René Descartes is questioning the reality around him. Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy attempts to examine how he looks at the world, and if he is being deceived by his senses, a dream, or perhaps a higher power. This well-written example college philosophy essay would be a good reference for students who want to methodically map an author’s arguments. This sample literary analysis paper also offers an excellent organizational structure.
Lifetimes of experience have shown us the truth of human fallibility-what one believes to be true at one moment may in time prove false. One mistaken opinion can give rise to countless others, and as a result, certainty itself is in fact, rarely certain. In his Meditations on First Philosophy, René Descartes takes note of this, realizing that “if [he] wanted to establish anything firm and lasting in the sciences” (Meditations 59), he must first establish a basis of truth and certainty. In order to ascertain such a foundation, however, he must first determine what he can be certain of and what he cannot, and so, to root out his false opinions, Descartes seeks a reason to call his current beliefs into doubt. In the first of his Meditations, he addresses several such reasons in the form of hypothetical situations. One of the more significant of these theories, the possibility that he is dreaming, he determines to be ultimately ineffectual and, as a result, eventually raises the possibility that some omnipotent evil exists with the sole function of deceiving him.
As mentioned previously, Descartes finds a need to call all his opinions into doubt, yet he realizes that to disprove each and every belief on its own would be an impossible task. He resolves, therefore, to strike at the most fundamental of his opinions, reasoning that this will debase all other beliefs and remove the necessity of invalidating them individually. With this in mind, he then makes note of the fact that “whatever [he] had admitted until now as most true [he] received either from the senses or through the senses” (60) which he also notes are “sometimes deceptive” (60). However, this deception of the senses applies only to “very small and distant things” (60), Descartes clarifies, pointing out that there remain many matters similarly derived from the senses that cannot be doubted, his presence in a chair by the fire and the paper in his hand, for example. Thus, in itself, the senses’ ability to deceive does little to destabilize Des-cartes’ beliefs at all and so hardly aids him, but the concept serves as an impetus for another line of inquiry. “On what grounds,” he asks, “could one deny that these hands and this body are mine?” (60), and in response to this, he presents two hypothetical situations, both of which would allow him to doubt the truth of reality. While his first theory, that he could be insane, would certainly raise within him doubts about reality, he ultimately rejects it, as assuming himself insane would destroy the credibility of his entire argument. This idea does, however, lead to a second and more effectual scenario, a hypothesis in which he considers the possibility that he is dreaming.
While this second theory seems to hold considerably more efficacy than the previous one, Des-cartes still finds reason to discard it. Before this reason can be addressed though, the nature of the hypothesis must be noted: Descartes observes that “often does [his] evening slumber per-suade [him] of such ordinary things as [this]: that [he is] here . . . seated next to the fireplace-when in fact [he is] lying undressed in bed” (60). Upon further contemplation, he recalls encoun-tering other such deceptions in his dreams and eventually concludes that “there are no distinctive signs by which to distinguish being awake from being asleep” (60). With this inability to diffe-rentiate between dream and reality in mind, Descartes assumes for his argument’s sake that he is dreaming, which seems to cast doubt on both reality en masse and on all opinions that arise from it. Yet Descartes continues to delve, and in so doing, he discovers that while composite reality can be doubted, those things that comprise it, its individual components, cannot. He notes that “the things seen during slumber . . . could only have been produced in the likeness of true things” (61) and therefore “are true and exist” (61). Similarly, he recognizes that although it is possible for such “composite things” (61) to be imaginary, it is also possible to divide them into simpler and more universal components that are not imaginary. Therefore, while the assumption that he is dreaming casts doubt upon complex entities and the beliefs and the disciplines that depend on them (physics, astronomy, medicine, etc.), those other beliefs and disciplines, like arithmetic and geometry, that deal with the “simplest and most general things” (61)-shape, size, number, time, etc.-seem “certain and indubitable” (61). It is because of this that Descartes eventually rejects the dream hypothesis.
Though at first glance it seems impossible that the “simplest and most general things” mentioned above can be doubted, upon further contemplation, a question arises: What if all-powerful God has deceived Descartes in all things, even these simplest ideas? In theory, such a situation would accomplish what Descartes wants, but he does not rest with it. Instead he notes that such deception is unfitting with the nature of God, who “is said to be supremely good” (61-62). In fact, he observes that he would be more likely to be always deceived-a “certain imperfection” (62)-if God, the source of perfection, did not exist and thus had not created Descartes. At this point, however, Descartes is “forced to admit that there is nothing among the things [he] once believed to be true which is not permissible to doubt” (62). Some of these beliefs may in fact be true, but he cannot be sure which. Because of this, Descartes fears he may unintentionally revert to his former beliefs and so wonders how to prevent such an occurrence. Thus, Descartes’ final proposal surfaces: it is not God who deceives him in all things, but rather an omnipotent, evil being of which deception is the sole purpose. It is with this theory that Descartes can now as-sume entirely false and have reason to completely distrust all of his former beliefs. Thus, he presents himself with a clean slate from which he can establish a certain foundation and con-struct, in the following meditations, “firm and lasting” arguments.
Descartes, René. Meditations on First Philosophy. Fourth Edition. Trans. Donald A. Cress. Indi-anapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1998.