Seminal philosophical work published by French philosopher Réné Descartes (in Latin) in 1641. The "first philosophy" in the title of this work pertains to the fundamental foundations of philosophical (especially metaphysical) inquiry - until this point the Western thinkers had been labouring on the stately but showing-its-age platform of Aristotlean thought, which had granted served as a good alternatitve to Platonism for hundreds of years but was holding back modern science (condemning Copernicus for heresy, for instance) at the encroaching Renaissance pawing and growling at the gate. As conventionally matters of metaphysics and epistemology had been considered foundational for philosophical thought, Descartes decided to shed over a thousand years of baggage and give those fields a hard boot.

This wrenched the direction of philosophical inquiry from "Can I know how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" to "Is there an 'I' to know anything?" (He resolves that latter question, by the by, in his famous assertion cogito, ergo sum - claiming that if there is the wondering thought "Do I exist?" that there must be a thinker to have the thought - however, that famous phrase does not appear in this work, "Cogito, sum" being about as close as he gets.)

Though the Meditations contain much which seems to be silly to a contemporary audience (such as the (surprisingly gnostic) hypothetical omnipotent demonic deceiver who exists only to make Descartes think things are a different way from the way they actually are) and some of his arguments and "proof"s spaghetti back on themselves, the work ultimately succeeded in its goal - not necessarily of establishing its answers as the foundations for a new philosophy, but in opening the doors to new forms of inquiry in opposition to the Classical mode of thought which had not yet been supplanted. Opening the door a crack for himself encouraged subsequent foot traffic and soon all sorts of people, notably Spinoza and Kant, were thinking and writing all sorts of clever, devilishly interesting and heretical things which couldn't be conceived of under the clunkety Aristotlean patch job.

Prefatory Note To The Meditations
Dedication to Meditations on First Philosophy
Synopsis of the Six Following Meditations
Meditation I: Of the Things which may be brought within the Sphere of the Doubtful
Meditation II: Of the Nature of the Human Mind; and that it is more easily Known than the Body
Meditation III: Of God: that he Exists
Meditation IV: Of the True and the False
Meditation V: Of the Essence of Material Things, and, again, of God, that he Exists
Meditation VI: Of the Existence of Material Things, and of the real Distinction between the Soul and Body of Man

The version I have posted here contains (from newest to oldest and from readable-by-the-most-people-here to readable-by-the-fewest) the full text of the 1901 English translation of the work by John Veitch (with amendments / restorations from previous translations indicated in visible hard brackets), the 1647 French translation by le Duc de Luynes and Descartes' original Latin version for full cross-referencing. As page numbers are not terribly useful in an online text, they have been removed and each paragraph clearly marked as P1. etc. for comparative and referential purposes.

If you have anything to add to or challenge the topic or what I've asserted above, please do; I'm more than a bit loopy after spending all day formatting.

The Meditations were originally published in a single volume with six sets of Objections and Replies.

Descartes arranged to have the manuscript for the Meditations circulated among some of the leading intellectuals of the day, so that he could read and respond to their comments on the work. The objections and Descartes' replies to them are fascinating reading -- if you think you've got an original argument against Descartes, check out the objections, because chances are, one of these guys got to it first. Also, while Descartes' replies are sometimes very insightful, they're also sometimes outrageously cocky and dismissive, so they're instructive from a "get to know your philosopher, warts and all" perspective too.

Now, I normally wouldn't do this, but the bastards made me read it yet again. Fine, I says, fine – I'll outline Descartes' important arguments in The Meditations for you, gladly. As far as the genesis of this folly goes, Descartes explicitly states his goal in preparing the meditations in the first paragraph of the first meditation:

Some years ago I was struck by the large number of falsehoods that I had accepted as true in my childhood, and by the highly doubtful nature of the whole edifice that I had subsequently based on them. I realized that it was necessary, once in the course of my life, to demolish everything completely and start again right from the foundations if I wanted to establish anything at all in the sciences that was stable and likely to last.
Descartes throws down the gauntlet, announcing his intent (to demolish his beliefs, in order to rebuild them) and implies two principles, making his first mistake. True belief, for Descartes, must be certain. Now this, in and of itself, is not a mistake… yet. Because if any of the other following premises in this very long deductive argument of his are false, then this certainty is ruined, along with his whole system. Descartes’ second mistake is his foundationalism – not only must his belief be certain, but this certainly must be based upon unimpeachable claims. Descartes will remark shortly thereafter that all knowledge he has “acquired either from the senses or through the senses”, and that the senses sometimes deceive.

