on First Philosophy by Rene Descartes – Guided reading

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1. SEVERAL years have now elapsed since I first became aware that I had accepted, even

from my youth, many false opinions for true, and that consequently what I afterward based on

such principles was highly doubtful; and from that time I was convinced of the necessity of

undertaking once in my life to rid myself of all the opinions I had adopted, and of commencing

anew the work of building from the foundation, if I desired to establish a firm and abiding

superstructure in the sciences. But as this enterprise appeared to me to be one of great

magnitude, I waited until I had attained an age so mature as to leave me no hope that at any

stage of life more advanced I should be better able to execute my design. On this account, I

have delayed so long that I should henceforth consider I was doing wrong were I still to

consume in deliberation any of the time that now remains for action. To-day, then, since I have

opportunely freed my mind from all cares and am happily disturbed by no passions, and since I

am in the secure possession of leisure in a peaceable retirement, I will at length apply myself

earnestly and freely to the general overthrow of all my former opinions.

2. But, to this end, it will not be necessary for me to show that the whole of these are false–a

point, perhaps, which I shall never reach; but as even now my reason convinces me that I

ought not the less carefully to withhold belief from what is not entirely certain and indubitable,

than from what is manifestly false, it will be sufficient to justify the rejection of the whole if I

shall find in each some ground for doubt. Nor for this purpose will it be necessary even to deal

with each belief individually, which would be truly an endless labor; but, as the removal from

Descartes decides to examine all

his former opinions.

He decides to withhold belief from

what is dubitable; and to start from

the most basic and foundational of

his beliefs.

below of the foundation necessarily involves the downfall of the whole edifice, I will at once

approach the criticism of the principles on which all my former beliefs rested.

3. All that I have, up to this moment, accepted as possessed of the highest truth and certainty, I

received either from or through the senses. I observed, however, that these sometimes misled

us; and it is the part of prudence not to place absolute confidence in that by which we have

even once been deceived.

4. But it may be said, perhaps, that, although the senses occasionally mislead us respecting

minute objects, and such as are so far removed from us as to be beyond the reach of close

observation, there are yet many other of their informations (presentations), of the truth of

which it is manifestly impossible to doubt; as for example, that I am in this place, seated by the

fire, clothed in a winter dressing gown, that I hold in my hands this piece of paper, with other

intimations of the same nature. But how could I deny that I possess these hands and this body,

and withal escape being classed with persons in a state of insanity, whose brains are so

disordered and clouded by dark bilious vapors as to cause them pertinaciously to assert that

they are monarchs when they are in the greatest poverty; or clothed in gold and purple when

destitute of any covering; or that their head is made of clay, their body of glass, or that they are

gourds? I should certainly be not less insane than they, were I to regulate my procedure

according to examples so extravagant.

5. Though this be true, I must nevertheless here consider that I am a man, and that,

consequently, I am in the habit of sleeping, and representing to myself in dreams those same

things, or even sometimes others less probable, which the insane think are presented to them in

their waking moments. How often have I dreamt that I was in these familiar circumstances,

that I was dressed, and occupied this place by the fire, when I was lying undressed in bed? At

the present moment, however, I certainly look upon this paper with eyes wide awake; the head

which I now move is not asleep; I extend this hand consciously and with express purpose, and

I perceive it; the occurrences in sleep are not so distinct as all this. But I cannot forget that, at

He wonders whether he should

stop believing his senses, because

they have sometimes deceived


It seems that some basic

deliverances of our senses are

certain. If I put them in doubt, I

would be considered mad.

But what if I were dreaming?

Descartes remembers that in

dreams he has often been deceived

by illusions. Now, the problem is

that there are no marks that help us

distinguish between dreaming and

being awake.

other times I have been deceived in sleep by similar illusions; and, attentively considering

those cases, I perceive so clearly that there exist no certain marks by which the state of waking

can ever be distinguished from sleep, that I feel greatly astonished; and in amazement I almost

persuade myself that I am now dreaming.

6. Let us suppose, then, that we are dreaming, and that all these particulars–namely, the

opening of the eyes, the motion of the head, the forth- putting of the hands–are merely

illusions; and even that we really possess neither an entire body nor hands such as we see.

Nevertheless it must be admitted at least that the objects which appear to us in sleep are, as it

were, painted representations which could not have been formed unless in the likeness of

realities; and, therefore, that those general objects, at all events, namely, eyes, a head, hands,

and an entire body, are not simply imaginary, but really existent. For, in truth, painters

themselves, even when they study to represent sirens and satyrs by forms the most fantastic

and extraordinary, cannot bestow upon them natures absolutely new, but can only make a

certain medley of the members of different animals; or if they chance to imagine something so

novel that nothing at all similar has ever been seen before, and such as is, therefore, purely

fictitious and absolutely false, it is at least certain that the colors of which this is composed are

real. And on the same principle, although these general objects, viz. a body], eyes, a head,

hands, and the like, be imaginary, we are nevertheless absolutely necessitated to admit the

reality at least of some other objects still more simple and universal than these, of which, just

as of certain real colors, all those images of things, whether true and real, or false and fantastic,

that are found in our consciousness (cogitatio),are formed.

