Descartes' Wax Argument

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The purpose of the wax argument is designed to provide a clear and distinct knowledge of “I”, which is the mind, while corporeal things, “whose images are framed by thought, and which the senses themselves imagine are much more distinctly known than this mysterious ‘I’ which does not fall within the imagination” (66). Through the wax argument, Descartes’ demonstrates that corporeal things are perceived neither through our senses nor imagination, but through our intellect alone. In this argument, you will see that there is cause to doubt Descartes’ analysis of the wax and his method of philosophical reasoning. Descartes makes a careful examination of what is involved in the recognition of a specific physical object, like a piece of wax. By first describing the wax in a manner such that “everything is present in the wax that appears needed to enable a body to be known as distinctly as possible” (67), he shows how easily our senses help to conceive our perception of the body. But even if such attributes are modified or removed, we still recognize the changed form, as the same piece of wax. This validates Descartes’ claim that “wax itself never really is the sweetness of the honey, nor the fragrance of the flowers, nor the whiteness, nor the shape, nor the sound” (67), and the only certain knowledge we gain of the wax is that “it is something extended, flexible, and mutable” (67). This conclusion forces us to realize that it is difficult to understand the true nature of the wax, and its identity is indistinguishable from other things that have the same qualities as the wax. After confirming the nature of a human mind is “a thinking thing” (65), Descartes continues that the nature of human mind is better known than the nature of the body. I find the particular structure of the argument rather problematic because Descartes built this knowledge of the human mind with an apparent belief that the body of wax already exists. Since he has not established the existence of matter, there would not be any wax for the discussion. He has no right to determine the precise identity of the mind, provided that any concept defined in relation to the matter should be considered uncertain at this time. Descartes also indicates that the nature of the wax can be understood only by our imagination. When the wax is melted, evaporated or boiled, there are many more changes in... ... middle of paper ... a mark of prudence never to place our complete trust in those who have deceived even once” (60). Since our sensation is deceptive, the argument which is founded upon this uncertain faculty, should also be a subject of doubt. While this claim stands, the wax argument should not be regarded as a reliable foundation whereupon clear and distinct knowledge can be established. From the preceding considerations, it is clear that there is an underlying presumption that the wax already exists. But since the Second Meditation should follow the course of his doubt, he fails to convince us that we should judge the human mind as more distinct than the body, without making any recognition of what is external to the mind. More precisely, it is impossible to realize the mind as a distinct thing unless there is already consciousness of an external body from which it is distinct. In conclusion, this distinction cannot be made without first acknowledging the existence of each being: the wax is distinct from the mind as much as the mind is distinct from the wax. Our perception of the body can cease to be obtained in any way by our senses, therefore, our knowledge of the wax remains uncertain.
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