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Descartes

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Descartes

How does Descartes try to extricate himself from the sceptical

doubts that he has raised? Does he succeed?

by Tom Nuttall

[All page references and quotations from the Meditations are

taken from the 1995 Everyman edition]

In the Meditations, Descartes embarks upon what Bernard Williams

has called the project of 'Pure Enquiry' to discover certain,

indubitable foundations for knowledge. By subjecting everything

to doubt Descartes hoped to discover whatever was immune to it.

In order to best understand how and why Descartes builds his

epistemological system up from his foundations in the way that he

does, it is helpful to gain an understanding of the intellectual

background of the 17th century that provided the motivation for

his work.

We can discern three distinct influences on Descartes, three

conflicting world-views that fought for prominence in his day.

The first was what remained of the mediaeval scholastic

philosophy, largely based on Aristotelian science and Christian

theology. Descartes had been taught according to this outlook

during his time at the Jesuit college La Flech_ and it had an

important influence on his work, as we shall see later. The

second was the scepticism that had made a sudden impact on the

intellectual world, mainly as a reaction to the scholastic

outlook. This scepticism was strongly influenced by the work of

the Pyrrhonians as handed down from antiquity by Sextus

Empiricus, which claimed that, as there is never a reason to

believe p that is better than a reason not to believe p, we

should forget about trying to discover the nature of reality and

live by appearance alone. This attitude was best exemplified in

the work of Michel de Montaigne, who mockingly dismissed the

attempts of theologians and scientists to understand the nature

of God and the universe respectively. Descartes felt the force of

sceptical arguments and, while not being sceptically disposed

himself, came to believe that scepticism towards knowledge was

the best way to discover what is certain: by applying sceptical

doubt to all our beliefs, we can discover which of them are

indubitable, and thus form an adequate foundation for knowledge.

The third world-view resulted largely from the work of the new

scientists; Galileo, Copernicus, Bacon et al. Science had finally

begun to assert itself and shake off its dated Aristotelian

prejudices. Coherent theories about the world and its place in

the universe were being constructed and many of those who were

aware of this work became very optimistic about the influence it

could have. Descartes was a child of the scientific revolution,

but felt that until sceptical concerns were dealt with, science

would always have to contend with Montaigne and his cronies,

standing on the sidelines and laughing at science's pretenses to

knowledge. Descartes' project, then, was to use the tools of the

sceptic to disprove the sceptical thesis by discovering certain

knowledge that could subsequently be used as the foundation of a

new science, in which knowledge about the external world was as

certain as knowledge about mathematics. It was also to hammer the

last nail into the coffin of scholasticism, but also, arguably,

to show that God still had a vital r_le to play in the discovery

of knowledge.

Meditation One describes Descartes' method of doubt. By its

conclusion, Descartes has seemingly subjected all of his beliefs

to the strongest and most hyberbolic of doubts. He invokes the

nightmarish notion of an all-powerful, malign demon who could be

deceiving him in the realm of sensory experience, in his very

understanding of matter and even in the simplest cases of

mathematical or logical truths. The doubts may be obscure, but

this is the strength of the method - the weakness of criteria for

what makes a doubt reasonable means that almost anything can

count as a doubt, and therefore whatever withstands doubt must be

something epistemologically formidable.

In Meditation Two, Descartes hits upon the indubitable principle

he has been seeking. He exists, at least when he thinks he

...

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