Good Essay On Descartes’ Meaning Of Our Knowledge Of “Body”
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Descartes, along with Spinoza, are the two philosophers to blame for our split understanding of the ‘self’. Although, it can be argued that this ‘split’ has indirectly led to innumerable developments in various fields ranging from science and technology to art and culture, the original Cartesian notion of the body is, to a twenty-first century eye, more than a little problematic. One of his clearest elucidations of what the body half of this split being is found in the Sixth book of his Meditations. It shows how (according to Descartes) the mind and body are separate and lays down a philosophy of body.
The leitmotif of the Meditations is to analyze and judge whether anything can be truly known or exist outside of the mind. Given that what the mind ‘knows’ is only found out through the senses, an understanding of the body is essential and this is what Descartes sets out to do in the sixth book of the Meditations. To understand the idea of body put forth in this meditation, one must understand Descartes’ definition of imagination. To a layman, the imagination is usually described as something infinite, with infinite potential. Descartes quickly dismisses this by laying out a simple thought experiment – if one were to imagine a thousand sided figure, then a 999-sided figure, it is, in the first place, extremely difficult to do so, and in the second, the two are nearly indistinguishable. On the other hand, pure mathematics, or geometry, can quite easily conceive of these figures and many other, much more complex ones as well. Therefore, just as mathematics relies on external phenomena in order to be intelligible, the imagination requires an external object to focus on.
This, Descartes argues, is strong evidence for the existence of external objects or the body, however, it is not conclusive proof. At point it is clear to see that a binary is formed between pure thought, or understanding and the imagination. Clearly, pure thought exists by looking inward at the mind and imagination exists by looking outward at (or perhaps, through) the body. It is then arguable that, if pure thought is proof for the existence of the mind, the imagination can be proof for the body. But a problem is hit upon here – the meditator notes that the imagination is not an essential part of the mind. A mind can exist perfectly well, sensing, understanding and reconstructing the sensible world without ever having recourse to imagination. If the imagination is non-essential, perhaps so is the body.
But this cannot be true, as mentioned earlier, the body is the vehicle for sensation. Ideas and thought is formed after exposure to an external stimulus. The stimulus would have meant nothing at all if there was not a sense-organ (i.e. a body carrying a sense organ) to sense it. Although Descartes is very cautious in his assertions for the existence or non-existence of the body, he goes so far as to acknowledge that the evidence is strong enough to create a very good conjecture that the body does in fact exist. It must be remembered that Descartes believed that the body was an ‘extension’ – a projection of the self into dimensional space. The evidence for this extension is, once again, the senses – feelings of hunger, pain, pleasure, etc. are expressions of the extended body interacting with the space into which it is projected.
Finally, although the Meditator provides many examples of how the physical body may in fact exist, after Descartes’ demon analogy, little can be said about the existence of corporeal matter and it is quite simply impossible to prove that it does in fact, exist. His ideas are admittedly counter-intuitive and difficult to swallow given its hyper-abstraction (which the analogies do not always smoothen). For Descartes, the body is, for all intents and purposes, a very useful tool in creating the mental framework which can be used to search for truth and knowledge, though perhaps not real in itself.
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