This is the second part of my reading of Descartes' first two "Meditations". Part I is here.
Descartes is in despair
Everything seems up for grabs. He resolved to latch onto things which are only absolutely certain, like Archimedes' "points". So his first point is this: The only thing that is certain is that nothing is certain. This is not a revelation in the philosophical world, it goes back to Plato. But can anything else be said with such certainty?
Can Descartes say that God exists?
Can Descartes say that malevolent demon in his head exists?
Can Descartes say he exists?
Even if he is deceived on all things, the fact that he is deceived requires him to exist. You cannot be wrong if you do not exist in the first place. As long as you are conscious, no God or demon or argument can convince you that you do not exist.
Okay, so now Descartes knows that "nothing is certain" is untrue. He is certain he must exist in some form. Just don't ask him what form that is.
Being formless is dangerous, because you might assume something is a property of yourself. This revelation, to me, is one of the most important in this meditation. There's a general feeling that cultural narcissism is at an all time high. To be clear, I am not referring to a rise in people's grandiosity, or their preoccupation with their own fantasies about themselves. By narcissism, I specifically am talking about the formless identity that people have adopted, crafted, and nurtured as opposed to actually, y'know, doing things to justify it. It's taking a photo of yourself with your cameras to show you're a photographer, rather than taking photos. It's what TLP called "the most significant social pathology in two generations...". It's also one of the reasons we laid waste to Afghanistan after 9/11.
And Descartes called it out, 600 years ago.
"... So be careful what you pretend to be."
So Descartes exists because his mind exists. What else? He considers his body, next. Can he call himself a "rational animal"? Not yet, he has to go deeper. He at least possesses arms, legs, a back, a head... He is nourished. He walks, talks, and thinks. He knows he possesses some space that is exclusive of others.
But again Descartes affirms that he is not truly sure he has a body. And without a body he can't perceive, nor be nourished. This also means he can't be sure he performs any action. Except thinking, the only action which is truly his own. And so he must exist because he thinks, at least during the times he thinks. And this is the only thing he can be certain of being. Mens sans animus.
This opens up some doors: If he is a thinking thing, then he is a thing that imagines, perceives, affirms, denies, etc. It doesn't matter if what he imagines, perceives, affirms, or denies is false. What's important is that he can apply thought towards it.
With this under his belt, Descartes now considers the tangible. A piece of hardened wax has shape, a certain smell, a sweet taste of honey, a color. When placed near the fire, it loses its shape, its smell diminishes, its color changes. What happened to the thing before? It is still wax, but he cannot describe it the same way. So if this is wax, what was that thing before?
He concludes that the wax was never just the thing before. At that time, it just happened to have those characteristics. Near the fire, it took on another set of characteristics.
The wax is actually something flexible, movable, and extended. It can be shaped into an infinite number of forms, more than one can imagine. And since we can imagine the infinities, we cannot possibly know what it is. Despite this, Descartes can still perceive it as wax. The mind identifies things by bulk categorizations. Of course, these days we have something called chemistry which can characterize that piece of wax at an atomistic level, and tell you exactly why it changes its form. I don't think that matters to Descartes argument. He is saying that there is a temporal quality to identity. You don't just know a thing as it is, you have memory of its previous things. Identity is this continuity. If something is continually changing its identity, you lose track of what it actually is. Just that you know its general form, and its malleable. This is fine for balls of wax. What does it say about your parents?
I don't want to talk about my job, but it's somewhat inescapable to this post. The only thing I will say is this: If there's anything I learned, it's that the world is inherently too complex to understand fully, and so we need to simplify, categorize, and label just to function. This is also not a revelation, though maybe Descartes was the first to spell it out (and why all Western philosophy is essentially a response to his meditations). It's been this way since the first King created a bunch of Lords to do the day-to-day management of his lands.
Interesting to note that Descartes makes no reference to anyone before him. Philosophy is often times a series of responses. Plato's "The Republic" was a response to Socrates'. Machiavelli's "The Prince" was a response to Plato. Descartes responds to no one. Why should he? He started by tearing everything down.