Philosophers use many examples to explain hypothetical and conceptual concepts that can explain their ideas more comprehensively and Descartes’ “wax argument” is one incredible example. In the “Second Meditation,” Rene Descartes uses the example of candle wax in an attempt to prove which elements about human beings are superior, the body or the mind. Descartes uses candle wax as a guideline to show how uncertain our imagination is in the physical world and the importance of the mind in facilitating the accurate perception of our world.
How would you define the “I?” According to Descartes, the I, or the thing that thinks is something that does more than just understand and think, as it can also imagine and sense. In the Second Meditation, the Mediator starts by considering a piece of wax by using his senses to decipher what makes it up the “wax.” From a physical viewpoint, the examination of its essential properties can be summed up in how it smells, looks, and feels as it appears to us. But when the wax is later placed close to fire, it changes form when it melts but to the observer, it remains the same wax as before. The Mediator therefore muses that since we understand that the wax is still the same, and not by our senses, then we must be gaining this knowledge through some other way. The conclusion, therefore, is that he must have known that the wax is the same through intellect alone. Essentially, even though the wax has undergone changes, we are still able to perceive it as being wax and this demonstrates that while our senses help to explain the things around us, our minds use this information to know what the thing truly is, even after it changes. Thus, while senses help us understand the difference in the distinctive characteristics of things, our minds or intellect, enables us to determine what things are rationally.
For example, take the scenario when it might be raining and we observe that on the street, there are countless hats and umbrellas but because of the heavy pouring, we cannot see very clearly. Automatically, we might say that there are people walking or running in the rain, even though we can’t see their faces and confirm that they are actually people and not floating hats and umbrellas. In such an instance, our intellect, and not our eyes (sense of sight) allows us to reach the conclusion. This wax argument is important because it shows that while our bodies use senses to determine the existence of objects, our minds enable us to perceive them for what they truly are. Descartes contemplates that our minds are responsible for the definite recognition and classification of objects such as wax and which is more powerful than just our senses. When we observe the wax in a liquid form, we do not feel, smell, or see it as the former solid wax but still, our mind recognizes its essence even when it changes physically.
Descartes’ wax argument is essential in helping us understand our perception process especially when we cannot trust or use our senses. The senses cannot say that the solid and melted wax are the same, but when coupled with intellect, we can organize what we observe and simultaneously make sense of it. As the senses collect data on various information in our world, the intellect helps us to understand its nature. Descartes’ argument came forth as a critique of Aristotle’s theory of knowledge that credited the senses as the origin of all our knowledge. Descartes, while honoring the role of the senses in informing us of our world, he adds that without intellect, our perceptions will not make any sense. The promotion of the mind’s status to human beings worked to enforce Descartes argument that the mind is better known to us than our bodies. He shows that the “I” is definitely a thing that thinks and exists.
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