How Descartes Tries to Extricate Himself from the Skeptical Doubts He Has Raised

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How Descartes Tries to Extricate Himself from the Skeptical Doubts He Has Raised

[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


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...dged by us as a failure - the

fact that he addressed topics of great and lasting interest, and

provided us with a method we can both understand and utilise

fruitfully, speaks for itself.


1. Descartes, Ren_ A Discourse on Method, Meditations and

Principles of Philosophy trans. John Veitch. The Everyman's

Library, 1995.

Descartes, Ren_ The Philosophical Writings of Descartes volume I

and II ed. and trans. John Cottingham, R. Stoothoff and D.

Murdoch. Cambridge, 1985.

Frankfurt, Harry Demons, Dreamers and Madmen. Bobbs-Merrill,


Curley, Edwin Descartes Against the Skeptics. Oxford, 1978.

Vesey, Godfrey Descartes: Father of Modern Philosophy. Open

University Press, 1971.

Sorrell, Tom Descartes: Reason and Experience. Open University

Press, 1982.

The Oxford Companion to Philosophy ed. Ted Honderich. Oxford

University Press, 1985.

Cottingham, John Descartes. Oxford, 1986. Williams, Bernard

Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry. Harmondsworth, 1978.

Russell, Bertrand The History of Western Philosophy. George Allen

and Unwin, 1961. 11. Kripke, Saul Naming and Necessity. Oxford


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