First & Second Meditations

Class notes for 12 January

Main points

For the First Meditation, we discussed the project of the Meditations and Descartes’s method of doubt.

In particular, we spent a lot of time talking about how much doubt the dream argument really throws on our beliefs. Jon H’s question is a good one: if we’re going to end up with the supernatural deceiver at the end, why bother with the dream argument?

For the Second Meditation, we discussed Descartes’s claims that the meditator can know two different things using only his or her intellectual faculties.

  1. That “I” exist.
  2. That the nature of the body of wax is extension, flexibility, and changeability.

It’s quite important to Descartes that these things are known using only the intellectual faculty of the mind. He was concerned to show that they are not known through the senses or through thinking about images (using the ‘imagination’).

It is unclear to me why the second result, even if we granted it, would show that we know the mind better than we know the body. But that’s what he was trying to do: see the subtitle.

13 Jan: I have added some more thoughts about this below.


I introduced the Second Meditation by reading Book 11, Chapter 26 of Augustine’s City of God.

I think that Jon C. was right to note that the conclusion “I exist” is a fairly obvious one to draw from “I might be mistaken.” But while the appearance of that line in Augustine is quite arresting, I was impressed by other similarities. In particular, Augustine was also quite keen on showing that we know our own existence through some means other than the senses.

Descartes’s correspondent Mersenne pointed out the similarities with Augustine. Descartes replied sometime in 1637-8 that he was unaware of this. By 1640, however, he had read the passage. The Meditations were written between 1638 and 1640.

Wax and the mind

I find the discussion from AT 30-34 of the Second Meditation confusing. AT # refers to the numbers in the margins of our edition. “AT” = ‘Adam and Tannery’, the editors of Descartes’s complete works, see p. xlvi.

I understand what he is saying about the body of the piece of wax and, by extension, all bodies (see the last paragraph, AT 34). He’s saying that we don’t understand what the wax is through either the senses or the imagination. Rather, we understand what the wax really is through the intellect. We figure out that the wax is extended, flexible, and changeable not by seeing that this is so or imagining all the changes, but by extending what we have seen using reason.

Let’s call that point A.

I also understand the conclusion that he wanted to reach. We understand our minds better than we understand our bodies. We are more certain that our intellectual faculties exist than we are that our bodies do. While our bodies can be called into doubt, our intellectual faculties cannot.

Let’s call that point C.

What I don’t understand is how these two points are related to one another. Descartes writes that

[A] I now know that even bodies are not strictly perceived by the senses or the faculty of imagination but by the intellect alone, and that this perception derives not from their being touched or seen but from their being understood; and [B] in view of this [C] I know plainly that I can achieve an easier and more evident perception of my own mind than of anything else. (AT 34, pp. 22-23, emphasis added)

The phrase [B] asserts that [A] gives an argument for [C]. I don’t understand that.

Maybe I’m making too much of the quoted passage. Descartes’s other arguments seem rather different. One points out that everything I think I see or imagine leaves me certain of my own existence even though I am uncertain of the existence of the things that I think I see or imagine. See the end of the paragraph on AT 33 (p. 22). Later, he says that we know the mind better than the body. This is said to be so because everything we know about a body shows us that the mind is capable of having that kind of knowledge (AT 276-7, 359-60, pp. 70-2). I don’t really understand why that would show that we know the mind better than we know bodies: why does this argument show that it’s anything other than a tie?