Knowledge, Confidence, and Deceit in Descartes and Shakespeare

Knowledge, Confidence, and Deceit in Descartes and Shakespeare

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Knowledge, Confidence, and Deceit in Descartes and Shakespeare

“Knowledge is power,” the English philosopher Francis Bacon once said1. It seems obvious then, that knowledge is something to be sought after, and of course it is sought after in everyday life, in thoughts, and in fiction. However, there is danger in this. Bacon’s quote no doubt refers to true knowledge, as power rarely comes from being misled. Yet, we are misled, deceived, and betrayed when in the pursuit of knowledge. A challenge then arises: how to continue in the pursuit of knowledge, something obviously necessary in life, while verifying that we are not being led astray. It seems a well thought out process for collecting knowledge is in order.

Any pursuit of knowledge must begin with either an observation by the senses, or a piece of information supplied by a third party. This starting point must be verified, and then the process must move forward using a combination of Aristotelian logic, further observations and third-party information. Whenever observations or third-party knowledge is used, it must be verified carefully before proceeding.

This process seems satisfactory, yet is much more complicated than it reveals on its skin. To further clarify the issue, some of the terms that have just been thrown around must be more specifically defined for their context. What is Aristotelian logic? This is simply the process of deducing truthful statements from other truthful statements. The main point here is that only a truth can imply a truth. Any findings based on a string of logic beginning with or including a false assumption cannot be trusted. This can lead to tricky situations in which the logic itself can be perfect and yet still yield a false result. What does it mean to verify something? This is where things get difficult. Since it is very hard to know if we actually know anything, we can never verify something completely. This concept is well out of the scope of this paper, but it is important to understand that complete verification is impossible, and endlessly inefficient, so we must be satisfied with a certain amount of verification. This wildly subjective statement poses a great problem. What is a good amount of verification? There is no answer to this question, because in fact, it differs for every situation, and even within a single situation, two people may apply different levels of verification.

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This is just something that must be dealt with. Therefore, the only reasonable conclusion that can drawn here, is that every individual must decide for every situation what level of verification to apply.

What has been created is a process for collecting knowledge as accurate as possible. To test this process, it would be wise to apply it directly to situations in which we already know the route and outcome. If our process shows correctly where mistakes were made, and where true knowledge was discovered, than it was a success. Two situations that give interesting examples of the pursuit of knowledge, each from a very different perspective, can be found in William Shakespeare’s Othello and in René Descartes’ Meditations. In Shakespeare’s fiction, Othello is on a quest to find out the truth about his wife’s suspected infidelity, and in Descartes’ philosophical meditations, he is on a mission to prove and/or disprove, many ideas and concepts that he had taken for granted all his life, specifically and the most well known, his proof of the existence of God.

Othello is the story of a Venetian general who is deceived by his officer. When the general Othello passes his officer Iago over for a promotion to lieutenant in favor of another officer Cassio, Iago vows revenge. To accomplish this, he will frame Cassio and Othello’s new wife Desdemona as having an affair. Iago sets a number of things in motion to achieve his goal. He stages a fight between Cassio and another man Roderigo, enough to convince Othello to strip Cassio of his appointment as lieutenant. Iago then advises Cassio that he should speak to Desdemona in order to have his rank reinstated. While Cassio is speaking to Desdemona, Othello and Iago show up. Cassio does not wish to speak with Othello yet, so he runs off. This bothers Othello and Iago takes this opportunity to throw his plan into high gear. “Look at your wife; observe her well with Cassio.” (3.3.228)2. These words from Iago set the stage for Othello’s pursuit to confirm or deny the claim of Desdemona’s infidelity.

This is where we can begin to apply the process that was developed earlier. What has just been provided by Iago to Othello is an initial piece of third-party information – a starting point. Othello makes his first of many mistakes here. Since Iago has been a trustworthy advisor in the past, Othello has no reason not to trust him, so this is mildly reasonable. Except, what Othello does do is to take Iago’s next observation completely out of context. “In sleep I heard [Cassio] say ‘Sweet Desdemona, / Let us be wary, let us hid our loves.’ / And then sir, would he gripe and wring my hand, / Cry ‘O sweet creature!’ then kiss me hard, / … and then / Cried ‘Cursèd fate that gave thee to the Moor!’” (3.3.475-482). Even if what Iago said was true, it might have simply been a dream, but it takes Othello only eight more lines and little consideration to declare, “I’ll tear her all to pieces.” (3.3.490). He has essentially concluded that she is guilty on one piece of unverified information taken out of context. In this quick exchange, Othello has broken just about every rule in the process for a correct pursuit of knowledge.

