Descartes


How does 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 ...

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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 ...

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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 ...

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Added: 9/1/2005 10:08:48 AM
Category: Biographies
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