Category Archives: Philosophical Texts

Philosophy and Popular Culture

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Philosophy and Popular Culture

Hey there, people!

So I’m not, strictly speaking, a “normal” 19 year old guy. I spend inordinate amounts of time sitting in front of my computer, one of my favourite pass times is reading, I detest physical activity and one of my all-time heroes is Stephen Fry. But I’m not that unusual, and while I do have a great love for knowledge, I’m quite picky about where I get that knowledge from. I prefer to get my information from sources that I find both entertaining and intellectually engaging. Often, I find myself favouring the entertainment aspect just a little. Unfortunately, one of the topics I’m interested in is philosophy, and studying philosophy involves spending considerable amounts of time reading books with daunting titles like “The Genealogy of Morals” and “Meditations on First Philosophy”. Now don’t get me wrong, those books are both fantastically rewarding reads (they’re definitely intellectually stimulating) and I think the world might just be a better place if more people read them (carefully), but they’re just not… that… fun.

Philosophy has a bit of a PR problem, and has had for a few years. A lot of people think it’s just a load of pseudo-intellectual bull crap that isn’t of any real value to society, or that it’s just an incredibly dry and stuffy subject, or both. Of course, none of these ideas are true! I could – and might – write a whole post just on that one subject, but this post is about a series of books that have been and are being written in an attempt to adress the underlying issue; the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series. These books have been around for a while now, but I only just discovered them the other day, and I just finished reading “The Ultimate Harry Potter and Philosophy: Hogwarts for Muggles”. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a real gem, and if the other books in the series live up to it, I think these people might just be on the right track. One thing they show beyond any doubt is that popular culture is completely saturated with philosophy, whether we realize it or not.

The thing about books like these is that they manage to make learning fun, and while that learning might not be as broad and deep as that which might be had from a more formal source, that aspect of fun is vitally important. I’m more likely to remember a philosophical theory if it’s presented to me in an interesting and funny manner, and I’m more likely to take an interest in a philosophical movement if my introduction to it is one that I find to be entertaining. I think there’s often a resistance amongst certain intellectuals to the whole idea of popularization, because it’s seen as something that threatens the integrity of a subject. But the whole point of academic research and thinking – at least as I see it – is to enrich human life through reflection and the accumulation and spreading of knowledge, and that enrichment can’t happen in a vacuum.

Obviously, popularization cames with a few problems. It’s practically impossible to take a complicated topic, like the mind/body debate, and discuss it in a short, funny essay without a certain degree of simplification. Context and other vitally important bits of information have to be left out in favour of keeping things concise and interesting. Some people might be persuaded to think of this as a “fatal flaw” of this kind of popularization, but personally I disagree. Any form of information communication is going to have some problems, because communication is difficult. A “popularized” account of Kant’s Categorical Imperative might be a little over-simplified, but a more traditional, academic approach (favouring information and preciseness over entertainment value) may well be too dry. When reading a dense, academic essay on a complicated topic, it’s easy to start to lose focus and drift off, thus missing important information even though it’s present in the text. That’s why these latter kinds of essay’s need to be read over and over again, just as the former kind need to be taken as more of an introduction/summary than an infallible source of knowledge.

Anyway, the main thing I wanted to say is that the book was great, and I encourage people with an interest in fun philosophy to go check the series out. The writers have already covered a lot of ground, with books centred on subjects as diverse as X-men and The Big Lebowski. Now I’m going to go read about the philosophy of el Duderino.

Cya!

Link to the series’ website:

http://andphilosophy.com/

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Seneca’s Passion – Managing Anger

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And so, finally, I shall set out to fulfill my earlier promise to write a post on Seneca’s suggestions regarding how to overcome this particularly destructive emotion. By the way, if you were unconvinced by my previous post explaining his arguments showing the negativity of anger, please leave a comment explaining your objections or counter arguments. Philosophy is to a very great extent about discussion, and if there is no such discussion there is very little growth and development. Anyway, if you were convinced, and want to know how the man thought we might do away with anger, this post should give you a decent summary. It is not, however, exhaustive (I try to keep my posts relatively short, so few of them are), and I urge you to read the book if you’re interested in the topic. As said before, it’s quite easy to read compared to most classical texts.

