Montreal has big potholes. Lots of them. If one is to truly understand the philosophy of Hume and Descartes, one must understand what they would do with crummy roads as civil engineers in Montreal. Hume would probably repave the roads based on the success of past designs and the results of empirical data. Descartes, on the other hand, would probably leave nothing unscathed after attacking the problem with reason, scrapping the existing roadmap and re-building roads with new foundations and new directions. This allegory underlines a central question of a Hume-Descartes comparison: if Hume’s road to knowledge needs improvement, does Descartes know where to start or where he is going? The following discussion of Descartes’ Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy and Hume’s An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding will include an examination of Hume and Descartes’ divergent definitions of knowledge and methods for acquiring knowledge. This will be followed by a comparison of the philosophers’ thoughts on the origin of ideas, the idea of God, and the limits of reason.
Hume’s discussion of the “Operations of the Understanding” (Hume 15) ably frames a first comparison with Descartes. Hume divides the objects of human inquiry and reasoning into two categories: relations of ideas and matters of fact. Matters of fact occur in nature and their opposites are conceivable. Relations of ideas are “intuitively or demonstratively certain” (15) and pertain to the disciplines of geometry and algebra. Reason can discover relations of ideas in the realm of thought “without dependence on what is any where existent in the universe” (15) and the opposite of these propositions are inconceivable cont...
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...ing, and here Descartes fails utterly to defend his claim that God does not deceive. And where is Descartes left if God can deceive? Nowhere. His whole philosophy, including his cherished and respected clarity and distinctness, collapses.
Ultimately, Descartes’ belief in reason is as compelling as it is flawed. By the time I reached the end of the Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy, I had lost my faith.
Descartes, René (1596-1650). Trans. Donal A. Cress. Discourse on Method. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company. 4th Ed, 1998.
Descartes, René (1596-1650). Trans. Donal A. Cress. Meditations on First Philosophy. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company. 4th Ed, 1998.
Hume, David (1711-1776). An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Ed. Eric Steinberg. 2nd Ed. United States: Hackett Publishing Company Inc., 1993.
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