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Meditations on First Philosophy

Descartes Most Famous Philosophical Classic

By René Descartes
10-minute read
Audio available
Meditations on First Philosophy by René Descartes

Meditations on First Philosophy (1641) is one of Descartes’s most influential works, known as the source of the classic quote: “I think, therefore I am” or “cogito ergo sum.” These blinks capture Descartes’ thoughts on how we know what we know, and his attempts to prove God’s existence along the way.

  • Students of philosophy
  • People interested in philosophy and the foundations of Western thinking
  • Religious people who are interested in another view of the existence of God

René Descartes was the French philosopher and father of the skeptic tradition that broke away from earlier philosophy based on Aristotelian thought. His work is focused primarily on ontology and epistemology and was both admired and criticized in his day.

Translator Jonathan Bennett is a fellow of both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the British Academy.

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Meditations on First Philosophy

By René Descartes
  • Read in 10 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 6 key ideas
Meditations on First Philosophy by René Descartes
Synopsis

Meditations on First Philosophy (1641) is one of Descartes’s most influential works, known as the source of the classic quote: “I think, therefore I am” or “cogito ergo sum.” These blinks capture Descartes’ thoughts on how we know what we know, and his attempts to prove God’s existence along the way.

Key idea 1 of 6

Our senses deceive us.

What would you do if one of your friends told you little white lies over and over again? After a while, you’d probably stop trusting that friend, and certainly not rely on them for anything important.

What we can rely on, if it’s not other people, are our five senses: sight, smell, touch, taste and hearing. Well, that’s not quite true. Our senses feed us a constant stream of tricks and lies too. Not ready to believe that? Just think about what it’s like to dream.

Dreams can feel incredibly real, so real that we rarely realize that they are just dreams. At least, until we wake up, and start to notice quite how bizarre and absurd those dreams were. Just as painters can make stunningly realistic images of life, the senses create vivid and convincing images in our mind.

Of course, painters often combine ideas from life to create images of things that could never exist in the real world. Think of satyrs, the half-man, half-goat figures that we know from mythology. We know they don’t exist, but still we can be fooled into thinking they do.

It isn’t just in bizarre dreams that our senses can fool us. They can mislead us over the course of our entire lives. How? Senses can be tricked by external forces.

Imagine, for instance, that something evil out there is determined to fool your perception. Sounds far-fetched, but let’s go with it for the moment. They could be tricking your senses without you knowing it – right this very moment.

Descartes drew this reasoning from popular beliefs about demons that were still prevalent during the seventeenth century. We find a more modern example of his argument in the film The Truman Show, where the main character, played by Jim Carrey, is raised in an artificial world where he is constantly filmed. The result is aired as a TV series and watched by millions of viewers. The whole thing is controlled by an “evil genius” TV producer. Truman’s world seems completely real to him, but this couldn’t be further from the actual truth.

So we can’t trust our senses or what we learn from them. We should therefore treat all knowledge with skeptical doubt. Things like our body and the physical world around us might exist, but we can’t be sure of it. So what can we be sure of?

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