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Descartes Wax example

Can anyone explain to me how it is the wax example is proof of the external world. I get how his trademark argument is, but can't seem to understand why our understanding of substance coming from our mind alone and not the perceptions of the substance is proof of an external world?

Thank you so much!


christian has reacted to this post.

I don't think the wax example is primarily intended as an argument for the existence of the external world. Instead, the main point seems to be that the general concept of a physical object (i.e. something that is extended in space) comes from the mind rather than perception (as you say). The example is something like:

  • I have an idea of this bit of wax
  • I melt this bit of wax and its sensory properties become totally different (e.g. different shape, feel, etc.)
  • But I still believe it's the same bit of wax
  • So my idea of what the wax is can't be its sensory properties (because those can change and yet I still believe it's the same piece of wax)
  • And if the idea is nothing to do with its sensory properties, the idea can't have come from sense perception
  • So what is my idea of the bit of wax? And where did this idea come from if not my senses?

Descartes' answer is that the idea of the bit of wax is the idea of a particular physical thing (i.e. a thing that is extended in space and can change) and that this concept of physical thing exists in his understanding (rather than coming from imagination or perception).

You could use this example as a proof of the existence of the external world as follows: Descartes argues that this general concept of physical object (known through intuition and deduction, e.g. the wax example) is a clear and distinct idea - and he argues that clear and distinct ideas can be trusted as true. So, according to Descartes, because the concept of physical object is clear and distinct, he can know physical objects in general (and thus an external world) exist.

Descartes gives other arguments for the external world - e.g. this one. Tbh, I would be very surprised if you got asked a question specifically about the wax example in the exam. If you like the wax argument, though, it would be good to include it in a 25 mark question on intuition and deduction.

Sashams has reacted to this post.

Thank you so much this was really helpful 🙂