Descartes & The Wax Argument

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In search of philosophical certainty, Descartes sought to explore the differences between the experiences involving the body and the experiences related to the mind. Because of its fundamentally logical reasoning (what makes sense), Descartes wanted to find which of the two, was most tangible or held more truth. Focusing first on sensitive experiments, he went on to demonstrate with the “wax argument” that the causal is apprehandble but also alterable. In this short analysis, we will look at a few details concerning Descartes experiement, creating a clear contrast between the sensory experiences and the experiences of the mind, thus leading to the certainty of the Cartesian cogito.
At first, Descartes will give free rein to his hyperbolic doubt. Nothing is clear and certain anymore, everything that is assumed to be true in our everyday’s life is just as vague as God in Descartes poundering. Is there a divine presence and if it does, is it absolutely perfect or acting deceptively, determined to torment us like a mischievous spirit? This almost fanatical approach of reasoning will lead Descartes to restrict his conceptual field of view. For example, he will show very little interest to the topic of madness as it does not meet the criteria of good sense or reason. An individual that is mentally ill does not possess the necessary requirements for philosophy. Thus gradually, Descartes will come to wonder what is most tangible between body and mind. Very quickly, he will have a bias for the mind that, according to him, has a superiority over the body. To be able to think is synonymous with existence for Descartes, hence his famous sentence “I think, therefore I am”. Astonishing assertion since the mind seems to us so natural yet so slippery and so hard to grasp… That is precisely when Descartes will introduce his wax example to illustrate the motion of bodies and the possibility for these bodies to change, altering their shape(s) and all these characteristics that made them what they were before these changes. But what about the wax itself, after all these changes? What is it now if it does not have the same shape, the same sound, the same texture and the same smell?

“But now while I’m talking I bring it close to the fire. What remains of the taste evaporates; the odor vanishes; its color changes; its shape is lost; its size increases; it becomes liquid; it grows hot; one can hardly touch it; and although it is knocked upon, it will give out no sound. Does the same wax remain after the change? We must admit that it does; no one denies it, no one judges otherwise. What is it then in this bit of wax that we recognize with so much distinctness? Certainly it cannot be anything that I observed by means of the senses, since everything in the field of taste, smell, sight, touch, and hearing are changed, and since the same wax nevertheless remains. “

For Descartes, the senses and the imagination are insufficient to establish the existence of the wax because the sensations are altered and imagination operates according to the changes that we experience on various causal/acausal levels. Therefore, Descartes understood the imagination as a characteristic of the mind that is rather automatic and associative. Even animals would be endowed with. One can not imagine the wax with a total absence of sensory property, such a thing is impossible. However, we know that the imagination can conceive the infinity of changes that can potentially affect the wax (the alteration itself). The imagination is a limited perceptual capacity of the mind but it is still extensive and complex.  Thus, for Descartes, the “understanding” (entendement) of things is an exclusively human ability. To show this, Descartes will come with another little experiment; the wooden stick. He will plunge a stick in a glass of water, creating an optical illusion and distort the stick so it appears different in terms of proportions or even broken. Our sight, impels us to think that the stick is split in two but if you get it out of the water, it obviously isnt. Only by the use of understanding (entendement) can we conclude that it was an optical illusion and that the stick is not changing. Descartes thus goes back to his initial conclusion that it is easier to know with the mind than with our faillible senses and that the mind is guarantor of truth, at least, more than the body.

“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”

So, the senses and the imagination are just there to inform us of the existence of the object in itself but it is the mind that confirms the extent (étendu), the real matter or perhaps even the essence of that object. In other words, the mind is the receiver of knowledge. The senses are not entirely and always in the wrong, but Descartes, with his examples, was able to distinguish what comes from the senses and what comes of our understanding (entendement). Perceptual knowledge of a geometric shape, for example, will never be sufficient. Mathematical calculations can, however, guarantee its extent (étendu), properties etc.
It remains clear that the design of things by perception is the first step to the realization of their existence. But even Descartes was surprised of his own conclusions. It seemed so apparent that all the things that were most tangible were physical or causal in nature…  The hyperbolic doubt eventually led him to a dualistic conception of the body and the mind.

“I have a clear and distinct idea of myself, in so far as I am simply a thinking, non-extended thing [that is, a mind], and on the other hand I have a distinct idea of body, in so far as this is simply an extended, non-thinking thing. And accordingly, it is certain that I am really distinct from my body, and can exist without it “

While simple and fundamentally minimalist in its process, the Cartesian meditations brought forward a plethora of objections/approval from the philosophical “community”. Descartes work will be reviewed by and influential to many philosophers such as Spinoza, Malebranche and many others. Personally, I find that his conclusions have a certain taste of perspectivism to it, which I appreciate and value highly.

Acausality, 127 yf


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