Rene Descartes, regarded as “the father of western philosophy” in his book “Principles of Philosophy” follows up and elaborates on concepts which he engaged in his prior book “Meditations”, for which he received notable criticisms. A highly revered philosopher, Descartes posits, refutes, discusses variated thoughts concerning knowledge and the certainty of it, in constructing a system to answer the question of how does one know what an object (in this evaluation the object is me, in terms of a human category) is?
To begin understanding Descartes’ metaphysical system and me as a human category within it, the first step is to identify and classify the narrower concept of ontology and its’ elements within metaphysics. Ontology is best understood as a sub-field of metaphysics that is concerned with the nature of being and the types of things that are in existence. Descartes’ proposition 48, “All objects of our perception may be regarded either as things or affections of things, or as eternal truths. . .” (Descartes, 175), proposes that all objects that we perceive can be regarded as things or affections relative to them, or separately as eternal truths which have no existence outside our thought. He continues to describe that we as humans naturally regard items such as substance, duration, order, number and any other item of this kind as things, however he recognizes classes of things differently than the former pattern. He says, “I recognize only two ultimate classes of things: first, intellectual or thinking things, i.e. those which pertain to mind or thinking substance; and secondly, material things, i.e. those which pertain to extended substance or body” (175). He classifies that perception, volition and all of the modes capable both of perceiving and willing are to be attributed to thinking substance (mind), while regards to extended substance (body), belong the aspects of dimensions, shape, motion, position and other resemblances.
Additionally, Eternal truths according to Descartes are truths which reside in our mind as “common notions or axioms” (176). The notion what is done cannot be undone is an example of such truth. Additionally, Descartes notes that it is not possible to conscript eternal truths to a list mentioned above as there are countless such truths.
As ontology is a sub-field of metaphysics, there are other encompassing details in metaphysics. Metaphysics as I best understand is the general inquiry about nature and being of reality. To elaborate on the previous discussion according to Descartes, there exists a hierarchy as well distinctions between all things. In his metaphysical system all things have varying degrees of formal perfection, or reality or both, as a function of how metaphysically dependent or indifferent they are. Descartes further classifies these variations in three degrees, first of which is a fully independent and infinite substance, which does not depend on anything else and is fully perfect and real. This infinite substance is God who is beneath everything in that this infinite substance substantiates all other existences and is the infinite objective reality. The next degree is partially independent and is understood as finite substances, which is partly perfect and real contingent only on the infinite substance itself. As a category of human being, I am located and placed in this context as a unity of two finite substances, mind and body. The last degree in this system is one which is not independent at all and is based on finite substances. It is not real in itself and can be regarded as the modes or qualities/properties which are highly mutable and extremely contingent.
As previously located in Descartes’ system I am a finite substance contingent upon the infinite substance God. In his discussions Descartes explains his theory of substance dualism which I understand as that there are two substances coexisting, yet are independent of each other’s existence. My finitude is composed of a unity between two finite substances, my mind and body, which he classified as thinking substance and extended substance respectively. According to Descartes, for all substances there are principle attributes which are their essential qualities. Additionally, there are modes of the principle attribute which constitute as properties of a substance and are determinant ways of being a principle attribute. As I engage in a process of real distinction of one of my finite substances my mind, it is apparent that it’s principle attribute is the process of thought by which it is also definable. The process of distinction continues onto making modal distinctions such that ideas can be understood as a mode of thinking. Descartes’ proposition 32 states, that all modes of thinking can be sorted into two modes; the operation of our intellect which is perception, and operation of the will which is volition (171). Now making a real distinction for my body the extended substance, it’s principle attribute is that of extension. However, when making modal distinction for the extended substance it is clear that there are two sets of qualities, primary and secondary. Here secondary qualities are the qualities we encounter first in an experiential order as opposed to primary qualities. Secondary qualities of body are understood as features which our mind processes dependent on the observer such as color and touch which are inherently dependent upon primary qualities. For example, if I consume water that is in motion and near its’ gaseous state, I will burn myself and experience pain. However, this experience of pain is not a feature of the water itself but, it is how we human beings perceive the primary quality of the water in motion. Primary qualities can be measured numerically such as temperature, and so can be grasped clearly. While secondary qualities cannot be grasped mathematically and not so clearly or distinctly. All of this according to Descartes can be understood as that everything in the world is colorless, tasteless and lacks feel, and that it is our mind with sense perception that adds meaning.
Descartes’ metaphysical system purposes to arrive at knowledge which is indubitably true so that we may avoid error. As a human category we have developed and accepted preconceived opinions from the early ages of infancy, as we have lacked the ability to entirely and properly reason due to the relationship between time and physiological development. These preconceived opinions, or so we believed them to be truths may have been adequate at a time when in our infancy we did not possess a sufficiently developed faculty to reason however, they contain errors (33) because it is based upon contingent and dependent behavior upon other finite substances in the world. It is because of these errors that we must work through our beliefs, sorting and structuring, thereby recognizing criteria and principles as to what is justified rationally, and what is merely a function or result of an arbitrary circumstance. As anything which is thoroughly examined with amplified skepticism, and survives accordingly from this process, can be relied upon durable foundation for knowledge. In Descartes’ 1st and 2nd propositions he declares that in order to engage in the aforementioned process not only must we in our life, even for once doubt everything but also, that what is doubtful should be considered false. Where do we begin his process of doubting? According to Descartes, “… our initial doubts will be about the existence of objects of sense-perception and imagination” (160-161). Reasons being firstly we have caught out the senses when they were in error and secondly it is evident that our senses cannot be trusted as in our sleep we experience the same sensory perceptions as we do awake, proving contradiction and the unreliability of our senses. The skepticism should be directed not to the individual item itself but the faculty that acquired and affirmed the knowledge. It is our affirmation that leads to error, as the scope of will encompasses our intelligence, and that ideas and perceptions are not false in so much as a causation of error, but that falsity arises from my affirming or denying things I am not certain of.
So how do we ascertain knowledge that something is true so that we never misuse our volition and err? According to Descartes we can know something is true when we know it clearly and distinctly – his criterion of certainty. Descartes in proposition 45, “I call . . . within itself only what is clear” (175). He explains that a perception is clear when it is present to, and accessible by the mind without hindrance. A perception is distinct similar to the concept of clear, as well as when it when it is sharply distinguishable from all others and only contains clarity within itself. As so, having a clear perception is a necessary condition to have a distinct perception, while we can have clear perceptions which is not necessarily distinct. We can absolutely trust clear and distinct perceptions as our mental and intellectual faculties have been created by the supremely perfect being, God. God is non-deceptive, as deception is a quality of imperfection, a contradiction of His perfectness. As a perfect creator God would not make us so that we are capable of being deceived by clear and distinct perceptions which we have refined from our mental and intellectual faculty. So, we can trust that when we perceive something as clearly and distinctly true, we can be certain that it is true. After these evaluations we see that avoiding error is a matter of restraining our will from affirming knowledge that does not follow from clear and distinct perceptions. In this case of clear and distinct perception of our finitude, the unity of finite substances mind and body; I can know my myself more certainly through ‘cogito’, as the act of thinking itself requires and proves existence. As for the body I can be certain of its’ existence by clearly perceiving and being conscious that I in fact do have a body. To further cement this we engage the body in causal terms distinctly, recognizing my body has primary qualities such that of a certain height, weight and other physiological content.
Descartes’ system is a more reliable approach to avoiding error that inspires confidence in my mental faculties and dispels doubt relative to all-perfect God.
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