Meditations on First Philosophy Summary

René Descartes

Meditations on First Philosophy

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Meditations on First Philosophy Summary

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Meditations on First Philosophy is a seminal work of philosophy by the French philosopher René Descartes. It was first published in Latin in 1641, with the French translation published a few years later. It is separated into six sections in which Descartes attempts to determine what can be known with certainty.

First, there is a letter of dedication and a preface. Descartes addresses the sacred faculty of theology in Paris and explains that the existence of God must be demonstrated philosophically. He addresses the reader, reminding the reader of his assertion that if one can conceive a perfect thing, it follows that this perfect thing must exist.

In the first meditation, Descartes reflects on the falsehoods he has held onto thus far in his life. He resolves to sweep away everything that he thinks he knows to come to a better understanding of what can be proven as true. He states that everything he has come to know, he has learned through his senses, and that sensory information is quite reliable.

From there, he acknowledges that when he is dreaming, his senses tell him that certain things are true, and he believes him. If he can conceive of something in a dream, it must exist in real life. He can doubt the thing as a whole, but he cannot question the inspiration for the parts of the conceived thing. Descartes then realizes that if his dreams can deceive his senses, an omnipotent God could do the same.

He then imagines that it is not God but some evil demon that has taken control of his experiences and led him to these notions. He resolves to disbelieve everything he has previously held as true just to avoid being deceived.

In the second meditation, Descartes lays out a system of thought known as “representationalism.” In it, we have access to ideas, however imperfectly, and these ideas are represented in the forms of memories, beliefs, and all other such things. They are separate from each other and exist outside the mind, but as such, they can be accurate or false. He argues that this disconnects the world from the mind, and there must be a bridge between the mind and our experiences. In this meditation, he concludes that if he can conceive of himself, nothing can convince him that he is nothing. Therefore, if he states, “I am, I exist,” that statement must be demonstrably true.

He defines this “I” through the example of wax. Wax is wax because we perceive its inherent wax-ness through our intellect. Therefore, we can do the same with our state of being. Our “self” is not determined by our senses, but by thinking and conceiving of ourselves as distinct. He exists because he is a “thinking thing.”

In the third meditation, Descartes begins to lay the foundation that God exists using philosophical reasoning. In the first argument, he states that something cannot come from nothing and that an idea must have a source. Since he can conceive of a perfect, infinite being, and he is not a perfect, infinite being, it stands to reason that this being must exist. Since this being is perfect, it must also be benevolent rather than evil, and thus it would never seek to deceive him.

In the second argument, he says that he exists and must have a source. That source can be himself, himself having always existed, his parents, an imperfect being, or a perfect being. It cannot be the first because he would have created himself perfect, or the second because he must be sustained as a being. It cannot be his parents because who created them? The idea of perfection exists and so must come from somewhere; therefore, it must be God.

In meditation four, Descartes tries to answer the question of falsehood and room for error. He concludes that perfection exists in proximity to God. On the other end of the spectrum are evil and nothingness. Humans exist between the two. The discrepancy is the problem of understanding and free will. Understanding is given in incomplete form since we cannot comprehend the mind of a perfect being, and if we choose to act outside this understanding with our free will, we can be in error.

In the fifth meditation, Descartes distinguishes between things that are concrete and clear, and things that are obscure. In some cases, a thing we conceive must be created, such as a mythical creature. In others, no amount of recreation can change the inherent truth of the object. No matter how we rearrange a triangle, the degrees of its angles will equal 180 degrees. He concludes that some external objects have a fixed nature.

One cannot conceive of God without existence. Since perfection is an inherent part of God, and existence includes perfection, God must exist.

In the sixth meditation, Descartes tries to explain the existence of external objects outside himself without relying on the use of his sensory experience, which he has already said was unreliable. He constructs his arguments from the previous meditations in which he established the truth of his own existence, and the inherent truth of the existence of a perfect being, God.

He proves that the body is distinct from the mind because God created the mind independently of the body, and the “thinking thing” can exist without the body. He also proves that external things are real because we can perceive these things through senses created by God, and God is not a deceiver. He has defined reality as three things: God, mind, and material things.

Descartes’s text stands as a philosophical classic on the nature of the mind-body problem and the existence of God. His use of methodic doubt had a huge impact on the world of philosophy and is considered a major first step in modern philosophy.