SUMMARY HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY III
BOOK: DESCARTES SELE CTED PHILOSOPHICAL WRITINGS
DESCARTES MEDITATION 1
In the first meditation Descartes starts with his doubt about everything. He decides to demolish everything
completely and start again right from the foundations if he wants to establish anything at all in the sciences
that was stable and likely to last. He tries to hold back his assent from opinions which are not completely
First, he admits that there are never any sure signs by means of which being awake can be distinguished from
being asleep. So he might as well be asleep just now, because dreams feel like reality to at that moment. Then
he states that there must be some simple universal things which are true, like 2 + 3 = 5. We have the real colors
from which we form all the images of things in our thoughts as true or false. So geometry would be more true
than for example physics, because geometrics goes back to the basics. But, maybe I go wrong every time I add
those two. People might say that God would not have wished this, but what if God is not perfect. Then I’m not
sure of anything, because God might as well be some evil demon, who makes me think that some things are
true, while they actually are not. I am like a prisoner then who is enjoying an imaginary freedom while being
asleep; as he begins to suspect he is asleep, he dreads being woken up, and goes along with the pleasant
illusion as long as he can.
DESCARTES MEDITATION 2
In the second meditation Descartes supposes everything he sees is spurious. But, then he would have no
senses. The fact that remains then, is that nothing is certain. But if he can convince himself that there is
absolutely nothing, he should exist certainly. But, there is a deceiver of supreme power and cunning who is
deliberately and constantly deceiving him. In that case he would undoubtedly exist, if he is deceived by
someone/something. So “I am, I exist” will follow. But then, it is not yet clear what this “I” is. In the strict sense
I am a thing that thinks. But what is that? A thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, is willing, is
unwilling and imagines and has sensory perceptions. I am not sure if I do, but I certainly seem to see to hear
and to be warmed. This cannot be false, what is called having a sensory perception is strictly just this, and in
this restricted sense of the term it is simply thinking.
I can consider a piece of wax, with features like taste and stuff. But, when I warm it, the features change, but
everybody would say it remains wax. So there has to be something that remains: the wax. The nature is in no
way revealed by my imagination, but is perceived by the mind alone. It is not possible that I am thinking about
something, without being something. So, I exist.
DESCARTES MEDITATION 3
In this part of the meditation, Descartes considers the existence of God. In the first part he says he will shut his
eyes, stop his ears and withdraw all his senses. But he can refer to senses and images. So he seems to be able
to lay it down as a general rule that whatever he perceives very clearly and distinctly is true.
But, afterwards he realizes many things which he perceived were doubtful. It could be the case that some God
could have given him a nature such that he was deceived even in matters which seemed most evident. He
cannot but admit that the supreme power of God he beliefs in, makes it easy for God to bring it about that he
goes wrong even in those matters which he thinks he sees utterly clearly with his minds eye.
Some of his thoughts were the images of things, and it is only in these cases that the term ‘idea’ is strictly
appropriate. Now, as far as ideas are concerned, provided they are considered solely in themselves and he
does not refer them to anything else, they cannot strictly speaking be false. Thus the only remaining thoughts
were he must be on his guard against making a mistake are judgements. The most common mistake here
consists in his judging that the ideas which are in him resemble, or conform to, things located outside him.
What is the reason to think they resemble to these things? The idea of heat comes from something other than
himself, namely the fire. And the most obvious judgement to make is that the thing in question transmits to
him its own likeness rather than something else. Even if ideas come from things other than himself, it would
not follow that they must resemble things.
All these considerations are enough to establish that it is not reliable judgement but merely some blind impulse
that has made him believe up till now that there exist things distinct from himself which transmit to him ideas
or images of themselves through the sense organs or in some other way.
Although one idea may perhaps originate from another, there cannot be an infinite regress here; eventually
one must reach a primary idea, the cause of which will be like an archetype which contains formally all the
reality which is present only objectively in the idea. So it is clear to him, that the ideas in him are like images
which can easily fall short of the perfection of the things from which they are taken, but which cannot contain
anything greater or more perfect.
He perceives, that he now exists and remembers that he has existed for some time. He has various thoughts
that he can count; so he acquires the ideas of duration and number which he can transfer to other things. As
for all the other elements which make up the ideas of corporeal things, namely extension, shape, position and
movement, these are not formally contained in me, since I am nothing but a thinking thing; but since they are
merely modes of a substance, and I am a substance, it seems possible that hey are contained in me eminently.
By ‘God’ he understands a substance that is infinite, independent, supremely intelligent, supremely powerful
and which created himself and everything else. All these attributes are such that, the more carefully he
concentrates on them, the less possible it seems that they could have originated from him alone. So from that
has been said it must be concluded that God necessarily exists.
This idea of a supremely perfect and infinite being is true in the highest degree; for although perhaps one may
imagine that such a being does not exist, it cannot be supposed that the idea of such a being represents
something unreal, as I said with regard to the idea of cold. The idea is utterly clear and distinct. This is enough
to make the idea of God the truest and most clear and distinct of all his ideas.
But all the perfections in God, could be in him potentially, he considers. But, they aren’t because the fact that
he is increasing his knowledge, tells him he is not perfect, like God. The increase is the surest sign of
But what power does he has to be able to say that he who now exists, still exists a while from now? He did not
experience such power, and that makes him recognize that he depends on some being distinct from himself.
But perhaps this being is God. But He produced him in the past and preserves him at this present moment.
The only remaining alternative is that it is innate in me, just as the idea of himself. God should have placed this
idea in me when shaping me. The fact that God created me is a very strong basis for believing that I am
somehow made in his image and likeness, and that I perceive that likeness, which includes the idea of God, but
the same faculty which enables me to perceive myself.
God cannot be a deceiver, because the manifest by natural light that all fraud and deception depend on some
book: descartes selected philosophical writings
descartes meditation 1
descartes meditation 2
descartes meditation 3
descartes mediation four
descartes meditation 5
descartes meditation 6