Meditations on First Philosophy (René Descartes)

Metaphysical Meditations, is a treatise by Descartes in which he wants to demonstrate the existence of GOD and the immortality of the Soul (and in fact in Latin the full title is: Meditationes de Prima Philosophia, in qua Dei existentia et animæ immortalitas demonstratur). Published for the first time in Latin in 1641, the book consists of six meditations, in which the author first discards all beliefs in those things that are not absolutely certain, and then establishes what instead can be known and so believed with certainty. By referring to the six days of man’s work in the Bible before rest (Shabbat), the meditations represent six days of reflection. Each meditation refers to the last one as “yesterday.”

One of the most influential philosophical texts ever written in history, and still widely studied today. The book consists of an exposition of Descartes’ metaphysical system at its most detailed level and an expansion of his philosophical system.


The Meditator reflects that he has often found himself to be mistaken with regard to matters that he formerly thought were certain, and resolves to sweep away all his pre-conceptions, rebuilding his knowledge from the ground up, and accepting as true only those claims which are absolutely certain. All he had previously thought he knew came to him through the senses. Through a process of methodological doubt, he withdraws completely from the senses. At any moment he could be dreaming, or his senses could be deceived either by God or by some evil demon, so he concludes that he cannot trust his senses about anything.

“Cogito, ergo sum” can be translated as “I think, therefore I exist”, is the formula with which Descartes undoubtedly expresses the certainty that man has in his life: to exist. Being a subject that formulates thoughts is a pillar of his philosophy. While it is good in life not to take anything for granted, in order to formulate correct thoughts we must start from at least one certainty: if we are thinking at this moment, then we really exist.

Essentially, one of Descartes’ key thoughts is the realization that he cannot doubt of his own existence. In order to doubt or think, there must necessarily be this “somebody” who doubts or thinks. As much as we can be fooled about many other things, one cannot but start with one true fact: we exist.Since existence comes from the fact that we are thinking, Descartes concludes that at least he truly knows that he is a thinking creature. He further reasons that he comes to know this fact by means of his intellect, and that the mind is much better known to him than the body.

The meditator’s certainty about his own existence comes through a clear and distinct perception. He wonders what else he might be able to know through this method of certainty. To be certain that his clear and distinct perceptions are indubitable, however, he must first make sure that GOD exists and that he is not deceiving him. He reasons that the idea of GOD in his mind cannot be created by him, because it is far more perfect than he is. Only a being as perfect as GOD can provoke within Descartes such a perfect idea. Thus, the meditator concludes, GOD does indeed exist. And because the CREATOR is perfect, He would never deceive the meditator about anything. Error arises not because the meditator is deceived, but because the will often makes a judgment on matters that the limited intellect does not clearly and distinctly comprehend.


I Meditation

The First Meditation, subtitled “What can be called into doubt” opens with the meditator reflecting on the number of falsities he has believed during his life and the consequent imperfection of the knowledge he has developed from these untruths. He then decides to wipe out everything he believes he knows and start over from the ground up, rebuilding his knowledge on a more certain basis. He sits alone, near the fireplace, free of all worries and begins to demolish his old opinions.

But this undertaking is arduous, and a certain indolence insensibly leads me back to my ordinary course of life; and just as the captive… enjoying in his dreams an imaginary liberty, when he begins to suspect that it is but a vision, dreads awakening, and conspires with the agreeable illusions that the deception may be prolonged; so I… fall back into the train of my former beliefs, and fear to arouse myself from my slumber, lest the time of laborious wakefulness that would succeed this quiet rest, in place of bringing any light of day, should prove inadequate to dispel the darkness that will arise from the difficulties that have now been raised.

II Meditation

The Second Meditation is subtitled “The nature of the human mind, and how it is better known than the body” and takes place the day after the First Meditation. The meditator is firm in his determination to continue his search for certainty and to discard as false anything that is open to the slightest doubt. He hopes to achieve great things if he can start with being certain of only one thing. Recalling the previous meditation, he assumes that what he sees does not exist, that his memory is defective, that he has no senses or even a body, that all things may be preconceived notions and wrong. Perhaps, he observes, the only thing certain that remains is that there is no certainty.

What is there, then, that can be esteemed true? Perhaps this only, that there is absolutely nothing certain.


But there is I know not what being, who is possessed at once of the highest power and the deepest cunning, who is constantly employing all his ingenuity in deceiving me. Doubtless, then, I exist, since I am deceived; and, let him deceive me as he may, he can never bring it about that I am nothing, so long as I shall be conscious that I am something. So that… this proposition I am, I exist, is necessarily true each time it is expressed by me, or conceived in my mind.


Thinking is another attribute of the soul; and here I discover what properly belongs to myself. This alone is inseparable from me. I am—I exist: this is certain; but how often? As often as I think; for perhaps it would even happen, if I should wholly cease to think, that I should at the same time altogether cease to be. I now admit nothing that is not necessarily true: I am therefore, precisely speaking, only a thinking thing, that is, a mind, understanding, or reason,—terms whose signification was before unknown to me.


But what is a thinking thing? It is a thing that doubts, understands, [conceives], affirms, denies, wills, refuses, that imagines also, and perceives. Assuredly it is not little, if all these properties belong to my nature.


At all events it is certain that I seem to see light, hear a noise, and feel heat; this cannot be false, and this is what in me is properly called perceiving (sentire), which is nothing else than thinking. From this I begin to know what I am with somewhat greater clearness and distinctness than heretofore.


III Meditation

The Third Meditation, subtitled “The Existence of GOD,” opens with the meditator reviewing what he has ascertained to date. He is still doubtful about the existence of the things of the body, but he is certain that he exists and is a thinking thing that doubts, understands, wills, imagines and feels, and many other things.
Before he thought he was certain of all kinds of things he now questioned. These things are all learned by the senses, and now he must acknowledge that he did not really perceive things, but only ideas, or thoughts of those things. Now he does not even deny that he perceives ideas of material objects, but he admits that he was wrong in inferring from these ideas that his perception could inform him about the things themselves. He also seems quite sure of arithmetic and geometry, though he cannot be absolutely certain, because GOD could deceive him. So to make sure he is not deceived, he must inform himself about the nature of GOD.

And in truth, as I have no ground for believing that Deity is deceitful, and as, indeed, I have not even considered the reasons by which the existence of a Deity of any kind is established, the ground of doubt that rests only on this supposition is very slight, and, so to speak, metaphysical. But, that I may be able wholly to remove it, I must inquire whether there is a God, as soon as an opportunity of doing so shall present itself; and if I find that there is a God, I must examine likewise whether he can be a deceiver; for without the knowledge of these two truths, I do not see that I can ever be certain of anything.

I am a substance.
(Meditations On First Philosophy, Meditation 3, page 76)

I have observed, in a number of instances, that there was a great difference between the object and its idea. Thus for example, I find in my mind two wholly diverse ideas of the sun; the one, by which it appears to me extremely small, draws its origin from the senses, and should be placed in the class of adventitious ideas; the other, by which it seems to be many times larger than the whole earth, is taken up on astronomical grounds… These two ideas cannot certainly both resemble the same sun; and reason teaches me that the one which seems to have immediately emanated from it is the most unlike.


Although an idea may give rise to another idea, this regress cannot, nevertheless, be infinite; we must in the end reach a first idea, the cause of which is, as it were, the archetype in which all the reality [or perfection] that is found objectively [or by representation] in these ideas is contained formally [and in act]. I am thus clearly taught by the natural light that ideas exist in me as pictures or images, which may in truth readily fall short of the perfection of the objects from which they are taken, but can never contain anything greater or more perfect.

In proportion to the time and care with which I examine all those matters, the conviction of their truth brightens and becomes distinct.

As belonging to the class of things that are clearly apprehended, I recognise the following, viz., magnitude or extension in length, breadth, and depth; figure, which results from the termination of extension; situation, which bodies of diverse figures preserve with reference to each other; and motion or the change of situation; to which may be added substance, duration, and number. But with regard to light, colours, sounds, odours, tastes, heat, cold, and the other tactile qualities, they are thought with so much obscurity and confusion, that I cannot determine even whether they are true or false; in other words, whether or not the ideas I have of these qualities are in truth the ideas of real objects.


By the name God I understand a substance infinite, [eternal, immutable], independent, all-knowing, all-powerful, and by which I myself, and every other thing that exists, if any such there be, were created. But these properties are so great and excellent, that the more attentively I consider them the less I feel persuaded that the idea I have of them owes its origin to myself alone.


Although my knowledge increase more and more, nevertheless I am not, therefore, induced to think that it will ever be actually infinite, since it can never reach that point beyond which it shall be incapable of further increase. But I conceive God as actually infinite, so that nothing can be added to his perfection.


There must at least be as much reality in the cause as in its effect; and accordingly, since I am a thinking thing, and possess in myself an idea of God, whatever in the end be the cause of my existence, it must of necessity be admitted that it is likewise a thinking being, and that it possesses in itself the idea and all the perfections I attribute to Deity.


The unity, the simplicity, or inseparability of all the properties of Deity, is one of the chief perfections I conceive him to possess…

There remains only the inquiry as to the way in which I received this idea from God; for I have not drawn it from the senses… it is not to be wondered at that God, at my creation, implanted this idea in me, that it might serve, as it were, for the mark of the workman impressed on his work… something different from the work itself…

When I make myself the object of reflection, I not only find that I am an incomplete, [imperfect] and dependent being, and one who unceasingly aspires after something better and greater than he is; but, at the same time, I am assured likewise that he upon whom I am dependent possesses in himself all the goods after which I aspire, [and the ideas of which I find in my mind], and that not merely indefinitely and potentially, but infinitely and actually, and that he is thus God.


He [God] cannot be a deceiver, since it is a dictate of the natural light that all fraud and deception spring from some defect.


IV Meditation

The Fourth Meditation, subtitled “Truth and Falsity” opens with the meditator reflecting on the ground he has covered so far, noting that all his certain knowledge, and in particular the most certain knowledge that God exists, comes from the intellect, and not from the senses or imagination. Now that he is certain of God’s existence, much more can follow. First, he knows that God would not deceive him, because the will to deceive is a sign of weakness or malice, and God’s perfection would not allow it. Second, if God created him, God is responsible for his judgment, and therefore his faculty of judgment must be infallible, provided he uses it correctly.

I have been habituated these bygone days to detach my mind from the senses, and I have accurately observed that there is exceedingly little which is known with certainty respecting corporeal objects,—that we know much more of the human mind, and still more of God himself.


When I consider that I doubt, in other words that I am an incomplete and dependent being, the idea of a complete and independent being, that is to say, of God, occurs to my mind with so much clearness and distinctness,—and from the fact alone that this idea is found in me, or that I who possess it exist, the conclusions that God exists, and that my own existence, each moment of its continuance, is absolutely dependent upon him, are so manifest,—as to lead me to believe it impossible that the human mind can know anything with more clearness and certitude.


In all fraud and deceit there is a certain imperfection: and although it may seem that the ability to deceive is a mark of subtlety or power, yet the will testifies without doubt of malice and weakness; and such, accordingly, cannot be found in God.


I observe that there is not only present to my consciousness a real and positive idea of God, or of a being supremely perfect, but also, so to speak, a certain negative idea of nothing,—in other words, of that which is at an infinite distance from every sort of perfection, and that I am, as it were, a mean between God and nothing, or placed in such a way between absolute existence and non-existence…


I cannot, without exposing myself to the charge of temerity, seek to discover the [impenetrable] ends of Deity.


But now I not only know that I exist, in so far as I am a thinking being, but there is likewise presented to my mind a certain idea of corporeal nature; hence I am in doubt as to whether the thinking nature which is in me, or rather which I myself am, is different from that corporeal nature, or whether both are merely one and the same thing, and I here suppose that I am as yet ignorant of any reason that would determine me to adopt the one belief in preference to the other: whence it happens that it is a matter of perfect indifference to me which of the two suppositions I affirm or deny, or whether I form any judgment at all in the matter.


It is a dictate of the natural light, that the knowledge of the understanding ought always to precede the determination of the will.


[Concerning GOD] I cannot… deny that it is not somehow a greater perfection in the universe, that certain of its parts are not exempt from defect, as others are, than if they were all perfectly alike.


Every clear and distinct conception is doubtless something, and as such cannot owe its origin to nothing, but must of necessity have God for its author.

I will assuredly reach truth if I only fix my attention sufficiently on all the things I conceive perfectly, and separate these from others which I conceive more confusedly and obscurely: to which for the future I shall give diligent heed.

V Meditation

The Fifth Meditation deals with the essence of material things, and returns again to God, and His existence. It opens with the meditator turning his attention to material objects. Rather than investigating the things themselves, he investigates his ideas about material things.

Before considering whether such objects as I conceive exist without me, I must examine their ideas in so far as these are to be found in my consciousness, and discover which of them are distinct and which confused.


