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Introduction to Modern Philosophy

First Paper

Waxing Philosophical on Descartes In the Second Meditation, Descartes analyzes a ball of wax and, in so doing, he discovers that we cannot truly know that wax except through our intellect and therefore, we have a superior grasp of our own minds over all else. Descartes chooses the ball of wax as his example because it has many distinct properties which allow our senses to grasp it intimately from every sensuous vantage point. For this reason, we are led to believe that we have a direct acquaintance with the object through our senses. However, we then discover, as Descartes heats the wax by bringing it closer to a fire, that all of these properties can and do dramatically change: the wax changes color, its smell burns off, it grows in size and it starts to become softer. And yet, nevertheless, we are still able to recognize that this piece of wax is the very same piece that we were analyzing just moments before. Hence, none of those distinct properties could have been what the wax itself was and thus must be subtracted from it if we are to know the wax's fundamental nature. We discover therefore that the true nature of the wax is "something extended, flexible, and mutable" (p. 46). This is something that we cannot know via our sensory faculties since it is a fundamental essence which lies behind the mutable, sensuous properties of the wax. Nor can this knowledge of the wax's nature be a result of our imagination because to recognize the wax as something extended, flexible and mutable is to recognize that its shape and extension can take on a potentially infinite number of variations, a conclusion which we could never reach via our imaginations by imagining each and every one of those variations until we reached the threshold of innumerability. It must therefore be the case that we can grasp the true

nature of the wax only through our intellect. It follows from this that we truly perceive the wax qua wax not through the senses or imagination but through the intellect; in other words, we intuit, through the senses, the color, shape and other properties of the wax and then judge, with the intellect, that the wax, as something that is extended, flexible and mutable, is therefore present (p. 46). Perception is distinct from the reception of raw sensory data; the act of perception itself is an act of judging and understanding and is therefore mediated through the intellect. But it follows from this that whenever I perceive something, whenever I judge or understand that something is present, I can also be certain that I exist and that I can judge and understand, for my ability to judge and understand presupposes my very existence and my possession of those capabilities. Indeed, I can be even more certain that I myself exist and am a thing that thinks, judges and understands than I can be certain of the wax because it is possible that I am being deceived, that I do not actually perceive something that is wax but rather I am making a misjudgment; nevertheless, despite that possibility, the very fact that I am perceiving and judging, even if I am not doing these things correctly, is still enough for me to know that I exist, that I have the capacity to make judgments and therefore that I am (at least) a thing that thinks, i.e. a mind (pg. 46-47). Hence, whenever I perceive any object or person, even if I cannot be certain that I am perceiving correctly, I can at least be certain of these things regarding myself and it is thus the case that I can be more certain about my own nature as a thinking thing than I can about any of the external bodies which my perceiving of continuously reveals this indubitable truth to me.