One of Seneca’s first pieces of advice is related to the distinction between simple, manageable tasks and big, complicated ones. He states that if a person applies him or herself solely to undertakings that are – to him or her – of the former kind, said person will be able to avoid frustration and, consequently, anger. Often, he says, when people take on greater challenges, they convince themselves that they’ll be easier than they are and become angry when this turns out not to be the case. This does not, however, mean that people shouldn’t do anything strenuous, it just means that they shouldn’t ever overreach, and that if they do they should strive to be aware of the fact that they are doing so at all times. It’s about understanding one’s weaknesses and maintaining a realistic attitude towards one’s work. Realism features strongly in his advice, as you’ll have seen in the far more basic post I wrote earlier.

He also talks about conditioning. Seneca firmly believed that if people allowed their bodies and minds to become soft and pampered they would be far more prone to irritability. This makes sense; a person who is used to hardship and misfortune will be far more capable of dealing with a bit of bad luck than someone who is used to luxury. A man who lives on the street won’t mind too much if his jacket gets a bit dirty, whereas a wealthy businessman may well throw a tantrum if someone happens to stain his tie. So Seneca thought that we should avoid becoming too soft, striving to form a thicker skin.

He also stated that, since we find it so difficult to suppress anger once it gets a hold of us, we should avoid situations that will make us angry. We should surround ourselves with mild-mannered and agreeable people and avoid their volatile and pugnacious counterparts, so that we won’t constantly end up in arguments and aren’t being insulted all the time. There’s a problem with this argument. First of all, it’s not really fair to people who happen to be of a slightly passionate or argumentative disposition to say that we should shun them – surely instead we should help them, rather than selfishly retreating into a little social bubble. Also, if people were to follow this advice, most married couples would have to file for divorce. The biggest problem, however, is that it seems to go directly against his prior advice on conditioning. And after all, if our defense against anger is so flimsy that we can never allow ourselves to be in the company of someone who might disagree with us, then surely the problem hasn’t actually been dealt with. Nevertheless, his main point is sound – it’s better to avoid a struggle altogether.

Seneca then goes on to suggest that we exercise self-awareness. If you’re naturally irritable, stay away from high stress situations as much as possible. He also says that, as with a disease, it’s better to deal with a passion (which can in some ways be seen as a disease of the mind or emotions) when it’s in its infancy. We should try to suppress our anger when we feel the first stirrings of it, acting as quickly as possible. Also, in order to avoid becoming angry, he suggests that people should learn what angers them specifically. Everybody’s different, and we’re all annoyed more or less by different things. Some hate being mollycoddled, others quite like it; some hate being corrected, others simply see it as an opportunity for growth. In short, know what your Achilles heel is, so that you can protect it better.

He follows this with my personal favourite: “There are many ways in which anger may be checked; most things may be turned into a jest.” If someone insults you, how much better you’ll look if you reply with some witty remark than if you punch the offender. If you bump your head, how much more likable you’ll seem if you laugh rather than wasting your breath on cursing the inanimate object that caused the injury. With a little effort, virtually any insult or misfortune can be turned into a joke. I think this is probably Seneca’s best piece of advice. You don’t necessarily need to make a clever joke of some sort – laughter alone can do wonders do defuse a tense situation, and as with most things, practice does make perfect.

Seneca then covers two topics I can relate to quite well; exaggeration and concealment. He argues that most people make themselves angry by inventing wrongs or exaggerating things. I did this embarrassingly often when I was younger, being something of a tantrum child, and I know it isn’t necessary. His point about concealment is interesting. He claims that when a person fails to quash their anger, they should try to hide it. His argument is that while this is difficult and may feel to some like a kind of cowardice, it’ll mean that the emotion won’t take complete control of you. Being of a shy disposition I often do this instinctively, and I can say with authority that it does work. It’s fully possible to do, and after a while the anger tends to fade away. Time is the best remedy for any passionate emotion. There is of course the problem of internalization to be taken into consideration, but there are ways of safely venting anger (exercise, scream therapy, reflection, etc.).

I hope you feel you’ve gotten something out of this, and wish you a good day!

