Context

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

In Meditations on the First Philosophy, René Descartes delves into epistemology, or the theory of knowledge. He asks questions such as whether there is such a thing as knowledge, and if so, what distinguishes it from opinion. However, in order to answer these questions and to validate knowledge, it was necessary to raise the fundamental questions of being.

Descartes chooses to present his thoughts as meditations; he represents himself as seated before a fire in a cozy Dutch dwelling, wrapped in his dressing gown, freed from worldly care, and ready to devote himself to a task to which he had for some time looked forward, a kind of mental housecleaning. On six successive days, he pursues his meditation, step by step, clearing his mind of all error.

In Discours de la méthode (1637; Discourse on Method, 1649), Descartes reveals that the work was actually composed in very similar circumstances. In 1628, Descartes was in his thirties and living in Holland; he had withdrawn from a more active life for the special purpose of carrying on his philosophical and scientific investigations. Meditations on First Philosophy was circulated in manuscript, and when it was published in 1641, it included a lengthy appendix composed of objections by leading philosophers—including Thomas Hobbes and Pierre Gassendi—together with Descartes’s replies.