Descartes realizes the paradox presented by these contrary claims (namely, one cannot have a certain foundation based solely upon data that is sometimes flawed) and begins his project to find a rationalist basis for his beliefs in order to justify his sometimes empiricism. But when seriously analyzed, these beliefs provoke a serious paradox – even if Descartes is able to reach a non-sensory origination and foundation of knowledge through thought experiments, the methods which he used were acquired through the use of the senses and are therefore flawed. Barring newborns, absolutely no humans can conceive of the world without prior prejudice from their senses, so even though the mechanism or argument that Descartes uses may seem to be purely mentally deductive, his thought patterns themselves were influenced by previous sensory experience. It is impossible to “step outside of ourselves” long enough to construct a reality with pure reason. This may seem to end his project (and I think it does), but he makes many more mistakes that I will be glad to share.

Descartes, having not heard my criticism, proceeds to attempt to offer skeptical arguments in order to strip down the layers of potentially tainted knowledge so that he is left with undoubtable truth. His first attempt is alluded to above; Descartes presents reasons to distrust his senses. This observation is enough to begin the meditations, but is not enough to continue them. Although Descartes’ senses may sometimes deceive him, most of the time they are accurate, leaving him far short of the Universal Doubt he must achieve in order to build his foundation. Descartes’ second skeptical argument is that he may be dreaming, or hallucinating. This is pretty good, eh? Everything in a dream can be questioned, putting all of his beliefs about the world at risk. Except… where do our dream ideas come from? Our sleeping memories of our waking life. So our dreams too are based upon our senses. This troubling detail means that our dream world may not be enough of a stretch to doubt down to our foundation. Descartes then elucidates his final skeptical argument: What if we are in a dreamlike world, have been in this dreamlike world our entire lives; and that instead of this world being a reflection of our sensory data, we have been fed all of the information we believe to be sensory by an evil genius, bent on manipulating us. This evil genius is a dastardly fellow -- all powerful, all knowing, and bent on one thing: lying to us.

This, Descartes says, is his final (and successful) argument. This allows him to doubt everything that he knows with his senses, or so he claims. Descartes then concludes that there are two things that he cannot doubt: he thinks, and he exists. This is Descartes third mistake. Come on, René, can’t you think of anything stronger than that? I can: what if I am merely a computer program, functioning off of input, giving off output, with no independent thought whatsoever – but part of my input is that I have been given independent thought, so I believe this to be the case even though it is not. It is not fair to dear René to phrase things in such a way, being so far removed in centuries. Perhaps, though, I am a creature known as a homunculus – created by a wizard to be a shadow of him/her, believing myself to my own thinking creature, when all of my thoughts are guided by his/hers. In fact, it is far easier to reach a hypothetical situation that involves me not thinking than it is to reach one in which I cease to exist completely (although I do believe that this is possible as well).

This observation dovetails nicely with Descartes’ fourth mistake, mind-body dualism and res cogitans. If Descartes can think, and he exists, and that is all that he can know for sure, then he is a “thinking thing”. We might suppose naturally that we are our bodies, but Descartes believes that he has shown that we could be deceived about our bodies. It could be that we are mere brains in vats, being manipulated by a diabolical genius, and we would not have bodies. Therefore two things: one, our bodies and our minds are two different things; two, our minds are more important than our bodies. We are not merely “thinking things”; we are primarily “thinking things”. Since I am feeling charitable, we shall classify both of these mistakes as one, as they stem from the same source.

Descartes final mistake that we consider here is actually three different mistakes: his three arguments for the existence of God. Descartes argument in Meditation Three is usually considered singular, as a very long ontological argument for the existence of God, following the ghost of St. Anselm. In actuality, Descartes considers three arguments, each increasing in supposed validity, but all are flawed.

Descartes’ first argument for God’s existence is almost all St. Anselm:

P1. I have an idea of an infinitely perfect being.
P2. As a finite creature, I could not have invented this being.
C1. Therefore, this being necessarily exists.
There are easy objections to this argument, which Descartes must have realized, as he answered many of the extant ones in his fuller argument (below).

Descartes second argument for God’s existence is one from the idea of existence itself. It is most often told to me by sneering fundamentalists “Well, if you don’t believe in God, then how did we get here?” While I usually respond to this argument with profanity and dismissal, I shall be more polite with Descartes. What is amusing about this argument is that Descartes must convince himself that he is not God:

P1. I exist.
P2. I cannot have arisen out of nothing.
P3. I am not a perfect being (and thus not God)
P4. I either come from God or a less perfect being.
P5. All less than perfect beings must come from a more perfect being.
C1. All of these roads lead back to God, therefore God exists.
P2 is of course most problematic here (P5 is rather obviously wrong as well) , and I leave it to the natural sciences to answer that particular question.

