Descartes' Argument in Meditation II
About How the Essence of the Wax Is Perceived
An Illustration of Argument Analysis and Reconstruction
Contact: Dr. Jan Garrett
Minor modification January 29, 2007
Part I. Working Up to the Argument Analysis/Reconstruction
The argument analysis here refers to the translation of Descartes' Meditations found in the Modern Philosophy anthology edited by Watkins and Ariew and published by Hackett Publishing Company in 1998.
The passage under discussion begins on page 32.2 (".2" means column 2), line 5 and ends on 33.2 line 14. First let us try to find the conclusion of this passage. Descartes' style is somewhat informal and personal, but the text here is meant to convey an argument.
At first it seems that the passage is about distinctly grasping the nature or essence of the wax. But Descartes' concern for this (clearest at lines 10-11 from the bottom of 32.2, where he says "it is something extended, flexible, and mutable," is limited here. The evidence is that he immediately tries to show that the imagination cannot supply clear and distinct ideas of these aspects of the wax. This indicates that in this passage he is working toward a different conclusion, one more concerned with how we know than what we know.
The real conclusion of this passage emerges on 33.1, lines 8-9: "I perceive it [i.e., what the wax is] through the mind alone." This is reinforced later in the paragraph by repetition: "[The perception of the wax] is an inspection of the mind alone." Here it is clear that Descartes is talking about the power of the mind to reflect on or attend to its own ideas, what he might call pure reason, as distinct from the power of sensing (e.g., seeing or touching) and the power of imagination.
In the paragraph that overlaps columns 1 and 2 on p. 33, Descartes asks "when [did] . . . I perceive more perfectly or evidently [=clearly] what the piece of wax was"? Not "when I first saw it . . . by the external sense [of sight] or . . . by imagination." And slightly later, "when I distinguish the wax from its external forms, as if stripping it of its clothing, and look at it in its nakedness, then . . . I cannot perceive it thus without a human mind." (The peculiar characteristic of a human mind is generally thought to be reason.)
So, how does Descartes reach this conclusion? Apparently by setting up a three-way disjunction. I grasp the essence of the wax
(a) by sense or
(b) by imagination or
(c) by "mind alone" (pure reason).
There is a fourth option, that he cannot grasp the essence of the wax at all, but he does not really entertain this seriously. (We see later, at the beginning of Meditation V, that he thinks the essence of bodies, of which the piece of wax is a nice example, is extension or the capacity to occupy space. He apparently thinks that he is approaching this knowledge already in Meditation II when he notes that, throughout its physical transformations, the wax remains an extended thing.)
To show, then, that he must know the essence of the wax by reason he must prove that he does not know it by sense or imagination. That means we should look for arguments (a) that he does not know it by sense and (b) that he does not know it by imagination. These arguments are in fact given at the top of 32.2 and the bottom of 32.2 (spilling over to top 33.1) respectively. (a) and (b) are intermediate steps (=intermediate conclusions), and we should expect them to play a part in supporting the final conclusion.
This argument seems to make use of the following statements as ultimate premises.At first the wax seems to have color, scent, shape, size, hardness, and coldness. (top 32.2)
These may be grouped together as sensory qualities.
These qualities change without the wax ceasing to be what it is. (mid 32.2)
The wax seems to remain flexible and mutable and always an extended thing. (bottom 32.2)
The imagination cannot run through all the possible changes included under mutability. (bottom 32.2)
The wax can be extended in ways that I cannot accurately imagine. (top 33.1)
Using what we have discovered we can proceed to present a semi-formal argument reconstruction. Ideally, your argument analysis paper would have something like the following form (covering different material).
Part II. The Argument Analysis/Reconstruction Itself
Let's number the previously mentioned ultimate premises for convenient reference and distinguish the stated premises (P) from the assumption used as a premise (A). Additional assumptions will appear as we go.(P1) At first the wax seems to have color, scent, shape, size, hardness, and coldness. (top 32.2)P1 and P2, together with A1, almost seem to reach the intermediate conclusion (or intermediate step) that the sensory qualities cannot be the essence of the wax. But they also require an assumption that has not yet been made explicit:
(A1) These may be grouped together as sensory qualities.
(P2) These qualities change without the wax ceasing to be what it is. (mid 32.2)
(P3) The wax seems to remain flexible and mutable and always an extended thing. (bottom 32.2)
(P4) The imagination cannot run through all the possible changes included under mutability. (bottom 32.2)
(P5) The wax can be extended in ways that I cannot accurately imagine. (top 33.1)(A2) Whatever aspects of a thing disappear while the thing remains cannot be the essence of the thing.With that assumption we can argue for an intermediate step (IS)(IS1) The sensory qualities cannot be the essence of the waxFrom there we can argue for another intermediate step(IS2) The sensory faculty does not grasp the essence of the wax. (see mid 32.2)if we make the assumption (as Descartes seems to do)(A3) Only sensory qualities are grasped by the faculty of sense.
Another important assumption enables Descartes to proceed:(A4) The essence of a thing is something that remains when its other aspects change.Together with P3 and P4, A4 lets him conclude (again, as an intermediate step)(IS3) The imagination cannot grasp the essence of the wax conceived of something mutable and flexible. (see bottom 32.2)P5 and part of P3 ("the wax seems to remain always an extended thing") support yet another intermediate conclusion about the imagination(IS4) The imagination cannot grasp the essence of the wax conceived as something extended. (see top 33.1)From the last two intermediate steps Descartes concludes--it's still not the final conclusion--(IS5) The imagination cannot grasp the essence of the wax.We know what Descartes wants to prove. He can get there from IS2 and IS5 if he makes two more assumptions that are implicit in his line of thought:(A5) I can grasp the essence of the wax.From these two assumptions, it follows that
(A6) If I can grasp the essence of the wax, I can grasp it by imagination, by sense, or by pure reason.(IS6) I can grasp the essence of the wax by imagination, by sense, or by pure reason.But IS2 rules out one of the alternatives and IC5 rules out another. Therefore,(FC) I can grasp the essence of the wax by pure reason alone. (33.1 lines 8-9)