Second Meditation

The Structure of the Second Meditation

There are two main claims made in the Second Meditation. First, Descartes argues, in the ‘cogito’, that the one thing he cannot be deceived of is his own existence as a thinking thing. Second, Descartes argues that he has a particular nature, and that he knows this nature better than that of any body. brew reinstall davmail

  • The review of doubt; the Cogito (7:24-5)
  • The nature of the ‘I’ as thinking thing (7:25-7)
  • The mind’s unknown relation to body (7:27)
  • The mind itself is not imageable (7:27-8)
  • The variety and unity of thought (7:28-9)
  • The “Wax Argument” — our knowledge of body (7:29-33)
  • Analysis of the nature and content of perceptual judgment (7:32)
  • The Mind is better known than (any) body (7:33-4)

An Archimedean Point

Descartes’s method of doubt has forced him to give up nearly all his beliefs. But he still holds out for the possibility that some belief is certain.

Archimedes used to demand just one firm and immovable point in order to shift the entire earth; so I too can hope for great things if I manage to find just one thing, however slight, that is certain and unshakeable. (7:24)

Why just one certain belief (or knowledge)? One might reasonably wonder whether anything could be gotten from having just one certain belief. Gary Hatfield ((Hatfield 2003), 101) highlights three different answers to this question — (1) the “foundationalist” answer: what is certain is a “first principle” from which we derive other knowledge; (2) the “systematicity” answer: what is certain is systematically connected with other knowledge (e.g. knowledge that 2 + 2 = 4 might be systematically related to knowledge that 1 + 1 + 2 = 4, etc.); (3) the “methodological” answer: what is certain reveals a method for deriving other certainties.

It is not clear which of these three answers Descartes has in mind in his statement concerning an Archimedean point. So we’ll simply have to see how he develops his argument.

The “Cogito” Argument

Here is the crux of Descartes’s argument:

I have convinced myself that there is absolutely nothing in the world, no sky, no earth, no minds, no bodies. Does it now follow that I too do not exist? No: if I convinced myself of something then I certainly existed. But there is a deceiver of supreme power and cunning who is deliberately and constantly deceiving me. In that case I too undoubtedly exist, if he is deceiving me; and let him deceive me as much as he can, he will never bring it about that I am nothing so long as I think that I am something. So after considering everything very thoroughly, I must finally conclude that this proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind. (7:25)

Thus, Descartes’s “Archimedean point” is the proposition “I am, I exist” (or its more famous form “I think, therefore I am”). How should we understand this? We want to know at least the following three things—viz., (1) what is the conclusion of the argument (i.e. what is it that is established)?; (2) how is the conclusion established?; (3) what role does the conclusion play in Descartes broader philosophical theory (i.e. can we use the cogito to determine which of the three answers discussed above is the right one)?

To answer (1), Descartes appears to draw two conclusions from the argument. The first is the conclusion that the Meditator exists. Granting that the subject of ‘I’ in the antecedent of the conditional is engaged in the activity of thinking, then that same subject, according to the conclusion, exists. Descartes also draws a more ambitious conclusion, viz., that the nature of the subject is that of a thinking thing or thinking substance. In other words, the ‘I’ of ‘I exist’ is a particular sort of thing, a thinking thing. This more ambitious conclusion is pursued by Descartes throughout the rest of the Second Meditation.

Two Objections

Descartes seems correct to argue that from the fact that there is thinking, one can conclude that something exists. But it is not clear that this is all he needs for even his weaker conclusion. In fact, there are two serious objections to just the weak conclusion of the argument, much less the stronger version.

  • Lichtenberg’s Objection

    First, we can ask what entitles Descartes (or the meditator) to the use of the first-person pronoun in the premise of his argument? Doesn’t the use of ‘I’ in “I am thinking” presuppose the existence of the subject? Remember, the Meditator is here doubting his own existence. If knowledge of one’s own existence (as Meditator) is supposed to be the conclusion of an argument or inference we cannot assume the conclusion in the course of articulating the premises. To do so would be committing a logical fallacy—viz., begging the question (see also (Dicker 2013)).

    In response we might reformulate Descartes’s argument in a way first suggested by Georg Lichtenberg. According to this formulation, instead of ‘I am thinking, therefore I exist’ we should state the argument as ‘There is thinking (or ‘there is a thought’, therefore I exist’. The problem with this version of the argument, however, is that it is invalid. There is no assurance that from the mere existence of a thought it is oneself, qua Meditator, that exists. Without some further premise, all that may be concluded is that some thought exists, or perhaps more strongly, that some thinking thing exists, but there is no assurance that the very same think which thinks in the premise is the thing which thinks in the conclusion (cf. (Dicker 2013), ch. 2; (Williams 1978), ch. 3; (Hatfield 2003), 103-4). All we have then is a train of thoughts. Compare:

    • (T1) It is thought: P
    • (T2) It is thought: Q

    There is, however, a possibly reply Descartes could make in the face of this sort of objection. Consider a further thought:

    • (T3) It is thought: P & Q

    Does T3 follow from T1 and T2? No, T3 cannot follow from T1 and T2, unless we have some means for connecting them.

