On René Descartes’ “Meditations on First Philosophy”

On René Descartes’ “Meditations on First Philosophy”

A war in the realm of corporeal natures

Image for post?The Meditation on the Passion?, by Vittore Carpaccio (Italian, Venice 1460/66??1525/26 Venice), ca. 1490; (John Stewart Kennedy Fund, 1911; from The Met Collection)

In the process of rupture that takes place in the spirit-body compound, Ren Descartes in his book Meditations on First Philosophy reveals the truth of modern thought.

We would not be so surprised if this compound did not relate to the world of bodies.

We will see in this brief article how one imposes the state of isolation in which the spirit-body compound should be forced into its own existence; and if it were not so, we could have war in the realm of corporeal natures.

The truth

In his Meditations, Descartes applied the doubt method to his own thoughts; so the slightest justification for doubt will ruin the whole edifice of these grounds.

Descartes begins his Meditations by saying that everything he has received so far as truer and safer he learned from the human senses or through them and says that sometimes these senses were misleading; concludes then that it is prudent never to rely entirely on those senses which once deceived him.

But even if the senses deceive him, they have something that Descartes cannot doubt.

So he starts his quest.

How could I deny that these hands and this body are mines?

? wondered Descartes while describing a thought in which he would be sitting close to a bonfire, wearing a robe, holding a paper between his hands. (p. 7)

He then speculates about the possibility of a certain madness; but he does not consider himself extravagant enough for such examples, and then concludes that he might be dressed in a robe close to a bonfire holding a paper in his dream and that there is no evidence that he can clearly distinguish his waking state from his sleep state.

Descartes supposes that he is asleep and that all his peculiarities ? such as the shaking of the head, the eyes, the stretching of the hands ? are illusions, and perhaps his hands and body are no longer as we see him, concluding that such images are feasible of pictures and paintings that can only be formed in the likeness of something real and true.

Such thoughts for him have formed imaginations, though some are true and real, simple and universal, and others are feigned and fantastic; they are formed images.

These formed images, for Descartes, are of corporeal nature itself.

The occupation in space and time ? extension, figure, quantity, quantity, number, place, moment, duration ? are corporeal natures, therefore, inconstant, doubtful and uncertain.

They are fictions of your spirit.

Descartes follows in his quest for a fixed, sure and undoubted point.

Now let?s think about the scene in which Descartes experiments with the piece of wax to prove what is conceived in his spirit about this body under examination.

Let us take, for example, this piece of wax: it has been taken quite freshly from the hive, and it has not yet lost the sweetness of the honey which it contains; it still retains somewhat of the odor of the flowers from which it has been culled; its color, its shape, its size are apparent; it is hard, cold, easily handled, and if you strike it with the finger, it will emit a sound. (p. 11)

Descartes will conclude that the wax remains only a wax even though this external body has undergone sensitive experiments in its materials and substances.

And he admits that what remained for him in his spirit was the same wax:

We must confess that it remains; none would judge otherwise. What then did I know so distinctly in this piece of wax? It could certainly be nothing of all that the senses brought to my notice, since all these things which fall under taste, smell, sight, touch, and hearing, are found to be changed, and yet the same wax remains. (p. 11)

Then he concludes that his senses have perceived the wax differently, but there is something that remains; however, what remains of that body is somehow the same wax.

Now what remains of that body, for Descartes, is his conception of thought about wax.

Soon after, he will ponder whether he can conceive of that wax only by changing its forms and thus imagine many waxes.

Concludes that no: the illustration of wax is not the faculty of imagining.

He conceives it only by the spirit or by his understanding.

Descartes will ask himself:

So if I judge that the wax exists from the fact that I touch it, the same thing will follow, to wit, that I am; and if I judge that my imagination, or some other cause, whatever it is, persuades me that the wax exists, I shall still conclude the same. (p. 12i)

Descartes goes even further and comes to consider that he is almost deceived by the terms of ordinary language, by words, and supposes that he has conceived only wax by the sight of the eyes and not by the inspection of his spirit.

