And Then On The Other Hand I Might…Keep The Wax (Reprint)

by Belle Waring on November 14, 2006

Readers bored by our recent all-wingnut, all the time focus are invited to read about two great things that go great together: Descartes and bees. (This is taken from our personal blog, where there are already some good comments.)

Every now and again, while I’m grading papers, I think my life might be a lot easier if Descartes had just refrained from letting his mind wander, and not come up with the wax example. It’s one of the most apparently simple, actually confusing thought experiments ever.

Also, think about this for a minute:

Let us consider those things people commonly think they understand most distinctly of all: namely, those bodies that we touch and see. I do not mean bodies in general–for general perceptions are apt to be somewhat more confused–but one particular body. Let us take, for example, this piece of wax, just come from the comb. It has not yet lost the sweetness of the honey it contained; it retains some of the scent of the flowers from which it was gathered; its color, shape and size are apparent; it is hard, cool, and can be readily handled; if you tap it with your knuckle it makes a sound. In short, it has everything which seems necessary to enable a body to be known as distinctly as possible. But see how, even as I speak, I place the wax by the fire: what remains of its taste evaporates; its scent dissipates; its color changes; its shape is lost; its size increases; it becomes liquid and hot; you can hardly touch it, and if you do it no longer makes a sound. But does the same wax remain?

Has any of you looked at a honeycomb lately? I have. The hotel we stayed at in Vietnam had a thick sheet of comb suspended in a wooden frame over a polished trough, and honey slowly dripped out of it and slid down to the bottom of the trough. It was really excellent honey, thin and floral tasting. But do you know what the most salient feature of the comb was? That would be the distinctive, mathematically regular, hexagonal structure. How does that not merit a place in Descartes discussion? It’s clear he chose the wax carefully both for its appeal to all the senses and its transformational power. In what world is that hexagonal structure of the comb not more salient than that it makes a sound (a dull, feeble sound, I might add) if you rap it with your knuckle? I mean, ‘its shape is apparent’, OK. But that description could just as well fit a blob of slightly melted, cooled wax or a ball made by crushing a piece of fresh comb with your hands. But this is ‘fresh from the comb’. Why is that not worth mentioning? Doesn’t it make the transformation more complete, as it moves from its regular lattice to undifferentiated liquid? Now, of course all Descartes’ readers knew what wax fresh from the comb looked like, certainly better than we. But it really seems strange to me that he would lavish all these sensual descriptions on the wax and just pass over in silence its single most notable feature. Why?



Brandon Berg 11.14.06 at 8:49 pm

I’m still stuck on “apparently simple.” Why is it actually confusing?


Jim Birch 11.14.06 at 8:51 pm

Perhaps the hexagon hadn’t been invented then?


Belle Waring 11.14.06 at 9:05 pm

in the context of the meditations it’s sort of strange, because the discussion moves from the cogito argument, a stage at which Descartes is apparently certain of only the fact of his existence as a thinking thing, and his considering whether the mind can be better known than the body, to this discussion which seemingly brings the whole external world back in through the back door in an unproblematic way–what happened to all those skeptical doubts we were having a second ago? he says that he’s giving himself free rein to consider this point even though it’s out of order in some sense. and then the conclusion is really massively counter-intuitive: “something which I thought I was seeing with my eyes is in fact grasped solely by the faculty of judgment which is in my mind.” solely? solely? wasn’t any of that–the smell; the taste; the sound–doing any work at all?


Belle Waring 11.14.06 at 9:06 pm

it would be more accurate to say that the wax example itself is simple enough but the conclusions he draws from it, and its status in the context of the second meditation, are confusing. the part I’ve quoted is, in fact, straightforward.


David 11.14.06 at 9:27 pm

Well, he does mention its shape. I don’t think he focuses on its specific, hexagonal structure, because he is quickly going through the properties detected by the five senses. He chooses instead to mention its color and size along with its shape.


PK 11.14.06 at 9:30 pm

When I’ve read that passage, I’ve always imagined the wax as just a lump — like what you’d get if you crushed the comb in your hand, and not the original regular hexagonal lattice. After all, the wax is ‘fresh from the comb’, not ‘fresh from the hive’.


David 11.14.06 at 9:30 pm

One other point: is the wax’s hexagonal structure a *sensible* quality for Descartes? I suspect not, but I’m not a Descartes expert.


Brandon Berg 11.14.06 at 9:41 pm

Doesn’t he just mean that it’s solely by the faculty of his judgment that he’s able to determine that the melted wax is the same object as the unmelted comb he saw before? It seems to me the point is that he was able to understand this even though his senses suggested to him that the two were entirely different.


ogged 11.14.06 at 10:36 pm

wasn’t any of that—the smell; the taste; the sound—doing any work at all?

I think the answer is “no,” because he’s not talking about perceiving the wax itself, but it’s “nature.” Only the mind can comprehend the form of a thing, right?

As for the honeycomb, I don’t know jack about making honey, but isn’t it possible that he’s talking about beeswax, which isn’t comb-y?

Finally, from the Wikipedia article on honeycombs,

Honeycomb is also a popular Tv show in sweden. It is mainly watched by an audience of elderly and slow people. It is not recommended for mature audiences like 5 and 6 year olds.


John Emerson 11.14.06 at 11:49 pm

You may think that honey can be eaten, or beeswax be used, without guilt. The truth is that bees are treated very cruelly indeed.


ogged 11.15.06 at 12:04 am

Ignore my “it’s” error. Please.


Jackmormon 11.15.06 at 1:53 am



bad Jim 11.15.06 at 3:56 am

A little too late to wax philosophical, which I rarely do in any case, but two things struck me:

First, he might have been describing a new candle, in which case the comb structure might not have been a prominent feature, particularly if the light was poor.

Second, the question “does the same wax remain?” echoes Heraclitus rather oddly, although he must be wondering whether the wax was transformed by melting, not suggesting that it was somehow replaced by other wax.


abb1 11.15.06 at 4:56 am

The point is, I think, that the “shape is lost”, in the sense that it did have shape before (hexagon or lump, doesn’t matter), and now it’s liquid and has no shape at all.


Brendan 11.15.06 at 6:27 am

I don’t know too much about this but is this not an attempt to create an argument for essentialism, and does this not lead onto the idea of ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ qualities, which was used by Locke to demonstrate something or other?


Thom Brooks 11.15.06 at 7:24 am

I love the Zappa allusion in the title! I might be moving to Montana soon….


lemuel pitkin 11.15.06 at 12:15 pm

We modern, urban folk are surrounded my manufactured products that often have regular, geometric shapes. Natural objects around us are contrastingly complex and irregular. That’s what makes the honeycomb so striking to us.

500 years ago, manmade objects were overwhelmingly artisanal rather than mass-produced, and much more likely to be irregular themselves. There was little if any sense that regular/geometric = artificial and irregular = natural, as is second nature to us today. So the hexagons of the honeycomb wouldn’t be especially striking.

Just speculating, mind you.


paul 11.16.06 at 10:26 am

I think PK has it. If the wax only retains some taste of honey rather than retaining all or most of the honey itself, then it’s already been pressed or spun (when was the centrifugal extractor for honeycombs invented?) to extract the honey and retains little if any of its regular hexagonal pattern.

That we might think of something like that delicate hotel display as the “true” shape of beeswax or even of a honeycomb (which is typically multilayered and completely regular only over short distances) is a sign of how thoroughly the pastoral fallacy has taken hold.

Oh, and that comb pattern in wound-up-sheet beeswax candles: is there anyone who doesn’t think it comes from the rollers?

Comments on this entry are closed.