Descartes’ last argument for God’s existence is the argument from ideas. Descartes outlines three ways that he might know things: ideas may be adventitious1, innate, and invented by him. He also claims that he clearly and distinctly perceives the existence of God. Therefore, God exists. To be completely fair to Descartes, this is my best approximation of his fullest argument:

P1. There are three sources of ideas: Empirical, Innate, Invented.
P2. I have an idea of an infinitely perfect being.
P3. This idea was not acquired empirically.
P4. This being is greater than myself, and therefore could not have been invented by me.
C1. This idea must, therefore, be innate.
P5. Only a perfect being itself is great enough to infuse me with an idea this great.
C2. Therefore, there must be a being that did so.
The logic of this proof seems simple, and true enough. One of the problems of the deductive format of argumentation is that it can make unreasonable arguments appear quite reasonable. Needless to say, here his premises are the real flaws. P1 is flawed in a number of ways – anyone who has dealt with children realizes there are no such things as innate ideas that extend past crying or sucking on a nipple; and if one views the mind as a sort of sensory instrument, ideas cannot be invented, merely discovered. P2 would seem to be contradicted by P4 and P5 – if we cannot think about a perfect being well enough to invent him, then how can we have a clear and distinct idea of him (remember, this is not just an idea of God, it is an idea so clear and distinct that the idea itself necessitates his existence).

It could be said that Descartes creates another mistake when insisting that God is necessary for his project, but this is just his first two mistakes revisited. Descartes insistence upon certainty (upon which to build his foundation for true knowledge) necessitates a way to escape from the possibility of an evil genius. The only artifice he can build is an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being (God) that can ensure that his senses or an evil genius are not deceiving him. If he were content to live in a world of partial uncertainty, judging his beliefs by a rubric of varying plausibility and possibility the entire exercise could have been avoided.


1. This is translated in the French version as “foreign to me and coming from the outside”. This information is sense data, and I feel more comfortable using the common term “Empirical” to describe it.

Criticism of Descartes’s First Meditation

Descartes begins by affirming that he, as a consciously thinking entity, does not have the ability to certainly differentiate between the two commonly known states of sleep and wake. Therefore, he concludes, in order to search for the most basic truths, he should assume that nothing but his thoughts are as they seem. This is where he loses himself. Descartes attacks the sense of sight particularly aggressively, maintaining that nothing of it can be trusted. However, this belief in and of itself negates his initial assumption that only his thought certainly exists. Let us imagine for a second that only one’s thought does exist. Descartes’s conclusion after that point is that everything bit of one’s sight must be subject to disbelief. However, in the case that only one’s thought does exist one’s eyes certainly do not exist, and certainly neither does any of the rest of his body or what we perceive as sensory organs. Therefore, there must be a link between the mind and the sight in Descartes’s scenario of heightened suspicion. From here, it becomes obvious that one cannot throw a net of doubt over all sight but leave thought untouched; we see now that the sight must stem from the thought. This may at first seem discountable because of our many prejudices about sight and thought, but I believe we can still reach the conclusion that the two are inextricably bound together in Descartes’s scenario.
Descartes himself turns to math when he tries to show a superiority in thought over “disciplines that are dependent upon the consideration of composite things that are doubtful,” such as “physics, astronomy, and medicine.” Descartes reasons that no matter how the world around him might seem or be, in his head two plus three will always make five, or, in other words, a certainty can always be gained through his thought but not through his sight. Allow me to argue now, however, that the same sense of uncertainty (or uncertainty) can be assigned to both thought and that which we perceive as sight. Without eyes (which most certainly do not exist) our sight must be an extension of our thought. The initial argument against this generally goes, “We make mistakes in chemistry and other observed sciences often, and they are not perfect; but the math inside of our heads is perfect.” Let us dissemble this gross interpretation. Let us first look at what math really is and not as some higher power than ourselves (at least in Descartes’s scenario). Math is an idea; it is a belief in the mind that doing things with certain numbers (another idea) will yield certain results. Chemistry is the same, but people will often point to the tempting belief that often times it seems like chemistry is incorrect, whereas math is never incorrect. But is this really true? Have I ever incorrectly done math in my head? Certainly I have. I argue that when, in my head, I attempt to multiply 263 by 129 and attain the answer 57, I have performed an action that is equivalent to any sort of untruth that one could imagine in what we perceive as the world of senses. Here we now see that there is a limit to thought and that untruths in the sensory have parallel ones in the world of thought.
In summary, I have two main points. First, in the event that only thought can be trusted, sensory perceptions become linked to thought; they do not become labeled false; they become labeled imagination, along with math and anything else that might have originally resided in the mind. Second, there is a direct correlation between examination of the real world and examination of thought. Both can experience missteps, and we can imagine for both a perfect scenario.

Descartes believes that when he assumes nothing his sight is necessarily shuffled into a pile labeled ‘untrustworthy.’ I, however, believe that when he assumes nothing, his sight is shuffled into the same pile in which his thought resides, regardless of where that may be.

Log in or registerto write something here or to contact authors.