Essay on Descartes’ Meditations

What is the role of the malicious demon in Meditation 1?
The answer to this question depends significantly on the interpretation of the word ‘role’; It can be interpreted as the role the malicious demon has in a hypothetical reality of which it is a component or its role as a philosophical device in the wider context of Descartes’ argument as put forward in his First Meditation. The former interpretation must be explored in order to answer the latter interpretation of the question, and so it should first be explained what the malicious demon is according to Descartes’ conception. The malicious demon is a hypothetical agent which is capable of imposing and maintaining a constant illusion of reality on a subject (the meditator). The meditator thus believes they are experiencing an external world when in fact “all external things are merely the delusions of dreams which [the malicious demon] has devised to ensnare my judgement”[Descartes, c. 1640]. Descartes does not elaborate on the possible motives of this demon, nor on the possible nature of reality beyond the illusions it weaves, but simply states that the demon is malicious, cunning and powerful. This hypothesis succeeds his ‘deceiving God’ hypothesis in the First Meditation, which he dismisses. The structure of both arguments is the same: a powerful being could possibly be deceiving the meditator into assuming that they inhabit the world they experience, when in fact they do not, and therefore it is plausible to doubt this assumption. In the deceiving God hypothesis the role of the deceiver is fulfilled by a creator God who has brought it about that external things appear to exist to the meditator when they don’t. Descartes even supposes that this God could cause us to err in mathematical and logical suppositions, such as the belief that a square has four sides or that 2+3=5. However, he rejects the deceiving God hypothesis in favour of the malicious demon. This is because, he says, he supposes God to be a supremely good being and the source of truth and therefore God would not deceive him. Anticipating the objection that such a benevolent God might not exist, he adds that if he was not created by God, then he must have came to be out of chance or fate or another cause. The less perfect this cause is, the more open he would be to deception and error. Since Descartes assumes that supreme perfection is a necessary aspect of God (which he qualifies in his argument for God’s existence later in the Meditations), he cannot be the source of such deception. The immediate purpose of the malicious demon, then, is to replace the deceiving God as a supremely deceptive being in his argument, but one which is consistent with his assumption that such a being must be imperfect or corrupt in some way. To establish the wider purpose of this deceiver, the structure and purpose of the First Meditation must be examined as a whole. According to Descartes’ synopsis of the Meditations, the First Meditation is intended to find possible grounds to doubt all things. The result of such universal

doubt is that the meditator would be freed from preconceived opinions and would have no reason to doubt whatever they subsequently discover to be true1. He subjects all of his previous assumptions to a method of doubt in order to establish which ones are indisputable. Since it would be tedious to subject each individual assumption he has about the world to doubt, he determines to undermine the foundations of his assumptions. In the cases of beliefs about the external, material world, his beliefs rest on the reliability of his senses through which he supposedly acquires such beliefs. He first points out that it is imprudent to trust completely anything which deceives us even once, and he is sure that the senses do this at least occasionally2. However, he suggests that certain sense perceptions would only be doubted by madmen, for example the perception that one has a body. He then goes on to counter this proposal by talking about dreams; in a dream, one may believe certain things about reality which are not actually true. When one is dreaming, they are just as certain about what they perceive as they are when they are awake, and therefore it could be proposed that you are always asleep and dreaming. This seems like a reason to doubt sensory perceptions – however, Descartes points out that the visions we have in dreams must be composed from past experiences, just as a painter must fashion their paintings in the likeness of something that is real2. He comes to the conclusion, then, that it is reasonable to doubt composite things, but not the basic things of which they are composed; for example, physics, astronomy and medicine depend on the study of composite things so they are doubtful, while arithmetic and geometry contain something indubitable since they deal with only the simplest and most general things2. This leads him to invoke the idea of a deceiver. The only way one could doubt those aspects of reality which so consistently seem to be true, namely the ideas we have about mathematics and other basic concepts, is if our whole experience of reality was designed to mislead us. Hence, an intelligent being is needed to fill the role of designer in this philosophical conjecture: first, God is used, and then dismissed because this would contradict God’s purportedly flawless nature; finally, the malicious demon is conjured up, and the meditator is thus compelled to withhold assent from even the most basic assumptions that they used to hold. This concludes the First Meditation, as the undermining of the foundations of the meditator’s previous assumptions is now complete. Commentators Clarence A. Bonnen and Daniel E. Flage claim that another purpose of the malicious demon is to detach the meditator from the idea that the self is a physical thing or dependent on physical things, thereby preparing for his
1René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy with Selections from the Objections and Replies, 1996 Revised Ed. By John Cottingham – p9, ‘Synopsis of the following six Meditations’. NB: page numbers are those of the 1996 revised edition, not those of the original text. 2René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy with Selections from the Objections and Replies, 1996 Revised Ed. By John Cottingham – p12, p13, p14, ‘First Meditation’

conclusion in the Second Meditation that his thinking is enough to prove his existence: “The demon is a heuristic device. One of its uses is to strip away the presumption that one’s existence is purely bodily or dependent upon the existence of bodies. By clearing away those preanalytic prejudices, the demon hypothesis paves the way for Descartes’ recognition that thinking is a sufficient condition for knowing his own existence, a condition that is immune from the doubts raised by the possibility of an evil deceiver.”3 In the Second Meditation, Descartes claims that merely thinking is enough to prove his existence, and indeed this is the only thing which the meditator has no reason to doubt at that stage in the Meditations. So the purpose of the demon could be, as Bonnen and Flage suggest, a pre-emptive component of his cogito ergo sum argument intended only to make it more conducive to the reader (this is supported by the fact that the malicious demon hypothesis does not appear in the Meditations again). In summary, the question of the role of the malicious demon in Descartes’ First Meditation can be answered in at least two ways. Firstly, the demon is a philosophical device which brings Descartes’ method of doubt to its logical extreme, where all of the meditator’s previous assumptions can apparently be doubted. Secondly, the malicious demon hypothesis is heuristic, preparing the reader for the more significant conclusions reached in the Second Meditation, specifically the contention that if the meditator thinks then the meditator must exist. Since cogito ergo sum is one of the integral indubitable assumptions on which the meditator can base further assumptions as they continue the meditation, the role of the malicious demon is important in the overall narrative of the Meditations, although its role is merely that of a support structure for more central arguments.

3 Bonnen etal., Descartes and Method: A Search for a Method in Meditations, 1999 – p124, ‘The malicious demon’


Bonnen, C. A., & Flage, D. E. (1999). Descartes and Method: A Search for a Method in Meditations. London, New York: Routledge. Descartes, R. (c. 1640). René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy with Selections from the Objections and Replies (1996 Revised ed.). (J. Cottingham, Ed., & J. Cottingham, Trans.) Cambridge University Press. Descartes, R. (c. 1640). René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy with Selections from the Objections and Replies (1996 Revised ed.). (J. Cottingham, Ed., & J. Cottingham, Trans.) Cambridge University Press.

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