Descartes’ Meditations (Digested)

Continuing what, improbably, could turn out to be a series after all, in which philosophical classics are reduced to their elements as a service to students and scholars.

#3: Descartes’ Meditations

Realised that I’ve never examined the foundations of my beliefs and so I could be wrong about everything. To be honest, I don’t seriously believe I am wrong about anything, but I thought it might be fun to prove it. So, I asked myself, how might I be really, really wrong? Only if something totally far-fetched has happened, such as that I’m actually dreaming, mad or deceived by an evil demon. Still, that’s technically possible so I went to bed feeling progress had been made.

Woke up and realised one thing was certain after all: I am, I exist. (Note to self: catchier slogan needed.) Got carried away and convinced myself I was therefore non-physical and indivisible. Another productive day!

Having my own existence as the only certainty is proving to be rather limiting. Need to find some reason to think other things exist too. A benevolent God would do the job, but can’t come up with proof for his existence. Borrow argument from Aquinas instead. Hope no one notices.

I’m not exactly sure I remember what I’ve been doing all day. Probably no one else will either.

Looking back, Aquinas’s God argument seems a bit lame. Try to think of another. Fail. Steal one more proof from Aquinas instead.

Really need to wrap this thing up today. The hypothesis that God’s existence makes everything trustworthy seems a bit hard to swallow since he seems to let us make so many mistakes. Conclude that he must be doing the best he can. Also, decide that Monday’s doubt that I could be dreaming is silly. Of course I’m not! Dreams are incoherent whereas my arguments make perfect sense.
So, since I exist, God exists, and he wouldn’t trick us, it seems safe to conclude that all is more or less as it appears to be. What a relief!

Bought some lovely gladioli at the garden centre.

Leave a comment ?


  1. And now off to Sweden to cool off with the ugliest woman in all Europe. Hope the Queen doesn’t like to get up early.

  2. Oh no, not an ugly woman! Aren’t there laws against that kind of thing?

  3. But what I was going to say was,

    The hypothesis that God’s existence makes everything trustworthy seems a bit hard to swallow since he seems to let us make so many mistakes.

    And another thing. He also lets dogs have a better sense of smell (and hearing) than we do – what’s up with that? How come he lets bats and dolphins have sonor when we don’t? Trustworthy shmustworthy.

  4. Devin Carpenter

    These are getting better and better.

  5. Barbara DeGroot

    Of course God must be doing the best he can, in fact is this world not “the best of all possible worlds?” Oh, wait…we don’t know that until a few years later. Whatever you do don’t despair, just keep hoeing that garden.

  6. Sean Anderson

    Thanks! I’m sneaking that into my philosophy exam on Monday.

  7. I must say that I’m loving these ‘digested’ blogs, keep it up! But I was under the impression that it was Anselm who Descartes had ‘borrowed’ his ontological argument from, (albeit, with some differences), not Aquinas. Aquinas’ argument was the ‘five proofs’. He would reject Descartes’ argument because it refers only to ‘innate’ ideas that are ‘clear and distinct’. Whereas, Aquinas would point out, the atheist may not have these ideas, so proving them not to be as clear and distinct as Descartes would believe.
    Aquinas felt that there was a very fuzzy concept of a higher being ‘implanted’ in all, but that his ‘five proofs’ were necessary to confirm this. Descartes’ idea was different, it was a logical ‘proof’ only, that could be ‘uncovered’ entirely through reasoning alone.

  8. this digest thingie is super cool. hope it becomes an on going series. may i suggest a special category be made for this?

  9. Donal – you may be right about Anselm. I’ll need to check.
    Johnt – that’s a much better pay off than the gladioli. If these ever get recycled elsehwere, do you mind if I borrow it?
    berto – good idea. I’ll see what I can do.
    Glad people are enjoying these. I’ve got a few more prepared, but lacking a good memory, it won’t be long before I run out of texts I can digest without re-reading them!

