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Descartes and How He Tried to Remove Himself from His Skeptical Point

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Jeffrey Laino

Ramapo College

In the Meditations, Descartes embarks upon what Bernard Williams has called "the project of 'Pure Enquiry' to discover certain, indubitable foundations for knowledge." Although Descartes' views relied mainly on skepticism, he did make an attempt to 'remove' himself from this doubt. 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 Jesuit college, and this had an important influence on his work, as we shall see later. The second was the skepticism that had made a sudden impact on the intellectual world, mainly as a reaction to the scholastic outlook. This skepticism 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 skeptical arguments and, while not being skeptically disposed himself, came to believe that skepticism towards knowledge was the best way to discover what is certain: "by applying skeptical 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 and Copernicus. 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 skeptical 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 skeptic to disprove the skeptical 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 role 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 hyperbolic of doubts. He invokes the nightmarish notion of an all-powerful, 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 had a great deal of misinterpretation (quite possibly as a result of Descartes' repeated contradictions of his own position in subsequent writings). Many commentators have fallen prey to the tempting interpretation of the cogito as either syllogism or enthymeme. This view holds that Descartes asserts that he is thinking, that he believes it axiomatic that 'whatever thinks must exist' and therefore that he logically concludes that he exists. This view, it seems to me, is wrong. In the Meditations, does Descartes write 'I am thinking, therefore I am', nor anything directly equivalent? Rather, he says: "Doubtless, then, that I exist, let him deceive me as he may, he can never bring it about that I am nothing, so long as I shall be conscious that I am something. So that it must, in fine, be maintained, all things being maturely and carefully considered, that this proposition I am, I exist, is necessarily true each time it is expressed by me or conceived in my mind." The point here is that it is impossible to doubt the truth of the proposition 'I exist' when one utters it. It is an indubitable proposition, and one that will necessarily be 'presupposed in every attack of the skeptic'. Descartes is not yet entitled to use syllogisms as the possibility of the 'malign demon' is still very much alive. As an aside, Descartes himself denies that the cogito is a syllogism, although it should be mentioned that in some of the Replies to Objections he seems to assert that it is in fact a syllogism.

Finally, in the Regulae ad directionem ingenii, Descartes denies the usefulness of syllogisms as a means to knowledge. I believe that, given Descartes' project, it is fair to grant him that the cogito deserves the status he bestows upon it. For can there be anything more certain than something that is so forceful and so powerful that every time it is presented to our mind we are forced to assent to it? What Descartes did here was to jiggle about the way philosophy normally approaches the construction of knowledge structures. By starting with self-knowledge, he elevates the subjective above the objective and forces his epistemology to rest upon the knowledge he has of his own self (and inadvertently sets the tone for the next 300 years of philosophy). This leaves him with a problem. He can know his own existence, that he is a thinking thing and the contents of his consciousness, but how can any of this ever lead to any knowledge of anything outside of himself?

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