After this, Othello goes on to find more evidence confirming his decision. Once again, this is wrong. Evidence should be gathered before a decision is made. The first piece of “incriminating evidence” surfaces when Othello demands that Iago furnish further proof of Desdemona’s infidelity. Iago’s tells Othello that, “…a handkerchief— / I am sure it was your wife’s—did I today / See Cassio wipe his beard with.” (3.3.496-498). In fact, Iago’s wife Emilia, found the handkerchief when Desdemona dropped it, and promptly gave it to Iago. Cassio has not had any contact with the handkerchief yet. Othello takes this as more undeniable proof that Desdemona is unfaithful. Even Iago is surprised by Othello’s swift decisions and remarks that, “Your mind perhaps may change.” Othello promptly responds, “Never.” (3.3.513-514).

Othello then uses logic to advance his claim. He approached Desdemona about the handkerchief, and when she cannot produce it, he gets his expected result. This is an interesting situation because the logic that Othello uses is not flawed; knowing that Cassio had the handkerchief fits with Desdemona not having it. However, the initial assumption is false, so any final result cannot be trusted. This shows the importance of verifying information that is to be used as the basis for a progression of logical reasoning.

Further along as Iago’s plans are unraveling, he stages a conversation between himself and Cassio about Bianca, a women in Cyprus who fancies Cassio. He tells Othello that this conversation will most likely reveal further details about Desdemona and Cassio’s relationship. Othello is out of earshot, but can see the conversation, and when he sees Cassio laughing, he believes he has more evidence against his unfaithful wife. Cassio exclaims laughing that, “I think i’faith she loves me.” Othello responds having only seen Cassio’s expression, “Now he denies it faintly and laughs it out.” (4.2.129-130). This is a perfect example of senses being deceived. Othello relies on what he sees and disregards the fact that he may be missing something because he does not hear the words and context associated with what he sees.

The tragedy ends with Othello murdering his wife, and then only after that does he find out the true nature of Iago’s plot. The general takes his own life, and Iago is carried off in custody. Taking a step back, it is easy to see how Othello was deceived and deceived himself. His pursuit of knowledge was to investigate the suspected infidelity of his wife. His starting-point was a piece of third-party information that came from a very reliable source and was not investigated at all. He begins making mistakes when he jumps to a conclusion that she is guilty, before gathering any other information. He contorts every piece of evidence to mean what he needs it to mean to fit the situation he has declared to be true in his mind. He takes observations out of context, specifically the handkerchief and the conversation he sees between Cassio and Iago. Finally, all of these mistakes lead Othello to believe that he has proven something that is obviously false from the perspective of the outside observer.

It is easy to say that Othello’s first mistake was the one that doomed him. Should he have believed Iago when he first hinted at Desdemona’s infidelity? Some say yes because he was a trusted source, but should that imply unconditional trust? These are all very difficult questions that cannot be answered completely. After some thought, a decent solution would be to say that Othello was not in the wrong to trust a friend who had not deceived him before, but he did make the mistake of jumping to a conclusion before any further investigation. If he had investigated further from an objective standpoint, he would have found quite easily that Iago was lying and in fact not a trustworthy source. In general, the more thoroughly something is verified, the more it can be trusted. Concerns of efficiency do not allow everything to be verified, but in important matters, it should be expected. If the life of your wife is being decided based on information, that information better be checked and double-checked. Othello obviously failed at this.

Fiction and everyday experiences provide a chance to evaluate the quality of information and how any single piece of information should be used in the pursuit of knowledge. However, there are other realms in which this issues must also be tackled. The worlds of abstract and philosophical debate use the same process in the search for conclusion. Inside René Descartes’ Meditations can be found a mind struggling with the question, what do I know? In an effort to answer this question, or at least begin the process, Descartes realizes that, “I had accepted, even from my youth, many false opinions for truth.” (I.1)3. To remedy this, “I was convinced of the necessity of undertaking once in my life to rid myself of all the opinions I had adopted.” (I.1). Descartes is essentially saying that because there is false information mixed in with what is actually true, the only way to rid himself of the false information is to rid himself of everything and start over.

