Demons, Dreamers, and Madmen

Demons, Dreamers, and Madmen: The Defense of Reason in Descartes's "Meditations"

Harry G. Frankfurt
Foreword by Rebecca Goldstein
Copyright Date: 2008
Edition: STU - Student edition
Pages: 282
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Demons, Dreamers, and Madmen
    Book Description:

    In this classic work, best-selling author Harry Frankfurt provides a compelling analysis of the question that not only lies at the heart of Descartes'sMeditations, but also constitutes the central preoccupation of modern philosophy: on what basis can reason claim to provide any justification for the truth of our beliefs?Demons, Dreamers, and Madmenprovides an ingenious account of Descartes's defense of reason against his own famously skeptical doubts that he might be a madman, dreaming, or, worse yet, deceived by an evil demon into believing falsely.

    Frankfurt's masterful and imaginative reading of Descartes's seminal work not only stands the test of time; one imagines Descartes himself nodding in agreement.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2818-0
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. vii-xii)
    Rebecca Goldstein

    Certain philosophers provoke a charitable genius in readers, who will labor hard to produce interpretations maximizing profundities and minimizing fallacies. Descartes is not one of these philosophers. There is something about him that invites familiarity, and we know what that breeds. Whereas the seeming paralogisms of a Nietzsche, a Heidegger, a Wittgenstein, or a Quine are not willingly accepted as such, at least not without some struggle, the conclusion that Descartes spoke nonsense often arrives with no signs of an inner tussle at all.

    There are contemporary disciplines—cognitive science, for example, or neuroscience—in which “Cartesianism” and “pineal gland”...

  4. Preface to the Princeton Edition
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. Preface
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
    • 1 Introduction
      (pp. 3-18)

      In theTheaetetus, Plato describes thinking as a conversation conducted by the soul with itself.¹ This has sometimes been taken as a reason for admiring his use of the dialogue form. Koyré goes so far, in fact, as to maintain that “the dialogue is the formpar excellencefor philosophic investigation, because thought itself, at least for Plato, is a ‘dialogue the soul holds with itself.’”² But a dialogue is not a conversation with oneself. It is a conversation with other people. If thinking is indeed internal discourse, then dialogue can hardly be the ideally appropriate literary form in which...

    • 2 The General Overthrow of Belief
      (pp. 19-31)

      When Hobbes rather derisively characterized the skeptical arguments of the First Meditation as “those old things,” Descartes acknowledged without dismay that they are indeed a bit stale. He went on to explain, however, that he had three important reasons for employing them. First, they are necessary in order “that I might prepare the readers’ minds for considering intellectual matters and for distinguishing them from corporeal matters.” Second, he intends to “respond to these very [reasons for doubting] in the succeeding meditations.” And third, the arguments “show how firm the truths are that I put forward afterwards, since they cannot be...

    • 3 The Criterion of Doubt
      (pp. 32-42)

      A person might decide to suspend all his judgments, and to make an entirely fresh start in developing and organizing his beliefs, solely in order to improve his understanding of the logical or epistemological relations among them. Many attempts at systematization in mathematics and in other branches of knowledge originate in this kind of interest, without involving any doubts about the truth of the propositions in question. Now a desire to develop a systematic body of beliefs is certainly part of what leads Descartes to begin his meditations by emptying his mind. But it does not entirely account for his...

    • 4 The Perception of the Physical World
      (pp. 43-59)

      Of the arguments set forth in the First Meditation, those concerning dreams and the demon have attracted the most attention. No one can deny that these two arguments are exceptionally striking and provocative, or that they play central roles in the development of Descartes’s metaphysics.

      It is unfortunate, however, that comparatively little careful attention has been given to other parts of the discussion that lead to the First Meditation’s skeptical outcome. For instance, the reasoning that precedes the dream argument in Descartes’s critique of the senses is rarely subjected to close examination. To be sure, this reasoning is not particularly...

    • 5 The Strategy of the First Meditation
      (pp. 60-74)

      Descartes’s critique of the senses does not end with the collapse of his third attempt to formulate a reliable principle of sensory evidence. Common sense has still further resources, beyond those his inquiry has already exhausted, and he calls upon them immediately after he presents the dream argument. In doing so he shifts the focus of his investigation. Since his attempt to arrive at a reliable procedure for finding certainty about the existence of physical objects has failed, he turns to a search for certainty about the elements of which these objects are in some sense composed. This leads him...

    • 6 Simple and Universal Things
      (pp. 75-83)

      The dream argument purports to show that a person who is committed to relying for knowledge upon the senses alone cannot distinguish, among the things of which he is aware, between physical objects or events and dream images. If he insists upon remaining firm in his commitment to the senses, therefore, he can hope to acquire only such knowledge as does not depend upon making this distinction. Now since Descartes is playing the role of someone who has made this commitment, his problem after the dream argument is to determine whether knowledge can be based on sensory experience in a...

    • 7 Mathematics in the First Meditation
      (pp. 84-92)

      My claim that the First Meditation deals only with material provided by the senses appears to conflict with the fact that it includes a discussion of mathematical propositions. Surely the senses do not determine that a square has four sides or that two and three make five. These seem to be paradigms of what, according to Descartes, we perceive clearly and distinctly through the understanding or reason. In his view reason, not sense perception, enables us to know such truths. Why, then, does he consider mathematical propositions in a context that is presumably limited to sensory beliefs?

