22 July 2010

Descartes's Meditation On First Philosophy (Meditation I.) Explicated



(This was originally a paper for my Philosophy 1250 class.)

René Descartes was forty-five years old when he published his Meditationes de prima philosophia. He considered that at this age he had attained maturity; he had freedom from passions; he had security in retirement – therefore, he had come to an optimal position in which to overthrow the false opinions he had accrued in life. Descartes was convinced that it was necessary to question all that he knew, and that through this critical self-evaluation, he would “establish a firm and abiding superstructure in the sciences”. Through laying out the nature and purpose of this method of doubt, Descartes establishes for the reader, by way of empathy, the necessary foundation – a philosophical context – for the ideas and solutions he will present in later Mediations.

Descartes does not idly mention the place he finds himself in life: he illustrates the peace that makes an honest skepticism possible, free from mundane passions and anxieties. He had become aware several years before that he had accepted untruths, and from that, had developed unsound principles; but Descartes had considered, at that time, the endeavor of overthrowing these opinions of “great magnitude”, implying an honest attempt at doubt required his utmost faculties. This begins to define the nature of doubt, and its rigor.

He further defines his method of doubt by stating what is sufficient: he does not need to show that individual beliefs are false, but rather, question the principles on which all these beliefs rely. He compares this to demolishing the foundations of building, which necessitates the downfall of the whole edifice.

Then Descartes provides reason for doubt by stating that all certainty and truth in his life had come through the senses, and yet sometimes these senses misled him. He asserts that prudence requires doubt; that prudence dictates distrust of things “by which we have even once been deceived”.

To further define doubt, Descartes describes what he cannot doubt, and asserts what he regards as infallibly sound. He acknowledges that, while the senses occasionally mislead “respecting minute objects” ( here regarding this phenomenon as unimportant, or simply casually accepted mundane limitations of his being), he must also acknowledge that which is “manifestly impossible” to doubt: particularly, that he has physical form, or a point of observation with associated mortal intimations; that he occupies a location in space (particularly, on a chair by a fire); and, lastly, that he is engaged in the act of writing this Meditation. He will not question this, and colorfully describes that to doubt this manifestly sound truth is an act of madness: like a schizophrenic man with delusions of kingly grandeur, or even a man who believes himself a plant of the family Cucurbitacea. This seems to set Descartes' limits.

Having given this example of certainty, Descartes begins to lower the reader on a safety rope of sound reasoning into the depths of doubt. He twists certainty into uncertainty: as surely as Descartes is a man, he dreams, and in these dreams experiences illusions. Yet, again Descartes provides what seems solid ground on the “manifestly real”, to provide evidence of the safety line while he continues to persuade the reader to descend into doubt. Descartes asserts that all the objects found in his dreams must have had origins in a grounded reality, that they are only imitations of a real thing, and could not exist without something to be based on. He says, at the least, even were it possible to imagine an object that is completely novel – something that cannot be derived from any physical form – that this object will still be composed of colors, and that these colors are universal.

Descartes then prepares the reader for a final descent into doubt, into its furthest imaginable reaches, by delicately broaching the nature of Deity, reassuring by reaffirming that this nature is sovereignly good, and that the safety line is still secured, that the reader is safe to suspend his prejudices and beliefs. Now, Descartes destroys the seemingly solid ground he has just established: he proposes a thought experiment that allows the reader to consider doubt at its furthest depth – doubt allowed full potency, doubt empowered to invalidate all the previous examples of solid ground and sound reasoning in what must surely be “manifestly real”. The thought experiment supposes that an (nearly) all-powerful and malignant demon actively deceives Descartes in every way, and that absolutely nothing Descartes has sensed has validity independent of Descartes' mind (in a more modern context, Descartes might have imagined himself a brain in a jar – or possibly gone further and discounted dualism in favor of monism; nevertheless, this thought experiment helps set the stage for Descartes' concept of a dualist reality given absolute uncertainty).

In the environment of this thought experiment, Descartes posits that he must suspend judgment on the verity of everything: this is the rigor to which he must hold his doubt. Even if he is incapable, as in the case of the all-deceiving demon, of reaching perfect knowledge, it is still within his power to suspend judgment.

Finally, Descartes concedes that the demands of this doubt is an arduous undertaking, and that he is inclined, out of custom or indolence, to accept certain things that are unable to satisfy these unyielding demands. He shows that he shares a common faith with the reader in the acceptance of the state of being as-experienced by allowing himself his old beliefs. He returns the reader to solid ground.

Having given doubt its full range and afforded it full potency, Descartes has defined and demonstrated it, wielded it; he has elucidated the nature of doubt and its significance in the ideas and solutions he will subsequently present.


Wikipedia contributors. René Descartes. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. May 21, 2010, 11:56 UTC. Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Ren%C3%A9_Descartes&oldid=363183401. Accessed May 21, 2010.

René Descartes. Descartes' Meditations. July 27, 2005. Available at: http://www.wright.edu/cola/descartes/meditation1.html. Accessed May 21, 2010.

4 comments:

Peter McCombs said...

This is good writing. What did the instructor think about it?

Dave said...

Thank you.

I don't know. I was absent the next class period and never got the paper back.

Edward T. Babinski said...

Hi Dave, Wanted to thank you for visiting my blog and discussing the Argument from Reason. After reading your blog I note that we both like to think and then think some more, and are about as afraid of doubt, including rigorous doubt, as Descartes was. *smile* Also noted that you mentioned in an earlier post something about vestigial limbs on modern day whales, which was a favorite topic of mine from years back. Keep thinking! You'd make a "cool" philosopher. Wish I had used more of my youthful energy and time to pursue a higher degree myself. In almost anything. University teaching and even university library work are pretty much guarranteed to keep the mind pretty active. That includes research grants, even table talk in the lunch room with professors. Stay well.

Dave said...

Mr. Babinski,

Thank you for your post. I look forward to reading more of your blog (I found the recent "flat earth" entry interesting, for instance).