Research Paper about Descartes

This research paper presents an overview of some essential issues and notions of Descartes’ Meditations. Descartes was a well-known French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist. Even nowadays his ideas and thinking are of great influence upon modern philosophers and scientists. His name is also closely connected with the notion of Scientific Revolution in the Western World. Protestant Reformation and the Skeptical Crisis were not less important historical events, contributing to the development of his philosophical views.

Bee’s wax analogy

At the end of his Meditation 2, Descartes is talking about his ideas and beliefs connected with bodies, at the same time trying to use his imagination. The key point of his position is the idea that a body is not so well known as mind. To some people, this argument would probably seem not quite strong and persuasive. For Descartes, it is not so simple. He goes further pointing out two different types of bodies. Understanding influences the first type bodies and the second type are more of sense and imagination outputs. The first type is connected with the nature of the body, where is it not necessary are the bodies, the second one is not connected to it. In order to make his idea more vivid Descartes uses the notion of wax, which has just been taken from bee-hive – if somebody takes this piece of wax and puts it close to fire, most of the characteristics of it start to change till they are not changed so much that the result has little alike with the original. Thus, the philosopher underlines that those characteristics, which were supposed to come from senses – color, smell, hardness and so on – they were all transformed.

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After the procedure, wax has only three more characteristics left:

  1. “Extended (is a volume of three dimensions)
  2. Flexible (capable of changing shape)
  3. Mutable (capable of changing in other ways)” (Posterior Analytics, Book II).

To get information about such kind of characteristics, it is necessary to “use” understanding, because to apply to imagination we should have broken the limits of comprehension and possibilities of body’s shape and so on. Thus, if we follow the ideas of Descartes, we come to a conclusion here that body can be known only through mind’s inspection, from which imagination is excluded. The level of mental perception of our body depends upon the amount of attention paid to it.

Mind-body dualism in Descartes’ philosophy.

Descartes admitted that body exists and he saw his main aim in showing the relation of mind to the body, which people usually call their own body. For Descartes mind and body were separate things. The readers find out more about this from his Meditation 2. He stated that there is no doubt that thinking substance exists, although he was not sure about the presence of a body itself. For him, this was evidence that body and mind are split, and it is possible to make them exist separately. Descartes makes a conclusion that “because I have a clear and distinct idea of myself, insofar as I am merely a thinking thing and not an extended thing, and because on the other hand I have a distinct idea of a body, insofar as it is merely an extended thing and not a thinking thing, it is certain that I am really distinct from my body, and can exist without it” (Meditation VI). It is necessary at this point to clarify the possible type of relationship between them.

Descartes himself was talking about two types of relationships. In the same Meditation 6, the first model is named – the model of diffusion. According to this model, the mind is spread all over the body and can be at any place of it. The main basis for this type was the person’s feeling of the mind being defused in his body. By the end of Meditation 6, Descartes presents another model, connected with the point of contact. The main idea of the model is the connection of the mind to the body through some certain place of contact. For the rest of the body, the information and knowledge come from the remote part of the point of contact.

If to consider the two models in the frames of separation between mind and body, then the second one seems to be more correspondent. “A single point is unextended, in keeping with the nature of the mind. But how could a mind that is not extended be nonetheless spread out over an extended area?” (Descartes, R. (1641)). To answer this question, Descartes offered an analogy. For people, weight and gravity are spread over the whole body, but in science, they are considered to be concentrated in some single place. Later on, Descartes started to consider the idea that maybe mind can also be extended not exactly in the same way some material is extended.

At any rate, it is necessary to admit that point-of-contact model has some rational moment. For example, with the help of this theory, the philosopher was able to explain the phenomenon of pain, as the motion that results in pain appears higher in the body. Thus any pain could be the result of movements as the point-of-contact. There were some objections, underlining weak points of this model, but Descartes was not going to pay much attention to them.

Cartesian circle

Descartes did his best to explain physical phenomenon using mathematics, but his explanation of living creatures was not complete. His Meditations served the basis for this investigation. The mathematical nature of physical bodies can be seen through separate perceptions. Thus the key point in the Cartesian science was motion. Descartes was talking about the laws of motion in his work “Principles of Philosophy,” these laws according to Descartes were decrees of God, and human bodies were to follow them.

Copernicus developed the theory that the Earth is moving around the Sun, but on the other hand, he agreed that it depends on the observer which of two to consider moving and which to consider still. About the same fact, Galileo was talking, when he was studying the motions of the earth.

As bodies were nothing more than length, width and breadth, Descartes considered them the same as space. Usually, we say that somebody is moving when it is changing its location against some other objects. This all depends upon the surrounding objects, which we choose to be reference points. The example with a man on the board of a ship, which will be sailing is more sophisticated, as a man can be considered motionless if he just stands on the deck of the ship and the other hand he is moving together with the ship if to use shore as a reference point. So, there is no vacuum around the body and extension of space is the same as that of authority.

A human being as part of nature

We are used to the idea that a human being is the highest possible level of development existing on the plant and however sometimes this is the basis for the idea that everything except a man should be subdued to a man. In reality, to my mind, there are some rational points in this statement, but only as long as a man uses the power, he has, in order to develop himself and create better conditions of life, not at the expense of ruining something around him, even if he has enough force to do it. Every human being should be constantly aware of the fact that he is not separated from nature, from the world around him, and moreover, he has high responsibility for his actions influencing the nature. The problem of pollution of atmosphere could probably seem a clichéd example, but it still didn’t lose its topicality. People did their best to develop the highest technologies and various types of production, using their scientific knowledge and achievements, and they believed strongly that they made a step to a higher level than nature. But in reality, a man has always been and still is a part of nature and cannot be actually split from it, because he breathes the air, eats vegetables and meat, swims in the lakes and rivers and if he doesn’t consider nature issues to be vitally important, his negative treatment will return like boomerang to him. I could agree with Descartes, that there are two separate things like body and mind, but on the other hand, they can not operate without coordination and balance between them.

1. Posterior Analytics, Book II, Chapter VII, cited in The Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, Section 7, “Descartes”).
2. Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section XII, Part I
3. Descartes, R. (1641) Meditations on First Philosophy, in The Philosophical Writings of René Descartes, trans. By J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff and D. Murdoch, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984, vol. 2, 1-62.
4. Descartes R., Discourse on Method and The Meditations, Penguin Books Ltd: London, 1968 p.132

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