      The answer lies...

    • 8 Mathematics and the Omnipotent Deceiver
      (pp. 93-107)

      Since there are no clear and distinct perceptions in the First Meditation, it is obvious that Descartes does not introduce the demon in order to raise doubts about what is clearly and distinctly perceived. On the other hand, the role the demon plays there need not be the role it plays later in theMeditations. And, as a matter of fact, Descartes does later invoke the possibility of the demon’s existence as a basis for doubts concerning clear and distinct perceptions. But in the First Meditation the demon has nothing to do with clear and distinct perception for the very...

    • 9 Demons, Dreamers, and Madmen
      (pp. 108-120)

      Descartes’s discussion of the origin of human faculties is, like the earlier portions of his critique of the senses, dialectical. It proceeds from an initial thesis to criticism, to rebuttal, and then to more refined criticism until it reaches its final skeptical outcome. The course of the argument is relatively straightforward, but reviewing its steps will nevertheless be useful.

      Immediately after he observes, regarding the elementary propositions of arithmetic and geometry, that “it seems that it cannot be the case that truths so evident should incur any suspicion of falsity,” Descartes recognizes that it is in fact possible to doubt...

    • 10 Sum
      (pp. 123-153)

      The epidemic doubt generated in the First Meditation is arrested early in the Second, when Descartes discovers in his own existence a belief that is apparently immune to even the most virulent skepticism. This discovery (and the statementcogito ergo sumthat is widely associated with it) has been the subject of innumerable glosses, commentaries, and interpretations. Philosophers and non-philosophical writers have often detached it from its connection to the rest of Descartes’s work in order to explore its significance more freely. I shall deal with it, however, only as an episode in the progress of the inquiry that Descartes...

    • 11 Sum res cogitans
      (pp. 154-174)

      It is clearly important for Descartes to establish thatsumis certain, but doing so does not solve the fundamental epistemological problem he raised in the First Meditation. That problem was not to identify propositions more worthy of unreserved assent than the sensory beliefs in which his confidence had been undermined. It was to discover a rule of evidence more reliable than the rules of sensory evidence that his skeptical arguments discredited. Descartes does not propose a solution to this problem until the Third Meditation, when he formulates his principle of clear and distinct perception: “It seems to me that...

    • 12 Clear and Distinct Perception
      (pp. 175-199)

      A convenient way to begin developing a more detailed understanding of Descartes’s rule of evidence—that is, his rule of clarity and distinctness—is to consider what sorts of objects he supposes to be clearly and distinctly perceived. This aspect of his doctrine is frequently misunderstood, which sometimes results in making the theory of clear and distinct perception appear quite outrageously foolish. Fairly good sense can be made of the theory, I believe, if care is taken to avoid certain more or less enticing errors of interpretation.

      When Descartes introduces his rule in the Third Meditation, what he says indicates...

    • 13 Objections to Descartes’s Rule of Evidence
      (pp. 200-214)

      Descartes was aware of most of the points that critics of his principle of clarity and distinctness have made, and he attempted to forestall or correct the misunderstandings upon which many of them rest. The most widespread complaints against his rule allege either that the criteria it enunciates are too subjective, or that it is too vague to be used effectively. Descartes’s theory of evidence does have certain limitations, but a great deal of the criticism leveled against it has been misguided.

      C. S. Peirce raised several objections, finding, in the first place, that the rule is too restrictive:


    • 14 Memory and Doubt
      (pp. 215-234)

      Once Descartes has formulated the principle of clarity and distinctness, his task is to determine whether or not it is an acceptable rule of evidence. Now perceiving clearly and distinctly is an activity of the reason. It is what the faculty of reason does when it is at its best. The problem of deciding whether clear and distinct perceptions can be trusted, therefore, is the problem of validating reason. Descartes’s way of dealing with this problem is well known. He demonstrates that there is a being—God—who is both omnipotent and benign. And then from the fact that God...

    • 15 The Validation of Reason
      (pp. 235-249)

      Given that Descartes is indeed trying to validate reason by showing that what is perceived clearly and distinctly is true, it is still necessary to consider more closely just what is at stake in his metaphysical doubt. Following the realistic bias of common sense, it is rather natural to assume that when he asks whether what is clear and distinct is true, Descartes is asking whether it corresponds with reality. This assumption is not correct. In fact, as I will show, Descartes says explicitly that he is not interested in this correspondence.

      In seeking to understand what Descartes is after...

    • 16 Truth and Reality: The Galileo Controversy
      (pp. 250-256)

      I wish now to present a theory about theMeditationsthat is even more speculative than those developed above. The theory is both plausible and interesting, I believe, but unfortunately I am unable to provide any direct evidence for it. Perhaps such evidence exists, or perhaps there exists good evidence that the theory is false. Since neither kind of evidence is known to me, I shall simply describe the theory briefly and explain why I find it plausible.

      During Descartes’s lifetime there was a famous controversy between Galileo and the Catholic Church over the Copernican theory of the solar system....

  8. Index
    (pp. 257-264)