Descartes wax passage_ With reference to Hume

Document Sample
Descartes wax passage_ With reference to Hume Powered By Docstoc
					Descartes' wax passage, With reference to Hume


1) Introduction, "How do we know what we know?"
2) Talk on Descartes, his line of thinking, he is a "thinking thing"
3) Discuss the wax passage, how and why Descartes drew his
conclusions. Descartes believes clear and distinct perceptions are drawn
through the mind, not the senses
4) Compare/contrast Descartes with Hume. Hume beliefs conclusions
on the wax were drawn from past experiences of cause and effect, gained
through the senses.
5) Conclusion

 How do we know what we know? Ideas reside in the minds of
intelligent beings, but a clear perception of where these ideas come from
is often the point of debate. It is with this in mind that René
Descartes set
forth on the daunting task to determine where clear and distinct ideas
come from. A particular passage written in Meditations on First
Philosophy (Descartes 1641), named the "Wax Passage" shall be
examined. Descartes' thought process shall be followed, and the central
point of his argument discussed. These findings shall be contrasted with
the thoughts of David Hume (**insert fact about Hume here**)

In Meditations on First Philosophy, it is the self-imposed task of
Descartes to cast doubt upon all which he knows, in order to build a
foundation of knowledge out of irrefutable truths. Borrowing an idea
from Archimedes, that with one firm and immovable point, the earth could
be moved, Descartes sought one immovable truth. Descartes' immovable
truth, a truth on which he would lay down his foundation of knowledge,
and define all that which he knows, was the simple line 'Cogito ergo
sume"; I think, therefor I am. This allowed for his existence. Where
line failed, however, was in the proof or disproof of the external world.

Once Descartes established himself as a "thinking thing", his attention
turned to the external world. Descartes reflects upon his dealing with
physical objects, and questions the state of corporeal nature, dealing
directly with the senses. Re-stating the fact that Descartes believes
these sensations of taste, touch, smell, and the like can be fooled, he
attacks these bodily perceptions, not from the point of "what makes them
true", but rather "what makes them false". Descartes asks, "What is there
in all of this that is not every bit as true as the fact that I exist…"
(Descartes:20). These senses lead him to ideas of external objects,
he claims to perceive "clearly and distinctly", yet he is not willing to
his senses; he is not willing to state truthfully that he is positive
these things
exist.   In doubting all that exists, a sort of intellectual barrier had
erected, forcing Descartes' thoughts into narrow constraints, in order
this passage was born, and in order that his question be answered, these
constraints had to be lifted "…my mind loves to wander….let us just this
once allow it completely rein free." (Descartes:21) It is this state of
"wandering mind" that the wax passage was conceived.

The wax passage itself is a simple piece of writing, and a simple train
thought to follow. The essence of the passage is that Descartes
and attempts to convince the reader that the "clear and distinct" ideas
might have of objects external to one's body are not perceived through
the senses, but rather through the intellect.

While examining a piece of wax, one has certain ideas, ideas initially
thought to have come from the senses, but all that can be ascertained
through the senses can be proven to be false. "Let us take, for
this piece of wax….Its colour, shape, and size are manifest. It is hard
and cold; it is easy to touch….I am bringing it close to the fire… Its
size is
increasing, it is becoming liquid and hot; you can hardly touch it….Does
the same wax remain?"(Descartes:21) Obviously the same wax remains,
and the clear and distinct ideas of the wax remain as well. , yet all
perceptions of the wax have changed.
Descartes asks then "so what was there in the wax that was so distinctly
grasped?…the senses of taste, smell, sight, touch or hearing has now
changed; and yet the wax remains" (Descartes:21) In answer to this, he
suggests that perhaps the wax is not merely the sum of its sensory
attributes. Descartes argues that if all attributes are stripped away,
is left is the "essence" of the wax. This essence can manifest itself to
in an infinite number of ways. The wax can assume any shape, size, or
smell, and since Descartes assumes that he himself is incapable of
imagining the wax in infinite ways, the insight he has gained into the
was not brought about by his faculty of imagination. With the
of the senses, and then the elimination of the imagination, what is left
be the answer. The clear and distinct ideas of the wax must have been
perceived through the mind alone. "…the perception of the wax is neither
a seeing, nor a touching, nor an imagining, . Nor has it ever
it is an inspection on the part of the mind alone" (Descartes:22)

        What Descartes wants this passage to impress upon the reader is
that what we know of external objects (i.e. the wax) is not gained by
other means but through the mind alone. The "essence" of objects can
present itself in many ways, but that is all it is, a presentation. The
"essence" itself resides behind the attributes. This abandonment of the
traditional idea of gaining knowledge about the outside world through the
senses was crucial to Descartes goal of a body of "undeniable truths", as
he had formed the hypothesis that the senses could be fooled, but not the
mind. This line of thinking is not universal amongst philosophers. The
process of acquiring knowledge is a continual operation, accordingly, the
examination of this procedure should continue as well. Descartes was not
the only one to examine the epistemic position of man. The ideas of
philosopher David Hume shall be imposed on the now well examined
piece of wax.

        David Hume, a philosopher, who like Descartes, took it upon
himself to bring to words human-kind's epistemic position, drew
conclusions greatly different than that of his predecessor. Bluntly put,
Hume would sum up Descartes view as simply "spouting words" The
view of Hume is that all ideas must have a sense datum from which they
are born.

        Hume firmly believes that no idea can be held by an individual,
unless the idea itself, or portions of it, has been directly experienced
the individual. "A blind man can form no notion of colours; a deaf man
sounds." (Hume:12) This passage clearly shows Hume's believe in
sensory perceptions. Were he to have examined the wax, he would not
have perceived an "essence", but rather the individual attributes which
encompass the wax. When dealing with an attribute as suspicious as an
"essence", Hume would enquire "…from what impression is that
supposed idea derived? And if it be impossible to assign any, this will
serve to confirm our suspicion."(Hume:13)

Hume believes that human inquiry may be divided into two sections,
Relations of Ideas, and Matters of Fact. The dividing point between
these is that matters of fact can be conceive of being false. One would
not conceive of two plus two equaling four being wrong, thus it is a
relation of ideas, where the idea of two plus two is related to four. It
matters of fact, however, that Hume found "…a subject worthy of
curiosity, to enquire what is the nature of that evidence, which assures
of any real existence and matter of fact, beyond the present testimony of
our senses."(Hume:16) Hume reasoned that all dealing with matter of fact
was routed in cause and effect, where sensory perception such as heat
and light, would be the effect of fire. Knowledge of this relation is
mandatory, for one could not understand an effect, without understanding
its cause. The knowledge of this relation, argues Hume "…is not, in any
instance attained by reasoning a priori ; but arises entirely from
experience"(Hume:17) Hume here again states his believe that "causes
and effects are discoverable, not by reason, but by
experience"(Hume:17) To relate this to the wax passage, Hume would
consider as true only what he could perceive by his senses, and only what
he could induct about the wax, based on former experiences. Hume
would not know of the melting of the wax if a fire were not present.
part of the what Descartes would call the essence of the wax would not
be perceived according to Hume, unless induced from a prior experience.

The teaching of these two philosophers have influenced many minds since
their writings. Descartes belief that clear and distinct perceptions
from the intellect and not the senses was critical to his ultimate goal
Meditations on First Philosophy. Hume's view of this, if he were to have
had the chance to examine the same piece of wax as Descartes would
have been that the wax is only what it appears to be, based on the
attributes perceived, and inductions of these attributes, based on past

Word Count: 1536