    The Lichtenberg Objector (i.e. one who denies that the thinker can be derived from the existence of a thought) is unable to explain how thoughts like (T3) might follow from (T1) and (T2). Perhaps they might say, “it is thought P here1 and it is thought Q here2, and here1=here2. But then we have effectively recreated Descartes’s subject under another description—viz. thinking going on here. Given this point one might thus argue that the kind of skeptical objection posed by Lichtenberg goes too far, for it seems to make it impossible to explain how basic forms of inference, such as the introduction of a conjunction in thought, are possible. We are, however, left with the question as to the metaphysics of the thinking subject, which is Descartes’s stronger claim. We’ll turn to this issue next.

  • The Substance Theory

    One other possible route to Descartes’s weak claim, i.e. that the Cogito reveals that we are substances, is to assume a particular metaphysics regarding our understanding of the nature of an individual object and its properties. Call this the “Substance Theory”. According to the Substance Theory, all things are composed of various properties as well as an underlying substance which has them. This is in contrast to what is typically called a “Bundle Theory”, according to which things are nothing more than bundles, collections, or aggregates of properties. One of the reasons to favor the Substance Theory over the Bundle Theory has to do with the issue of generation and change. Conceptually, there is a difference between a thing’s coming into being (generation) and that thing’s persisting while changing some of its properties (qualitative change). But if there really is such a distinction then there must, in addition to the properties or qualities of a thing, be some underlying thing which persists through addition or subtraction of properties (i.e. qualitative change). On the face of it the Bundle Theory cannot make this distinction, though there is significant debate about this.

    Reformulated with the assumption of a substance ontology, Descartes’s Cogito might be rendered as follows (see (Dicker 2013), 54-5).

    1. A thing consists in its properties or characteristics plus an underlying substance to which they belong
    2. If there is a property or characteristic, then there must be a substance to which it belongs.
    3. A thought is a property.
    4. If there is a thought, then there is a substance to which it belongs.
    5. There is a thought.
    6. ∴ There is a substance to which this thought belongs: that expressed by “I”.

    One key premise here is (2), sometimes called the ‘substance-property principle’, which rules out the existence of properties that do not ‘belong’ to any substance. Descartes endorses this principle in a variety of his work (O&R 7:222; Pr 8A:8, 25). The other premises are either plausibly or explicitly endorsed by him as well. What’s more, we have avoided stating the argument in a question begging way. So the question is whether the conclusion follows.

    Unfortunately for Descartes, it is not obvious that it does. There remains the question of what allows us to call the existence of the thinking substance ‘I’. Notice that in the reconstructed argument above all premises are stated in the third-person until the introduction of the first-person in the conclusion. What is it that licenses this move from third-person to first-person? There is nothing in Descartes’s argument that would tell us. Hence, even the reconstruction seems to remain invalid, insofar as it attempts to prove from the (third-person) statement of the existence of thought that oneself, qua Meditator, exists as the thinker of that thought. So, while it is true that from that ‘I am thinking’ one may legitimately infer ‘I exist’, Descartes needs something stronger—viz., from ‘there is thinking’ that ‘I exist’, and this cannot be done, it seems by the argument he explicitly provides.

    Is there anything Descartes can say in reply? One thing he does say in a “geometric” exposition of his view is that by “the word ‘thought’ I include everything that is in us in such a way that we are immediately aware of it” (VII: 160). There is thus no gap between having a thought and being aware of it. If one thinks X then one is aware, and maybe just knows, that one thinks X. This means that from awareness of the thought that X I (i.e. the thinker of the thought) thereby know that I think that X. This would allow Descartes to avoid the worry about how one gets from the third personal fact of thought to the first person. He basically defines “thought” as first-personal, since there are no thoughts that are not known to their thinkers as such. The cost of this, however, is that Descartes is making a further substantive claim here about thought. And what justifies this claim in the face of the method of doubt?

Inference or Intuition?

There is a further question concerning the nature of the apparent inference from ‘I am thinking’ to ‘I exist’. Is it correct to consider this an inference, which might be put in premise-conclusion form. Or is it rather that Descartes intends us to read the claim as something grasped “intuitively” and without recourse to argument? Remember that Descartes intends the Cogito to be his Archimedian point, so we would like to know how the Cogito relates to Descartes’s foundationalism. Is the Cogito a bit of inferential knowledge, or is it non-inferential?

