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Montaigne and Descartes on Doubting

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Diane Ihlenfeldt

March 4, 2004

Philosophy 110

Montaigne and Descartes

Montaigne and Descartes both made use of a philosophical method that focused on the use of doubt to make discoveries about themselves and the world around them. However, they doubted different things. Descartes doubted all his previous knowledge from his senses, while Montaigne doubted that there were any absolute certainties in knowledge. Although they both began their philosophical processes by doubting, Montaigne doubting a constant static self, and Descartes doubted that anything existed at all, Descartes was able to move past that doubt to find one indubitably certainty, "I think, therefore I am".

How often do we question what is real or true? Descartes believed that doubting everything that he knew to be truthful knowledge was the only way to find out what was actually true and real. He turned doubting into a key principle for his methods of philosophy. Descartes would ask what we really knew beyond the shadow of a doubt. To do this he resolves to search within himself (Descartes 9). First though, since he decided to doubt everything, he had to put aside all of the knowledge that he supposedly knew, to search out the truth (Descartes 13). He did this blindly, not knowing whether the truth is the knowledge that he already knew and was forcing himself to put aside, or that the truth is some knowledge he did not know that would replace his previous forms of knowledge. Descartes decided that he did not need to prove that all of his knowledge was false, but only that all of his knowledge was not certain. He did not, however, spend time examining every one of his bits of knowledge. Instead after setting all of his previous knowledge aside he tried to find one thing outside of his knowledge that was certain.

Not only did Descartes set aside all of his previous knowledge, but he also set aside all knowledge he had gained, and that he continued to gain from his five senses. He would not believe what his eyes saw, or what his hand felt, because he could not yet determine his senses as giving him knowledge that could be turned into certainties. He did not have any reason to believe that he could rely on his senses. Descartes doubting of his senses also caused him to reject any knowledge that he had gained through life experience. Most of the knowledge that we gain is through sensory experience. Since he could not believe that the knowledge that his senses gave him was true knowledge, provable as a certainty, then he could not prove certain the knowledge that he had attained and continued to attain from his five senses.

Through his philosophical search Descartes was able to find one indubitable certainty, that we are thinking beings. We always think, even when we have doubts that we are thinking we are still thinking because a doubt is a thought. Although Descartes found this one universal truth, he was still not able to believe in anything but the fact that he was a thinking being. Therefore he still doubted everything around him. He used this one certainty to try to find a system of knowledge about everything in the world. Descartes idea was to propose a hypothesis about something. For example he might say that a perfect being was in existence. He would go around this thought in a methodical way, doubting it, all the while trying to identify it as a certainty. Doubting everything was at first dangerous because in doubting everything he was also admitting that he doubted the existence of God, and thus opposing the church. However he made it a point to tell us at the beginning of his Discourse on Methods that what he was writing was only for himself and that he expected no one but himself to follow it (Descartes 14, 15). Descartes eventually managed to prove the existence of a higher being. He said that since he had the idea of a perfect being, then that perfect being must exist. His reasoning was that he, Descartes, was an imperfect being and that an imperfect being could not come up with the concept of a perfect being without that perfect being actually existing and giving Descartes that idea.

Descartes still had to deal with many doubts. The doubt of foremost importance was the doubting of his senses, and the doubt of whether or not his body actually existed. Descartes decided that since this God was a perfect being, it must then also be a compassionate being and would not give Descartes senses and then use those senses to trick him into using those senses to determine knowledge that was not in fact true.

Descartes and Montaigne did not agree in the ways in which they doubted. Descartes doubted about the existence of all knowledge, but believed that there were certainties to be found within that group of doubtable knowledge. Descartes focused on the fact that there must be at least one certainty in the world, but began this search for this certainty by methodically doubting everything that he already knew as knowledge. Montaigne decided that nothing was certain, regardless of how many times it was tested, because everything was constantly changing.

Montaigne believed that it was important to leave room for doubt in everything. Montaigne focused on the fact that nothing was certain. He noted that his self was constantly changing, which was important for him since his philosophy was based on the study of his self. Montaigne would have had a problem with Descartes philosophies because Montaigne did not believe that justifying a belief guaranteed that it was true.

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