Descartes’ Wax Argument

February 25, 2009 at 11:59 am (Critical Writing, Philosophy, Prose)

What is Descartes’ Wax Argument and why does he offer it? What overall function(s) is it intended to fulfill in the structure of the Meditations? Is the argument successful? Why or why not?

     Descartes’ Wax Argument is presented as an observation by Descartes in “Meditation II,” and acts as an integral part of how he develops the rest of his theories in the Meditations. It begins by Descartes taking what could be considered a very distinct piece of wax–supposedly fresh from the honeycomb—and describing it in detail through his sensory perceptions of it: faint taste of honey, smell of flowers, et cetera. He then melts the wax, eliminating all those qualities we perceived of it through our senses, which we may have thought allowed us to distinguish the piece of wax distinctly. Still, even though our sensory perceptions of the wax now differ from our initial perceptions, we would say that the same wax is still there: “But does the same wax remain? It must be admitted that it does; no one denies it, no one thinks otherwise” (20). This leaves us wondering what we recognized in the wax that made it so distinct to us from other things because it was evidently not our sensory perceptions of it. In order to try and discover how we can still recognize the wax, we must consider that whatever the wax is, it is not those sensory perceptions and that those sensory perceptions are simply a way that the body of wax presented itself to us. If we take away the qualities that we now recognize not to be essential to distinguishing the wax, we are left with something that is “extended, flexible, and changeable” (20). These seem to reveal that it is not the faculty of our imagination that allows us to distinguish the wax. Even though we can make changes to the wax in our imagination that include these remaindered qualities, we cannot possibly conceive of all the possible changes, so it seems unlikely that it is our imagination that allows us to recognize the wax. It seems more accurate to say that we perceive the wax with our minds alone. Our minds judge the wax to be what is there. By whatever means the wax comes into our minds, only reaffirms that we exist, and we also know that it is our intellect that recognizes external bodies rather than our senses. It is clear in the Wax Argument that our senses are not nearly as crucial to our understanding of something as our intellect.
     This is the essence of the Wax Argument, but Descartes also uses it to ground a theoretical explanation that becomes a major player throughout the Meditations. Typically, we derive experience from our senses, but in the case of the Wax Argument, we realize that our recognition of the wax as wax does not seem to stem from anything that normally gives us experience. This would suggest that perhaps there is some other faculty that we possess that allows us to make the distinctions that we do about the wax. Not knowing for certain what this faculty really is, through the Meditations Descartes comes to call it “pure understanding” or the “pure intellect.” So from the Wax Argument, we discern that there must be some sort of reasoning faculty in our intellect that allows us to determine that something is clear and distinct, and as mentioned, Descartes refers to this theoretical entity as the pure intellect.
     This theoretical entity provides the basis for what becomes Descartes’ truth rule. The truth rule is essentially the idea that if an idea is clear and distinct, then it is also true. Descartes addresses the issue of God in “Meditation III,” where he proves that God exists, and in “Meditation IV,” we see the truth rule surface because Descartes is now prepared to prove that everything we perceive clearly and distinctly is true. He does this mostly by showing how it is that we come to perceive things incorrectly. There is an issue with a God who would not seek to fool us and how our senses sometimes misrepresent things to us. Descartes addresses this by stating that there is nothing wrong with the mind God gave us, we simply misuse it from time to time. Because God gave us freedom of will, we are capable of misusing the mechanism of our minds; however, any such misuse is clearly a defect in us as mortal people because we use the mechanism wrongly. So if we use mental scrutiny to perceive something clearly and distinctly, which Descartes implies is proper use of the mind mechanism, then it is true because God gave us a fully functioning mechanism that is accurate when used properly in this way. The only problem that we might encounter would result from the scope of our will being greater than the scope of our intellect; however, if we perceive something clearly and distinctly, then this problem is circumvented. This is a powerful tool for Descartes because initially, due to Descartes method of doubt, we were not sure that anything besides ourselves—also, simply as a thinking thing and not necessarily with a body—existed.
     The Wax Argument itself is successful on the whole in allowing Descartes to setup his later argument for the truth rule. Still, the argument itself seems less concrete under analysis, and its later use in constructing the truth rule and how that is deployed in the Meditations is open to some serious scrutiny. The argument up to now follows that I thought certain things about my senses, but I discovered that there was reason to doubt my senses; however, the truth rule now allows me to determine some things. In “Meditation VI,” Descartes is trying to prove that physical objects exist. We would expect some use of the truth rule that he has established in order to explain this. That, however, is not what happens. Descartes goes through how sensations are more vivid than imagined things, and he uses this as proof that God gave him a “strong inclination” to believe that objects cause ideas, which, since we know God is not a deceiver, means that objects exist. The truth rule that the Wax Argument was employed to establish is left to hibernate in the earlier discussion. Not only that but a strong inclination is not the same as clear and distinct, so Descartes’ argument in “Mediation VI” even goes so far as to violate his own truth rule. There is nothing to show us that we are not misusing our mechanism as discussed in “Meditation IV”; in which case, God would still not be a deceiver, and we would be wrong. This later argument does nothing to show that material things exist.
     The other issue regarding the Wax Argument involves the type of argument that it is. It is a descriptive argument that lacks the concreteness of the mathematical proofs that Descartes argues are the best form of demonstration of knowledge. It is not based on empirical data, and instead, it supposes that there is some faculty which allows us to reason and recognize the wax for what it is. This is merely positing a theoretical entity in order to offer a possible solution to something we cannot explain. There could be any number of unidentified faculties that somehow play a role, but we can no more accurately define them than we can the pure intellect of the Wax Argument. The issue being that we cannot give an accurate description of exactly what this faculty is or how it works; however, it is what the argument seeks to prove exists, and it later becomes integral to the argument of the Meditations.
     On the whole, the Wax Argument goes a long ways towards establishing tools that Descartes can use in his later meditations. It is presented in a straightforward fashion that is easy to understand and seems like a reasonable assumption. In spite of not being a more mathematic or empirical proof, the argument seems well reasoned and logical. However, Descartes’ abandonment of the rule in “Meditation VI” right when it seems like he needs it most causes the Wax Argument’s resulting truth rule to feel inconsequential to the overall project. Those meditating along with Descartes may very well be able to make the connection he does not between the Wax Argument, the truth rule, and the existence of material objects; however, the argument’s overall effect, as employed by Descartes, falls short, as it appears to have been forgotten at the most crucial moment.



  1. Patrick said,

    Thank you for posting this, it describes the argument quite well and helped me understand a few things better.

  2. Andy said,

    Here’s my question, I’ve got a test on this soon so I really hope you reply. Why does Descartes perception of the wax reaffirm his existence?

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