The wax passage itself is a simple piece of writing, and a simple train of thought to follow. The essence of the passage is that Descartes believes, and attempts to convince the reader that the “clear and distinct” ideas one might have of objects external to one’s body are not perceived through the senses, but rather through the intellect.
While examining a piece of wax, one has certain ideas, ideas initially thought to have come from the senses, but all that can be ascertained through the senses can be proven to be false. “Let us take, for instance, this piece of wax….Its color, shape, and size are manifest.
It is hard and cold; it is easy to touch….I am bringing it close to the fire… Its size is increasing, it is becoming liquid and hot; you can hardly touch it….Does the same wax remain?”(Descartes:21) Obviously, the same wax remains, and the clear and distinct ideas of the wax remain as well. , yet all sensory perceptions of the wax have changed.
Descartes asks then “so what was there in the wax that was so distinctly grasped?…the senses of taste, smell, sight, touch or hearing has now changed; and yet the wax remains” (Descartes:21) In answer to this, he suggests that perhaps the wax is not merely the sum of its sensory attributes. Descartes argues that if all attributes are stripped away, what is left is the “essence” of the wax.
This essence can manifest itself to him in an infinite number of ways. The wax can assume any shape, size, or smell, and since Descartes assumes that he himself is incapable of imagining the wax in infinite ways, the insight he has gained into the wax was not brought about by his faculty of imagination. With the elimination of the senses, and then the elimination of the imagination, what is left must be the answer.
The clear and distinct ideas of the wax must have been perceived through the mind alone. “…the perception of the wax is neither a seeing, nor a touching, nor an imagining, Nor has it ever been…rather it is an inspection on the part of the mind alone” (Descartes:22)
What Descartes wants this passage to impress upon the reader is that what we know of external objects (i.e. the wax) is not gained by any other means but through the mind alone. The “essence” of objects can present itself in many ways, but that is all it is, a presentation. The “essence” itself resides behind the attributes.
This abandonment of the traditional idea of gaining knowledge about the outside world through the senses was crucial to Descartes’ goal of a body of “undeniable truths”, as he had formed the hypothesis that the senses could be fooled, but not the mind. This line of thinking is not universal amongst philosophers. The process of acquiring knowledge is a continual operation, accordingly, the examination of this procedure should continue as well. Descartes was not the only one to examine the epistemic position of man.