictured by imagination" than "the objects
which appear to be external", so vivid and often tangible? Again,
the answer is: because I can attain indubitable knowledge of myself
which attests that its object is the essential part of me (and belongs
to "my real nature").
|What we know better?
| The intuition that "I am" while mentally active represents
something very certain. After establishing its mental character
it has become very clear as well. But it is still not distinct
enough, meaning it is not absolutely distinct in separating the "I"
from what it is not. This is the reason why Descartes now wants to
distinguish it from all propositions concerning the existence of physical
||Question / Topic
|Cogito (Self-consciousness: I think, therefore
||Whether I am? Existence
|Thinking thing (res cogitans, mental substance)
||What am I? (Essence, the nature of the I)
|Perception of the mind (I and the externals)
||How do I perceive myself and the objects?
VI WHAT IS THIS OBJECT?
||In order to be able to ascertain how certain our mind
is of other things than itself, Descartes again tentatively leaves
the realm of pure interiority (the natural mind which anyway tends
to "wander" is again released from the bounds of absolute
certainty and allowed to follow its inclinations). "Let us now consider
the commonest things, which are commonly believed to be the most distinctly
known and the easiest of all to know…" The question is whether we
know "corporeal bodies" more distinctly than ourselves.
||Mind, the I
||Descartes does not want to speak about bodies in general
because their notions are more "confused" (vague). He wants
to check whether our confidence in external objects is justified on
the example of one particular body - this piece of wax. It
possesses "everything which can make a body distinctly known": "its
color, shape, and size are apparent". Even its odor is still
||But all these characteristics (aggregate condition,
shape, size, taste, odor, temperature, touch, resonance) that create
the impression of absolute distinctness dramatically undergo transformation
when I "bring it close to the fire". All of a sudden they are subject
||Thus we are again faced with the same question of identity
that our consciousness just passed - by establishing the I as the subject. This time the same question is directed to a
different subject - an external object: "Does the same wax remain after this change?" In
accord with both common sense and educated perception Descartes answers
affirmatively: "We must admit that it does." Throughout all changes
of its accidents, a piece of wax remains the same particular
piece of wax. However, we do not see the core of its identity nor are we aware of it directly. What is it that makes it the same and preserves
its identity despite so many changes?
||In other words, what is the basis for the identity of
particular things? If all those characteristics that we regard as the
source of distinctness are gone what makes us grasp the thing distinctly?
Answer: When I strip the wax of its "clothing", what remains
is its "body" (Aristotle would say, the subject,
i.e. the matter). But this subject is different from the knowing subject - in fact it is less than the Ego.
Note: Now we perhaps understand
in which sense Descartes regarded the Meditations as his physics.
|How do we know?
||But how do we know that what we now see is the same
body when it is apparently different? In fact, every single sensation
has changed although we claim that the wax is still the same.
How do we know that the piece of wax which is now melted is the same
as the one we had before "bringing it to the fire"? How do we know
that it is a piece of wax after all?
|| "What is it then in this bit of wax that we recognize
with so much distinctness?" Obviously none of those observable characteristics
(sweetness, whiteness, shape, sound) since they were all changed.
This must be some substance, "a body which a little while ago
appeared to my senses under those forms and which now makes itself
felt under others". If so, the body of the wax is "something extended,
flexible and movable". This "something" is the invariant that
persists throughout all changes.
never pursues the substance logic far enough to claim an existence
implication between corporeal attributes and the existence of a body.
When designating this particular piece of wax as a
substance Descartes uses popular (and traditional) language according
to which everything material is a substance. Real (philosophical)
substantiality belongs only to the Cogito. Despite the mysterious
nature of the "I" the substance of thinking is more substantial
than the corporeal stuff of extended things. Once the 3rd truth in
the order of reasons is fully established (real distinction between
the body and the soul) a secondary level of substantiality will be
granted to physical things, which happens in the 6th Meditation.
||How does this "invariant" (extension, flexibility
and movability) relate to what we see as a "bit of wax"?