After these inquiries, Descartes will apply the method of doubt to the scene of men, and will think that by seeing men out the window he might conclude that they are hats and bonnets of fictitious men moving by the use of springs; but by the power of judgment of his spirit he understands that they are true men.

In his Meditations, the author repeats that his quest is for a scientific contribution towards the foundation of the sciences.

He is looking for a fixed and undoubted point.

He has already cast doubt on the existence of all bodily and sensitive substances in the realm of corporeal natures, including his own, proving that their alterations, mutations, and complexities do not lead to any absolute conclusion,

I shall first of all set forth in these Meditations the very considerations by which I persuade myself that I have reached a certain and evident knowledge of the truth, in order to see if, by the same reasons which persuaded me, I can also persuade others. (p. 4)

But there is something that Descartes knows is different from the things he thought were uncertain and which he cannot doubt; he asks himself

for my thought does not impose any necessity upon things, and just as I may imagine a winged horse, although no horse with wings exists, so I could perhaps attribute existence to God, although no God existed. (p. 24)

And he concludes that this would not be necessary, for perhaps he, Descartes, would be able to produce them by himself.

Then he asks himself again:

I myself, am I not at least something? (p. 9)

Descartes, after having denied his senses ? his body ? and having doubted everything, still has something that remains in him, under his own domain (and existed in fact), concludes:

I am, I exist, is necessarily true each time that I pronounce it, or that I mentally conceive it. (p. 9)

The existence or not of a world while Descartes was meditating, even though he was putting everything in doubt, was what, to himself, existed most undoubtedly.

Descartes concludes that physics, astronomy, medicine, and all other sciences which depend on the considerations of compound things are very doubtful and uncertain, but that arithmetic, geometry, and other sciences of this nature resist doubts in the cogito argument; and therefore contain something certain and undoubted.

Descartes found the truth with ontological and axiomatic characteristics.

Now the axiomatic characteristic of Descartes? thought is given by the process inherent in meditations, in which it is essential to discard the senses and bodies for their indubitable equation.

Truth does not exist without this principle.

And why is this truth ontological?

This truth is ontological because it dwells in an entity, in the thinking thing, and it is under its total control and thus being this entity is responsible for the relation of these conceptions in the field of the corporeal natures.

Here are some conclusions about this first passage on the first two meditations of Descartes:

  1. He would apply to all corporeal bodies of the type of wax the same understanding, saving true men in the second situation: when he sees them through the window he understands that they are true men only by the power to judge that he resides in his spirit.
  2. We can conclude that Descartes, in regard to true men and corporeal bodies of the wax type, conceives a judgment before what he does not believe to see with the sight of the eyes, and, as experience takes the whole edifice of the foundation, in this case, Descartes would also conceive of a judgment not considering any other senses ? touch, hearing, taste, smell ? all of which can be moved in various ways and not itself.
  3. The only element that differentiates the corporeal body from the wax-piece of the corporeal body of real men is the judging power of the cogito-thinker
  4. To inspect bodies of corporeal nature in general, the power to judge becomes the essential element. For if Descartes had any problem or difficulty in his judging power, the corporeal bodies of true men could fall into the category of bodies of corporeal nature such as those of the wax piece, and then Descartes could also watch his mutations- his occupation in space, his greatness, his number, place, time, his duration, his color, figure, sound, aromas, his flavors ? with the same inspection given by the sight of his eyes.
  5. Descartes did found a fixed and undoubted point: the one that of the existence of the world under the control of the thinking cogito, and this was established as one truth.
  6. This truth has axiomatic characteristics. It is a truth that has especially axiomatic characteristics, for it necessarily had to exclude all bodies and senses in order to conceive itself as one truth.
  7. There is a step-by-step to follow for the conclusion of a truth, where the first step is to doubt the existence of bodies and their senses, and only then can this fixed and undoubted point be elaborated.
  8. This truth has ontological characteristics, for it is under the control of an entity that is related to the realm of corporeal natures.

On the power of judgment, and God

At this point, Descartes will apply the cogito argument to the existence of a deceiving God.

