Friday, July 7, 2017

Descartes / Meditation 2 - Short Summary

In the second mediation of René Descartes' "Mediations on the First Philosophy" (titled: "On the nature of the human mind and that it is easier to understand than bodies") he establishes his Archimedean point of certainty, the Cogito and shows that, contrary to common belief, we know the mind better than we know the world around us (assuming that there is one, doubts still remain at this point of Descartes' argument). In Meditation 1 Descartes offered the "Demon argument" which holds that we can never know if a malicious demon is not tricking us into believing what we hold to be true. Now, in meditation 2, Descartes argues that    regardless of how cunning the demon is, he cannot make me think I do not exist, since the apprehension of that thought will make one aware that one is thinking it. Hence one cannot fail to be certain that one exists just when one is thinking (and here comes the famous formulation of the Cogito: "I think therefore I am"). Descartes knows he is at least a mind – a thinking thing. To think in this extended sense is not merely to cogitate but to have any kind of mental act. The distinctness of mind and body is revealed, as mind is not extended and body is; yet Descartes admits he cannot yet tell whether this is a real or merely conceptual distinction. By bringing a piece of wax near a fire, Descartes argues that bodies are not perceived by the senses but by the intellect. The wax loses all the sensible properties it had and gains new ones. If it were nothing more than the sum of these properties, we would have to conclude that one object had been destroyed and another created. The intellect understands the essence of body to be spatial extension, which is preserved (if modified) over the change of sensible properties.

After establishing his point of certainty in meditation 2 and escaping some of the radical doubt of meditation 1, Descartes' meditation 3 will continue to reconstruct the world with a little help from God.  

back to: A summary by chapter of Descartes' Meditations 
See also: essential summary of Rene Descartes' Meditations
Descartes' arguments for the existence of God in Meditations

Suggested reading on Renè Descartes: