Notes on Descartes' Meditations

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  • Created on: 11-05-13 13:24
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Introduction to Descartes
Rationalist: aims to base all knowledge on reason, not on sense
Foundationalist: he aims to base his knowledge on certain,
selfevident beliefs, so that there is not an infinite regression of
Key influences:
Sceptics: prominent during Descartes time. They believed that nothing was certain.
Scholastics: also very influential throughout Europe. They based all knowledge on the word of God
revealed in the Holy Scriptures.
Even though Descartes was not a Sceptic, he used the method of scepticism and doubt as far as it
was logically possible, in the hope of finding certain knowledge. He wanted to therefore prove that
the sceptics were incorrect in believing that nothing was certain.
Meditation 1
Descartes compares his previous beliefs to the rotten foundations
of a shaky house. If the foundations are weak, then the whole
house will collapse.
Generalised doubt: instead of doubting each individual belief,
which would take too long, he generalised his doubt into categories.
So if he finds doubt in one instance, he will doubt the entirety of that category. He is not saying that
his beliefs are false, but instead saying that he will withhold assent and so not trust them as truth.
For instance, if you know that one apple is rotting in a barrel, then you would tip them all out,
before putting the good ones back.
If you were walking in a wood and you know that some mushrooms
were poisonous, then you would not risk easting any of them.
Criticisms of generalised doubt: Wittgenstein poured scorn on the
idea that we should doubt our bodies and consciousness etc. Doubt is
fine in certain circumstances, but when taken to this level, we have
lost the context in which it makes sense to doubt, and doubt becomes meaningless.

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Senses: Descartes knows that his senses have sometimes deceived
him. As it is `prudent to never truth those who have once deceived us'
he will not trust his senses.
For instance, a tower in the distance may look square, but on
closer inspection it is found to be round.
Dreaming argument: it seems difficult to doubt his own body and that he is sitting by the fire,
unless he can doubt his consciousness.…read more

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He changed from `I think therefore I am' to `I am, I exist,' because his original
statement was an enythmatic deductive syllogism, meaning that it has a missing premise:
1. (All thinking things exist)
2. I think
3. Therefor I am
This missing premise would be `all thinking things exist,' which is exactly the type of assumption that
Descartes aimed to avoid, especially if there is a universal deceiver. Instead he therefore uses the
necessary, selfevident truth, `I am, I exist.…read more

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Meditation 3
So far Descartes is certain of himself as a thinking thing, `res
cogitans'. He also has his general rule that, `all things
conceived clearly and distinctly are true.'
The Cartesian Circle: One of Descartes' greatest errors is
that he changes from claiming that the knowledge of his own
existence is his foundation, to the knowledge of God's
existence is. `I must inquire into whether there is a God, and
whether He is good...…read more

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Also he realised that some would ask why it cannot be our parents who created us. However,
Descartes argues that this would lead to an infinite regression of causes, so there must be a first
cause which is God.
If someone argued that he has not proven why there must be a single God and not multiple
Gods, then he would respond saying that God being `unitary' is a characteristic as part of his
perfection.…read more

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God's essential quality of existence is inseparable from his essence.
For example, the idea of a mountain cannot exist without
the idea of a valley.
Criticisms of the ontological argument: Gaunilo objected
to Descartes' argument and said that according to this
reasoning anything which we conceive as perfect must
therefore exist, like a perfect island.
Descartes says that his thoughts do not determine God's existence, instead God determines his
thoughts and so prevents him from freely conceiving of a God without existence.…read more

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However, this relies on God not being a
Perceptions: Descartes is a representative realist, so he claims that objects have the essential
characteristics of flexibility, malleability and extension, and these cause us to experience the
secondary properties of colour, shape etc. Descartes believes in the casual representation of
perceptions. Therefore, unlike philosophers such as Locke who says that objects cause our
perceptions and our perceptions resemble the objects, Descartes claims that our perceptions only
represent the external world.…read more


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