Wax Passage by Descartes

Wax Passage by Descartes :

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.

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 Solid 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 this 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 that 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, Which he claims to perceive "clearly and distinctly", yet he is not willing to trust 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 been erected, forcing Descartes' thoughts into narrow constraints, in order that 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 Of thought to follow. The essence of the passage is that Descartes believes and attempts to convince the reader that the "clear and distinct" ideas one 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 instance, this piece of wax. Its color, 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 sensory 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, what is left is the "essence" of the wax. This essence can manifest itself to him 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 wax was not brought about by his faculty of imagination. With the elimination of the senses, and then the elimination of the imagination, what is left must 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 been rather 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 any 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 by the individual. "A blind man can form no notion of colors… a deaf man of 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 was matters of fact, however, that Hume found "a subject worthy of curiosity, to enquire what is the nature of that evidence, which assures us 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. This 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 come from the intellect and not the senses was critical to his ultimate goal in 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 experiences.

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