And how can Descartes talk about "a bit of wax" at all when the existence
of the external world has not been yet established? At this stage
he speaks only in terms of sensing and touching without introducing
any strong existential suppositions. This is the reason why he does
not want to answer the question "what is this bit of wax?" by stating
dogmatically that the essence of material things is extension.
He is aware that this would create the impression that his analysis
proceeds physically (objectively) rather than philosophically (cognitively).
But he cannot help considering these options.
||Descartes first examines the nature of being "something
flexible". He asks whether it is the same as "picturing"
its capability of transformation. But the answer is negative. I cannot
conceive this something by virtue of imagination, because the potential
infinity of changes by far exceeds what I can imagine in sensory representations.
|| Now what is "this extension"? Does it change
too? ("For it becomes greater in the melting wax…") Yes, it changes,
yet the notion of extension as the most fundamental "simple"
appears to be "a condition of all possible knowledge of the external
object as such" (in phrasing this M. Gerault obviously uses the trascendentalist
language of Kant). However, at this stage Descartes has to admit that
he cannot conceive the variety of extensions by means of sensory perception.
The appropriate preception here is a perception of the mind, not a
||How did we come to the notion of extension? How do we
know that it is the essence of external things? Sensation and imagination
alone are unable to provide a viable conception of the wax because
the pictures formed by these faculties are incapable of rendering
the physical/mathematical structure implicit in the idea of extended
material things. The wax as persisting substance surpasses
everything human experience could ever present to us with the so called
secondary qualities. Not even primary qualities account
for the nature of the wax. In brief, sensible qualities do not provide
real knowledge of physical things. The persistence of a sensible body
through change cannot be observed by means of the senses. There is
nothing in sensory knowledge that "might not occur similarly to the
senses of the lowest animals" and we do not think that animals possess
knowledge. Instead of procuring knowledge of the essence of
the bodies, sensation and imagination offer a very problematic knowledge
of their existence. But I cannot know that something corporeal exists
without knowing what is it and I do not know this through "sense-based-cognitions".
||Did I understand "what wax was more evidently and more
perfectly" when I thought "I knew it by means of the external senses",
"by means of common sense", "the imaginative faculty" or now when
I go by the understanding (intellection)? The examination of the bit
of wax shows that we can distinguish our intellectual apprehension
from the lower cognitive faculties of sensation and imagination without
positing the existence of a physical world composed of general (simple)
natures. Admittedly, sensation and imagination are faculties of the
soul, but they need to be mediated by intellection. Understanding
can function without sensation and imagination, not they without it.
||The answer to the question what is the organ we use
to obtain physical knowledge must, therefore, be something like this:
not the senses or imagination, but the understanding and our intellection.
"It is at present manifest to me that bodies are not properly known
by the senses nor by the faculty of imagination, but by the understanding
alone." "We must therefore agree that I cannot even conceive what
this bit of wax is by means of the (sensory) imagination, and there
is nothing but my understanding alone which does conceive it."
|Perception of a Thing
|Seeing / External sense
||Inspection of the Mind
|Touching / External sense
|Imagining / Common Sense
||The perception of the wax is the work solely of an intuitive
mind which apprehends its sameness and continuity. Everything less
than "an inspection by the mind" is or could be a deception, sensory
or linguistic ("how apt I am to fall into error", "I am nearly deceived
by the terms of ordinary language").
Descartes acordingly criticizes the habit of talking in terms of "seeing"
the objects instead of "judging" them to be so and so from
certain observable characteristics. This way of speaking, common as
it may be, is misleading.
||We cannot find out what is the nature of physical things
without engaging our intellection (mind). On the other hand, we can
learn something about the nature of the mind by means of examining
how we get to know physical objects. "All the reasons which help me
to know and conceive the nature of the wax, or of any other body whatsoever,
serve much better to show the nature of my mind." This does not mean
that I derive my self-knowledge from the knowledge of physical objects.
