Upon reading the second meditation of Descartes, I am perplexed by an illustration Descartes presents involving wax. For reference, this illustration, or argument, is contained within the 11th and 12th page of this pdf, which is an english rendering of the Meditations on First Philosophy.

My Understanding of The Wax Argument

Now, based on what I have comprehended, the argument proceeds as follows (employing direct quotes with "direct quote"):

1) The physical qualities of the wax changes as it melts.

2) "Yet the same wax remains"

3) Hence, the conception of wax is derived not from the senses

4) This piece of wax, however defined, permit of "infinitude of similar changes" as a particular change of shape.

5) Hence, since the imagination cannot "compass the infinitude," the conception of the wax originates not from "the faculty of imagination."

Note: Steps 4 and 5 applied to two specific conceptions of the wax divorced from its primary qualities, namely "flexible and movable" and "extension." As Descartes puts it, "Let us attentively consider this, and, abstracting from all that does not belong to the wax, let us see what remains. Certainly nothing remains excepting a certain extended thing which is flexible and movable."

6) Therefore, the conception of the wax is derived not from imagination but from the mind: "We must then grant that I could not even understand through the imagination what this piece of wax is, and that it is my mind alone which perceives it." Descartes defines this perception as "neither an act of vision, nor of touch, nor of imagination ... but only an intuition of the mind, which may be imperfect and confused as it was formerly, or clear and distinct as it is at present." In other words, this perception is an intuition of the mind rather than a sense perception as commonly conceived.

7) Descartes then reveals weaknesses in ordinary language, such as the sentence "I see the same wax" after it melts even though the visual qualities of the wax change. After that, this colorful paragraph is presented, the meaning of which I haven't extracted with a sufficient degree of certainty to explicate it properly:

"A man who makes it his aim to raise his knowledge above the common should be ashamed to derive the occasion for doubting from the forms of speech invented by the vulgar; I prefer to pass on and consider whether I had a more evident and perfect conception of what the wax was when I first perceived it, and when I believed I knew it by means of the external senses or at least by the common sense as it is called, that is to say by the imaginative faculty, or whether my present conception is clearer now that I have most carefully examined what it is, and in what way it can be known. It would certainly be absurd to doubt as to this. For what was there in this first perception which was distinct? What was there which might not as well have been perceived by any of the animals? But when I distinguish the wax from its external forms, and when, just as if I had taken from it its vestments, I consider it quite naked, it is certain that although some error may still be found in my judgment, I can nevertheless not perceive it thus without a human mind."

8) Finally, in the last segment of this illustration, Descartes shows how every judgement of any certainty pertaining to the wax, or to corporeal matter in general, provides more evidence for the existence and nature of the human mind. Descartes states in the end of the second to last paragraph of the second meditation devoted to this: "And further, if the notion or perception of wax has seemed to me clearer and more distinct, not only after the sight or the touch, but also after many other causes have rendered it quite manifest to me, with how much more evidence and distinctness must it be said that I now know myself, since all the reasons which contribute to the knowledge of wax, or any other body whatever, are yet better proofs of the nature of my mind! And there are so many other things in the mind itself which may contribute to the elucidation of its nature, that those which depend on body such as these just mentioned, hardly merit being taken into account"

9) Descartes thus concludes by summing up his central argument, that since bodies are only understood through the understanding, not by the faculty of the senses or imaginations, the mind is the easiest thing to know. Descartes puts it such: "since it is now manifest to me that even bodies are not properly speaking known by the senses or by the faculty of imagination, but by the understanding only, and since they are not known from the fact that they are seen or touched, but only because they are understood, I see clearly that there is nothing which is easier for me to know than my mind."

My Questions about this Argument

I understand the driving conclusion, yet several particulars escape my comprehension, bothering me thus.

How does Descartes conclude that the "same wax remains" in step 2? Where does this piece of knowledge come from, considering that Descartes in this meditation is approaching knowledge from a skeptical position (having just established the demon position in the previous meditation without any counterarguments)?

Furthermore, what is the meaning and purpose of the paragraph presented in step 7. Finally, why was driving this point that it is easier to understand the mind so necessary, when he already established that he can only understand himself as a thinking being?

2 Answers 2


I take the purpose of the wax argument to be a little different than you're specifying. I take the point of the wax argument to be that what gives physical things their consistency on Descartes' view is an application of a judgment of mind that some given physical object is an instance of an idea (this is highly important to his arguments in the subsequent meditations including his argument about how error works).

