Descartes uses a lump of wax to explain his first philosophy. In this analogy, he seeks to present some of the properties that are essential to the body. Our knowledge of the world is uncertain in comparison to the knowledge in our minds. He uses the bodies or matter that can be touched, seen, and felt to comprehend the understanding. He takes a piece of wax fresh from the hive, which has retained its scent, color, size, and shape. The lump of wax is cold and hard; striking it produces a certain sound. He literally recognizes the wax according to the properties he mentioned. However, as he approaches the fire with the wax in his hands, it begins to lose its properties. The smell evaporates from the wax and the color changes. It takes a different shape from the original. It enlarges, changes from cold to warm, becomes difficult to handle, and produces no sound when struck (Newman 12-23). However, he points out that the wax still remains, even after the changes have taken place. He concludes that properties that senses bring to our attention like sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch do change. However, the matter remains constant.
Descartes concludes that his grasp of the wax is not sensory but a pure mental inspection. He uncovers the limitations that arise when we rely on the senses. According to him, mental inspection or imagination provides a better platform to understand matter and the related changes. The mediator is puzzled by how quick he concludes his understanding of the wax through his senses. However, wax undergoes various changes but still remains in existence. Hence, the sense that allows us to define properties in terms of smell, touch, sight, hearing, and taste cannot be the one that describes the wax after changing its properties. Descartes further notes that pure imagination cannot help in understanding the changes that occur. For these reasons, he advocates for mental inspection or intellect.
Descartes argues that using the body or matter in understanding situations does not help. For instance, describing people walking on the street by the color of their clothes may not be the best way to understand them. Instead, using the mind would be the best way. The mind helps in understanding matter than bodies. Descartes avers that he must know his mind than anything else. Perception comes from the mind. In some cases, perception may only bring an illusion of the reality. However, Descartes says that when he uses his mind to describe things that may be out of ordinary, it serves as proof that he exists. When one uses the mind to describe things that are out of ordinary, they may appear to be judgmental. The meditator notes that judging and perceiving are proofs that he exists. Furthermore, he contends that our thoughts of the things that are doubtful and out of the ordinary indicate the nature of our minds (Newman 22-23).
The wax argument helps Descartes to build other arguments. For instance, he comes out with the true rule in order to prove his arguments on the existence of God. He notes that people easily follow their senses in order to determine the truth. When following the wax argument, senses can be deceptive while seeking the truth. The wax argument helps people go beyond the senses in order to determine the truth. In applying the truth rule, Descartes uncovers the truth about God’s existence by engaging the mind in the extraordinary. His senses alone fail to describe the truth about the existence of God. Nevertheless, the latter arguments do not disregard the senses.
The argument on God and the truth state that God does not deceive. He is the creator of the seen and unseen. Notably, senses are important to the functioning of the brain. If God is the creator of all things, and we fail to recognize the senses in our quest to understand things, then Descartes would be wrong. Therefore, he puts things into perspective by stating that the body or matter is important because it helps present information for the mind to perceive. Senses help us access the information that the mind uses to analyze situations.
The wax argument is a simple analogy that Descartes uses to explain the existence of what cannot be seen. His method is different because it does not entail the use of mathematical proofs and empirical data to argue a case. The wax analogy is a simple experiment that helps explain knowledge on meditations. Therefore, the wax argument is a tool that Descartes applies in later meditations. On the other hand, he fails to use this argument in all his meditations. For instance, he seems to abandon it at the sixth meditation. In this meditation, he seems to contradict his belief in the existence of the material things. He could have used the reasoning to explain the existence of the material things.
Newman, Lex. “Descartes’ Epistemology,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2010.