  10. Julian Baggini, I hereby waive all copyright laws, go ahead, make me immortal.
    Your magazine is soon coming to my library, thanks to my efforts. It will afford me and the one or two other people who read philosophy an alternative to the innumerable cooking and boating magazines that other patrons wallow in.

    Now if only Descartes had come up with brains in a vat, how anticipatory of modernity !

  11. Oh c’mon. Does the rare woman with an interest in philosophy have to be called ugly? I’d stick to the gladioli…with all due respect to johnt. The Phenomenology of Spirit, abridged, would be a service to humanity.

  12. The ugly bit might go, but it’s the planning a trip to sweden and hoping it’s no too cold which is priceless.

  13. And with all due respect to you Jean K; ugliness is an empirical, experiential and I might add aesthetic fact. There may even exist ugly gladiolas, nature being an uncertain and even cold taskmaster..
    By what standards do we measure beauty if not by the less beautiful, how do we recognize beauty if not by its absence? And if there is a less beautiful then there may, and does, exist the contrary to the beautiful, may I say the antithesis, as love to hate.

    Rest assured I recognize there are also ugly men, thankfully I’m not one of them, so with equal assurance please realize that I meant no slight to women. Hegel was no Brad Pitt.
    And i never would have used the word “rare”, as in “rare woman with an interest in” etc. You have to watch that !

  14. Oh, please. If you mentioned Goethe dropping in to visit Hegel would you bother calling him the ugliest man in Europe? And would that be the only thing you saw fit to mention about him? I don’t think so.

    You seem to have overlooked my retort yesterday. That’s too bad – I meant it as a slight to sexist assumptions.

  15. Rare–yes, women with an interest in philosophy at least used to be rare. I think I erased something in that last message.

    I’m happy to report that the role of Queen Christina was played by no other than the beautiful Great Garbo in a 1933 movie and by Liv Ullman in a later movie. Wikipedia says nothing about her being ugly, but does say she was possibly bisexual and enjoyed cross-dressing.

    Was there a reason you said she was ugly (johnt) or was that a deduction (as in, she was smart, so she must have been ugly?) Just asking…

  16. Ophelia– I certainly read your retort that way!

  17. Jean – Excellent, I’m glad someone did!

  18. Fabio Chiossi

    And, sleeping in my grave, after such a long time, I am still waiting for France to give birth to a philosopher which tought could be nearly as important to the history of philosophy as mine…

  19. Listen, listen, do you not hear the faint rustling (Russelling?) of pages? Is it evidence of clairvoyance that I foresee a profitable tome emerging from these condensations of ineffable wisdom? Answers to these questions, and others, please; Ophelia and Julian….

  20. A quick Google produces lots of references to her being ugly, but only as a baby. Perhaps johnt could quote his sources? Or maybe it was a personal reaction to the Bourdon portraits? What’s an aesthetic fact when it’s at home?

  21. Let’s not assume ugly is a bad thing. I refer you to the lyrics of Pop Will Eat Itself’s “Let’s Get Ugly”:

    She says I’m a bum, she says I’m a rogue
    It’s my style, my third rate backstreet vogue
    She says that I’m fat, I say that she’s thin
    It’s 1987 and ugly is in


    Ugly, oh yeah, she’s my ugly girl
    Ugly, oh yeah, tailor-made for another world
    Ugly, oh yeah, seems to wear it well
    Ugly, oh yeah, we suit each other well

    Now there’s some real philosophy for yer!

  22. Let’s hear it for ugly.

    Not sure Greta Garbo was quite right for the part if the Bourdon portraits are to be believed.

    By the way, Sartre is one of the few male philosophers who’s standardly described as ugly. Women couldn’t get enough of him.

  23. Ophelia & Jean K

    Ophelia, sorry I missed your earlier retort, perhaps it was easy to miss. But I daresay you missed mine or at least the point of it. Again and in short form, ugliness exists ! Now if you wish to deny that we may have an argument. If not, then may I save you some time and inform you not to expect me to bow to your sensitivities, and good luck with them.
    I may add that I have already commented on Hegel’s lack of box office good looks so it matters not who drops in, unless one’s looks further deteriorate with the arrival of visitors.

