Some have suggested that René Descartes argues that
sense perception relies on the mind rather than on the
body. Descartes asserts that we can know our mind more
readily than we can know our body. In support of this idea
he gives the example of a piece of wax which is observed in
its solid form and its liquid form. After pointing out the
difficulties of relying on the senses of the physical body
to understand the nature of the wax he makes this claim:
[P]erception ... is neither a seeing, nor a touching, nor
an imagining. ... [R]ather it is an inspection on the part
of the mind alone (Section 31).
1 This quote is perhaps the most
direct statement of the author's thesis on this subject.
I contend that, based upon the arguments presented in the Second Meditation, Descartes shows that we can use our senses to help us understand the true nature of things, but the senses alone are inadequate to determine truth (since they are often deceived), and that all that may be known with certainty (truth) are those things we know by our judgment, thinking, and understanding of them in our minds. Descartes' argument does not necessarily reject any role of the senses in the process of understanding.
Descartes began his argument in the First Meditation by
questioning or calling into doubt everything that he knew.
After examining all the things he thought he knew about
himself and the world he concluded (the details of that
argument are beyond the scope of this essay) that the only
thing he knew with absolute certainty is that
I am, I
exist (Section 25). Having established the fact that he
has a real existence of some kind he then said
But I do
not yet understand sufficiently what I am--I who
necessarily exist (Section 25).
This line of questioning (again the details of that
argument are not necessary to this discussion) led him to
draw this conclusion:
I am therefore precisely nothing but
a thinking thing (res cogitans)
2; that is, a mind (mens), or intellect
(intellectus), or understanding, or reason (ratio)
-- words of whose meanings I was previously ignorant. Yet I am
a true thing and am truly existing; but what kind of thing? I
have said it already: a thinking thing (Section 27). Note
here that Descartes equates mind, intellect, understanding, reason,
and soul with thinking 3 .
Having assured himself that he exists and that the
essential nature of his self includes at least the capacity
to think he then explored the question
What else am I?
(Section 27) and reached this conclusion:
But then what am
I? A thing that thinks (res cogitans). What is
that? A thing that doubts (dubitans), understands
(intelligens), affirms (affirmans),
denies (negans), wills (volens), refuses
(nolens), and that also imagines (imaginans)
and senses (sentiens) (Section
28). Descartes acknowledges that thinking includes doubt,
understanding, affirmation, denial, will (volition),
refusal, imagination, and senses .
Descartes has said the senses (sentiens) are a
part of the process of thinking (cogitans), now he
clarifies what he means when he speaks of the senses in the
remainder of the text.
Yet I certainly do seem to see,
hear, and feel warmth. This cannot be false. Properly
speaking, this is what in me is called 'sensing (sentire).'
But this, precisely so taken, is nothing
other than thinking (cogitare) (Section 29).
While it may appear that Descartes is attempting to
redefine a term in common usage in a manner which would
support his argument, it could also be argued that this
clarification was intended only to point out that even
if it were true that I do not in reality have a
physical body (as he assumed was possible in an earlier
part of the argument which led to the conclusion: I think,
therefore I exist) this seeming to "see, hear, and feel
warmth" would serve the same function in the process of
cogitation as the actual physical senses would have if my
body is real.
From these considerations I am beginning to know a little
better what I am. But it still seems (and I cannot resist
believing) that corporeal things--whose images are formed
by thought, and which the senses themselves examine--are
much more distinctly known than the mysterious 'I' which
does not fall within the imagination (Section 29). Now the
thought occurs to Descartes that perhaps I use my mind to
understand abstract things (like the nature of my
existence), but it is with the senses that we explore and
examine physical things. Then he uses the example of a
piece of wax to show that even physical things can only be
clearly understood by inspecting them with the mind (and
not relying solely on the senses). I will not quote his
entire development of the wax example, but summarize it
Observe a piece of wax. It has a distinctive feel, odor, sound, taste, size, color, and temperature (Section 30).
As the wax is heated each of those sensory attributes changes dramatically or is lost altogether (Section 30).
Relying only on the physical senses would lead to the conclusion that the wax in its original form is a different substance than the wax in its later form, yet no one claims that both are not the same substance (Section 30).
If the sensory elements of the wax are unreliable in helping us understand the wax, what are the essential non-sensory characteristics of wax? It is something extended 4 , flexible, and mutable (Section 31).
How do I understand that it is extended, flexible and mutable? Perhaps it is by my imagination. I cannot imagine all of the infinite variety of forms the wax might take, so imagination is not responsible for my understanding of wax (Section 31).
If sensory perception and imagination have been eliminated,
the only possible explanation is that my mind (mens)
is responsible for my understanding of wax in the various
forms it can take.
But I need to realize that the
5) of the wax is neither a seeing
(visio), nor a touching (tactio), nor an
imagining (imaginatio). Nor has it ever been, even
though it previously seemed so; rather it is an inspection
(inspectio) on the part of the mind (mentis)
alone. This inspection can be imperfect and
confused, as it was before, or clear and distinct, as it is
now, depending on how closely I pay attention to the things
in which the piece of wax consists (Section 31). So even
though my senses have revealed the wax to me in different
forms my mind has always, by processes independent of my
senses, understood the essence of the wax and that it may
be presented by the senses in differing ways. Note that
Descartes does not state that the senses have no value,
only that understanding is the function of the mind rather
than of the senses. It might be said that if one hopes to
understand something (even a physical thing) it must be
done by the mind rather than relying only on the senses.