The nature of the mind is not understood through the character of
its objects but rather through its ability to produce representations
of structural complexity that cannot have their origin in sensation
and imagination. We cannot justifiably draw any conclusion about existence
or essence from our images or sensations, whereas inferences from
the mind to existence and essence of external objects are legitimate.
|3rd Truth in the Order of Reasons:
||The mind is known better, more distinct
and before the body.
|| The existence of thought is more accessible
to knowledge than the existence of anything physical. I perceive myself
more distinctly and evidently than I perceive a bit of "wax". It cannot
be "that I, who seem to perceive this bit of wax so clearly and distinctly,
do not know my own self, not only with much more truth and certainty,
but also much more distinctly end evidently".
||Descartes shows that the common sense relying on "seeing"
conceals an underlying involvement of judging. Although we claim existence
by seeing things directly we in fact judge them existent based on
certain characteristics that we deem sufficient to justify our conclusions.
Thus we conclude that the moving human figures we see are not automata
but "real people" owing to our judgment, not thanks to what
we see (hats, clothes, shoes, etc.). Therefore, the doubt in the role
of non-sensory faculties should be regarded as more eary than the
doubt in the senses.
||This reasoning is directed both against common sense
and some scholastics for they both held that material things are more
easily known than spiritual "things" and that it is safer ("better")
to know "observable" existence than an elusive essence. To draw reasons
for doubt into the workings of the mind and judgment from common sense
and accustomed habits of talking about external things would be a
sign of insufficient intellectual acuteness.
|But knowledge of existence proves to be determined by
knowledge of essence, and the latter could be obtained only through
understanding. Consequently, we know bodies "only in so far as they
are understood by thinking". Thinking, of course, includes perceptions
which are basically thoughts. Knowledge of bodies, therefore, depends
on knowledge of the soul in its intellectual aspect. Without intellection
not only that I cannot understand what is this piece of wax, but I
cannot be even sure that it exists.
Back to the Cogito:
|At this point the discussion of the piece
of wax resorts again to the Cogito as the subjective basis
of knowledge and certainty. This time however it is a byproduct of
perception: "It could happen that what I see is not truly wax. It
could happen that I have no eyes. But it is utterly impossible that,
while I see or think I see (I do not now distinguish these two), I
who think am not something." The being of whose existence Descartes
becomes certain is consciousness, which is constituted by thoughts
of external objects. These thoughts (perceptions) contribute more
to the awareness of our existence than of the external objects: "For
if I judge that the wax exists because I see it, certainly it follows
much more evidently that I exist because I see it." The knowing subject
thus becomes certain of the existence of his subjective Self as correlative
to the objective world. Whatever supplies him with the knowledge of
the wax also supplies him with the knowledge of himself, but not conversely.
|I see the wax.
||I think I see the wax.
|I touch the wax.
||I judge the wax exists.
|I imagine the wax.
||I think the wax exists.
|| The clear and distinct concept of body allows various
shapes and sizes as the concept of a purely thinking substance allows
various thoughts. Both are very abstract - and intellectual. The nature
of body (extension) is opposed to intelligence, which is non-extended
substance, but extension itself is known only via intelligence. However,
the knowledge of body is intellectual only in so far as it represents
|"Other Minds" Problem?
||Why the experience of other minds is possible only as
a reach out of the Self (Ego)? Because one cannot perceive others
only physically. We are tempted to ascribe our conception of physical
objects to eyesight, but strictly speaking it does not reveal anything
beyond external surfaces. We say that we see "some men passing in
the street" although we do not have any guarantee that these are not
simply "moving cloaks and hats": "But what do I see from the window
except hats and cloaks, which might cover ghosts or automata which
move only by springs?"
We recognize these moving figures as men not based on that what we
see, but on that what we assume by virtue of "the faculty of judgment".
|| Descartes has reached the point he was looking for:
the mind is known better and easier than the body and the knowledge
of the mind (selfconsciousness) is absolutely certain. Now he makes
a decision to take a break after indulging himself in this long meditation
- so that he can finally embrace this outcome in full confidence.