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How do we know what we know? Ideas reside in the minds of intelligent beings, but a clear perception of where these ideas come from is often the point of debate. It is with this in mind that Ren? Descartes set forth on the daunting task to determine where clear and distinct ideas come from.
A particular passage written in Meditations on First Philosophy known as the wax passage shall be examined. Descartes thought process shall be followed, and the central point of his argument discussed. In Meditations on First Philosophy, it is the self-imposed task of Descartes to cast doubt upon all which he knows in order to build a solid foundation of knowledge out of irrefutable truths. Borrowing an idea from Archimedes, that with one firm and immovable point the earth could be moved, Descartes sought one immovable truth. Descartes immovable truth, a truth on which he would lay down his foundation of knowledge and define all that which he knows, was the simple line Cogito ergo sum: I think, therefore I am. This allowed for his existence.
Once Descartes recognizes the indubitable truth that he exists, he then attempts to further his knowledge by discovering the type of thing that he is. Trying to understand what he is, Descartes recalls Aristotle's definition of a human as a rational animal. This is unsatisfactory since this requires investigation into the notions of rational and animal. Continuing his quest for identity, he recalls a more general view he previously had of his identity, which is that he is composed of both body and soul. According to classical philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, the key attributes of the soul involve eating, movement, and sensation.
He cant claim to have these attributes of the soul since this involves a body, which, in turn, is based on the senses. Descartes continues examining other theories of human existence and attributes about himself that he can imagine. Descartes concludes that the attribute of thinking is the only quality that he can justifiably claim at this point. But he is quick to point out that thinking is the only attribute about which he is sure; not that thinking is the only attribute that he has.
Nevertheless, this is the starting point of a radical ontological distinction that carries Descartes through his Meditations. That distinction is between a thinking thing and a corporeal body. The two are mutually exclusive. A thinking thing is nonphysical or spiritual in nature, whereas a corporeal body is physical, but not capable of consciousness or thought. For Descartes, a thinking thing is consciously aware of what is around it and doubts, understands some, is ignorant of most, imagines, and feels. Once Descartes established himself as a thinking thing, his attention turns to the external world.
Descartes reflects upon his dealing with physical objects, and questions the state of physical nature, dealing directly with the senses. Restating the fact that Descartes believes that these sensations of taste, touch, smell, and the like can be fooled, he attacks these bodily perceptions, not from the point of what makes them true, but rather what makes them false. These senses lead him to ideas of external objects, which he claims to perceive clearly and distinctly, yet he is not willing to trust his senses; he is not willing to state truthfully that he is positive these things exist. In doubting all that exists, a sort of intellectual barrier had been erected, forcing Descartes thoughts into narrow constraints.
In order for his question be answered, these constraints had to be lifted. It was in a state of wandering mind that the wax passage was conceived. The wax passage itself is a simple piece of writing, and a simple train of thought to follow. The essence of the passage is that Descartes believes, and attempts to convince the reader that the clear and distinct ideas one might have of objects external to ones body are not perceived through the senses, but rather through the intellect, the mind. While examining a piece of wax, one has certain ideas, ideas initially thought to have come from the senses, but all that can be ascertained through the senses can be proven to be false. One can describe it using colors, shape, size and scent; but this piece of wax can melt, changing colors, becoming liquid.
Does the same wax remain? Obviously it does, and the clear and distinct ideas of the wax remain as well, yet all sensory perceptions of the wax have changed. Descartes goes on to ask what it was in the wax that was distinctly grasped. Characteristics used to describe the wax have changed, but the wax remains. In answer to this, he suggests that perhaps the wax is not merely the sum of its sensory attributes.
Descartes argues that the continuity of the wax is established neither by sight, nor touch, nor imagination, but by an act of the mind alone; and if all attributes are stripped away, what is left is the essence of the wax. This essence can manifest itself to him in an infinite number of ways. The wax can assume any shape, size, or smell, and since Descartes assumes that he himself is incapable of imagining the wax in infinite ways, the insight he has gained into the wax was not brought about by his faculty of imagination. With the elimination of the senses, and then the elimination of the imagination, what is left must be the answer. The clear and distinct ideas of the wax must have been perceived through the mind alone. Descartes states that the things of the world our bodies, trees, and animals are comprised of primary and secondary qualities.
Secondary qualities are those we know through our senses the color, tactile feel, temperature, and taste of things and primary qualities are those that are measurable, i. e. , qualities of extension in space. Because secondary qualities can be easily changed or perceived differently from person to person, Descartes believes that they are not really in the thing perceived, but rather only caused by it. Only primary qualities are in the thing. This notion reduces the universe to a cold, senseless, mechanistic bunch of matter in motion. However, Descartes main point is to show that our real knowledge of things measurement, like math, is done in our understanding comes not from the sense, but from our rational faculty and that we have good reason to mistrust our senses.
What Descartes wants to impress upon the reader is that what we know of external objects (i. e. the wax) is not gained by any other means but through the mind alone. The essence of objects can present itself in many ways, but that is all it is a presentation.
The essence itself resides behind the attributes. This abandonment of the traditional idea of gaining knowledge about the outside world through the senses was crucial to Descartes goal of a body of undeniable truths as he had formed the hypothesis that the senses could be fooled, but not the mind. The upshot of the investigation of the wax is not that the ontological status of the wax is sorted, but rather that the mind itself is better known. Indeed, Descartes conclusion is that nothing can be so well understood as the mind itself.
Senses and imagination are seen to be faculties of the mind that are separable from it. All that belongs properly to the mind is that which cannot be doubted the understanding. Every time he uses his mind to think about something, the wax for example, he gathers a better idea of what it means to be a thinking thing. Since even his perceptions are accompanied by thinking, every time he perceives, he also thinks. Thus, he concludes that he knows his mind better than he knows his body; since he both employs his mind all of the time, and since his mind is a better source of knowledge than his perceptions.
The teaching of Descartes has influenced many minds since his writings. Descartes belief that clear and distinct perceptions come from the intellect and not the senses was critical to his ultimate goal in Meditations on First Philosophy, for now he has successfully created a foundation of true and certain facts on which to base a sold, scientific belief structure. He has proven himself to exist in some form, to think and therefore feel, and explains how he knows objects or concepts to be real. 332
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