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Book Two, Chapter Eight

24 September, 2015 - 13:02

We must now start afresh and consider which of these conclusions are sound and which are not, and what is the nature of definition, and whether essential nature is in any sense demonstrable and definable. …

When we are aware of a fact we seek its reason, and though sometimes the fact and the reason dawn on us simultaneously, yet we cannot apprehend the reason a moment sooner than the fact; and clearly in just the same way wecannot apprehend a thing’s form without apprehending that it exists, since while we are ignorant whetherit exists we cannot know its essential nature. Moreover, we are aware whether a thing exists or not sometimes through apprehending an element in its character, and sometimes accidentally, as, for example, when we are aware of thunder as a noise in the clouds, of eclipse as a privation of light, or of man as some species of animal, or of the soul as a self-moving thing. As often as we have accidental knowledge that the thing exists, we must be in a wholly negative state as regards awareness of its essential nature; for we have not got genuine knowledge even of its existence, and to search for a thing’s essential nature when we are unaware that it exists is to search for nothing.

On the other hand, whenever we apprehend an element in the thing’s character there is less difficulty. Thus it follows that the degree of our knowledge of a thing’s essential nature is determined by the sense in which we are aware that it exists. Let us then take the following as our first instance of being aware of an element in the essential nature. Let A be eclipse, C the moon, B the earth’s acting as a screen. Now to ask whether the moon is eclipsed or not is to ask whether or not B has occurred. But that is precisely the same as asking whether A has a defining condition; and if this condition actually exists, we assert that A also actually exists. …

We have stated then how essential nature is discovered and becomes known, and we see that, while there is no syllogism— i.e., no demonstrative syllogism—of essential nature, yet it is through syllogism, viz. demonstrative syllogism, that essential nature is exhibited.

The passage in bold above formulates a doctrine known as ‘existentialism’. According to existentialism, in order to know a thing’sessence, what must one know beforehand? As we’ll see, this is a central scholastic doctrine that Descartes seeks to undermine withhis Meditations.