All that Descartes wrote about in his Meditations is contained within one large pursuit of knowledge, so there is no point in considering a story such as we did with Othello, but rather an ongoing process that switches direction and has many tangents. After deciding to start over, Descartes tries to find a starting point for his new quest for truthful knowledge. He first turns to his senses, but then thinks again. “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. I observed, however, that these sometimes misled us.” (I.3). Descartes decided that it is best not to rely on something that has been known to be a deceptive. “…it is the part of prudence not to place absolute confidence in that by which we have even once been deceived.” (I.3). Descartes is already doing better than Othello.

Still without a starting point, Descartes turns within. He realizes that if he able to have this or any internal debate, that something must exist. “I am, I exist, is necessarily true each time it is expressed by me, or conceived in my mind.” This is Descartes’ first true finding, and an impressive one at that. He decides that if his mind is capable of thought, it must exist, and if ‘he’ is capable of conceiving what his mind comes up with, ‘he’ must exist as well. “I think, therefore I am.”4 Descartes offers further proof of this in his third meditation when he says that, “I am a thinking (conscious) thing, that is, a being who doubts, affirms, denies, knows a few objects, and is ignorant of many…although the things which I perceive or imagine are perhaps nothing at all apart from me [and in myself], I am nonetheless assured that those…exist in me.” (III.1).

Descartes has set in motion his pursuit of knowledge. He has made significantly fewer errors than Othello, and this is important to point out. Unlike Othello, Descartes chose to initially reject everything. Even though it was a certainty that he would throw out many true things, Descartes saw it as the only way to rid himself of everything false. This point alone puts Descartes in better standing than Othello. To show Descartes’ further dedication to certainty, he even questions the existence of himself. All of this shows that Descartes has at least some familiarity with a proper pursuit of knowledge, and is, if not anything else, too concerned with verification. But, as Descartes himself says, “I am in the secure possession of leisure in a peaceable retirement,” and therefore has the time to, “apply myself earnestly and freely to the general overthrow of all my former opinions.” (I.1).

Having set the groundwork quite well, Descartes takes on his first, and perhaps most famous proof. “Of God: That He Exists.”5 Descartes’ proof takes the majority of his third meditation and is very complicated. This is a perfect opportunity to see how closely Descartes follows or deviates from our process for the pursuit of knowledge.

The proof begins with the fact that he knows he exists (from Meditation I). This fact comes from Descartes simply thinking it. If what he thought could be false, that fact might be false as well, so, since the fact that Descartes exists is known to be true, than what Descartes thinks must also be true in a sense. “In this first knowledge [of existence], doubtless, there is nothing that gives me assurance of its truth except the clear and distinct perception of what I affirm, which would not indeed be sufficient to give me the assurance that what I say is true, if it could ever happened that anything I thus clearly and distinctly perceived should prove false.” (III.2). Descartes uses this to conclude firmly that, “all that is clearly and distinctly apprehended (conceived) is true.” (III.2). Descartes goes on to say that the only way for him to be deceived by his thoughts would be if a God made it so, thus proving its existence. “If I afterward judged we ought to doubt these things, it was for no other reason than because it occurred to me that a God might perhaps have given me such a nature as that I should be deceived.” (III.4). So far, Descartes seems on track, albeit a little shaky. He will clarify and strengthen these issues later in the proof. Descartes then defines the concept of idea. “Of my thoughts some are, as it were, images of things, and to these alone properly belongs the name IDEA; as when I think [represent to my mind] a man, a chimera, the sky, an angel or God.” (III.5). Since simply conceiving any idea makes it a true idea, Descartes concludes that, “there thus only remains our judgments, in which we must take diligent heed that we be not deceived.” (III.6). Descartes still concedes ignorance and announced that, “I have not yet clearly discovered [idea’s] true origin.” (III.7). Descartes then makes one of the most significant breakthroughs of the proof. He realizes that some ideas come to him involuntarily. The importance of this is that is raises the question, how did they get there? “[Ideas] are frequently presented to me against my will…and I am thus persuaded that this sensation or idea…is produced in me by something different from myself.” Descartes decides that since he didn’t put certain ideas in his head, they can from some external source. Although this is the biggest breakthrough in the proof, it is also the most flawed. As modern science easily shows us today, we do not have complete control of our mind, and our subconscious regularly produces thoughts against our conscious will. Unfortunately for Descartes, since he relies on this false fact as a basis for further logic, everything from this point forward cannot be trusted. In essence, the proof terminates here. Descartes followed a reasonable path using both observation and logical reasoning to get to this point. He very thoroughly verified everything, and very closely followed the process for a correct pursuit of knowledge, up until this point of course.

