An Analysis of Descartes' Methodical Doubt

An Analysis of Descartes' Methodical Doubt


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Posted Sep 24, 2002 - 6:53 AM:

Before I start with my analysis of Descartes ‘methodical doubt,’ I would like to directly address my reader. Descartes is probably the most studied philosopher today, and certainly one of the most important to ever live. What I hope to accomplish with the following presentation is, hopefully, to instill in my interested reader a sense of Descartes' literary genius along with bits of his philosophical genius. However, this post is not, necessarily, to be taken as an apology or a criticism of Cartesian philosophy in general. Descartes great work Meditations on First Philosophy, and more precisely the first two Meditations, will be our primary focus. Cartesian skepticism is so familiar with most of us that its unnaturalness may be difficult to see, and hopefully I will be able to develop an appreciation for this magnificent work that my readers may have not had before reading my post.

An Analysis of Descartes’ Methodical Doubt

Descartes from the start sets himself to the task of putting himself into a quandary; and the tool he puts too use towards his task is skepticism (at this point I would like to signify that Descartes had also changed the conception of skepticism then that was employed by the ‘classical skeptics’). Right from the start Descartes presents himself in an apparent non-committal position:

“Several years have now elapsed since I first became aware that I had accepted, even from my youth, many false opinions for true, and that consequently what I afterwards based on such principles was highly doubtful; and from that time I was convinced of the necessity of undertaking once in my life to rid myself of all the opinions I had adopted, and of commencing anew the work of building from the foundation, if I desired to establish a firm and abiding superstructure in the sciences.” (First Meditation).

So Descartes tells us that he not going to ‘assume’ that anything he had learned in the past will be taken as true. His reason for this is that he wants to present his starting in a pre-philosophic and commonsense framework; and from this stage one will be able to achieve metaphysical enlightenment. But there is for Descartes also a question of method, and if his inquiry is follow his own precepts, his argument must follow the ‘order of reason;’ that being, one can only proceed from an explicitly avowed and validated position. So what Descartes’ leads his reader to believe is that metaphysics is precluded from any covert role in producing any of his skeptical doubts. What will be made explicit throughout this post is that his preclusion is hardly the case; Descartes’ explicit doubt is the very reflection of his explicit certainty.

However, before Descartes can make his explicit doubt plausible (and therefore making his metaphysical certainty plausible) he must discredit his previous opinions as being built upon a foundation that can be examined for error in an exhaustive fashion. And the foundation of his previously accepted opinions he wants to present as resting on general epistemological principles. Descartes though, never tells us why he is justified in making this translation of skepticism to a theoretical problem in epistemology. Instead, he disguises his ‘justification’ for this reduction as a practical consideration for his project. To make effective his disturbance of his previously accept opinions he says:

“… it will not be necessary for me to show that the whole of these are false- a point, perhaps, which I shall never reach; but as even now my reason convinces me that I ought not the less carefully to withhold belief from what is not entirely certain and indubitable, than from what is manifestly false, it will be sufficient to justify the rejection of the whole if I shall find in each some ground for doubt. Nor for this purpose will it be necessary even to deal with each belief individually, which would be truly an endless labour; but, as the removal from below of the foundation necessarily involves the downfall of the whole edifice, I will at once approach the criticism of the principles on which all my former beliefs rested.” (First Meditation).

This is a misleading position. It is simply ‘not necessary’ to examine each belief on its own foundations, it is a necessity not to!

What I would like to draw to the readers’ attention is Descartes’ use of ‘foundation.’ What this allows Descartes to do is undermine his previous accepted beliefs in a ‘topic-neutral, way: that is, any particular content of any particular belief is not a factor; he can examine them independent of context. But, Descartes never gives a ‘justification’ for his reduction of all ‘beliefs’ to his concept of ‘foundation.’ What he has shown is simply that his doubt, hence his certainty, is to some degree context bound.

How does Descartes make this reduction appear innocent? He employs a two fold strategy: first by purposely being vague on the nature of these ‘principles’ that his former opinions had rested on; all we are told is that his former opinions were derived from the senses.

“All that I have, up to this moment, accepted as possessed of the highest truth and certainty, I received either from or through the senses.” (First Meditation).

And finally, he convinces his reader of his ‘theoretical justification’ by disguising it as a matter of practical connivance (see above excerpt). Certainly ‘practical convince’ is not very good grounds for ‘justification.’

Now let us follow Descartes on his journey of radical, metaphysical, and most definitely methodical doubt.

(1) “But it may be said, perhaps, that, although the senses occasionally mislead us respecting minute objects, and such as are so far removed from us as to be beyond the reach of close observation…”

(2) “I must nevertheless here consider that I am a man, and that, consequently, I am in the habit of sleeping, and representing to myself in dreams those same things, or even sometimes others less probable, which the insane think are presented to them in their waking moments.”

