Reading The Meditations


(by paragraph divisions)

1.) Descartes tells us he has wanted to make this argument for his whole adult life, but that he waited until he was at the height of his intellectual powers and had set aside the most favorable time for meditation in order to bring together all the considerations of his philosophical life.  He is not brainstorming or setting down hypotheses for further reflection (e.g. “So, uh, an evil deceiver…whutaya think?”). This is a reflective, structured, systematic account of problems that a very great mind has thought about for a very long time.

When reading the Mediations, it’s easy to get dazzled by singular ideas (methodological doubt, the evil deceiver, the cogito, piece of wax) and to lose sight of how systematic and structured the argument is.

2.) While the first sentence gets the more attention – i.e. that Descartes will doubt all that admits of some doubt – the end of the paragraph is just as important: Descartes is going to consider the foundations of what he believes.  One of the dominant themes in the first meditation is just how hard it is to keep ones consideration fixed on foundations.

3-5) The senses deceive at least sometimes, and when anything deceives us sometimes, we’re hesitant to trust them anytime. We certainly wouldn’t count on them in important matters, and what Descartes is discussing is such a case. Descartes  immediately raises his own objection to it, namely that it seems obvious that some sensations are more certain than others: the size of the sun might be doubtful, but the fact that I am moving my hand is not. His first response is to this is that an insane person would have just the same evidence he has for moving his hand. The theme is more developed in the following paragraph.

The dream argument: Descartes allows that we can often tell the difference between a dream and a waking state: what he denies is that there are any certain marks by which we can do so. There are differences in ambiance to the waking state and the dream state, but it is hard to catch a definitive, concrete criterion to tell the difference. We come up short when we try to explain how the dream state must differ from the waking one.

6-8) First responses to the dream argument: Even when we dream or imagine, it is not the case that everything is made up. We take some things for granted, and so it would seem that the reality of these things cannot be doubted. For example, a imagining satyrs involves taking human torsos for granted; and it seems to be impossible to imagine or dream anything without taking colors and shapes for granted. Descartes concedes that whether he wakes or sleeps, three and two make five. He has a response to this which strikes exactly the right note: namely that in mathematics we “scarcely inquire whether or not these things are existent”. The response is sharp and to my mind fatal: if anything is doubtful, it is whether mathematical things really exist, at any rate, a large part of the certitude of mathematics arises from the fact that “to exist” means “I can define its function” or “I can construct it whenever I want”, which is certainly not the sort of existence that one has in mind when he wonders whether the world exists.

(One could, however, reconstruct most of modern science if we stopped reading here. Mathematics is certain, and we can understand nature to the extent that “to exist” means the same thing as it means in mathematics. What we can make, or what can play a functional role in an algebraic expression exists. This is science.)

9-10) A general argument that is is possible to doubt absolutely anything. The argument in developed in two paragraphs:

Thesis: A human being must admit it is possible that he be deceived about absolutely anything

1.) Either man was created by an omnipotent being, or he was not.

2.) If by an omnipotent being, it is possible that this being deceives him about everything.

3.) If not, man comes to be from some other process (antecedent necessary causes, chance, a being of limited power)  But then it is also possible that he be deceived about everything, for there is no reason to think that these causes could have given rise to a being that could know the truth of things. Therefore he must also admit the possibility that he is deceived about everything.

11.) Descartes insists that it is more probable and more reasonable to follow common sense and take most sensations at face value. Illusions are relatively rare, frequently contrived, and usually of little significance in science. In the practical order, illusions are even less significant. Descartes is intentionally and forcibly twisting himself with this doctrine of doubt, and it is difficult for him to hold the position for too long. But he is doing it with an eye to seeing the foundation of thought.

12.) The evil deceiver: for all of his evocative power, the evil deceiver is an afterthought – he is a metaphor to describe a course of action that is already decided upon. There is even a tension in calling him an evil deceiver: Descartes is far more critical of the sort of life one falls into when he forgets the evil deceiver. The inability to sustain a universal doubt is called “indolence” and is compared to a slave who is dreaming of his liberty. Taking the world at face value is an impediment to seeing its foundation or basis. That is a philosophical thesis that deserves a fuller hearing.


  1. November 29, 2012 at 8:22 pm

    It seems to me that Descartes makes a questionable move, at least according to your summary, here:

    “Descartes allows that we can often tell the difference between a dream and a waking state: what he denies is that there are any certain marks by which we can do so. There are differences in ambiance to the waking state and the dream state, but it is hard to catch a definitive, concrete criterion to tell the difference. We come up short when we try to explain how the dream state must differ from the waking one.”

