Langton ed. No previous familiarity with the Meditations is assumed. It provides details of 2A as a whole, and also of the readings, tutorial topics, and essay topics for the Meditationsin particular. The Study Guide is made available on the assumption that fair use will be made of it. In the next Meditation the thinker hopes to find one certainty that will be invulnerable to the sceptical hypotheses, an Archimedean point from which he can begin to construct afresh the broken edifice of knowledge.

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Published by Cambridge University Press. Transcribed: by Andy Blunden. I realized that if I wanted to establish anything in the sciences that was stable and likely to last, I needed — just once in my life — to demolish everything completely and start again from the foundations.

It looked like an enormous task, and I decided to wait until I was old enough to be sure that there was nothing to be gained from putting it off any longer. I have now delayed it for so long that I have no excuse for going on planning to do it rather than getting to work. So today I have set all my worries aside and arranged for myself a clear stretch of free time.

I am here quite alone, and at last I will devote myself, sincerely and without holding back, to demolishing my opinions. I can do this without showing that all my beliefs are false, which is probably more than I could ever manage. My reason tells me that as well as withholding assent from propositions that are obviously false, I should also withhold it from ones that are not completely certain and indubitable. So all I need, for the purpose of rejecting all my opinions, is to find in each of them at least some reason for doubt.

I can do this without going through them one by one, which would take forever: once the foundations of a building have been undermined, the rest collapses of its own accord; so I will go straight for the basic principles on which all my former beliefs rested. Whatever I have accepted until now as most true has come to me through my senses.

But occasionally I have found that they have deceived me, and it is unwise to trust completely those who have deceived us even once. It seems to be quite impossible to doubt beliefs like these, which come from the senses. Another example: how can I doubt that these hands or this whole body are mine? To doubt such things I would have to liken myself to brain-damaged madmen who are convinced they are kings when really they are paupers, or say they are dressed in purple when they are naked, or that they are pumpkins, or made of glass.

Such people are insane, and I would be thought equally mad if I modelled myself on them. What a brilliant piece of reasoning! As if I were not a man who sleeps at night and often has all the same experiences while asleep as madmen do when awake — indeed sometimes even more improbable ones. Often in my dreams I am convinced of just such familiar events — that I am sitting by the fire in my dressing-gown — when in fact I am lying undressed in bed!

As I think about this more carefully, I realize that there is never any reliable way of distinguishing being awake from being asleep. This discovery makes me feel dizzy, which itself reinforces the notion that I may be asleep! Still, it has to be admitted that the visions that come in sleep are like paintings: they must have been made as copies of real things; so at least these general kinds of things — eyes, head, hands and the body as a whole — must be real and not imaginary.

For even when painters try to depict sirens and satyrs with the most extraordinary bodies, they simply jumble up the limbs of different kinds of real animals, rather than inventing natures that are entirely new. If they do succeed in thinking up something completely fictitious and unreal — not remotely like anything ever seen before — at least the colours used in the picture must be real.

Similarly, although these general kinds of things — eyes, head, hands and so on — could be imaginary, there is no denying that certain even simpler and more universal kinds of things are real.

These are the elements out of which we make all our mental images of things — the true and also the false ones. These simpler and more universal kinds include body, and extension; the shape of extended things; their quantity, size and number; the places things can be in, the time through which they can last, and so on. So it seems reasonable to conclude that physics, astronomy, medicine, and all other sciences dealing with things that have complex structures are doubtful; while arithmetic, geometry and other studies of the simplest and most general things — whether they really exist in nature or not — contain something certain and indubitable.

For whether I am awake or asleep, two plus three makes five, and a square has only four sides. It seems impossible to suspect that such obvious truths might be false. However, I have for many years been sure that there is an all-powerful God who made me to be the sort of creature that I am. Some people would deny the existence of such a powerful God rather than believe that everything else is uncertain.

Let us grant them — for purposes of argument — that there is no God, and theology is fiction. On their view, then, I am a product of fate or chance or a long chain of causes and effects. But the less powerful they make my original cause, the more likely it is that I am so imperfect as to be deceived all the time — because deception and error seem to be imperfections. Having no answer to these arguments, I am driven back to the position that doubts can properly be raised about any of my former beliefs.

So in future, if I want to discover any certainty, I must withhold my assent from these former beliefs just as carefully as I withhold it from obvious falsehoods.

My old familiar opinions keep coming back, and against my will they capture my belief. It is as though they had a right to a place in my belief-system as a result of long occupation and the law of custom. It is true that these habitual opinions of mine are highly probable; although they are in a sense doubtful, as I have shown, it is more reasonable to believe than to deny them. But if I go on viewing them in that light I shall never get out of the habit of confidently assenting to them. To conquer that habit, therefore, I had better switch right around and pretend for a while that these former opinions of mine are utterly false and imaginary.

I shall do this until I have something to counter-balance the weight of old opinion, and the distorting influence of habit no longer prevents me from judging correctly.

So I shall suppose that some malicious, powerful, cunning demon has done all he can to deceive me — rather than this being done by God, who is supremely good and the source of truth. I shall think that the sky, the air, the earth, colours, shapes, sounds and all external things are merely dreams that the demon has contrived as traps for my judgment.

