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
exists. The cogito (Descartes\' proof of his own existence) has
been the source of a great deal of discussion ever since
Descartes first formulated it in the 1637 Discourse on Method,
and, I believe, a great deal of misinterpretation (quite possibly
as a result of Descartes\' repeated contradictions