Descartes interestingly thinks that the answer is “both” (9A:206). First, he seems to think that our grasp of the Cogito is intuitive — we come to see its conclusion “all at once”. So the Meditator does not derive it by means of any explicit argument, such as via syllogism. But, Descartes concedes, the structure of the Cogito is inferentially complex, so that in reflecting on what is known via the Cogito one is led to articulate distinct premises from which the conclusion ‘I exist’ is ultimately supposed to follow (see (Hatfield 2003), 112).

The Aim of the Cogito

Even if we grant that the Cogito grounds the Meditator’s certainty of his own existence, this doesn’t obviously provide Descartes with what he wants—viz., a first principle from which the rest of his philosophical system is derived, in any of the three senses (foundational, systematic, methodological) discussed above. We’ll have to revisit this question as Descartes’s argument in the Meditations unfolds.

The Nature of the ‘I’ as Subject

Recall that the Cogito aimed to derive two conclusions, a weak and a strong. We’ve seen that there are potential problems with the weak conclusion, but what of the strong? The Meditator claims to know not only that he exists as a substance, but that he is a particular kind of substance or thing—a thinking thing.

At present I am not admitting anything except what is necessarily true. I am, then, in the strict sense only a thing that thinks; that is, I am a mind, or intelligence, or intellect, or reason—words whose meaning I have been ignorant of until now. But for all that I am a thing which is real and which truly exists. But what kind of a thing? As I have just said—a thinking thing. (7:27)

The Meditator draws this conclusion based on the fact that, as far as he knows, he has no body (remember the evil demon) nor any connection to a material world. This doesn’t yet show that the existence of his mind (or minds generally) may be had independent of any material object, but it does show (according to Descartes) that the mind is intelligible independently of any body. This might also explain why Descartes/the Meditator says that his is “ignorant” of the meanings of the words “mind, intellect, or reason” until he has gone through this method of doubt. Prior to this meditation he might have thought that the intelligibility of something’s being a mind or intellect was importantly connected to its being a body.

Descartes further understands the ‘I’ in terms of the kinds of activity it can undertake. A thinking thing is “a thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, is willing, is unwilling, and also imagines and has sensory perceptions” (7:28).

Here’s Descartes’s definition of thought, partially quoted above, at the beginning of the geometrical statement of the Meditations:

Thought. I use this term to include everything that is within us in such a way that we are immediately aware (conscii) of it. Thus all the operations of the will, the intellect, the imagination and the senses are thoughts. I say ‘immediately’ so as to exclude the consequences of thoughts; a voluntary movement, for example, originates in a thought but is not itself a thought. (7:160)

And here’s Descartes’s definition of thought in the Principles

By the term ‘thought’ (cogitatio), I understand everything which we are aware of as happening within us, in so far as we have awareness (conscientia) of it. Hence, thinking is to be identified here not merely with understanding, willing and imagining, but also with sensory awareness. For if I say ‘I am seeing, or I am walking, therefore I exist’, and take this as applying to vision or walking as bodily activities, then the conclusion is not absolutely certain. This is because, as often happens during sleep, it is possible for me to think I am seeing or walking, though my eyes are closed and I am not moving about; such thoughts might even be possible if I had no body at all. But if I take ‘seeing’ or ‘walking’ to apply to the actual sense or awareness of seeing or walking, then the conclusion is quite certain, since it relates to the mind, which alone has the sensation or thought that it is seeing or walking. (7A:7)

Descartes thus unites a variety of different kinds of mental acts, mental capacities, and mental properties under one general rubric of “thought/thinking”. But what, exactly, unites such a disparate group? The link between these, according to Descartes, is that one and all are the kind of thing of which a subject may be “immediately” aware. They are, one and all, kinds of activity which are available to consciousness. Even sensory experience, which might formerly have been associated with having a body, is now understood in terms of availability to consciousness. We cannot yet say whether Descaertes/the Meditator intend to identify thinking with consciousness, or even to consider it essential. But it does provide a unifying characteristic to what is otherwise a motley collection.

For example, Descartes makes light of the issue of what we might call the ‘ownership’ of the various activities. He says,

Is it not one and the same ‘I’ who is now doubting almost everything, who nonetheless understands some things, who affirms that this one thing is true, denies everything else, desires to know more, is unwilling to be deceived, imagines many things even involuntarily, and notices many things as apparently coming from the senses? (7:28-9)

One reason why he might make light of the question whether there is one and the same ‘I’ aware of all these activities is that they are all available to consciousness in roughly the same unmediated manner.