I shall consider myself as having no hands or eyes, or flesh, or blood or senses, but as having falsely believed that I had all these things. This will be hard work, though, and a kind of laziness pulls me back into my old ways. Like a prisoner who dreams that he is free, starts to suspect that it is merely a dream, and wants to go on dreaming rather than waking up, so I am content to slide back into my old opinions; I fear being shaken out of them because I am afraid that my peaceful sleep may be followed by hard labour when I wake, and that I shall have to struggle not in the light but in the imprisoning darkness of the problems I have raised.

I feel like someone who is suddenly dropped into a deep whirlpool that tumbles him around so that he can neither stand on the bottom nor swim to the top. However, I shall force my way up, and try once more to carry out the project that I started on yesterday. I will set aside anything that admits of the slightest doubt, treating it as though I had found it to be outright false; and I will carry on like that until I find something certain, or — at worst — until I become certain that there is no certainty.

I will suppose, then, that everything I see is fictitious. I will believe that my memory tells me nothing but lies. I have no senses. Body, shape, extension, movement and place are illusions.

So what remains true? Perhaps just the one fact that nothing is certain! But why do I think this, since I might myself be the author of these thoughts? No it does not follow; for if I convinced myself of something then I certainly existed. But there is a supremely powerful and cunning deceiver who deliberately deceives me all the time! Even then, if he is deceiving me I undoubtedly exist: let him deceive me all he can, he will never bring it about that I am nothing while I think I am something.

So after thoroughly thinking the matter through I conclude that this proposition, I am, I exist, must be true whenever I assert it or think it. I will eliminate from those beliefs anything that could be even slightly called into question by the arguments I have been using, which will leave me with only beliefs about myself that are certain and unshakeable. Well, then, what did I think I was? A man. But what is a man?

No; for then I should have to ask what an animal is, and what rationality is — each question would lead me on to other still harder ones, and this would take more time than I can spare. Let me focus instead on the beliefs that spontaneously and naturally came to me whenever I thought about what I was.

The first such belief was that I had a face, hands, arms and the whole structure of bodily parts that corpses also have — I call it the body. The next belief was that I ate and drank, that I moved about, and that I engaged in sense-perception and thinking; these things, I thought, were done by the soul. If I gave any thought to what this soul was like, I imagined it to be something thin and filmy — like a wind or fire or ether — permeating my more solid parts.

I was more sure about the body, though, thinking that I knew exactly what sort of thing it was. But now that I am supposing there is a supremely powerful and malicious deceiver who has set out to trick me in every way he can — now what shall I say that I am? Can I now claim to have any of the features that I used to think belong to a body? Now, what about the features that I attributed to the soul?

Nutrition or movement? One needs a body in order to perceive; and, besides, when dreaming I have seemed to perceive through the senses many things that I later realized I had not perceived in that way. At last I have discovered it — thought! I am, I exist — that is certain. But for how long?

For as long as I am thinking. Strictly speaking, then, I am simply a thing that thinks — a mind, or intelligence, or intellect, or reason, these being words whose meaning I have only just come to know. Still, I am a real, existing thing. What kind of a thing? I have answered that: a thinking thing.

What else am I? I will use my imagination to see if I am anything more. I am not that structure of limbs and organs that is called a human body; nor am I a thin vapour that permeates the limbs — a wind, fire, air, breath, or whatever I imagine; for I have supposed all these things to be nothing because I have supposed all bodies to be nothing. Even if I go on supposing them to be nothing, I am still something. But these things that I suppose to be nothing because they are unknown to me — might they not in fact be identical with the I of which I am aware?

I know that I exist, and I am asking: what is this I that I know? If my mind is to get a clear understanding of its own nature, it had better not look to the imagination for it.

Well, then, what am I? A thing that thinks. What is that? A thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, wants, refuses, and also imagines and senses.

That is a long list of attributes for me to have — and it really is I who have them all. Why should it not be?


René Descartes: Meditations on First Philosophy: With Selections From the Objections and Replies

Summary Summary Summary The Meditator reflects that he has often found himself to be mistaken with regard to matters that he formerly thought were certain, and resolves to sweep away all his pre-conceptions, rebuilding his knowledge from the ground up, and accepting as true only those claims which are absolutely certain. All he had previously thought he knew came to him through the senses. Through a process of methodological doubt, he withdraws completely from the senses. At any moment he could be dreaming, or his senses could be deceived either by God or by some evil demon, so he concludes that he cannot trust his senses about anything. Ultimately, however, he realizes that he cannot doubt his own existence. In order to doubt or to think, there must be someone doing the doubting or thinking.


René Descartes: Meditations on First Philosophy: With Selections From the Objections and Replies

Published by Cambridge University Press. Transcribed: by Andy Blunden. I realized that if I wanted to establish anything in the sciences that was stable and likely to last, I needed — just once in my life — to demolish everything completely and start again from the foundations. It looked like an enormous task, and I decided to wait until I was old enough to be sure that there was nothing to be gained from putting it off any longer.


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The invaluable dual-language format, long valued by students and readers of ancient classical literature, is now available for this essential text of the early modern period. In his original Latin text Descartes expresses himself with great lucidity and elegance, and there is enormous interest, even for those who are not fluent in Latin, in seeing how the famous concepts and arguments of his great masterpiece unfold in the original language. Students of classical philosophy have long had the benefit of dual-language editions, and the availability of such a resource for the canonical works of the early-modern period is long overdue. This volume now makes available, in an invaluable dual-language format, one of the most seminal texts of Western philosophy.


Meditations on First Philosophy


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