Despite Descartes’ failing, it may still be beneficial to follow the proof to its completion so that any other errors or successes can be noted, and primarily so that the effects of Descartes’ false assumption can be examined. Back on the concept of the idea, Descartes notices that, “I have observed, in a number of instances, that there was a great difference between the object and its idea.” (III.11). Descartes officially creates his image of God. “I conceive a God [sovereign], eternal, infinite, [immutable], all-knowing, all-powerful, and the creator of all things that are out of himself.” (III.13). Since it has already been decided that ideas are by nature true, Descartes states that, “what is cannot be produced by what is not.” (III.14). This unveils the direction the proof will now take. “I am thus clearly taught by the natural light that ideas exist in me as pictures or images, which may, in truth, readily fall short of the perfection of the objects from which they are taken, but can never contain anything greater or more perfect.” (III.15). Descartes makes an interesting point that states that an idea, because it is not the original concept, can never be as “perfect” as the original. Therefore, “if the objective reality [or perfection] of any one of my ideas be such as clearly to convince me, that this same reality exists in me neither formally nor eminently, and if, as follows from this, I myself cannot be the cause of it.” (III.16). Descartes follows the prior statement with the logical next step that an idea of something perfect must actually exists as is, because the idea could never be more perfect than the actual thing. He then infers, “I am not alone in the world, but that there is besides myself some other being who exists as the cause of that [perfect] idea.” Descartes concludes, “There only remains, therefore, the idea of God…but these properties are so great and excellent, that the more attentively I consider them the less I feel persuaded that the idea I have of them owes its origin to myself alone. And thus it is absolutely necessary to conclude, from all that I have before said, that God exists.” (III.22). The proof ends here.

Even today, there are few people, none respected, who claim to have proven the existence of God. Belief in higher beings is taken on a matter of faith and tradition. Descartes’ proof, which I believe only contained one major flaw and used good logic, proved something that today is still not provable. This is an obvious demonstration of the effect one false assumption can have.

In any pursuit of knowledge, even one small false assumption can throw one way off course. Concerns of efficiency inhibit constant verification in most normal circumstances (we do not look for historical evidence to verify a definition in a dictionary), but for important research, verification is completely necessary.

This investigation has examined two specific situations in which an individual was in pursuit of a specific piece of information. Both Othello and Descartes allowed for the observance of the use of logic, observation by sense, third-party information, and the verification of said facts. Each also allowed for the observance of the disastrous effects of deviating from the correct process.

Descartes did an arguably good job under the circumstances of such a hard topic, and, we cannot forget, the threat of heresy hanging above his head. He was doomed only by one faulty assumption. Othello faired far worse. He had a complete disregard for the process, didn’t verify third-party information or observations by his senses, and he certainly jumped to conclusions well before it was proper to.

End Notes

1 In Francis Bacon’s De Haeresibus (1597), we wrote the Latin, “nam et ipsa scientia
potestas est.” This translates to, “for knowledge itself is power.” This information
was provided by the internet article, “For Knowledge Itself Is Power” (see Sources).

2 These, and all further lines from Othello come from the New Folger Library’s 1993
printing of Shakespeare’s Othello (see Sources). The line citation is in the form

3 These, and all further lines from Descartes’ Meditations come from the 1901
translation from Latin to English by John Veitch (see Sources). The line citation is
in the form (Meditation.paragraph). The paragraph numbers correspond to those in the
John Veitch translation.

4 In Rene Descartes’s Discours de la Méthode (1637), he wrote in Latin, “Cogito Ergo
Sum.” This translates to, the famous quote, “I think, therefore I am.” The
information was provided by the internet article, “René Descartes” (see Sources).

5 “Of God: That He Exists” is the heading given to Descartes’ Meditation III by John
Veicht in his 1901 translation.


Descartes, René. Mediations I-VI. Translated by John Veitch, 1901. Online. Available:

Graves, Steve. “For Knowledge Is Power.” Online. Available: 2002.

Shakespeare, William. Othello. London: Pocket Books, 1993.

University of St. Andrews, School of Mathematics and Statistics. “René Descartes.” Online. Available: Descartes.html. December 1997.
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