(3) “I will suppose, then, not God, who is sovereignly good and the fountain of truth, but that some malignant demon, who is at once exceedingly potent and deceitful, has employed all his artifice to deceive me;”

(All three above excerpts are from the First Meditation)

There are two aspects to the above skeptical positions: first, they are differentiated; and second, they are stratified. Let us consider the former aspect. Descartes wants to show (in a temporary way of course) have doubts about anything (in an epistemological sense), but especially about material things. The first point (1) Descartes makes is that the sense cannot be trust without some qualification; as he points out, we can be deceived from objects that are barely perceivable and from objects at a great distance. At this point though, objects that are close by and in plain view are left standing. This will not last for very long; he introduces the dreaming argument (2) to fell these kinds of sense impressions. However, even the dreaming argument cannot dispel things that are “very simple and very general.” To effectively undermine the credibility of these beliefs he raises doubts concerning nature, his senses altogether and his relation to Providence; and this is implemented with the introduction of the deceiving God (3). After his ‘hyperbolical’ doubt, Descartes seems to have left himself some knowledge, which will embody itself in his prepositional claim “I think, I am,” but that discussion is left for another time.

Now we will consider the former aspect. As we have seen Descartes layers his doubt, and hence imposes a corresponding stratification of knowledge. Through his skeptical journey, Descartes effects a context- and subject-matter independent separation of his beliefs into very general epistemological categories, layered in relation to how difficult it is to call these beliefs into doubt. Highest in his order come the beliefs that are never doubted, accordingly to be identified as those that involve Descartes’ immediate knowledge of his own ‘thoughts,’ whose exemption will be retrospectively justified on the grounds of their supposed incorrigibility (again this will have to be reserved for another time). Moreover, the order of ‘justification,’ which Descartes calls ‘the order of reasons,’ must reverse the order of doubt. The stratified development of Cartesian doubt insinuates, without ever directly arguing for, a foundational conception of knowledge, the view of knowledge that sees justification as constrained by just the sort of context- and subject-matter-independent order of epistemic priority that is implicit in Descartes’ stratified doubt.

The time has come for us to revel, in complete, Descartes’ metaphysical presuppositions that he most ably disguised as non-committal common sense.

I) There is a universal, context- and subject-matter-independent order of reasons: that knowledge conforms to a foundational structure.

II) The identification of our ‘thoughts,’ the contents of ‘minds,’ as all that we perceive ‘properly or immediately.’

Consider the following passage from the Third Meditation that will shed some light on the above two presuppositions:

“Nevertheless I before received and admitted many things as wholly certain and manifest, which yet I afterwards found to be doubtful. What, then, were those? They were the earth, the sky, the stars, and all the other objects, which I was in the habit of perceiving by the senses. But what was it that I clearly [and distinctly] perceived in them? Nothing more than that the ideas and the thoughts of those objects were presented to my mind. And even now I do not deny that these ideas are found in my mind. But there was yet another thing which I affirmed, and which, from having been accustomed to believe it, I thought I clearly perceived, although, in truth, I did not perceive it at all; I mean the existence of objects external to me, from which those ideas proceeded, and to which they had a perfect resemblance; and it was here I was mistaken, or if I judged correctly, this assuredly was not to be traced to any knowledge I possessed.”

III) The assimilation of sensations to ‘thoughts’ as characterized above. This assimilation allows Descartes to entertain the possibility that his ‘sensations’ might be just what they are even if he had no senses- if there were no physical world at all- while, by trading on the common-sense notion that the (physical) senses are what put us (embodied persons) in touch with external objects (i.e. objects outside our bodies), preserving the idea that ‘sensations’ are the sine qua non of knowledge of external reality. ‘Sensations’ thus become the ultimate, if prima-facie non-committal, evidence on which inferences to beliefs about that reality must be based. Consider an excerpt from the Sixth Meditation:

“I believed I never perceived anything when awake which I could not occasionally think I also perceived when asleep, and as I do not believe that the ideas I seem to perceive in my sleep proceed from objects external to me, I did not any more observe any ground for believing this of such as I seem to perceive when awake”

Hopefully I will now make it clear to my patient reader why Descartes cannot be open about these presuppositions from the start: it is not until later in the Meditations does he have the necessary theses and distinctions in hand. An example would be that common sense does not recognize the Cartesian analysis of sensation into mental and physical components, if for no other reason that it does not recognize the Cartesian conception of the mental. To make it appear as if the doubt about the external is generated out of resources that common sense does recognize as its own. Descartes must project back into his pre-philosophical position metaphysical considerations that are properly available only after common sense has been left far behind; and this projection is accomplished in the Third and Sixth Meditation.

But there is also a greater reason we must consider why Descartes cannot be open about these presuppositions. At the time Descartes was writing the Church (which was controled by the Aristotelians) had made it clear that there will be no toleration of the questioning, and certainly not the overthrow, of Aristotelian philosophy; that took the form of scholasticism at the time. In a letter to Mersenne of 1641 Descartes writes:

“..I may tell you between ourselves that these six Meditations contain all the foundations of my Physics. But please do not tell people, for it might make it harder for supporters of Aristotle to approve them. I hope that readers will gradually get used to my principles, and recognize their truth, before they notice they destroy those of Aristotle.”

