Category: rationalism


I wanted to remind you of the point of the stuff we’d looked at – why did Descartes bother to sit in his oven searching for certainty? What was the story? So we wrote  a little note that was similar to what follows except I’ve tried to improve and clarify it. And I’ve added a long rambling introduction. 

Descartes was working in a difficult period, (aren’t we all?), he was very keen on the new scientific thinking or ‘natural philosophy’ as it was called, which had begun to question the dominant religious ideology of the time. It was only 100 years since Copernicus had rather upset the church by demonstrating the ‘revolutionary’ idea that the Earth revolved around the sun, thus shifting ‘man’ from the centre of the universe where God had apparently put him. 

Descartes himself was big on maths inventing Cartesian coordinates by which you can identify the precise spot at which a fly is located on a ceiling!  Anyway, he wanted to apply the new ‘scientific’ way of thinking to the most fundamental questions like ‘is Scott right about the Matrix?’  He wanted to turn the rigour of rational thought inward and examine the contents of his mind. But we could also read his Meditations as a program for rebuilding society: Descartes wanted to sweep away superstition and received wisdom and replace it with rationally constructed principles.  He also wanted to show that he could prove a) the power of ‘men’ to use rational thought and b) that God existed. If he could use the power of rational thought to prove that God existed then he hoped the church might see the rational enquiring mind as less threatening and more helpful.

So, if Descartes was to challenge all the strange ideas of his time he had to have a strong foundation for his own knowledge claims. that foundation is of course provided by his ‘cogito’, and on this point of certainty that he ‘grounds’ his epistemology. The cogito is thus ‘foundational’. 

Having established beyond any scepticism the certainty of his existence as a thinking thing, Descartes can claim epistemological grounds for his subsequent ideas about the nature of the physical world that he perceives through his senses, (like the wax) but knows and understands through his faculty of Reason.

John Locke, some 50 years later, rejects Descartesʼ ideas as to how to ground knowledge. For Locke the mind is a blank slate – a tabula rasa, and all the ideas, all the knowledge that we come to possess comes to us through our senses. 

This dispute sets up a philosophical debate that has, in various forms, rumbled on into contemporary philosophy. 

The argument can be summed up in basic terms as a dispute about how the kinds of things that seem to go on inside our heads relate to the kinds of things that seem to go on outside our heads. Do we have accurate representational knowledge of the world? Is that even a sensible question? 

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Below is a revised, redrafted and extended (hurrah! they cry) version of the various notes I have written with you and last year’s lot on this wax business. It’s got quite long and I possibly repeat myself a little, but it has been useful to me to re-read and re-write it, so I hope it will help you.  I suppose it represents a kind of response to the wax essay question, but try not to rip me off too much. (You might be better off writing your response before you read it).
Anyway …


Descartes’ ‘Meditations’ are an attempt to find the foundations of objective (certain and unchanging) knowledge. Descartes believes that if he can find an Archimedian point – just one thing about which there can be no doubt then he will be able to ground all his other ideas. It is an attempt to construct a complete epistemology – a theory of knowledge – by building, piece by piece (brick by brick) on his foundation of certainty. (The cogito)


Having found his one point of certainty, that he exists as a ‘thinking thing’ Descartes tries to work out the status of the ideas that run through this ‘thinking thing’ that he is. His problem is that most of his ideas seem to come through his senses and he has already shown these to be unreliable and deceiving.


He decides that this thinking thing is a thing that doubts, perceives, affirms, denies, wills, does not will, that imagines also and which feels.’ These activities of the mind are the more certain the less they have to do with the physical world. Therefore the imagination, which seems to build its ideas from perceptions of the physical world is less trustworthy than, for example, the act of doubting, (Remember Descartes prefers geometry to geography for similar reasons.)


In his Second Meditation, having pushed his scepticism, his method of doubt, through arguments concerning illusion and dreams and on to the point of considering that a malignant demon might be feeding him illusions about the world, Descartes, finally arrives at his point of certainty, ‘I am, I exist‘, he claims, and goes on to say that this ‘must be true whenever I assert it or think it.‘ To be thinking the thought of one’s existence is, in itself, proof of that existence, he says.


Although Descartes is now certain of his existence as a mental entity he is still in doubt about the thoughts and ideas that he has as a thinking thing. (where do they come from? how trustworthy are they? are some more trustworthy than others?) He thinks again about the ideas that seem to come to him through the senses and begins to reconsider the physical world and the way he perceives it in order to understand how it is that he can be certain about his mental existence, but in doubt about the physical world.


In a famous passage he considers the way his senses give him perceptions of a piece of wax, and how those perceptions are utterly different and distinct depending on whether the wax is hard or melted. He concludes that although we normally understand our senses as providing us with understanding: to ‘see’ something is to understand it we believe, the example of the wax shows Descartes that ‘Something that I thought I saw with my eyes … was really grasped solely by my mind’s faculty of judgment.


Descartes discussion of the wax is central to understanding his notion of what it is to be a human being. It is his ability to conceive (have a concept of) the wax that, for him, demonstrates the power of rational thought. He concludes that because the information given to him by his senses about the wax is insufficient to allow him to know that the wax remains the same thing after it changes all its sensible qualities, it must therefore be his ‘reason‘, his faculty of judgement that gives him knowledge of the wax. It is as if through the power of rational thought the sum of his understanding is greater than the understanding his senses alone could provide. This ‘added power’ provided by ‘reason’ is the underlying principle of Rationalist philosophy.


Descartes believes that knowledge of the external world is gained through the mind’s understanding (judgement) of the information we receive through the senses. The faculty of judgement is a mental capacity (ability) that brings together the ‘raw’ and potentially incoherent information of the senses and allows us to understand.  This makes him a rationalist as opposed to an empiricist. (we’re doing them next).


For Descartes, this wax business confirms his belief that, he can know his internal world – his mental processes – better and more certainly than he can the external physical world. This emphasises the separation and the difference of the two ‘stuffs’ mental and physical and makes clear his dualism’. 










We realised that we were a bit shaky on our understanding of what is meant by ‘reason‘ or ‘rationalism‘ in philosophy, so we drew a big diagram called ‘The Evolution of Reason’.

The point was to show how the word has meant different things at different times and to different people (and still does).  

At its most simple level reason involves the ability to think, understand and draw conclusions in an abstract way; to be able to play with ideas in your mind. 

For Rationalists the important thing is that reason allows us to develop concepts that outstrip the information that sense experience can provide and thereby provides us with information about the world that experience does not. That we can know more about the world than sense experience provides. 

In this way, ‘reason‘ can sometimes be seen as a kind of special power or faculty that makes human beings different from other animals that apparently are not rational. From this you can see how people like Descartes could conceive of reason as a ‘god-given’ faculty that would allow us at least of glimpse of God’s rationally created universe. Sort of thing! 



We also worked through some stuff from Gareth Southwell’s http://www.philosophyonline.co.uk/ ‘Theory of knowledge’, unit 2, ‘Rationalism’, and tried to work out what ‘a priori’ ideas were. As ever things were less straightforward than they seemed and we veered from thinking some things were to nothing was to back again. (Will was best at this back and forth business, but that’s a sign of a thinking man!).


Eventually we worked out that we need to distinguish two ways of understanding of ‘apriori’:
1. ideas that are innate but may have to be ‘found’ through the use of our ‘Reason’ or brought out through ‘experience’ or ‘teaching’ (like Plato’s Socrates and the slave boy).
2. ideas that are true ‘before’ (in the sense of independent of or outside of experience) like maths, geometry etc.