7. To this class of objects seem to belong corporeal nature in general and its extension; the

figure of extended things, their quantity or magnitude, and their number, as also the place in,

and the time during, which they exist, and other things of the same sort.

8. We will not, therefore, perhaps reason illegitimately if we conclude from this that Physics,

Astronomy, Medicine, and all the other sciences that have for their end the consideration of

Descartes supposes that he is

dreaming, and he notices that the

objects that he perceives in the

dream, he must have already

perceived in the real world;

… or at least that the most general

and simple elements, such as the

extension of bodies, numbers, and

time, must exist before we can

dream of them.

composite objects, are indeed of a doubtful character; but that Arithmetic, Geometry, and the

other sciences of the same class, which regard merely the simplest and most general objects,

and scarcely inquire whether or not these are really existent, contain somewhat that is certain

and indubitable: for whether I am awake or dreaming, it remains true that two and three make

five, and that a square has but four sides; nor does it seem possible that truths so apparent can

ever fall under a suspicion of falsity or incertitude].

9. Nevertheless, the belief that there is a God who is all powerful, and who created me, such as

I am, has, for a long time, obtained steady possession of my mind. How, then, do I know that

he has not arranged that there should be neither earth, nor sky, nor any extended thing, nor

figure, nor magnitude, nor place, providing at the same time, however, for the rise in me of the

perceptions of all these objects, and] the persuasion that these do not exist otherwise than as I

perceive them ? And further, as I sometimes think that others are in error respecting matters of

which they believe themselves to possess a perfect knowledge, how do I know that I am not

also deceived each time I add together two and three, or number the sides of a square, or form

some judgment still more simple, if more simple indeed can be imagined? But perhaps Deity

has not been willing that I should be thus deceived, for he is said to be supremely good. If,

however, it were repugnant to the goodness of Deity to have created me subject to constant

deception, it would seem likewise to be contrary to his goodness to allow me to be

occasionally deceived; and yet it is clear that this is permitted.

10. Some, indeed, might perhaps be found who would be disposed rather to deny the existence

of a Being so powerful than to believe that there is nothing certain. But let us for the present

refrain from opposing this opinion, and grant that all which is here said of a Deity is fabulous:

nevertheless, in whatever way it be supposed that I reach the state in which I exist, whether by

fate, or chance, or by an endless series of antecedents and consequents, or by any other means,

it is clear (since to be deceived and to err is a certain defect ) that the probability of my being

so imperfect as to be the constant victim of deception, will be increased exactly in proportion

as the power possessed by the cause, to which they assign my origin, is lessened. To these

This means that at least arithmetic

and geometry are indubitable.

Indeed, even if I were dreaming, 2

+ 3 = 5.

But Descartes has an objection to

the view that he just expressed:

what if God has created for me the

absolute certainty that 2 + 3 = 5,

but I am actually deceiving


Objection to the objection: since

God is good, he would not allow

me to be deceived.

Objection to the objection of the

objection: occasionally he does.

What if God did not exist? Then

the probability of me being

deceived even increases.

reasonings I have assuredly nothing to reply, but am constrained at last to avow that there is

nothing of all that I formerly believed to be true of which it is impossible to doubt, and that not

through thoughtlessness or levity, but from cogent and maturely considered reasons; so that

henceforward, if I desire to discover anything certain, I ought not the less carefully to refrain

from assenting to those same opinions than to what might be shown to be manifestly false.

11. But it is not sufficient to have made these observations; care must be taken likewise to

keep them in remembrance. For those old and customary opinions perpetually recur– long and

familiar usage giving them the right of occupying my mind, even almost against my will, and

subduing my belief; nor will I lose the habit of deferring to them and confiding in them so long

as I shall consider them to be what in truth they are, viz, opinions to some extent doubtful, as I

have already shown, but still highly probable, and such as it is much more reasonable to

believe than deny. It is for this reason I am persuaded that I shall not be doing wrong, if, taking

an opposite judgment of deliberate design, I become my own deceiver, by supposing, for a

time, that all those opinions are entirely false and imaginary, until at length, having thus

balanced my old by my new prejudices, my judgment shall no longer be turned aside by

perverted usage from the path that may conduct to the perception of truth. For I am assured

that, meanwhile, there will arise neither peril nor error from this course, and that I cannot for

the present yield too much to distrust, since the end I now seek is not action but knowledge.

