Philosophy by SW Hammond | Author & Pop Culture Columnist

Descartes' Wax: More Important Than God

Descartes' Wax Argument

First, let’s consider a question: if a thinking mind didn’t contemplate a piece of wax, would the wax even exist?

According to Rene Descartes, existence is predicated upon thinking. In order to know if something truly exists, it must think. So can wax not exist because it doesn’t think? Or does the wax not know that exists because it doesn’t think? Or do we, thinking things, give the wax existence simply by virtue of us thinking about it? But then what thought about us?

Before we can attempt to answer any of these questions, we must first define existence. “Let us consider those things which are commonly believed to be the most distinctly grasped by all: namely bodies we touch and see” (45). We can touch, taste, smell, and see the wax—we use our empirical senses to define its existence. “But notice that, as I am speaking, I am bringing it close to the fire” (45). The wax heats up, it changes shape, it loses its scent, it turns to liquid. “Does the wax still remain? I must confess that it does; no one denies it; no one thinks otherwise” (45). But if so, what happened to all of the empirical data that was originally collected to verify its existence? Those same attributes—its shape, the way it feels, smells, sounds—all are no longer accurate, but yet the wax still remains.

Read more: Descartes' Wax: More Important Than God

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