Descartes's Method of Doubt

Descartes's Method of Doubt

Janet Broughton
Copyright Date: 2002
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Descartes's Method of Doubt
    Book Description:

    Descartes thought that we could achieve absolute certainty by starting with radical doubt. He adopts this strategy in theMeditations on First Philosophy, where he raises sweeping doubts with the famous dream argument and the hypothesis of an evil demon. But why did Descartes think we should take these exaggerated doubts seriously? And if we do take them seriously, how did he think any of our beliefs could ever escape them? Janet Broughton undertakes a close study of Descartes's first three meditations to answer these questions and to present a fresh way of understanding precisely what Descartes was up to.

    Broughton first contrasts Descartes's doubts with those of the ancient skeptics, arguing that Cartesian doubt has a novel structure and a distinctive relation to the commonsense outlook of everyday life. She then argues that Descartes pursues absolute certainty by uncovering the conditions that make his radical doubt possible. She gives a unified account of how Descartes uses this strategy, first to find certainty about his own existence and then to argue that God exists. Drawing on this analysis, Broughton provides a new way to understand Descartes's insistence that he hasn't argued in a circle, and she measures his ambitions against those of contemporary philosophers who use transcendental arguments in their efforts to defeat skepticism. The book is a powerful contribution both to the history of philosophy and to current debates in epistemology.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2504-2
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. xv-xvii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-18)

    Descartes’s procedure in theMeditations on First Philosophyis extraordinary. In order to discover the fundamental principles of philosophy, he puts forward the dream argument and the deceiving God argument as reasons for doubt, and he vows to suspend judgment about everything to which those radical skeptical considerations apply. It is hard to imagine a present-day investigation of basic philosophical principles beginning in this way—say, Derek Parfit’sReasons and Personsor John Searle’sIntentionality. Of course, there are many reasons why this is so. A few present-day philosophers are dissatisfied with all of the available ways of trying to...

  6. PART ONE Raising Doubt
    • CHAPTER 1 Who Is Doubting?
      (pp. 21-32)

      The First Meditation is short but devastating. After some preliminaries, Descartes raises a series of increasingly disturbing reasons for doubting increasingly large collections of our beliefs, until, it seems, there is “not one of [our] former beliefs about which a doubt may not properly be raised” (2:14–15; AT 7:21). He ends the meditation by describing the way in which he will discipline himself into suspending judgment about everything for which he has found a reason for doubt.

      His presentation of reasons for doubt begins with the beliefs he has acquired by using his senses: by looking at things, smelling...

    • CHAPTER 2 Ancient Skepticism
      (pp. 33-41)

      Having proposed to himself the aim of demolishing all of his opinions, the meditator accepts a maxim for belief:

      Reason now leads me to think that I should hold back my assent from opinions which are not completely certain and indubitable just as carefully as I do from those which are patently false. So for the purpose of rejecting all my opinions, it will be enough if I find in each of them at least some reason for doubt. (2:12; AT 7:18)

      This is a puzzling maxim for assent, but before I consider it, I want to sketch out some...

    • CHAPTER 3 Reasons for Suspending Judgment
      (pp. 42-61)

      More than once Descartes suggests that he is doing nothing new in the First Meditation. Apropos Mersenne’s suggestion that methodic suspense of judgment is “merely a fiction of the mind” (2:87; AT 7:122), he says in the Second Replies, “Although I had seen many ancient writings by the Academics and Sceptics on this subject [of doubting all things, especially corporeal things], and was reluctant to reheat and serve this stale cabbage, I could not avoid devoting one whole Meditation to it” (2:94; AT 7:130, trans. altered). Hobbes scathingly remarked that “since Plato and other ancient philosophers discussed this uncertainty in...

    • CHAPTER 4 Reasons for Doubt
      (pp. 62-71)

      The meditator begins his search for reasons for doubting his former opinions by considering his former opinion that what his senses tell him is true. Even a little reflection shows him that what his senses tell him is not always true: sometimes they deceive him, for example, when he is looking at things that are small or far away. So he revises his approving opinion about the reliability of his senses: he holds in effect that what his senses tell him in favorable circumstances is true. His examples are these: “that I am here, sitting by the fire, wearing a...

    • CHAPTER 5 Common Sense and Skeptical Reflection
      (pp. 72-94)

      In the last two chapters, I have described Descartes as structuring reasons for suspense of judgment and reasons for doubt in ways that mark significant departures from the ancient skeptics. I want now to consider how Descartes puts philosophical reflection into relation to prephilosophical common sense. I will again argue that he departs in significant ways from the ancient skeptics, but I will also argue that his way of conceiving this relation is equally remote from our own, and that in at least one important respect he is more like the ancients than he is like us.

      Recall that there...

  7. PART TWO Using Doubt
    • CHAPTER 6 Using Doubt
      (pp. 97-107)

      In the first Meditation, Descartes spelled out radical grounds for doubt, grounds that are attenuated but whose scope seems universal. For complex motives, the meditator resolved to suspend judgment about everything that falls within the scope of these reasons for doubt, even though the reasons are slight and exaggerated. He took this bold step both because he thought that to establish something lasting in the sciences, he must first demolish all his opinions, and because he thought that using this maxim would enable him to execute a strategy with the power to go up against the authority of common sense....

    • CHAPTER 7 Inner Conditions
      (pp. 108-143)

      By the end of the Second Meditation, Descartes has found his “certain and unshakeable” point in his knowledge of his own mind. Famously, he first recognizes that “this proposition,I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind” (2:17; AT 7:25). He then goes on to form a new conception of himself and to reach absolute certainty about many of his states.

      Descartes makes each of these advances by using the method of doubt. As Eudoxus says to Polyander inThe Search for Truth, “[I]f you simply know how to...

    • CHAPTER 8 Outer Conditions
      (pp. 144-174)

      In the Second Meditation, Descartes discovered that his own existence is a condition of his engaging in inquiry guided by the method of doubt, and he used the doubts of the First Meditation to discover new ways to describe his nature and his states. In the Third Meditation, he goes on to argue that, ultimately, the existence of God as his creator is a condition of his engaging in inquiry guided by the method of doubt. This enables him to judge with complete certainty that God created him, and thus that everything he understands clearly and distinctly to be true,...

    • CHAPTER 9 Reflections
      (pp. 175-202)

      I am attributing to Descartes a specific and unified way of using the doubts of the First Meditation to establish the principles of First Philosophy. This understanding of the method of doubt intersects with two large philosophical problems, one old and one not so old. The problem of the “Cartesian Circle” was first raised by Mersenne (2:89; AT 7:124–25) and Arnauld (2:150; AT 7:214) in their objections to theMeditations. More recent is the problem of characterizing and assessing “transcendental” arguments. I want to reflect on the method of doubt in connection with each of these, and then I...

  8. References
    (pp. 203-210)
  9. Index
    (pp. 211-217)