Will Large

Having finished at the end of first meditation with a complete uncertainty about what I can know it seems very strange indeed that by the start of the second I am absolutely certain about one thing, namely that I think:
But there is a deceiver of supreme power and cunning who is deliberately and constantly deceiving me; and let him deceive me as much as he can, he will never bring it about that I am nothing so long as I think that I am something. So after considering everything very thoroughly, I must finally conclude that this proposition, I am, I exist, is necessary true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind [AT VII, p. 25].
But this might seem too easy to us precisely because we are jumping to conclusions far too quickly. We must ask ourselves what is the status of this ‘I’ that is proved in the proposition ‘I think therefore I am’ and that it necessarily follows, from the mere fact of thinking that the ‘I’ necessarily exits, and that I can be absolutely certain about this, even if I am deceived about everything else. He offers us the same proof in the Discourses, though the linking between thinking and existence is made clearer in this form:
I noticed that while I was trying thus to think everything false, it was necessary that I, who was thinking this, was something. And observing this truth ‘I am thinking, therefore I exist’ was so firm and sure that all the most extravagant suppositions of the sceptics were incapable of shaking it, I decided that I could accept it without scruple as the first principle of the philosophy I was seeking [AT VI 32].
We need to make sure what the status of the proof is and why Descartes thinks that although we can, at this stage, be certain of nothing else, we can be certain of the existence of the I. In a work published before The Meditations, Rules for the Direction of the Mind, Descartes makes a distinction between kinds of knowledge that give us absolute certainty: deduction and intuition:
[…] Let us now review all the actions of the intellect by means of which we are able to arrive at knowledge of things with no fear of being mistaken. We recognise only two: intuition and deduction [ATX, 368].
Deduction we know the meaning of, which is any truth that is arrived at through necessary logical truths, such that all unmarried men are bachelors, but intuition is something much stranger, and has a specific meaning in Descartes. In Meditations, with the status of the hyperbolic doubt even deductive truths are uncertain, since the idea of unmarried man could have been put in my mind by a ‘malicious demon’ and actually has no status of truth at all. But intuitive truths are not open to this doubt, at least not the intuitive truth of the cogito. We can see, therefore, that it is very important, since it allows us to step outside the radical doubts that have engulfed us at the end of the first meditation. What, then, does Descartes mean by ‘intuition’? He does not mean, as is clear in its description in the Rules, the vivid presentation of something in the imagination, since this too could belong to my dreams, but the quality of the idea whose truth is immediately presented to the mind without reflection:
By ‘intuition’ I do not mean the fluctuating testimony of the senses or the deceptive judgement of the imagination as it botches things together, but the conception of a clear and attentive mind, which is so easy and distinct that there can be no room for doubt about what we are understanding. Alternatively, and this comes to the same thing, intuition is the indubitable conception of a clear and attentive mind which proceeds solely from the light of reason [ATX, 368].
Now in his second set of replies to the objections to the second mediations, Descartes makes it clear that we should not confuse the intuition of the cogito, that there cannot be thought without some thing thinking the thought, with a deductive argument. Even if I doubt that I am thinking, it is nonetheless still true that I am thinking, for doubting is a form of thinking. It is therefore self-evident that I exist. There cannot be a thought without some I thinking the thought, since it is self-evident that thinking something and thinking thing belong together. This is not a logic argument, since to refute it is not a logic flaw, but at Bernard Williams describes it, ‘self-refuting’. Even the refutation is a thought, and a thought is thought by someone, and thus proves the original proposition, ‘I think therefore I am’.  Thus Descartes writes:
When someone says ‘I am thinking, therefore I am, or I exist’, he does not deduce existence from thought by means of a syllogism, but recognises it as something self-evident by a simple intuition of the mind. This is clear from the fact that if he were deducing it by means of a syllogism, he would have to have had previous knowledge of the major premise ‘Everything which thinks is, or exists’; yet in fact he learns it from experiencing in his own case that it is impossible that should think without existing [ATVII, 140-1].
But what is the status of this existing. If every thought must have a thinker that thinks it, who or what is this thinker? Our immediate answer is that it ‘us’ that things. Yet our physical reality is not more certain than the physical certainty of things. When I watch my hands typing this page, I can be no more certain that they exist, than I am certain that anything else in the external world exists. Descartes wants to make it clear that the cogito does not prove the real or actual existence of the self; rather it only proves that the self exists as thinking. I understand myself to be a rational animal, as such to be composed of a body and a soul. But can I clear and distinctly intuit these ideas in the same way that I intuit the cogito? Descartes’ answer to these questions is no, For the body belongs to the external world and is as doubtful as anything else. Likewise the soul, if I understand it in the traditional way as ‘nutrition or movement’ or ‘sense-perception’ is equally doubtful since these attributes also belong to the body. What then is left of the I, if I abstract any bodily attribute? All that is left is thinking. Thus when I say that the existence of the I is proved in the very act of thinking itself, even if what I am thinking about is uncertain and doubtful, since one cannot have a thought without a thinker, all that is self-evident is the existence of the I as thought, and not the real or actual existence of the I. This is still as doubtful as it was before:
At present I am not admitting anything except what is necessarily true. I am then in a strict sense only a thing that thinks; that I am a mind, or intelligence, or intellect, or reason – words whose meaning I have been ignorant until now. But for all that I am a thing which is real and which truly exists. But what kind of thing? As I have just said – a thinking thing [ATVII, 27].
This seems to leave us with almost as little as we had before, but if we think about it more clearly, we indeed have gained a lot with the self-evident nature of the cogito. First of all ‘thinking’ has a much wider meaning for Descartes than merely a rational or theoretical grasp of something. It contains every act of consciousness. Thus to wish for something is also to have a thought for Descartes:
But what then am I? A thing that thinks. What is that? A thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, is willing, is unwilling, and also imagines, and has sensory perceptions [ATVII, 28].
Secondly, and this brings us to the second part of the mediation with the example of the wax, it is not just the thought that is certain for Descartes, that is to say that I am certain that I am thinking when thinking, but equally I am certain about the content of the thought. We do need to be careful about what we mean when we speak of the content of a thought. We mean what the thought thinks in the thought. Thus, if I think about a table, then the thought of the table is present in the thinking or consciousness of it. What Descartes is trying to say is that if I think clearly and distinctly enough about the table, and the cogito, gives us the criterion of what it means to think clearly and distinctly about something, that the table is as clear and distinctly present as the thought of the table. It is in Descartes’ vocabulary as real. But we need to be careful about what is real here. It is only the table that is real, and real here means clearly and distinctly perceived. ‘Real’ here does not means external existing thing. I am still now more certain that my idea of table that is present in my thought of a table is caused by something outside of myself, out there in the world, still less that my idea of the table has anything in common with your idea of a table. All I can be certain of is that in thinking ‘table’ in my mind at this moment now that the idea of table is present in my mind and this is the case even if I am not imagining the table in my mind, but also sensing it:
For even if, as I have supposed, none of the objects of imagination are real, the power of imagination is something which really exists and is part of my thinking. Lastly, it is also the same ‘I’ who has sensory perceptions, or is aware of bodily things as it were through the senses. For example, I am now seeing light, hearing a noise, feeling heat. But I am asleep, so all this is false. Yet I certainly seem to see, to hear, and to be warmed. This cannot be false; what is called ‘having a sensory perception’ is strictly just this, and in this restricted sense of the term it is simply thinking [AT VII, 29].