"How do we know what we know?" This is a question asked by Rene Descartes as well as a host of other philosophers. A particular passage written in Meditations on First Philosophy by Descartes dubbed the "Wax Passage" examined the nature of material things, and what we really know about them. Descartes' thought process shall be followed, and his conclusion that if all attributes are stripped away, what is left is the "essence" of the wax, will be explained.
The wax passage in and of itself is a simple train of thought to follow. The essence of the passage is Descartes' belief, which he attempts to convince the reader of that, "clear and distinct" ideas one has about material objects external to their own body are not perceived by the senses, but rather through the mind. Playing with a piece of wax, one has certain ideas, ideas originally thought to have stemmed from the 5 senses (sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch), but information obtained through our senses can be shown to be false.
"Take, for example, this piece of wax....Its colour, figure, and size, are apparent (to the sight); it is hard, cold; easily handled; and sounds when struck upon with the finger....Let it be placed near the fire... the colour changes, its figure is destroyed, its size increases, it becomes a liquid, it grows hot; it can hardly be handled....Does the same wax remain after this change?"(Descartes:138) It is obvious to most people that the same wax remains, and the clear and distinct ideas of the wax remain as well, yet all one's sensory perceptions of the wax have been distorted.
Descartes asks, "What, then, was it I knew with so much distinctness in the piece of wax?...it could be nothing of all that I observed by...