 

Seneca’s Passion – Revealing the true nature of Anger

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Inspired by my recent post on frustration, I decided to have a look at Seneca’s “On Anger”. I’m always a tad nervous about reading philosophy books, especially old ones (and this one is, literally, ancient). The reason for this is that they tend to be practically illegible and suffocatingly stuffy, requiring much more energy and concentration to read than I like to invest in any activity. “On Anger” was, however, described by Alain de Botton as being surprisingly fresh and easy to read, so I was hopeful. Fortunately, I was not disappointed; I read the free kindle edition (translated to English, of course), and found it to be an altogether enjoyable experience. I don’t know whether this is because Seneca himself had an unusually accessible and modern style of writing, or whether the translator was an uncommonly good one. Either way, the essays weren’t crammed full of ambiguous archaisms and strange words that haven’t been in use since the early 18th century, and I was able to focus my attention entirely on analyzing and understanding Seneca’s arguments. It is my intention now to pass these on, as best as I can, because what he has to say is really quite insightful. “On Anger” strikes me as one of those books that everyone should read, but that very few people do. I’m thinking I’ll divide this little project into two separate posts, one on Seneca’s musings on the nature of anger, the second on his thoughts regarding how to deal with it. I will, of course, start with the former.

Seneca describes anger as a passion and a vice. He contrasts passion with reason – the former being emotive, the latter intellectual, and holds reason up as one of mankind’s greatest assets. He then sets out to establish, once and for all, just how bad anger truly is. The way in which he does this makes for rather interesting reading, as he illustrates a lot of his points with anecdotes about various historical figures (such as Alexander the Great). But it is of course his arguments that are the most important.

He addresses precisely those questions I’ve written down in the title – how bad anger really is, what it is that makes it bad, and also whether or not there might be any good to it. He begins by pointing out that anger is the most troublesome of all passions, stating that many “wise men” have referred to it as “a short madness”. He then points out the severity of its results, claiming that it has caused “slaughterings and poisonings, accusations and counter-accusations”, and generally describing it as one of the worst plagues to have infected the human race. It is after this that he asks whether anger might have some use, and whether it is a natural thing. He says that while humans are naturally kind and gentle, anger is by nature a destructive and hateful thing. While some may scoff at this and say that humans seem more predisposed to corruption and selfishness than anything else, modern-day scientists have established that people who are physically and mentally healthy are naturally emphatic. Anger, therefore, goes directly against human nature. He then asks, but isn’t it sometimes good for people to become angry with each other, so that people learn when they have done something wrong? Shouldn’t I become angry with my friend, and shout at him, if I see him doing something cruel? Otherwise he’d just continue doing it. Seneca agrees that people need to be taught a lesson every once in a while, but states that anger is the wrong way of going about it – it should be done in a reasoned manner. A person affected by vice, he says, should be corrected in the way we might correct a crooked tool – by bending it back into shape. Anger would sooner have us break the tool than mend it.

After this, Seneca moves on to a pretty big point, namely whether or not anger does have a use. He admits that it “rouses the spirit”, and states that it can fuel certain virtues (such as courage). Sitting here, in my aunt’s kitchen, I’ve just noticed a magnet on her fridge with the words “folks who have no vices have very few virtues” – exactly the issue in question here. In response to this, Seneca reminds us that it is far more difficult to control our passions then it is for us to suppress them completely. He says that reason cannot stand up to passion – an even temper is necessary for her to operate properly. His point being, that while anger may well be useful, it’s a double-edged sword even at the best of times. Once we allow anger to take over, we are in its control. So even if our anger might make us braver, or push us to act when otherwise we might’ve held back, it’s like handing over the reigns to a madman in the hopes that he’ll do what’s necessary. It’s a chancy thing to do, and arguably it’s better to be a little less virtuous and a little less active than to be a slave to our passions. He goes on to state that anger is definitely not useful in itself, and that a genuine virtue shouldn’t need the assistance of a vice. He disagrees with Aristotle, who claimed that anger was necessary and should be controlled like a soldier, stating once again that it can’t be controlled – real anger takes over the mind completely, leaving no room for reason. He makes it clear that anger is never necessary – all those things we normally associate with anger can be done (often better) using reason. There’s nothing to be gained from being angry – it’s a vice, nothing more, and as such we should strive to do away with it as best we can.