When I imagine a triangle, although there is not perhaps and never was in any place in the universe apart from my thought one such figure, it remains true nevertheless that this figure possesses a certain determinate nature, form, or essence, which is immutable and eternal, and not framed by me, nor in any degree dependent on my thought.


Even when I still strongly adhered to the objects of sense, I reckoned among the number of the most certain truths those I clearly conceived relating to figures, numbers, and other matters that pertain to arithmetic and geometry, and in general to the pure mathematics.

It is impossible to conceive two or more gods of this kind; and it being supposed that one such God exists, I clearly see that he must have existed from all eternity, and will exist to all eternity.


This same knowledge extends likewise to whatever I remember to have formerly demonstrated, as the truths of geometry and the like: for what can be alleged against them to lead me to doubt of them?


All science depends on the knowledge alone of the true God, insomuch that, before I knew him, I could have no perfect knowledge of any other thing.


Now that I know him, I possess the means of acquiring a perfect knowledge respecting innumerable matters, as well relative to God himself and other intellectual objects as to corporeal nature, in so far as it is the object of pure mathematics [which do not consider whether it exists or not].


VI Meditation

The Sixth and final Meditation is entitled “The Existence of Material Things, and the Real Distinction between Mind and Body” and opens with the meditator considering the existence of material things. He accepts the distinct possibility that material objects exist because they are objects of pure mathematics, whose truths he perceives clearly and distinctly. He then produces two arguments for the existence of material things, one based on the faculty of imagination, the other on the senses.

I observe that a special effort of mind is necessary to the act of imagination, which is not required to conceiving or understanding (ad intelligendum) and this special exertion of mind clearly shows the difference between imagination and pure intellection (imaginatio et intellectio pura).


The mind in conceiving turns in some way upon itself, and considers some one of the ideas it possesses within itself; but in imagining it turns towards the body, and contemplates in it some object conformed to the idea which it either of itself conceived or apprehended by sense.


I do not find that, from the distinct idea of corporeal nature I have in my imagination, I can necessarily infer the existence of any body.


I was readily persuaded that I had no idea in my intellect which had not formerly passed through the senses.


Although I certainly do possess a body with which I am very closely conjoined; nevertheless, because, on the one hand, I have a clear and distinct idea of myself, in as far as I am only a thinking and unextended thing, and as, on the other hand, I possess a distinct idea of body, in as far as it is only an extended and unthinking thing, it is certain that I, [that is, my mind, by which I am what I am] am entirely and truly distinct from my body, and may exist without it.


It must be concluded that corporeal objects exist. Nevertheless they are not perhaps exactly such as we perceive by the senses, for their comprehension by the senses is, in many instances, very obscure and confused; but it is at least necessary to admit that all which I clearly and distinctly conceive as in them, that is, generally speaking, all that is comprehended in the object of speculative geometry, really exists external to me.


On the ground alone that God is no deceiver, and that consequently he has permitted no falsity in my opinions which he has not likewise given me a faculty of correcting, I think I may with safety conclude that I possess in myself the means of arriving at the truth.


In each of the dictates of nature there is some truth: for by nature, considered in general, I now understand nothing more than God himself, or the order and disposition established by God in created things; and by my nature in particular I understand the assemblage of all that God has given me.

Nature… teaches me by these sensations of pain, hunger, thirst, etc., that I am not only lodged in my body as a pilot in a vessel, but that I am besides so intimately conjoined, and as it were intermixed with it, that my mind and body compose a certain unity.

All these sensations of hunger, thirst, pain, etc., are nothing more than certain confused modes of thinking, arising from the union and apparent fusion of mind and body.


My body, or rather my entire self, in as far as I am composed of body and mind, may be variously affected, both beneficially and hurtfully, by surrounding bodies.


Man being of a finite nature, his knowledge must likewise be of limited perfection.


There is a vast difference between mind and body, in respect that body, from its nature, is always divisible, and that mind is entirely indivisible. …This would be sufficient to teach me that the mind or soul of man is entirely different from the body, if I had not already been apprised of it on other grounds.


The life of man is frequently obnoxious to error with respect to individual objects; and we must, in conclusion, acknowledge the weakness of our nature.


On the one hand I have a clear and distinct idea of myself, in so far as I am a thinking, non-extended thing; and on the other hand I have a distinct idea of body, in so far a this is simply an extended, non-thinking thing. And, accordingly, it is certain that I am really distinct from my body, and exist without it.


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