Study Questions on Descartes' Meditations

Contact: Dr. Jan Garrett

Slight Modification: February 4, 2008
Additions in Dark Red Color

Parenthesized numbers refer to the pagination in the Cress translation in Ariew-Watkins, Modern Philosophy (Hackett Publishers, 1998). ".1" indicates first column, ".2" indicates second column.

1. To whom does D. dedicate his Meditations? (22) What two questions are chief among those to be proven by philosophy? (22) Why does D. think his proofs will be inadequately perceived by many people? (23) What does D. seek from those to whom he dedicates his work? (24)

Meditation I

2. From what does reason teach us to withhold assent? (28)

3. What broad categories of beliefs is D. going to doubt? (28-29)

4. What thought-experiment does D. propose? (29) Why does D. think such an extreme step needed? (29)

Meditation II

5. How does D. understand "body"? (31.1)

6. What could the most powerful deceiver not accomplish? To what considered judgment must one finally come? (31.1)

7. What attribute alone cannot be detached from me? How long do I exist? (31.1)

8. Am I what is called the human body? Explain. Am I a material spirit or breath? (31.2)

9. Is anything presented to the imagination directly relevant to the understanding I have of myself? (31.2)

10. What kinds of activities fall under "thinking"? (31.2)

11. What is "sensing" in me? Does the existence of sensing commit us to the existence of external objects of sense? (32.1)

12. Consider D's discussion of the wax. What in it do we not recognize with distinctness? (32.2) Is the conception which we have of (the essence of) the wax achieved by the imagination? Explain. (32.2) What seems to be essential to the wax? (32.2, about 10 lines from bottom) What achieves the conception of the essence of the wax? (33.1)

12.1. What is more certain, my own existence or the existence of material bodies? How does D prove his existence from the perception of material objects? (33)

12.2. How are bodies, properly speaking, known? (34.1)

Meditation III

13. What general principle does D. establish? (34.2)

14. What habitual belief do we have which we do not (really) perceive clearly and distinctly? (34.2)

15. Where, according to D., does falsity and error lie--in emotions, in the judgment, or in the will? What is the principal and most frequent error? (35.1)

16. What three possible origins of ideas does D. consider? (35.1-2) What does D. say he knows by experience regarding the second class of ideas? (35.2)

17. What is the difference between "a teaching of nature" and the "light of nature" in D.'s vocabulary? (35.2) What point about the sun does D. use to show that one would do better to trust the latter than the former? (36.1)

18. How would Descartes rank (smallest to greatest) the (objective or formal) reality of the following: bodies, accidents of bodies (material substances), God, finite mental substances (human minds)? (36) What important principle does D. claim to be "evident by the light of nature"? (36.2) How does he support it? (the rhetorical questions immediately following the principle) (36.2) So, what follows? (36.2) Note examples.

By "objective reality," Descartes means the reality that an idea has as an idea.

By "formal reality," he means a reality independent of the human mind.

Spinoza, interpreting Descartes, writes, "when I say a cause contains the perfection of its own effect eminently, I mean the cause contains the perfection of the effect more excellently than the effect itself." (MP, 85)

19. Can the objective reality of our ideas fall short of the perfection of their cause? (37.1) Explain.

20. Must our ideas that represent other men or animals derive from other men or animals? Must ideas that represent angels derive from angels? Explain. (The explanations must differ a bit in the two cases.) (37.1)

21. According to D. now (37.1-2), where might the ideas we have of material bodies have come from, if not from material bodies themselves?

22. What does D. understand by the word "God"? (38.1) Why must we conclude that God necessarily exists? (38.1)

23. Why couldn't the human mind create the idea of God from itself? (38.1) How does D. block the objection that the human being thinks of an infinite substance simply by negation of the notion of finiteness which it derives from itself? (38.1)

24. How does one receive the idea of God? (40.1)

25. How does D. sum up the Third Meditation? (40.2) Why can God not be a deceiver? (40.2)

Meditation IV

26. Between what is the human mind a middle ground? (41.2)

27. Is error something real? What is it? (41.2)

28. What causes does D. suggest that we not seek? (42.1) What traditional 'scientific' school is D. attacking here?

29. Upon what two joint causes do my errors depend? (42.2)

30. Which of our faculties is limited? unlimited? (42.2)

31. Whence do my errors arise? (43.1)

32. How can we avoid error and deception? (43.2-44.2)

33. What is the origin of every clear and distinct conception? (44.2)

Meditation V

34. Of the ideas that one has about material things, insofar as those ideas exist in one's mind, which does Descartes declare "distinctly imagined"? (Perhaps he should have said distinctly conceived.) (45.1) How does this fit with Descartes' idea of nature as a complex machine?

35. How does Descartes prove the existence of God at 46.1 top? How does he respond to the objection that existence is not (at least normally) contained in the concept of a thing? (46.1 mid)

36. The existence of what being provides justification for trusting our memories of prior reasoning? (47.2)

Meditation VI

37. What is the difference between imagination and pure intellection? (48) Can a mind exist without imagination? (48.2)

38. In imagination the mind turns towards what (assuming that it exists!)? (48.2 bottom)

39. On p. 49.1 D. mentions beliefs which he once held but later abandoned or modified. (a) What belief did he hold about the cause of ideas such as extension, shape, color, and odor? (49.2) (b) From what did he believe he could never be separated? (49.2)

40. What distinct idea of body does D. admit? (50.2) What faculties are modes (accidental attributes) of me as a "knowing" substance? (50.2)

41. To what does the faculty of changing location attach? (50.2)

42. My use of the passive faculty of sensing depends upon what? (51.1) Since it cannot be in me, from what two things does it possibly come? If God is not a deceiver and "[He] has given me a great inclination to believe that these ideas issue from corporeal things." what follows? (51.1)

43. What distinction does D. draw between our knowledge of mathematical properties of bodies and our "knowledge" of colors, sounds, etc.? (51.1 bottom-52)

44. What positive role do sense-perceptions play in our lives? (51.2)

45. What conception of "nature" does D. find useful (52.1 bottom)?

46. Is the mind distinct from the body? What justification does D. give here? (53.2)

47. What criterion (test) does D. give for distinguishing wakefulness from dream life? (54-55)