    Why should the general sense of unreality that pervades a dream and enables us to distinguish it from reality not count as sufficient evidence of our basic epistemic judgment (searching for a term here, that’s the best I could do, apologies)? What is Descartes’s response to someone who responds to the final sentence above with: “So what?” Does he justify this move, or is it just assumed?

    I really enjoy the blog. Thank you for all the great content over the years!

  2. November 29, 2012 at 10:00 pm

    Descartes also raises an objection to the dream argument right after he makes it. The argument does not appear as meant to be final. It sets the stage for what happens next.

    The dream argument takes place in an a context which takes doubtful and unclear things as fit for doubt, and there seems something doubtful in a difference that we can’t articulate clearly. Descartes also takes clarity and distinctness as inseparable, and so if we can speak of a difference clearly we should be able to make the difference distinct.

  3. November 29, 2012 at 11:02 pm

    Whenever I’ve taught the Meditations, I’ve pointed out that Meditation One is a kind of pendulum. If you look closely at the structure, Descartes will provide a skeptical argument, then a reason for not accepting it, then a skeptical argument that goes even further, and so forth. The dream argument and so forth do not stand alone; they are part of an integrated whole by means of which our certainty is fractionated away, bit by bit, constantly expanding the circle of doubt. I think this is quite deliberate, and it does two things: (1) it is supposed to summarize what Descartes says elsewhere, namely, familiarizing ourselves with skeptical arguments so that we can practice the method of doubt in the first place; and (2) the rest of the Meditation will gradually shrink the circle again. The Meditations is a work to which reader-response criticism is very suitable: it is a performative, and not merely a descriptive, work; it is not intended merely to present an argument, but to lead the reader through the actual philosophical meditation, at least symbolically.

  4. raquinas said,

    November 30, 2012 at 9:07 am

    I still think Gilson reached the crux of the matter by pointing out that knowledge does not reduce to thought. In adopting doubt (especially as regards external sense experience) as a methodology, he implicitly (and without philosophic justification) adopts a view of himself (the “I” which is proposing the methodology) already in accord with the conclusion of that methodology – “I” am a thinking (or doubting) thing. But if the “I” which is proposing the methodology-of-doubt is not merely a thinking thing, but a sensing-thinking thing, and if knowledge is not merely thought, but thought arising through sense experience, then justification for a thoroughgoing methodology of doubt is lacking – at least with respect to the real existence of a mind-independent world in contact with the external senses of every “I” (even if that contact does not immediately or always yield a mathematic-like “clarity” of the sort desired by Descartes).

    That “I” sense things is at least as evident as “my” ability to doubt (what am “I” that senses and doubts?). To subordinate one’s sense experience to one’s ability to doubt is to front-load a notion of just what the “one” (or the “I”) making that move – *is*. It assumes an anthropology which it has not established. The basic problem is that any proposed fundamental philosophical method is a proposal about how some “I” or group of “I’s” (we) ought to proceed in philosophizing; and is, moreover, a proposal made by some particular “I”. As such, both according to efficient and final cause, the proposal itself – in the very act of its construction – cannot be neutral with respect to the nature of the “I’s” to whom it is proposed, nor the “I” which proposes it. That Descartes methodology arrives at a notion of “I” as a thinking thing was an inevitable result of his prior decision to elevate his capacity for doubt above his sensate experience – which was an implicit statement about the kind of “I” he understood himself to be as a methodology proposer.

    But as Gilson, relying on Aquinas, points out; “sense knowledge” and “intellectual knowledge” are said metaphorically: “knowledge”, properly speaking, is said of “Man” – the synthetic sensate-intellectual being capable of both doubting and proposing philosophical methodologies. Man “knows” – whole and entire, sensate-intellectual. On this view of man and knowledge, sense experience is an *evident* (not postulated and, therefore, doubtful) first principle of knowledge according to source (nothing is in the intellect that was not first in the senses). The external world as existing (not to say as clear) only becomes doubtful if one presupposes man to be a disengaged doubter, rather than a sensate-cum-intellectual being who can and, from time to time, does doubt. If man – that being who on occasion proposes philosophical methodologies – is the latter; then his methodology may rightly entail that much of his sense experience is unclear, but it cannot entail that everything besides the proposer is doubtful.

    • November 30, 2012 at 2:56 pm

      This is a subtle reading, but I wonder if Descartes’s point is more basic. He’s looking for something that is indubitable in every way, and so it’s hard to see how one would find such a thing unless he doubted things in every way. If you wanted to find something that couldn’t be burned in any way, isn’t it a reasonable tactic to go around trying to burn things in any way you can?