But meanwhile I marvel at how prone my mind is to
errors.... For we say that we see the wax itself, if it is
present, and not that we judge it to be present from its
color or shape (Section 32). In our common speech we turn
around the relationship between cognition and sensory
perception. Similarly, Descartes points out that I might
look out the window and say that I see a person walking by
when all I have seen is a hat and some clothing (which may
be concealing a robot). I use my mind to form a judgment
that what I saw was a person, even though I did not
actually see a person (Section 32). Note that nothing in
his argument denies the existence of the sensory input, in
fact the senses provide the raw material for the operations
which the mind performs.
When did I have a more perfect knowledge of the wax? Only
I have diligently examined both what the wax is and
how it is known. ... But indeed when I distinguish the wax
from its external forms, as if stripping it of its
clothing, and look at the wax in its nakedness, then, even
though there can still be an error in my judgment,
nevertheless I cannot perceive it thus without a human
mind (Section 32). Here Descartes is still speaking of a
role for the senses (
how it is known, and
forms) in forming a proper perception of the wax.
Furthermore, if my perception of the wax seemed much more
distinct after it became known to me not only on account of
sight or touch, but on account of many reasons, one has to
admit how much more distinctly I am now known to myself.
For there is not a single consideration that can aid in my
perception of the wax or of any other body that fails to
make even more manifest the nature of my mind (Section
33). Once again Descartes speaks of the wax in terms of
both the senses and reason.
For since I now know that even bodies are not, properly
speaking, perceived by the senses or by the faculty of
imagination, but by the intellect alone (solo
intellectu percipi), and that they are not perceived
(percipi) through their being touched or seen, but
only through their being understood, I manifestly know that
nothing can be perceived more easily than my own mind
(Section 34). It might seem that Descartes wants to abandon
any role for the senses now that he has arrived at his
conclusion, but this summary is intended not to say that
sensory perception has no value, rather cogitation has
greater value. His point is that although it might seem
easier to understand things which can be directly observed
by the senses, the example of the wax demonstrates that
thinking (inspection by the mind) is the better way to know
physical objects which, if they have real existence, exist
outside the mind; and consequently even more so the mind
itself and it contents.
The example of the wax is an effective one to demonstrate the difficulty of relying upon our senses for an understanding of the world around us. As a part of the larger argument, that I can know myself better than I can know any thing which I know by my senses, it serves to demonstrate that the things we thought we knew most clearly because we can know them through our senses, we really can only know properly by using our minds.
We can use our senses to help us understand the true nature of things, but the senses alone are inadequate to determine truth (since they are often deceived). All that may be known with certainty (truth) are those things we know by our judgment, thinking, or understanding of them in our minds. The only reliable authority in determining what is true and real is the mind.
Descartes' arguments do not support the conclusion that "sense perception relies on the mind rather than on the body" as was suggested in the instructions for this assignment. Based on the reasoning presented above I would suggest the premise be revised to read: sense perception relies on the mind more than on the body.
Descartes, René. Meditations on First Philosophy: in Which the Existence of God and the Distinction of the Soul from the Body are Demonstrated. Trans. Donald A. Cress. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1993.
Descartes, René. Meditations on First Philosophy
in Which the Existence of God and the Distinction Between
the Mind and Body are Demonstrated. Trans. Elizabeth
S. Haldane (1911). Online. Internet. 22 Mar. 1997. The
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (copyright 1996,
Descartes, René. Meditations on the First
Philosophy in Which the Existence of God, and the Real
Distinction of Mind and Body, are Demonstrated. Trans.
John Veitch (1901). Online. Internet. 22 Mar. 1997.
Descartes, René. MEDITATIONES De Prima
PHILOSOPHIA, In quibus Dei existentia, & animae humanse
à corpore distinctio, demonstrantur . Online.
Internet. 22 Mar. 1997.
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 Descartes, René. Meditations on First Philosophy: in Which the Existence of God and the Distinction of the Soul from the Body are Demonstrated . Trans. Donald A. Cress. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1993. Unless indicated otherwise, all quotations will be from this translation. Section numbers are references printed in the margins of some current translations of this text. They are actually references to page numbers in the Adam and Tannery edition (1897-1913) of the original Latin text. (Where paragraph numbers are used here, they will be cited as: II:2; indicating Meditation 2, paragraph 2 in the Latin text.)
 Throughout this essay italicized words or phrases in parentheses are used to indicate the Latin words behind the English word or phrase in the translation.
 It is interesting that both the Veitch and the Cress translations seem to ignore the Latin word animus which Descartes listed between mens and intellectus . Haldane translates it here as "soul." Earlier in Section 27 all three translators used "soul" for the Latin animae , and in Section 26, all three translators render animam and anima as "soul".
 In physics, the concept of extension denotes that property by which a physical body occupies space. In this connection Descartes's description of his physical body (in comparison with his soul) is helpful: "[B]y 'body,' I understand all that is capable of being bounded by some shape, of being enclosed in a place, and of filling up a space in such a way as to exclude any other body from it; ..." [followed by other features not related to extension]. (Section 26)
 Perceptio : a related word perceptione in I:11 is translated as knowledge, or perception. In II:5 vel odoratu percipi is translated as [the sense of] smell. In II:7 percipiat is translated perceive or know. In II:11 perceptiones is translated perceptions, notions, or ideas. In II:12 solâ mente percipere is rendered "it is the mind alone which perceives it" (Veitch), "it is my mind alone which perceives it" (Haldane), "I perceive it through the mind alone" (Cress). In II:14 perfectius evidentiusque percipiebam is translated "evident and perfect conception" (Haldane), "clearer and more perfect perception" (Veitch), and "perceived more perfectly and evidently" (Cress).
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