    Jean K. As a deduction follows from principles, inference, definitions, postulates,and or an evidentiary basis, and as there is lacking any and all of the above in my mention of Christiana’s looks, you may be rid of the notion that I regard her as ugly because she was intelligent. I do like your comment on Sartre which, surprisingly perhaps, puts the matter of appearance in perspective for both of us. Not that Ophelia will understand.

  24. Of course. Women who notice and mock obvious (albeit apparently unconscious) sexism are 1) stupid 2) oversensitive 3) ugly.

    Gee, where have I heard that before…

  25. How could I forget? Descartes was pretty homely himself, I mean that nose, really!

    And did you ever see a portrait of Pascal?
    There, does everybody feel better?
    This, as a minimally sensible person would realize, has nothing to do with their other attributes, influence, and whatever greatness they possessed.

  26. Okay, to drop the sarcasm for a moment –

    Of course this has nothing to do with their other attributes, influence, and whatever greatness they possessed; which is exactly why it stands out that that is the only thing you mentioned about Christina – and that you forgot to mention Descartes’ nose.

    What quantity of minimal sense does it take to get that? That asymmetrical rules cry out for explanation, and that asymmetrical attitudes and assumptions seem like compelling answers. Feminists (male as well as female) have been explaining it for decades, yet it doesn’t sink in.

  27. Johnt–the deduction I was thinking you may have made involved an implicit premise. To be precise–

    (1) Christina was smart.
    (2) All smart women are ugly.
    (C) Christina was ugly.

    I was just asking if you deduced her ugliness! If in fact you observed it, you could just say so.

    But the deeper issue is (as Ophelia points out)–even if ugliness is a fact, and we have evidence she was ugly, why focus on it? Is there an unconscious bias that makes it come to mind quickly?

    Culturally, the idea that beauty and brains don’t go together is deep-seated when it comes to women and not when it comes to men. So we tend to think–Sartre just happened to be ugly. (In fact women adored him.) Whereas perhaps (note this word) we think Christina had to be ugly, because she was smart.

    Come on, Johnt, isn’t it TRUE????

  28. Whereas perhaps (note this word) we think Christina had to be ugly, because she was smart.

    And perhaps that the putative fact that she was ugly trumps the fact that she was smart, and that’s why it’s important to mention it; perhaps even that the putative fact that she was ugly renders her smartness entirely worthless and beside the point and even laughable. Why? Because it’s the first obligation of women to be not ugly, and if they blow that, nothing else they do is worth anything. The first (and often only) thing you’re supposed to notice and report about a woman is her score on the prettiness chart; if it’s low, well, frankly, it’s a punishment to pay her a visit.

  29. Ophelia & Jean K, coming up my definitive biography of Queen Christiana wherein I reveal my true and total feelings, hitherto unknown details of her love life, and who her make men were.
    Until then you must stagger in the dark while ascribing patented and by now hoary assumptions to me which in a word are wrong. Although I can’t resist pulling your, I’m sure, attractive legs, or is that sexist also? Better put, is everything short of adoration and submission sexist. I will let you wrestle with these existential questions as I intend to move on, back in a week or so , vacation, therefore you have time to conjure more torments, wax more indignation, and plan new ways to miss the mark while passionately gripping your own stereotypes.

    Ophelia, The remark about Christiana was a throwaway gag line, as Julian B recognized, everything else you have said, and I mean everything, is based on your own attitudes, not mine. Is that clear and speaking of asymmetry? This includes, and especially, your 3:46 post where you incorporate Jean K’s error and add to it.

    Jean K, certainly a syllogism such as you essay may in it’s simplicity hold valid conclusions, but they are only valid as to the form and the premise held. Excepting the form and/or based on another premise they may.or can be in error. But you know that. Your premise, your inference, there being nothing implied of the sort you refer to, therefore your error and therefore nothing I need explain much less apologize for. As for my focus, please, twenty four words hardly gives much room for focus.

