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Descartes’ Method of Doubt and the Cogito: Part I

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In René Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes creates a whole new method of doubt and skepticism for building a foundation for knowledge. This essay will primarily focus on Meditations I and II.

In Meditation I, Descartes describes his method as comprised of three levels of doubt in which each level is more extreme than the one before it. His doubt is aimed at tearing down any presuppositions he once previously had accepted and starting over.

His first level of doubt is aimed at his senses. Since the senses have deceived him in the past, he states that it is wise to deny the truth of them and to doubt that they provide him any truth to anything outside of him. He says “All that up to the present time I have accepted most true and certain I have learned either from the senses or through the senses; but it is sometimes proved to me that these senses are deceptive, and it is wiser not to trust entirely to any thing by which we have once been deceived” (Kolak 43).

The second level is to doubt whether he is awake or dreaming. Dreams, he says, can be so powerful that one can believe that the dream world is the real world. So therefore he says that it is possible that one can be living in a dream and not know it. Descartes says that this level is still not radical enough to get to where he wants with his doubt. Even in dreams, he says, three and two make five and a square can never have more than four sides (Kolak 44).

The final level of doubt is the most radical of them all. Descartes states that it could be possible that there is a sort of evil genius which is deceiving his thoughts into believing that three and two make five. He says this deceiver cannot be God, for God is supremely good and is the fountain of truth but that this being must be something highly powerful. He states: “…I shall consider myself as having no hands, no eyes, no flesh, no blood, nor any senses, yet falsely believing myself to posses all these things…” (Kolak 45).

Now under this new doubt, Descartes tries to prove what exactly is knowingly true in his Meditation II. He comes to the conclusion that he can only prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he exists. Because he thinks therefore he exists.

“But how can I know there is not something different from those things that I have just considered, of which one cannot have the slightest doubt? Is there not some God, or some other being by whatever name we call it, who puts these reflections in my mind? That is not necessary, for is it not possible that I am capable of producing them myself? I myself, am I not at least something? But I have already denied that I had senses and body. Yet I hesitate, for what follows from that? Am I so dependent on body and sense that I cannot exist without these? But I was persuaded that there was nothing in all the world, that there was no heaven, no earth, that there were no minds nor any bodies: was I not then likewise persuaded that I did not exist? Not at all; of a surety I myself did exist since I persuaded myself of something [or merely because I thought of something]. But there is some deceiver or other, very powerful and very cunning, who ever employs his ingenuity in deceiving me. Then without a doubt I exist if he deceives me, and let him deceive me as much as he will, he can never cause me to be nothing so long as I think that I am something. So that after having reflected well and carefully examined all things, we must come to the definite conclusion that this proposition: I am, I exist, is necessarily true each time I pronounce it, or that I mentally conceive it” (Kolak 46).

Descartes says the only thing anyone can really fully know is that he exists and everything else must be believed by some level of faith or a presupposition. The cogito is a Latin verb which means “to think.” Our real selves are comprised of our thoughts according to Descartes. He summed this up by saying “Cogito ergo sum” or “I think, therefore I am.”

While Descartes method of doubt is absurd to actually believe, it is quite interesting to ponder and realize that we have and employ faith on a daily basis for the most simple of things. We trust that our senses give us accurate information and that past experiences of things still happen exactly the same in the present.

Works Cited
Kolak, Daniel, and Garrett Thomson. The Longman Standard History of Modern Philosophy. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Longman, 2006. Print.

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5 Comments

  1. I don’t want to give away the ending but by the sixth meditation, it is hardly true to say that Descartes held that “the only thing anyone can really fully know is that he exists and everything else must be believed by some level of faith or a presupposition”. According to his letter to the Sorbonne (http://tinyurl.com/yavge6n ), Descartes’ aim was to prove not just his own existence but, among other things, the existence of God, even to an “infidel” — someone who had no faith at all. Whether he achieves this or not is another question.

    (By the way, if you’re studying philosophy, do check out the site http://www.earlymoderntexts.com which is very helpful in understanding 17th and 18th century philosophers)

    • Jesse Roach says:

      Oh, I know Descartes isn’t finished with his proofs, but up until Meditation II all he could prove was himself. I’m going to get into the other Meditations for my next posts. And thanks a ton for the website. I definitely bookmarked it.

  2. […] as inherently and completely evil and the spirit entirely good. Sixteenth century philosopher Rene Descartes was one of the first to actually defend and articulate what dualism is. Descartes used a method of […]

  3. Clive Ardagh says:

    I need an image of Descartes and wondered where you got this?
    Thanks

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