 

Cartesian Dualism

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There are two versions of Cartesian Dualism (that is, two forms of dualism that have been proposed by Descartes). The first is found in his work Discourse on the Method and relies on his ideas regarding doubt. The second – which is far more sophisticated – is found in his Meditations and is based around his ideas regarding clear and distinct perceptions, as outlined in the previous post. I’ll look at both here, discussing the first briefly and spending more time examining the second.

So, as said, the first relies on doubt. Decartes’ argument runs like this; he can doubt his body quite easily (that is, he can imagine that it doesn’t actually exist), whereas the same is not true of his mind, due to the Cogito. It would be absurd for him to claim that his mind doesn’t exist, as this would mean he doesn’t exist – and if he didn’t exist he wouldn’t be capable of claiming anything. He concludes from this that his mind and body are two distinct entities. But there’s a fatal flaw to this argument. The problem is that it’s possible to doubt that something is true even though it is. For instance, I might doubt that it’s snowing outside, then look out of a window and find that it is. Likewise, the fact that I can doubt that my body exists, does not mean that it really doesn’t.

Descartes responded to this objection in his meditations by formulating a new kind of dualism. Here, he relies on his “truth criterion”; that we must perceive something clearly and distinctly in order for it to be true. Related to this is his conviction that what we clearly and distinctly perceive to be the essence of something must be the true essence of that thing, thanks to the benevolence of God, who would not wish us to be deceived about such things. His argument in this case, then, runs thusly; he can perceive his mind very clearly and distinctly, the same not being true of his body. He also perceives the essence of his mind to be that of thought, whereas the essence of the body – like all physical objects – is extension. Therefore, he concludes, he can see his mind as something distinct from his body and capable of existing independently of it.

Descartes also made some attempt to show the nature of the mind as opposed to the body, whilst also speaking about the relationship between the two. Primarily, Descartes asserts that the mind is something indivisible, whereas this is not true of the body. We can chop off pieces of the body quite readily – it has been done many times in the past. Indeed, pieces of the body fall off rather frequently. The mind, however, is not a physical thing. It is an immaterial singularity, and we can’t really speak about people having “half a mind”. Also, when we remove parts of the body, the mind remains intact. This, again, implies that the two are separate and independent of each other. What, then, is the relationship between the two? Clearly it’s not the same as the relationship between a person and their home. If I were to see that my house was damaged somehow, I’d be concerned but I wouldn’t experience any mental discomfort (besides worrying about the cost of repairing it). But when my body’s damaged I feel pain. Clearly, then, the relationship between mind and body is very intimate.

There are a number of objections that can be raised against Decartes’ arguments here. For instance, as far as the essences of mind and body being different is concerned, how can we be sure that we’re correct in thinking we know the essence of these  two properly? Example: a person might not be aware of the fact that white light is a combination of all the wavelengths of visible light (green, blue, and red light). Being unaware of this fact, the person in question would not think that it has anything to do with the essence of white light, even though it obviously is. White light is, in essence, a combination of red, blue and green light (any sciency person reading this may feel free to correct me – I wouldn’t call this my “area of expertise”). The same may be true of the mind, or even the body. Furthermore, is the mind really indivisible? These days it’s actually quite common to view the mind as consisting of several things; emotion, logic, creativity, and so on and so forth. When looked at in this manner, it’s not so unreasonable to think of dividing it. Also, what of the brain? It could be argued that when we take away pieces of the brain (which is a part of the body), the mind is affected. And what of the relationship between the two? We already know it’s very intimate, a fact Descartes agrees with, but this seems to conflict with the idea that they are separate and distinct. Besides this, how would it be possible for an immaterial, thinking thing to interact with and control a physical body? The two seem incompatible, and yet this is precisely what the mind does.

This, then, is Cartesian dualism in a nutshell. Note that, besides the objections I just raised, Decartes’ entire second argument fails completely if we do not believe in God’s existence.