Regarding your 3, 4, and 5, I think you may be effectively misunderstanding Descartes. Starting with your comment after five, Descartes does not describe to the "primary qualities" language you are using. In fact, in large part, his point in the entire argument is that "wax" as a category is a category of mind. When you say "Hence, the conception of wax is derived not from the senses", this seems infelicitous as a wording, because for Descartes what is going on ins the mind's conception (that is judgement) of a particular physical thing as wax. And the mind can maintain this judgment over and against changes in the physical thing. When he speaks of imagination being insufficient, it is that imagination can generate an infinite number of extensions and shapes for the wax, but these do not make something wax.

Your 7 speaks of "ordinary language", but I don't think that is of great concern to Descartes. His point instead is that we should realize "wax" is an idea of the mind that we in judgment apply to physical things. In other words, he thinks that it is wax is not a matter of perception or imagination but the use of a mental faculty.

His point here is to establish the absolute necessity and power of mind for knowledge, i.e., judgments about things we perceive. In other words, something being wax is not a question of what we see but of making a type of judgment relative to thing, and this is the power of mind.

At the point where this argument occurs, Descartes is not emphasizing the possibility of demonic skepticism. Instead, he has already proven what he takes to be the certainty of mind via the thinking thing argument (which is a condensed dilemma whereby whether or not he is deceived, he remains a thinking thing). Meditation 3 will return to the problem of demon skepticism and reject it (on the basis of an argument that it would be impossible for the self to generate an idea of a perfect God), and then through that the senses are guaranteed as well.

But at this point, he doesn't need the guarantee of the senses just the operation of the faculty of judgment itself will show (on his epistemology) that the pattern is that we are making judgments of mind applying an idea to our perception.

  • Thanks for the answer. What is the point of the paragraph quoted fully at step 7, since it didn't relate to his purpose? Also, why did Descartes at the end state that it is easier to know the mind instead of just stopping at the point on the absolute necessity for knowledge (judgements about things we perceive?
    – Cicero
    Jun 7, 2015 at 16:18
  • I'm not quite following the comment. Doesn't relate to which purpose? The point of the argument is the certainty of mental faculties over observational faculties, and in this case that judgment is the source of certainty rather than perception. But judgment is an operation of mind for Descartes.
    – virmaior
    Jun 8, 2015 at 0:27
  • Never mind, I have answered my own question
    – Cicero
    Jun 8, 2015 at 1:10

"How does Descartes conclude that the "same wax remains' in step 2?"

Actually, Descartes does not conclude so. I think it helps to read most of the first and second Meditations as some sort of dialogue between he and a opponent of him, and some of the statements we read are indeed claims his opponent asserts, or is somehow obliged to concede. In this case the opponent (who believes his knowledge of the wax is from the senses), has to concede that he believes that melted wax (all sensible properties changed) is still wax ("none would judge otherwise"). Hence Descartes is in the position to argue that his opponent's knowledge of the wax is (only) intellectual. A question could be: what if Descartes' opponent denies that melted wax is still wax? Why 'none would judge otherwise'? I guess because otherwise change should be seen somehow as destruction, a very strong claim indeed.

For your 7), the larger point seems to me that human knowledge (of the wax, and any body) is not reducible to animal like 'knowledge' (say the knowledge that my dog shows when he recognizes cookies).

For your last point, remember that the entire wax discussion is introduced by admitting: "nevertheless it still seems to me, and I cannot prevent myself from thinking, that corporeal things, whose images are framed by thought, which are tested by the senses, are much more distinctly known than that obscure part of me which does not come under the imagination [mind]". The wax example is to countercharge that, showing that even when we are in front of a piece of wax, our perception (image-free) of the mind itself is clearer than that of wax.

I would be happy to be corrected on any single point.

  • I would tend to agree with a lot of what you have written here, but I'm confused by your claim that Descartes is rejecting that the same wax remains. I take him to be affirming precisely because "wax" turns out to be an object for the intellect in its judgment rather than something observed in the world. / Conversely, I take the "I cannot prevent myself from thinking" to signal a non-doubting mode that Descartes wants to critique in Med I & II.
    – virmaior
    Nov 8, 2015 at 0:31
  • I did not explain myself. I was trying to point out that D. does not conclude that the wax remains, in the sense that he indeed - and instead - assumes so, and that nobody (can) denies that. Hence, what he does argue is that whoever (=all) agrees the wax remains, has to acknowledge that his understanding of what wax is is (only) intellectual (instead of by the senses). About "I cannot prevent myself from thinking", it could be somehow an anticipation of his later claims on body-mind union.
    – mario
    Nov 14, 2015 at 14:44

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