[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
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
... middle of paper ...
...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
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
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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