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Meditation 2: Descartes Wax Argument

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Rose Benjamin

Philosophy 100

Professor Weis

7th October 2014

Meditation 2: Descartes wax argument

        Descartes’s meditations go through a process of first discarding knowledge, and then subsequently proving why some areas of knowledge can be redeemed as true. During the second meditations Descartes explores his knowledge pertaining to his own existence. He comes to the conclusion that he is in essence a thinking thing, this was established through his “wax argument”. The wax argument considers a piece of wax that was taken straight from a honeycomb, and similarly the same wax after it was melted by fire. Descartes notes the dramatic change in the waxes shape, smell, and texture causing him to question “what was there in the wax that was so distinctly comprehended?” (Descartes 140). He concludes that he understands things not because of their physical form (because there are too many forms to imagine) but rather by the essence of that thing. The essence can be described as the remains after undressing all the inconsistent elements of the object in question. As such Descartes arrives at the understanding that his “grasp of the wax is a result of a purely mental inspection” (Descartes 141).  This statement suggests that he knows things not because he can imagine or sense things but because he understands them. Since he knows things because he understands them with his mind, Descartes infers that he exists as a thinking thing. This argument while functionally logical can be heavily criticized in the fact that 1) everything we are exposed to, is composed of both essence and changeable aspects and 2) that this argument presents a faulty concept of mind and body dualism.

        One of the fundamentals integral to the wax argument is presented by the idea that things are purely their essence, disregarding any conception of things based on physical or sensory properties. I disagree with this notion, on the principal that when one experiences something, the physical properties of that thing act as a precursor to the essence or understanding of that thing. For example if a child were to encounter wax for the first time, the child would gain his/her intellectual knowledge or understanding of the wax from its sensory stimulation. The interaction with the physical wax would implant this essence in the child. Therefore it is impossible to entertain the idea that one gains knowledge of a thing from their essence, since the establishing factor of the essence is the physical attributes of the thing in question. Descartes would argue that the physical properties of an object cannot truly justify what something is, since often times “shape can change in innumerable ways”(Descartes 141) and we do not have the capacity to mentally picture all these variations. Therefore it cannot be supposed that a single representation of something can illicit universal knowledge of all the different forms of a particular thing. It is undeniably true that Descartes is correct in the fact that we cannot look at one form and establish knowledge of all other forms, but likewise, how can one understand the universal essence of something upon a single encounter? How can a child experience wax from a honeycomb, and inherently conceive of its entire nature. I propose that understanding something intellectually is acquired through interaction, and that this interaction corresponds to only that form of that thing in which you are interacting (e.g. wax in the form of honey comb vs. wax in the form of a candle).

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