So in effect, what Descartes could not be open about was his real intentions: the greatest ‘trick’ ever pulled off in the history of philosophy: the overthrow of a philosophy that was accepted unconditionally for almost 2000 YEARS!!!! It is due to Descartes’ literary genius that his intentions were hidden just long enough for his philosophy to gain a foothold into the minds of men before the authorities could effectively censure it. Descartes’ is not only recorded in history as one of the greatest thinkers to ever live, but also as one who pulled off one of the greatest heists.


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Posted Sep 24, 2002 - 2:57 PM:

When we doubt a proposition, we neither believe nor disbelieve it: rather, we suspend judgement, regarding it as an open question whether it is true. Doubt can thus be a sceptical attitude: one form of scepticism holds that any cognitive attitude other than doubt is irrational or illegitimate - rationality requires a general suspension of judgement. The arguments employed by sceptics (for example, Pyrrhonists such as Sextus Empiricus) are thus designed to induce doubt, to shake our beliefs and certainties, and to force us to suspend judgement.

Descartes made doubt the cornerstone of a philosophical method: in order to place our knowledge on foundations which are genuinely secure, we should try to doubt all of our beliefs, retaining them only if they are absolutely indubitable. Ordinary empirical beliefs are threatened by the possibility that I am dreaming; as are even logical principles because I might be deceived by an evil demon. Unless I can eliminate these possibilities, I cannot escape the suspicion that all my beliefs are infected by unnoticed error. Few have been convinced by Descartes's claims about when doubt is impossible, and many have questioned his claims about the desirability of trying to extend doubt as far as possible.

A problem emerges because Descartes's arguments do not produce a genuine doubt: the possibility that I might be dreaming or deceived by a demon does not touch my everyday confidence that I will be supported when I sit down or my ordinary reliance upon elementary arithmetic. Descartes acknowledged that the doubt induced by hypothesizing an evil demon is "very slight, and so to speak metaphysical": we can acknowledge the abstract possibility or appropriateness of doubt but we feel no live doubt. But many of his critics have claimed that he relied upon an inadequate, excessively "intellectual" understanding of doubt and certainty.

Common-sense philosophers have questioned the apparent assumption that if we can conceive a possible situation incompatible with the truth of some everyday claim, then, unless we have independent grounds for ruling out that possibility, our everyday certainty is unwarranted. There are kinds of certainty (and indubitability) falling short of the absolute certainty criticized by sceptics. In 1675 John Wilkins defended our certainty that there was such a man as Henry VIII and that there are such places as America and China. And John Tillotson insisted that "It is possible that the sun may not rise to Morrow morning; and yet, for all this, I suppose that no Man has the least Doubt but that it will." We do not hesitate to accept standards of rationality which underwrite such certainties; and it is unreasonable to follow sceptics in disregarding these standards. Doubt is made to appear a neurotic and unreasonable fear which leads us to doubt things because they cannot receive kinds of proofs which it is unreasonable to expect them to receive. They may not be beyond all possible doubt, but they are beyond all reasonable doubt. Similar arguments against the Cartesian use of the method of doubt are found in thinkers like Thomas Reid.

Alongside this claim that sceptical doubts are unreasonable, we find the suggestion that they are unreal, that they are a pretence. The way in which I confidently trust that the chair will take my weight suggests that I entertain no real possibility that it is not there. Philosophers like Wittgenstein have insisted that these "practical certainties," things we do not doubt "in deed," form the true foundations of our knowledge: the Cartesian method of doubt misconstrues this distinctive kind of certainty as a form of intellectual assent.

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Posted Sep 24, 2002 - 5:23 PM:

the Cartesian method of doubt misconstrues this distinctive kind of certainty as a form of intellectual assent.

As you have rightly pointed out Tecno Tut, Descartes lures his reader into a 'false' sense of intellectual assent. His craftmanship in the Meditations, from my point of view, is indeed materful. For I must admit, in my early days I fell victim too Descartes' 'slight of hand.' It was not until after many readings of his works, and much reading of essays by esteem Cartesian scholars, that I was finally able to 'see through' (so to speak) Descartes' ploy. And upon my revelation, I gained a new appreciation for the great Frenchman. However, I would like to add that I am not convinced of the 'common sense' philosophers criticism of Descartes, the 'slight metaphysical' doubt is to be understood as aspect of his methodology; something, I think ,they have a tendency to overlook or marginalize.

Your post is a very informative 'follow up' that will hopefuly be appreciated by our reader (you have exhibited quite a store of knowledge), certainly I found it informative and enjoyable- you are undoubtly a positive asset to this forum.

Addition- on rereading your post Tecno Tut I would like to make a comment regarding the last part:

Philosophers like Wittgenstein have insisted that these 'practical certainties', things we do not doubt 'in deed', form the true foundations of our knowledge

Wittgenstein is right about doubt presupposing that something is certain. But the ground on which one bases a doubt need not be certain; and on this point Descartes was right, and Wittgenstein was in the wrong.
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