12. I will suppose, then, not that Deity, who is sovereignly good and the fountain of truth, but

that some malignant demon, who is at once exceedingly potent and deceitful, has employed all

his artifice to deceive me; I will suppose that the sky, the air, the earth, colors, figures, sounds,

and all external things, are nothing better than the illusions of dreams, by means of which this

being has laid snares for my credulity; I will consider myself as without hands, eyes, flesh,

blood, or any of the senses, and as falsely believing that I am possessed of these; I will

continue resolutely fixed in this belief, and if indeed by this means it be not in my power to

arrive at the knowledge of truth, I shall at least do what is in my power, viz, suspend my

judgment, and guard with settled purpose against giving my assent to what is false, and being

Therefore, be it what may

concerning God, it seems that

there is nothing absolutely

indubitable in my previous beliefs.

Since it is so hard to go against the

habit of taking these opinions for

granted, I will be my own deceiver

and suppose that they are all false.

Descartes therefore imagines that

an evil demon is deceiving him,

and that everything he perceives is

an illusion. This is “the hypothesis

of the evil demon”.

imposed upon by this deceiver, whatever be his power and artifice. But this undertaking is

arduous, and a certain indolence insensibly leads me back to my ordinary course of life; and

just as the captive, who, perchance, was enjoying in his dreams an imaginary liberty, when he

begins to suspect that it is but a vision, dreads awakening, and conspires with the agreeable

illusions that the deception may be prolonged; so I, of my own accord, fall back into the train

of my former beliefs, and fear to arouse myself from my slumber, lest the time of laborious

wakefulness that would succeed this quiet rest, in place of bringing any light of day, should

prove inadequate to dispel the darkness that will arise from the difficulties that have now been





1. The Meditation of yesterday has filled my mind with so many doubts, that it is no longer in

my power to forget them. Nor do I see, meanwhile, any principle on which they can be

resolved; and, just as if I had fallen all of a sudden into very deep water, I am so greatly

disconcerted as to be unable either to plant my feet firmly on the bottom or sustain myself by

swimming on the surface. I will, nevertheless, make an effort, and try anew the same path on

which I had entered yesterday, that is, proceed by casting aside all that admits of the slightest

doubt, not less than if I had discovered it to be absolutely false; and I will continue always in

this track until I shall find something that is certain, or at least, if I can do nothing more, until I

shall know with certainty that there is nothing certain. Archimedes, that he might transport the

entire globe from the place it occupied to another, demanded only a point that was firm and

immovable; so, also, I shall be entitled to entertain the highest expectations, if I am fortunate

enough to discover only one thing that is certain and indubitable.

Descartes now feels that all his

beliefs are ungrounded, but he

decides to proceed and see

whether, once set aside all

doubtful beliefs, something

remains that he can consider


2. I suppose, accordingly, that all the things which I see are false (fictitious); I believe that

none of those objects which my fallacious memory represents ever existed; I suppose that I

possess no senses; I believe that body, figure, extension, motion, and place are merely fictions

of my mind. What is there, then, that can be esteemed true? Perhaps this only, that there is

absolutely nothing certain.

3. But how do I know that there is not something different altogether from the objects I have

now enumerated, of which it is impossible to entertain the slightest doubt? Is there not a God,

or some being, by whatever name I may designate him, who causes these thoughts to arise in

my mind? But why suppose such a being, for it may be I myself am capable of producing

them? Am I, then, at least not something? But I before denied that I possessed senses or a

body; I hesitate, however, for what follows from that? Am I so dependent on the body and the

senses that without these I cannot exist? But I had the persuasion that there was absolutely

nothing in the world, that there was no sky and no earth, neither minds nor bodies; was I not,

therefore, at the same time, persuaded that I did not exist? Far from it; I assuredly existed,

since I was persuaded. But there is I know not what being, who is possessed at once of the

highest power and the deepest cunning, who is constantly employing all his ingenuity in

deceiving me. Doubtless, then, I exist, since I am deceived; and, let him deceive me as he may,

he can never bring it about that I am nothing, so long as I shall be conscious that I am

something. So that it must, in fine, be maintained, all things being maturely and carefully

considered, that this proposition (pronunciatum) I am, I exist, is necessarily true each time it is

expressed by me, or conceived in my mind.


Even if the external world and his

own body do not exist, Descartes

realizes that there IS something

certain. In fact, if he was

persuaded of anything (including

that nothing existed), this means

that he exists. If he is deceived, he

exists. He is aware of this.

If I think, if I am aware of

something, then I exist: this is

Descartes’ famous “Cogito ergo

sum”, I think therefore I am.


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