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The Role of Senses to Rene Descartes

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In Ren? Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, he argues that the senses do not accurately help us understand the world. Descartes writes that he has begun to doubt all of his ideas. He decides that all those ideas come from the senses, which are not trustworthy. In the first few meditations, Descartes shows that one can use their senses to help them understand the nature of things, but the senses alone are insufficient to determine veracity. Descartes makes this argument through his discussion of the dream, his own existence, and the wax. Through these examples, Descartes proves that the role of the senses is in the mind more than it is in the body, showing that mind and body are separate.

For Descartes, dreams are evidence that one’s perceptions can be deceptive. Descartes argues that dreaming can prove the lack of use for senses in the body. When one is dreaming, they usually do not know they are dreaming. If one does not know they are dreaming, then one cannot know when they are awake. Descartes writes, “surely whatever I had admitted until now as most true I received either from the senses or through the senses. However, I have noticed that the senses are sometimes deceptive; and it is a mark of prudence never to place our complete trust in those who have deceived us even once” (Descartes 14). If the senses are felt in a dream as well as in reality, Descartes argues, then one can not know if they are in fact dreaming or awake. One may conclude that any knowledge that relies on the senses should be examined, as it could be deception. Descartes writes that any given situation could be a deception of the senses. Even a realistic situation such as sitting by the fire in a gown could be just a dream, “how often does my evening slumber persuade me of such ordinary things as these: that I am here, clothed in my dressing gown seated next to the fireplace – when in fact I am lying undressed in bed” (Descartes 14). Descartes can feel the warmth of the fire in his dream so much that it does seem real. Moreover, if the senses make him believe that he can feel warmth, he cannot trust the warmth of the fire when he is awake. Descartes’ dream argument shows that although the senses help lead to understanding, one’s senses cannot determine truth. The senses can help one understand things like Descartes’ senses allow him to understand that fire is warm. In this case, the senses can not determine whether Descartes’ is feeling the warmth of the fire or dreaming the warmth of the fire. While dreaming, Descartes thinks of the warmth but in reality, he feels the warmth, showing mind and body are not one thing.

Descartes argues that doubt is the only way for him to discern between truths and falsities. If doubt is the only way for him to distinguish this, then determining truth, for Descartes, cannot be done through the body. It must be done through the mind and through thought. Descartes writes in his Second Meditation, “what then will be true? Perhaps just the single fact that nothing is certain” (Descartes 17). Descartes is arguing that the only thing a person can know is that things can be doubtful. If that person is doubting then that person must be something; that person exists. To understand this, one must use their thought. One’s body will only aid further understanding. This argument also stands for things that are knowable without sense experience but on intellectual experience.

Descartes further argues that the mind and body are separate through the use of his wax argument. When one describes something, the senses offer clues to how one can describe it. Descartes describes the wax, “…it has not yet lost all the honey flavor. It retains some of the scent of flowers…” (Descartes 21), and so on. Descartes gains the knowledge of these characteristics by using his senses. He knows it smells like honey because he is able to smell it. This idea goes for all the other characteristics and the corresponding sense. Descartes argues that the senses give one the image of an object, but not the knowledge of what that object truly is. The argument of the wax continues by Descartes heating the wax. The wax loses those characteristics that are sensed. This argument proves that the senses do determine traits of a substance but do not determine the nature of the substance, “so what was there in the wax that was so distinctly grasped? Certainly none of the aspects that I reached by means of the senses. For whatever name under the senses…has now changed; and yet the wax remains” (Descartes 21). While all the characteristics gained by sense have changed, the wax is still the same substance. The senses tell Descartes that things have changed, but he knows the object is still wax. He is using his rational thought. The senses provide the appearance of the thing. But when those appearances contradict each other one must disclaim those appearances as the thing itself. Descartes argues that the senses are a thing of the body, not of the mind. The mind tells you it is wax while the body tells you it is cold, hard, scented, and so forth. Descartes argues that this is because the senses do not belong to the object. In the case of the wax, “let us focus our attention on this and see what remains after we have removed everything that does not belong to the wax; only that it is something extended, flexible, and mutable” (Descartes 21). These things for Descartes are the wax itself, not the traits gained by sense experience.

In Descartes’ Meditations, he successfully argues that the role of the senses is in the mind more than it is in the body. Through further analysis, this argument proves that the mind and the body are separate. Saying that if one uses his or her mind to determine something without the use of his or her body, then these must be two separate beings. Through Descartes’ argument of the wax, his own existence, and the dream, he effectively argues this point. The wax provides a visual of something typically determined by senses that are further broken down into something that can only be truthful with the use of the brain and of knowledge. Descartes’ trial of his own existence provides the knowledge that the power of senses cannot provide truth but the power of the mind is strong enough to prove even the existence of a person. The dream presents the idea that the senses are untrustworthy. Through these small anecdotes of the senses, we gain a full picture of what the senses can and cannot do. What this argument proves is that the body and mind are separate beings with different purposes. These two beings work together to help us understand the sensible world.

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The Role of Senses to Rene Descartes. (2018, Jun 17). GradesFixer. Retrieved March 24, 2023, from
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