Descartes’ Meditations – Truth and Ideas

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In his third mediation, Descartes is primarily concerned with God and His potential existence. However, his thoughts leading up to these more theological arguments and theories are quite important in themselves, as they address his thoughts regarding truth and the nature of the mind. He begins by looking at what he has already established as truth, namely the fact that he exists as a thinking thing. At this stage, he maintains that he can doubt all else. He then asks himself whether he can use this one truth to find other truths. After all, logic dictates that if he has managed to find one true piece of information, it must be possible for him to establish what it is that makes this information so indubitable (a criterion or rule of sorts), and then use this to build on his knowledge. In other words, he has a foundation, and should now be able to start erecting a building on top of it.

After some reflection, he realizes what it is about this one fact – that he exists – that makes it so certain. This is that he can perceive it with utter clarity and distinction, more so than he ever has of anything else in the past. Accordingly, he argues that anything he perceives clearly and distinctly must be true. The main limitation of this argument lies in the fact that he does not describe precisely how one is meant to know that something is being perceived clearly and distinctly. He does say that the mind or will should be “compelled” to agree with the perception’s validity, but there are various problems associated with this. After all, how can we be sure that our mind is indeed compelled to agree with something – we might just convince ourselves that it is because we want to believe it. Also, I might perceive something in the wrong way and think it’s clear and distinct because of this, when in reality it isn’t.  I might, for instance, see a magnified image of an insect and – not realizing that it has been magnified – have a very clear and distinct perception of an enormous monster, when the invertebrate in question is actually quite small.

At this point Descartes looks back at the problem of the malignant demon theory, with specific reference to his previous uncertainty regarding arithmetic. If the malignant demon hypothesis is true, he may well be deceived about even the most basic mathematics. However, he finds that he can liken his understanding of such simple maths to his understanding of his existence. It seems almost absurd to think that two plus two might not actually equal four. He perceives this very clearly and very distinctly. And yet, as long as the evil genius theory remains valid – which it does – he can still doubt this. He realizes that this is a problem he has to address before he can add anything to his knowledge, and chooses to do so by attempting to prove the existence of an omnibenevolent God (who he argues would not wish to deceive him constantly, unlike the aforementioned demon). He opts to do this by examining his mind and thoughts, and it’s his findings in this area that I intend to discuss here.

He begins by establishing three categories of thought: ideas (images, such as the image of a candle), feelings (subjective, often emotional responses to images, such as “I like candles”), and judgements (decisions made about things, such as “that candle’s about to go out”). He argues that the first two are necessarily true. If he imagines a candle it’s true that he’s imagining a candle. If he feels that he likes candles, it’s true that he likes candles – no one can dispute that. This all relates to one of Descartes most controversial (at the time) opinions; that subjective knowledge is more certain than objective knowledge. Judgements, however, can be wrong according to Descartes. He says that he has often made false judgements in the past and so he has good cause to doubt these. So he knows that some thoughts can be seen as true whereas others can be false. He then moves on to describing three subdivisions of ideas: innate (ideas like that of a perfect circle), adventitious or acquired (ideas that are inspired by external stimuli), and imagined or fabricated (ideas such as that of a dragon or nymph). He goes on to say that he can’t be sure there is a distinction between these. It may turn out that all ideas are innate, or that they’re all adventitious somehow.

He asks himself how he can be sure that adventitious ideas do have an external source – that is, whether or not they are adventitious –  and (if they do) whether he can be sure that they accurately reflect these objects. He says that he feels a natural inclination to believe that they do, and the fact that he can’t control external objects with his mind seems telling. The problem with the former is that he has been fooled by natural inclinations in the past, so he can doubt them. The problem with the latter is that his  inability to control something doesn’t mean it exists. He can’t control objects in his dreams, after all. And, of course, it seems clear that his adventitious ideas, even if they are inspired by external things, don’t always give him an accurate conception of them. Take his idea of the sun, for instance; the image of it that he has derived from his senses is of something tiny, when the sun is in fact very large.

However, though he can’t be sure of where his ideas come from, they do differ in certain ways. His ideas of things such as size, shape and motion appear to be more definite – subjectively – then things like scent and colour. The size and shape of a candle can be very clear, after all, whereas its smell can be indistinct, and after a while this may seem to fade away. He says that these things (size, shape, etc.) have more “intentional reality”. It is on this basis – this foundation – that he then goes on to argue God’s existence.