If one day that God would employ all his industry to deceive him, even in the most exact things, as for example two and two are four, Descartes will say that this sky, this earth, these colors, the figures, the sounds, and all outward things are illusions and deceptions that serve to astonish his credulity; and will regard himself as having no hand, no sense, no flesh, no blood; and believing falsely at this juncture, Descartes says that, attached to this thought and if by this means it is not in his power to reach the knowledge of some truth, at least it is in his power to suspend his judgments before this evil genius.

And he says:

I shall remain obstinately attached to this idea, and if by this means it is not in my power to arrive at the knowledge of any truth, I may at least do what is in my power [i.e. suspend my judgment], and with firm purpose avoid giving credence to any false thing, or being imposed upon by this arch-deceiver, however powerful and deceptive he may be. (p. 8)

Now the supposition of a deceiving God shows the clash of this supposed evil genius with a solipsistic Descartes, who sees no other possibility of knowledge of the truth than his own.

The impossibility of escaping or conversing with the evil genius puts Descartes as a true man who holds the truth.

The alternative of suspension of judgment, very aptly placed by Cartesian experience, summons us to special attention: it is under the full control of this true man, and it becomes necessary in the case where there is no agreement with the other truth ? the truth of evil genius.

This if there were any doubts about the other truth the suspension of activities becomes decisive.

(We only have to thank for the suspension of the judgments in solipsistic states, because at that very moment when an evil genius tried to enter his spirit, Descartes was isolated of the world so that there was no action, being, therefore, only a meditation.)

Back to the Meditations, Descartes enlightens us with the image of the slave (?captive?):

And just as a captive (*) who in sleep enjoys an imaginary liberty, when he begins to suspect that his liberty is but a dream, fears to awaken, and conspires with these agreeable illusions that the deception may be prolonged, so insensibly of my own accord I fall back into my former opinions, and I dread awakening from this slumber, lest the laborious wakefulness which would follow the tranquility of this repose should have to be spent not in daylight, but in the excessive darkness of the difficulties which have just been discussed. (p. 8)

[* Esclave in French, which should be more accurately translated as slave.]

At that moment, Descartes says he is agitated by the difficulties of the corporeal darkness and prefers to follow in his libertine meditation on the way to the truth.

For if Descartes decided to wake up from his dream and feel that enslavement in which the suspension of judgment would become crucial and decisive in the event that this slave did not feel that his hands and feet ? caught in chains ? and his skin color did not were false illusions, he could conceive another truth by his own bodily condition.

And what happens if this true man conceives his power to judge where his truth is given by his own bodily condition?

Descartes warns of his laziness in plunging into the image of the slave: he returns again to the questions he had discarded, the bodily ones.

This way does not bring him any light in the knowledge of the truth and that it is not sufficient to clear all the darkness of the difficulties that have been shaken by it.

There remains to us the possibilities: of this slave to conceive another God as being, for him, the knowledge of the truth; and of this being different from the God of Descartes? dream.

Thus conceived, this slave would have no doubt of the sovereign truth and goodness of his own God ? the God of the slave.

We are then faced with incompatibility of gods, where the knowledge of the truth of one may be different from the knowledge of the truth of the other.

But what does this incompatibility of gods mean?

If it is the God who gives us the knowledge of the truth, validated by the judging powers, then we have at least, in this case, two types of judging powers, and therefore an incompatibility of the power to judge.

And if by chance does there even exist the possibility of the judgmental power of a true man to see an evil genius in the God of another identically true man?

Or a difference of clairvoyance between the distinction of true and false things?

We may not come so quickly to this conclusion, but the suspension of judgments will necessarily become decisive, just as the spark of the slightest doubt about the knowledge of the truth through different gods.

We do not need to think too much about our history to remember that in this case there was no suspension of judgments and that there is an incompatibility of gods with different distinctions of truths.

In fact, or at least in fact it seems: we are faced with an ontological question.

Faced with the possibility of the incompatibility of gods and true knowledge, it should be mandatory to suspend judgments; and as for acting, the isolation of every man who would presume to impose his truth would become decisive.

In this case, it is known that in the realm of corporeal natures the suspension of judgments has not happened and may not happen.

