Descartes Meditations – What are the Main Themes in Meditations on First Philosophy

Rene Descartes was a French Philosopher famous for the Trademark argument and a version of the ontological argument. What were the main themes in the book: Descartes ‘Meditations on First Philosophy?’ The book is written from the perspective of a gender neutral narrator, originally in French. Here is a brief summary of the key ideas in Descartes Meditations.

Descartes Meditations

Descartes Meditations – 1: What can be called into Doubt

In the first of Descartes Meditations, he realises that he cannot verify anything unless it is doubted. His doubt has to begin with doubting himself. Descartes is not arguing that he does not exist, he believes in fact the opposite. But the ‘doubting’ is a philosophical process and doubting himself a stage witin it. By doubting, Descartes can question the very essence of what his opinions are based upon.

Descartes comes to realise that anything that he has come to know through his senses. However, he is not an empiricist (bases things upon sense perception), but a rationalist (based on rational ideas). This is because he argues that the sense decieve us. For example, looking at a round castle tower from a distance, our senses will tell us that it is rectangular, which is incorrect. If we look at people far away, they appear to be tiny, when they are in fact life size.

Descartes goes on to discuss whether we identify a difference in real life and a dreaming state. But even though there is a difference, dreams are influenced by reality. Although we can doubt composite things, we cannot doubt forms such as size, shape and colour.  This skeptical doubt is the crux of the first of Descartes meditations. But it can be argued that this is actually a foundation for the rest of the meditations, and to be used in questioning an omnipotent God and the mind-body problem.

Descartes Meditations 2: Cogito Ergo Sum

The key aspect of Descartes Meditation is ‘Cogito Ergo Sum’ – ‘I think, therefore I am’.  Following on from the first Meditation, Descartes realises that he cannot question his own existence because he is a ‘thinking thing.’ Even if he doubts the senses and the body, he cannot doubt himself because if his thoughts. Descartes goes on to ask ‘What is this ‘I’ that exists?’ Thought, above all else, is what is inseparable from being. Even if we were to be deceived by an evil demon as to what we see and hear, if the thoughts are still there, we would still exist.

Descartes goes on to explain the ‘wax experiment’ to overcome the problem of ideas conjured up by the imagination. If we see wax in its initial hardened beeswax form, it has certain properties – it is hard and yellow in colour. When wax melts, it becomes runny and a different colour. Yet it’s original qualities of malleability and flexibility remain. Therefore, what we learn about the wax cannot come from the sense alone, but require intellect.

Intellect is essential. If we were to look out of a window on a cold day, and see people so covered up by hats and scarves that we could not see their faces, we would not presume that they were robots or automatons. We would use our intellect to understand that there were people beneath the hats and scarves. Sense perception alone is not enough for us to learn about the world.  The existence of mind is better known than the existence of the body.

Descartes Meditations 3: The Trademark Argument

In Meditation 3, Descartes summarises his meditations so far, and categorises his thoughts. The main element of the third meditation is the Trademark Argument for God’s existence. Some ideas are innate, or fundamentally within us, whereas other ideas are not, they come from outside such as unicorns or mermaids. Descartes argument is that human beings are born with the innate concept of God within, and that this is God stamping his ‘Trademark’ upon us.

Descartes distinguishes between clear and distinct perceptions. Whatever can be perceived clearly and distinctly must be true. However, there is the danger of circular thinking regarding clear and distinct ideas, falling into the Cartesian Circle. This is a key criticism of Descartes Meditations.

Descartes Meditations 4 – Clear and Distinct Ideas

Descartes fourth mediation is concerned firstly with whether God is a deceiver and secondly with clear and distinct ideas. Only an imperfect (less than perfectly good) being could practice deliberate deception. As God is a perfect being, God is not a deceiver. Descartes writes that since his faculty of judgement comes from God, he can make no mistakes if it is used properly. Mistakes can only be made when you judge things that you don’t really know. In addition, God gave us freewill, which is finite, and makes it impossible to deceive oneself.  Therefore, it can be known both clearly and distinctly that ‘I’ cannot be mistaken, because God is not deciever.

Descartes Meditations 5 – Descartes Ontological Argument

In Descartes Fifth Meditation, he returns once again to the argument for God’s existence, this time in ontological form (from the Greek ontos meaning ‘being’). The Ontological Argument is an A Priori argument, which argues for the existence of God from God.  In the fifth meditation, Descartes presents the argument that existence is as necessary to God as three sides and three angles are necessary to a triangle. Existence is as essential to God as moutains are to valleys.

Read more about Descartes version of the Ontological Argument.

Descartes Meditations 6 – The Cartesian Body

The last of Descartes meditations is concerned with the distinction between the mind and the body. Imagination is not essential to the mind, as the mind could think without an imagination. However, imagination is linked to the body. In fact, there are lots of links between the body and mind. If I am hungry, my mind tells my body to eat. I experience pain, I move my hand away in response. Therefore, there must be a connection between the mind and body.

This moved Descartes on to mind-body dualism, known as Cartesian dualism (Cartesian being an idea from Descartes). The human mind and body are entwined to form one unit. If we apply our mind carefully, we are protected from erroneous judgement, as God is not a deceiver.

A summary of Descartes Meditations

The key themes of Descartes meditations are therefore existence, God and Mind-body dualism. What are your thoughts and questions on Descartes Meditations?

You may also like to read about…

The Ontological Argument for God’s Existence

What is the difference between A Priori and A Posteriori?

The Problem of Evil – Augustine’s Response



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