Descartes’ Concept of Self

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After establishing the reasons behind his radical skepticism, Descartes goes on to ask himself what he can know. In other words, what new foundations can he replace the old ones with? He quickly realizes that it is subjective knowledge about his self that is most reliable, and embarks on an intellectual journey to establish a firmer understanding of this.

He begins with an argument known commonly as the Cogito. He comes to understand that if he is capable of doubting – which is precisely what he is doing – then he must exist. He may doubt everything else, may be deceived about the existence of all other things, but he must necessarily exist. Cogito ergo sum – I think therefore I am. Now, it’s important to note that Descartes does not actually phrase his conclusion in this exact manner in the Meditations. It was only later that he came to use the famous latin sentence to describe his findings. In fact, his phrasing in the meditations might be preferable, in that he does not structure his thought process in the manner of a syllogism (a premise followed by a conclusion). The reason for this is simple; the statement “I think therefore I am” is an incomplete argument. There is a missing second premise; “all thinking things exist”. Thus, “cogito ergo sum” might actually be doubted in some way. However, Descartes responds to this by claiming that the Cogito is not, in fact, a syllogism (a stance that is strengthened by the fact that, as said, he does not present it as such in the Meditations). The conclusion is reached through an intuitive leap, rather than a reasoned examination of two premises. It is, after all, absurd to say that something can think and yet not exist at the same time.

After establishing the fact of his existence, Decartes goes on to ask himself what he is. He eventually comes to describe himself as a thinking thing. But what is a thinking thing? The easiest way to understand Decartes’ thoughts here is to look at his ideas regarding substance, the essence of a substance, and the modes of a substance. A substance is defined as something that is capable of existing independently of all things besides the sustaining power of God (which Decartes believes is necessary for anything to exist). Let’s look at the mind in terms of these. Clearly, the mind can be viewed as a substance, since we can see it existing independently (let’s not worry about chemicals in the brain for the nonce). What is its essence, though? Well, according to Decartes, the essence of mind is thought, which he describes in terms of doubting, affirming, judging, etc. This makes sense – a mind can be seen as something that is defined by thought. The modes of the mind, then, are the various ways of thinking I just mentioned (doubting, affirming, and so on and so forth).

So, Decartes has established that he is a thing that thinks, and he has achieved at least a sketchy idea of what that means. He then starts to consider material objects in an attempt to understand his mind even better, choosing to do this by examining a piece of wax. At first, the wax is hard and solid, smelling slightly of flowers and tasting slightly of honey. It makes a sound when he taps it with his finger. However, when it’s brought close to a flame it starts to melt, changing in shape and size, losing all taste and smell, and it no longer makes a noise when he hits it (as it has softened). And yet, even though his senses are perceiving something owning entirely different properties to those the wax had earlier, he is still conscious of it as a piece of wax. The same piece of wax, even. His senses do not tell him this, so he reasons that the way he really perceives the wax is through his mind. What does he perceive it as? An extended substance that is flexible and changeable*. This tells him something important about the relationship between his mind and the external world, and it also tells him that his senses are only of limited value. Naturally, without his senses he would not be aware of the wax at all, but without a judging mind he would only have a very muddled understanding of it.

One of the conclusions that Descartes draws from his examination of the wax is that he can never know anything better than his own mind. This is because, whenever he comes to understand something about a material thing, such as its size or shape, he is also becoming aware of the ability of his mind to perceive and understand that property. Whenever he learns about material objects, then, he learns about his mind. But he can learn things about his mind without learning anything new about the material world. Therefore, his mind is more readily known to him than anything else. There is, however, one problem with this. What he learns about his mind when examining the properties of an object – his ability to perceive said properties – is in fact a property of his mind. However, Descartes himself regards properties as being immaterial – it is the essence of a thing that truly matters. So it would seem that his conclusion here is not entirely solid.

This, then, is what Descartes views as the “self”; a thinking thing, as outlined above. There are some further weaknesses to his arguments, but these deal mostly with particulars and I don’t want to deal with them too throroughly here. Suffice it to say that while his main points are mostly sound, not all of his conclusions should be taken at face value (this can of course be said of virtually everything, especially when one is dealing with philosophy). To fully appreciate Descartes’ views on the self, however, an understanding of his thoughts on dualism – another topic he adresses in theMeditations- is neccessary. I’ll be looking at these shortly.