The need to think about ethical questions in the sciences is brought in a very present form in the Meditations through the thinking cogito argument and its authority in the external and corporeal questions and the existence of the evil genius, suggesting that the method would not be ?frozen? in the metaphysical field and that there would be production and action of truths in the realm of corporeal natures.

We could know of the geometry of an atomic bomb, but we would not have to realize it as a corporeal nature, which is an essential principle, in order to arrive at it as truth.

Necessarily, it will be exterminated what it will become: a body.

At this moment there is a relation of this body of true man, which conceives a truth under his individual control, is that the power of judgment is necessary; and the question, which was purely metaphysical, enters into the realm of relations of composite spirit-corporeal substances.

Descartes concludes in the Fifth Meditation:

And even though I had not demonstrated this, the nature of my mind is such that I could not prevent myself from holding them to be true so long as I conceive them clearly; and I recollect that even when I was still strongly attached to the objects of sense, I counted as the most certain those truths which I conceived clearly as regards figures, numbers, and the other matters which pertain to arithmetic and geometry, and, in general, to pure and abstract mathematics. (p. 23)

As the smallest of conclusions carries with it a whole building of foundations, we can conclude:

  1. The sciences are conceiving bodily products from truths which necessary had to eliminate all bodily natures to be conceived as true;
  2. Whenever a true man encounters an evil genius, he must necessarily, every time, suspend all his judgments;
  3. To suspend the judgment is necessarily to be isolated and not to perform any action on the ground of the corporeal natures;
  4. If there is a true man, and he cannot distinguish an evil genius from a perfect God, we have the possibility of a knowledge of the truth that is given by the very condition of corporeal nature;
  5. If we have a true man in whom the true knowledge of one God is different from the true knowledge of another God to another true man, we have a relation of incompatibilities of gods or incompatibility of which, is in fact, the true knowledge;
  6. There is a possibility that there will be no suspension of judgment in cases of mandatory incompatibility of gods;
  7. There are several actions carried out where there is an incompatibility of gods and different knowledge of the truth.

On the application of the truths and the absence of doubts that these truths are acting in the realm of corporeal natures

When the truth is found under the control of an individual, and he has free will for scientific action, it is possible for us to conclude that there will be innumerable truths being conceived and actuated in the realm of corporeal natures.

Therefore, these truths are bound to relate to bodies, senses, sizes, quantities, volumes and qualities ? all those that were necessary to eliminate to conceive any truth ? and these actions should be suspended as in the step by step of the Meditations.

But the fact is a corporeal one, and actions are not suspended in mandatory cases; the sciences are producing their truths, which are not only acting metaphysically but in the realms of corporeal nature limited by the true knowledge of each and their different judging powers.

Then by the Cartesian logic, we may think that there is a war of truths acting in the realm of corporeal nature.

We have to deal with the probability that there is the possibility of incompatibility of gods that bring us different true knowledge and these relationships are in full action.

When there is no suspension of judgment in the face of two different true knowledge, there is no coexistence between two truths, and one truth may want to impose its existence, and as a consequence, we would have we would have the action of wars between truths.

One has only to look out of our window and into our history so that we can anticipate today?s scenario through Cartesian enlightenment and the libertine action of the sciences in the realm of true men.

Here is the problem installed on the terrain of planet Earth and its real men.

We may suggest that between relations with incompatibility of gods with different knowledge of the truth where there is no suspension of judgment, necessarily some action will be performed; but nothing can guarantee at this time that there will be no war between these truths nor that some bodily nature will remain intact.

There is necessarily a risk of bodily elimination.

There is a bodily and sensible loss in this world and it is due to the lack of suspension of the judgments in decision-making cases.

The wars of truths are acting on the terrain of corporeal natures.


  • DESCARTES, Ren. 1641. Meditations on First Philosophy. Translated by Elizabeth S. Haldane. Cambridge University Press, 1911

Originally written in Portuguese by Nina Gaul in a postgraduate course at the Philosophy Department of the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-RJ), Brazil, in March 2014, under the guidance of Professor Tito Marques Palmeiro.

Kind of freely translated to English by the musician and occasionally writer Thiago Rocha in March 2019.


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