    Both of you constantly seek to impose certain perceived cultural and historical views on my two sentence post, dare I say that this is in fact to prejudge, that it is prejudicial. I would have thought that my 2:47 post of yesterday would have caused some second thoughts, both as to men as well as women, but it was lost in the whirl and mass of global history and transcultural magnitudes quickly applied to one individual and based on two sentences and in response to a satire. My, my, how quick on the draw.

    Wish me a happy vacation.

  30. Have a lovely vacation, and wish me one too..I type while I should be packing. I look forward to your forthcoming tome on the queen.

  31. Better put, is everything short of adoration and submission sexist[?]

    Bingo. That’s exactly it. Well spotted.

  32. I agree with johnt’s last post. It seems ridiculous to postulate that his satirical remark is sexist because he infers, humorously, that Descartes may have entertained such a thought before his move to Sweden. The slight is also trivial when you think of what he is suggesting on the whole; that Descartes was a ninny… ; )…wait, thats not what he was suggesting…hmmmmmm.

    Also, on a more philosophical note, I believe it was Anselm’s ontological argument that Descartes was working off of. If I could only find my notebooks to confirm this.

    One more thing I’ve noticed, and this includes myself– philosophically mined individuals are a sarcastic lot. Always concealing our hands are we not.

  33. philosophically minded that is…although the philosophically minded are probably often philosophically mined.

  34. Here, from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, is a brief explication of Descartes “proof” of God (further reading suggests that the proof acts more as a heuristic device than a serious and thorough affirmation of God’s–odd to use the possessive in this case–existence).
    “1. We have an idea of that which has infinite perfection.
    2. The idea we have of ourselves entails finitude and imperfection.
    3. According to the principle of sufficient reason, there must be as much reality (formally or eminently) in the cause of any idea as (objectively) in the idea itself.
    4. Therefore, the idea we have of infinite perfection originated from a being with infinite formal perfection.
    5. It follows that the idea could not have originated in ourselves or our ideas of ourselves.
    6. The origin of the idea could only be the real existence of the infinite being that we call God.”

    It does appear, if we are to assume that this is accurate, that Descartes was at the very least influenced by Anselm’s ontological argument. However, Descartes’ modification is that the idea of a perfect being does not and cannot originate in the human mind, as Anselm so presumptuously suggests. This is quite consistent with Descartes deductive methodology. Whereas Anselm infers that the idea of perfection requires the existence of perfection–which invites the “perfect island” criticism–Descartes deduces that an idea of the infinite (the selection of infinite is also an amendment) is the result of an infinite being placing–for lack of a better word at the moment– the idea within the confines of a finite existence. The finite being that is capable of contemplating infinite existence. A slight alteration but I think one that has clear and substantial implications. We may all have the capacity to think of perfect beings and islands etc. but the idea of the infinite itself is ubiquitous attribute that we may/do all intuitively share. As such it is something that the presence of the infinite perceivably grants to our consciousness rather than something that our consciousness simply and exclusively conjures up through mental masturbation. Ironically, it is mental masturbation that leads Descartes to this conclusion–or some would say philosophy, take your aesthetic pick. Now, of course, in presenting this I’m interested to discover whether or not Aquinas’ ideas share a closer alliance to Descartes than Anselm’s do.

  35. You have a rather strange set of comments, I must say.

    Though all I originally intended to comment on was the comical accuracy of your Descartes digestion, namely the mirth that followed Thursday’s entry.

    When I studied Descartes I assimilated the six meditations into the six episodes of Star Wars. (The Phantom Menace, The Attack of The Cogito, Revenge of the Causal Adequacy Principle, A New Scope, Ontology Strikes Back and The Return of the Bodies) – My message being thus: Keep the fun in philosophy and All Shall be Well.

  36. She/He who is sure is also inevitably mistaken.If we can trust anything this is it. Ugly,beautiful what does it really matter except to display our lack of depth. And yes Berto this digest thingie really is the greatest.Possibly the most lucid of observations.

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