      • raquinas said,

        November 30, 2012 at 4:02 pm

        But in attempting to burn sense experience, as it were, Descartes is burning himself: unless, of course, he excludes sense experience from “himself” as a methodology-maker. But isn’t that precisely the hidden premise underlying his method? By including a dimension of his own unicit being, that which makes up his own “I” – namely, sensation of external things – among the things which that very “I” reject as indubitable in every way; he has already made an anthropological commitment; a bifurcation whereby he proceeds *as if* “he” were a thinking-ghost of the very sort he only later claims to establish (unsurprisingly) through application of his methodology.

        Gilson’s most subtle-rebuttal is that for man – as man – sensate experience just is indubitable – as indubitable as one’s doubting. It is a first principle. A methodology which proceeds by applying doubt to experience is unobjectionable up until the point when that doubt turns itself upon that which is constitutive of the doubting self. I may doubt whether the shiny waves I see in the distance are water or a mirage: nothing philosophically earth-shattering in that, it’s the stuff of philosophical prudence. But if I go further and doubt whether I see anything at all, I have just taken an implicit and radical stand on one of the most fundamental questions of philosophy: “what is man?” (for only “men” philosophize; and to say what men *are* seems foundational to the enterprise).

        When methodological doubt crosses that juncture, a decision about one’s own being is implicitly adopted as monolithically-mental, and too few realize that the juncture is a watershed, nor the implications of its crossing. It is here that Gilson thinks one must take a stand against Descartes’ method and its results (if one is going to take a stand), because it is here that the Cartesian method is weakest, having given no philosophical justification for the anthropology implicitly embedded within its program (dare one call it a naïve idealism). I think Gilson is right. It seems to me that the philosophical implications of a turn-to-the-subject have everything to do with the nature of the subject

  5. Dan Yingst said,

    November 30, 2012 at 10:28 am

    “The dream argument takes place in an a context which takes doubtful and unclear things as fit for doubt, and there seems something doubtful in a difference that we can’t articulate clearly. Descartes also takes clarity and distinctness as inseparable, and so if we can speak of a difference clearly we should be able to make the difference distinct.”

    I’m just uncertain why I should have to make the two moves Descartes seems to want us to make here, that unclear things are fit for doubt and that clarity and distinctness are inseparable. The former seems to just defer the question to “what makes something unclear?”, while the latter strikes me as highly problematic given basic human experience For example, I am certainly able to detect a distinction between the love I have for my close friends and the love I have for my brothers and both of these are definitely distinct from the love I feel for my girlfriend. Yet, I doubt that I could clearly articulate this difference (also this raises the question of what exactly constitutes a clear articulation [how can we determine such a thing given all this doubt?]). Does this mean that I ought to doubt that I feel about my close friends differently than I do about my mother, or doubt that the faculty for distinguishing between the two is effective? Why should I accept this? My knowledge that I can distinguish between these things feels no less certain than the mechanisms by which I determine that I should be doubting all this stuff (and doesn’t the fact that I can’t clearly delineate between the two mean that I ought to doubt my own capability of deciding what I should doubt?)

    Perhaps, I’m just gesturing less coherently towards the points that raquinas spells out, but it seems like Descartes is asking us to concede an awful lot here. I’m pretty darn unfamiliar with Descartes though, so I hope I’m not mischaracterizing his thought (also I hope that above made sense, I’m much better at discussing these things verbally than in print, so get rather self-conscious).

  6. j mct said,

    December 5, 2012 at 2:12 pm

    I guess this post is not at the top, but on the chance it is still ‘live’ I’d like to add something.

    I think in order to truly understand where Descartes is coming from one must be familiar with who he regards as his antagonist, or who he is arguing with. In a book by Gilson, I read that there are spots all over Descartes writings where he seems to be responding to a specific this or that from Montaigne’s Essays. One example could be the conversation in a quiet corner of a tavern style which they are written in, not a dialogue, in French rather than Latin. The specific essay I think matters the most in this regard is “An Apology for Raymond Sebond”, which is a pretty long one.

    That essay is one where ‘Monsieur Quois Sais Je’ just goes on a long extended tirade on anyone and everyone who claims that he really knows anything. Natural philosophers get theirs too, per Montaigne the boffins are never actually right about anything so why bother to learn what they think? As per Cartesian doubt, there is a paragraph in the essay (on page 590 of my Penguin edition of the Essays) where he briefly executes Descartes reasoning right to ‘If I doubt everything, I know I am doubting’. I’d have a hard time believing that Descartes never read Montaigne, so I doubt Descartes thought that up himself, or anyone else in his time thought he did either, Montaigne was more widely read in Descartes time than Descartes was.

    Lastly, the general thrust of Descartes philosophy is “what do I know, and why should I think I am right in thinking that I know it?”, which some say is what modern philosophy is all about so Descartes is the first modern. It would seem to me, that the last pre modern, Montaigne, is the guy that asked the question.

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