*Extended: something that occupies space. Flexible and changeable: something that can take on different shapes and sizes.

Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy – Cartesian Skepticism

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René Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy is an immensely important collection of philosophical essays or “meditations” that have shaped Western philosophy profoundly. His first meditation provides the reader with an understanding of his method and his reasons for writing the meditations. It introduces his concept of foundationalism – the assertion that all knowledge is based on certain intellectual foundations – and outlines the radical skepticism that have made the essays so vitally important to modern philosophy. The simplest way to understand the first meditation is to divide Descartes’ thoughts and arguments into four sections; the introduction of foundationalism and skepticism, followed by three “waves” of doubt regarding the senses, dreaming, and the Evil Genius hypothesis.

I’ll deal with these in order. Firstly, then, let’s look at Descartes’ ideas regarding intellectual foundations. The easiest way to understand his foundationalism is, perhaps,  through the analogy of a building. Imagine a building and the foundations it has been built on. Then, imagine that the foundations are damaged in some way, or that they are structurally weak. Weak foundations obviously mean that the safety of the building itself – the soundness and stability of the building – are at risk. This building can then be compared to a person’s knowledge. The building itself represents all the knowledge which is based on certain foundations or axioms (such as “the senses can be trusted”), with these axioms then representing the building’s foundations. What Descartes argues is that if he can show that any of these foundations are not entirely indubitable, he is justified in doubting any knowledge based on them. This is Cartesian skepticism in a nutshell. If we can doubt the assertions that a particular brand or school of knowledge revolves around, then we must doubt all of that knowledge.

Descartes then goes on to explore the three stages or waves of skepticism mentioned earlier. The first wave involves doubting the senses and empirical knowledge. His arguments here are quite straight-forward; we know that our senses do sometimes fool us. A large object may look small from a distance, for instance, and an amputated limb may start to itch long after it has been removed from the body. This cannot be denied. But if we accept this, and the conclusion that naturally follows (that the senses do not provide us with a firm foundation), then we must reject all knowledge that comes from our senses. Now, there is very little that we do not know through our senses – without senses, there is very little we can learn. Eventually, however, Descartes admits that there is a slight flaw to this doubt. His senses may indeed fool him from time to time, but only when he is incapable of using them properly, as in the aforementioned example where one tries to establish the size of something when looking at it from a distance. If one were to move closer to the object, it would become possible to judge its size with greater accuracy. His senses, therefore, can be trusted to some extent – it’s just a question of using them properly.

He then moves on to a second wave of doubt, involving dreams. How can he be sure that he is not dreaming? He is aware of having dreamt very vividly in the past, and that during those dreams he was unaware of the fact that he was dreaming. So it does seem plausible to say that he could be dreaming even now, without being aware of it. Later on in his meditations, however, he rejects this doubt as well by referring to the anachronistic nature of dreams (that is to say, the fact that his dreams do not follow a logical, linear chronology). In his present state, he can remember going to bed, dreaming, and then waking up, which he can’t generally do when in a dream. Memory is the key here.

This leads him on to his final wave of doubt. It is here that he invokes the famous Evil Genius or Malignant Demon argument, known today as the “brain in a vat” theory. The basic idea here is that it is possible to imagine that there exists a powerful, ill-willed demon who may want to deceive Descartes regarding everything that he perceives around him. He may not have a body, for instance, and there may not be an external world (or, at least, the external world may be very different to the one he is currently experiencing). If this is the case, and his every experience is merely an illusion created by this demon (which might even possess control over his thoughts), then he could even doubt the truth of simple mathematical statements. Maybe 2+3 does not actually equal 5, or perhaps the interior angles of a triangle do not add up to 180 degrees. This is the theory that the Matrix films were based on, albeit a more modern variant, and it is difficult (if not impossible) to disprove it.

After establishing these grounds for skepticism, Descartes makes it clear that he intends to pursue his current train of thought to some sort of conclusion, striving to establish what he can and cannot know absolutely. This concludes his first meditation, and paves the way for the second. It is interesting to note, however, that Descartes does not at any point begin to doubt the validity of the way he structures his thoughts. However, if the Malignant Demon hypothesis is true, it is possible that he is deceived even regarding the basic workings of logic.