Descartes: Meditations

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Daniel Tan
PHIL 10200

How does a person determine what is a clear and distinct idea? In other words, is there any way of knowing what is certain and what is not? The Meditations are generally considered the starting point of modern Western philosophy, and with good reason. In this one brief text, Descartes turns many of the old doctrines, created by Aristotle, upside down and frames many of the questions that are still being debated in philosophy today. Among other things, Descartes breaks down Aristotle’s notion that all knowledge comes via the senses and that mental states must in some way resemble what they are about. In so doing, he develops an entirely new conception of mind, matter, ideas, and much more. Rene Descartes explains that in order to even begin to grasp what the difference is between what is certain and what is not, one must first learn how not to rely on their senses and to use skepticism in order to develop one’s certainty of the world. In this essay, we will look into the claim that the senses are not to be completely trusted and only clear and distinct ideas are certain.

Descartes explains the philosophical outlook that he develops to be marked and defined by the skepticism he employs in the first meditation. He explains how the senses are not always reliable, “…even though the senses do sometimes deceive us when it is a question of very small and distant things…” (Meditations on First Philosophy: First Meditation pg 10). Descartes goes on to state his thoughts about his awareness of his consciousness, meaning that he is wholly convinced that even though what he feels may be real, he has felt the same sensation before in his dreams and that things like his hands and the fire that he is sitting by can be doubted. However, he continues on to say that even though these things can be doubted, there is something essential that cannot. Descartes uses the example of a painter drawing a picture of a mermaid, even though the picture...
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