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Ren Descartes (1596-1650)

The popular version of


Meditations on First
Philosophy (1641)

One of only four works published during

Descartes lifetime (the others are

Discourse [1637], Principles [1647],
Passions of the Soul [1649]
His most enduring work, but not that one
on which his historical reputation was
Better known in his own time as a
practicing scientist

Examples of the scientific


Illustration (and the

one following) is from
the 1637 edition of
the Discourse;
explanations here of
focus, reflection,

Example (contd.)

Here Descartes uses

the theory of optics
(as in the previous
example) to give an
explanation of the
phenomenon of the

What is the purpose or aim of

the Meditations?

The narrow agenda: to provide a solid

justificatory framework for doing natural

The wider agenda: to show that we indeed
do, as against the claims of skepticism,
have knowledge, and that a theory of
knowledge need not fall prey to the infinite
regress or the circular argument

What is the methodology of

the Meditations?

inasmuch as reason already persuades

me that I ought not less carefully to

withhold my assent from matters which
are not entirely certain and indubitable
than from those which appear to me
evidently to be false, if I am able to find in
each one some reason to doubt, this will
suffice to justify my rejecting the whole.

Methodology of the
Meditations (contd.)

for that end it will not be requisite that I

should examine each in particular, which

would be an endless undertaking; for
owing to the fact that the destruction of the
foundations of necessity brings with it the
downfall of the rest of the edifice, I will
only in the first place attack those
principles upon which all my former
opinions rested.

Methodology of the
Meditations (contd.)

Descartes uses the method of what is

sometimes called hyperbolic doubt (i.e.

exaggerated doubt for a specific purpose);
he does not say doubt everything or treat
every former opinion as false, but rather
doubt everything or treat everything as
false until proven otherwise.
Q: What is the virtue, if any, of such a

Casting the skeptical net

Descartes goes after the principles upon

which all my former opinions rested. What

are those?
1. Those things I have learned either from
the senses or through the senses.
Are there any reasons for doubting beliefs
acquired in this way? A: yes, there are.


More illusion

The coloured lines in

both pictures are the
same; the only
difference is the black
bar in the lower

Casting the skeptical net


In addition to optical illusion, Descartes appeals

to various other instances where we can be
mislead by sensory information obscure
conditions, hallucination, phantom pains all of
which it is possible dismiss as cases of nonoptimal or non-standard conditions of perception
Q: if optimal conditions are those where we
dont go wrong, how can we sure were in the
optimal situation?

Casting the skeptical net


However much we might come to doubt the

reliability of sense information (and, at least
provisionally, treat all such information as false),
there is a great deal we might still claim to know
even under non-optimal conditions.
2. The dream hypothesis: there are no certain
indications by which we may clearly distinguish
wakefulness from sleep But if I dont know that I
am not now dreaming, how do I know that there
is an external world at all?!

Casting the skeptical net


Again, even if we accept that we might presently

be dreaming, still there are truths (knowledge
items, if you will) that escape even this fine a net
(e.g. 2 +2=4)
3. The evil genius hypothesis: What if, instead
of God, there is an anti-God, who can cause me
to be certain even where what I most certain
about is false? What then? Is nothing certain
then? Happily, there is a solution.

Resolving the skeptical

dilemma or, escaping the net

The challenge of the evil genius hypothesis is

that we might be certain about something which
is false. But there is at least one thing about
which we can be certain, even if we doubt it, and
that is that we exist (for we must exist, if we are
This is Descartes Archimedean point; it shows
that at least one thing escapes the skeptical net.
Q: Is this enough? Is it sufficient to know this
one (fairly obvious) thing?