The Wax Argument & Knowledge of Body

Descartes aims to prove at least two things in the final part of the Second Meditation. First, he wants to show that the nature of body is known, but not via the senses. Instead it is known via the intellect. Second, he wants to show that even though the nature of body is known via the intellect, the nature of mind is known better than any material body.

Descartes considers an objection to his argument thus far—viz. that perhaps one may still think that material bodies are better and more clearly known than the mind. After all, the Meditator’s reflections thus far have been very abstract, and the knowledge of the mind fairly limited, specifically to the kinds of activities Descartes lists of which the mind is capable (and as we’ve seen it isn’t clear what binds this list of activities together or if the list is even complete).

So what is it that is so clearly understood about body, specifically, the piece of wax the Meditator contemplates? Descartes’s first aim is to show that the fact that we can have a sensory “image” of the wax via our various sense modalities does not tell us anything clearly about the wax. All it does is present us with a specific array of determinate qualities, all of which change or can change under various circumstances. However, as the Meditator notes, despite changes of quality we understand something as persisting, viz., the wax itself. So what is this persisting thing, and whence comes our cognitive grasp of it if it is not any particular sensory quality grasped via the senses?

Descartes/the Meditator argues that the wax is extendible, flexible, and changeable.

But what is meant here by “flexible” and “changeable”? Is it what I picture in my imagination: that this piece of wax is capable of changing from a round shape to a square shape, or from a square shape to a triangular shape? Not at all: for I can grasp that the wax is capable of countless changes of this kind, yet I am unable to run through this immeasurable number of changes in my imagination, from which it follows that it is not the faculty of imagination that gives me my grasp of the wax as flexible and changeable. (7:13)

Here we have a kind of argument from elimination. We have various sensory experiences of the sensible qualities of the wax—e.g. its flexibility and changeability. But we know, the Meditator argues, that the wax is flexible and changeable. Moreover, we do not know this via any sensory image. Instead we seem to grasp it independently of any image, via the intellect alone. Gary Hatfield reconstructs the argument as follows ((Hatfield 2003), 130-1).

  1. I know the determinable properties of a piece of wax, such as its being flexible and changeable
  2. Imagination would allow me to know this only by providing an image of every possible determinate form or change the wax might take
  3. My imagination cannot provide all of the images necessary to represent every determinate form the wax might take
  4. ∴ The imagination is not what provides me with knowledge of the determinable properties of the wax — its “modal profile”
  5. ∴ There is some other faculty, distinct from the imagination—call it the “intellect”—which does provide me with knowledge of the modal profile of the wax

So, according to the Meditator/Descartes, the nature of the wax as a thing that is extended, flexible, and changable (i.e. as a body persisting through qualitative change) is ultimately known via the intellect and not via the senses (or the imagination).1

This argument also makes clear why the Meditator might reasonably claim that our cognitive grasp of body is no less intellectual than our grasp of ourselves as thinking things. What’s more, according to the Meditator, since our cognitive grasp of body is ultimately via thought, and we are acquainted with our thoughts more intimately than with any body (as the method of doubt was supposed to show), we actually know our nature as thinking beings better than any body.

What, I ask, is this ‘I’ which seems to perceive the wax so distinctly? Surely my awareness of my own self is not merely much truer and more certain than my awareness of the wax, but also much more distinct and evident, For if I judge that the wax exists from the fact that I see it, clearly this same fact entails much more evidently that I myself also exist. It is possible that what I see is not really the wax; it is possible that I do not even have eyes with which to see anything. But when I see, or think I see (I am not here distinguishing the two), it is simply not possible that I who am now thinking am not something. By the same token, if I judge that the wax exists from the fact that I touch it, the same result follows, namely that I exist. If I judge that it exists from the fact that I imagine it, or for any other reason, exactly the same thing follows, And the result that I have grasped in the case of the wax may be applied to everything else located outside me. (7:33)

Thus, the pure intellect is set up, contrary to Aristotelianism, as the fundamental organ of human cognition, and as one whose nature can best be known, and via pure reflection on its own activity of thinking.


Carriero, John. 2009. Between Two Worlds: A Reading of Descartes’s Meditations. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Dicker, Georges. 2013. Descartes: An Analytic and Historical Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hatfield, Gary. 2003. Routledge Philosophy GuideBook to Descartes and the Meditations. London: Routledge.

Morris, Katherine J. 2014. “The Second Meditation: Unimaginable Bodies and Insensible Minds.” In The Cambridge Companion to Descartes’ Meditations, edited by David Cunning, 107–26. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pasnau, Robert. 2013. Metaphysical Themes 1274-1671. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Williams, Bernard. 1978. Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry. London: Routledge.

  1. See also ((Pasnau 2013); (Williams 1978); (Carriero 2009), ch.2; (Morris 2014)). ↩︎

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