Descartes Reading Guide—Meditation Two

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Descartes Reading Guide—Meditation Two

Meditation Two: This work has three distinct sections. Descartes’ overall goal here is to refute the skeptical argument he made in “Meditation One,” as well as to gain an understanding of the nature of the knowledge he’s saved.
Section One—what I know: Descartes starts by saying that even with all of the considerations from “Meditation One,” there is one thing that he can know is necessarily true.

  1. What is it that MUST be true?

  2. How can he know it, given all of his reasons to doubt? (That is, why is it necessarily true?)

Section Two: What is the nature of this thing? This piece of knowledge that he necessarily has, he used to believe existed with certain properties. He still hasn’t discharged the reasons to doubt, so he now needs to see what he can actually know. He starts by going through all the things he used to think were true, and then re-evaluates them to see if he can still be justified in believing them. (Notice that he’s starting his case for dualism here!)

  1. List the properties that he used to think this thing had, and why he can now doubt them. (You might see three properties or two main properties with one of them having sub-properties. Don’t sweat getting this perfect, try to get his point!)

  2. What property must still be true?

Section Three: The piece of wax: Descartes realizes that much of what he’s said does not match how we normally think about these things. However, he wants to give another example to show that despite the fact that what he’s saying defies “common sense,” he thinks he can show that he’s still right (not unlike Galileo, perhaps?)

  1. What is the example of the wax?

  2. Why isn’t my sense experience the source of my knowledge that it’s the same piece of wax?

  3. Why isn’t my imagination the source? (Keep in mind—he has a very particular notion of imagination here!)

  4. This is tricky—how is it that my reason must be the source of this knowledge? Notice—he’s building in the idea of innate knowledge here. That is, knowledge that you’re born with (NOT to be confused with instincts, which are preprogrammed responses to particular stimuli. He’s talking about being born KNOWING things).

Summary thoughts

So, at the end of “Meditation Two,” he has proven that the skeptic is wrong, because we can know something. However,

  1. What is the limit of this knowledge at this point?

  2. What would it take to build back more knowledge?

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