Descartes' Method of Doubt

By Janet Broughton | Go to book overview
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Who Is Doubting?

THE First Meditation is short but devastating. After some preliminaries, Descartes raises a series of increasinglydisturbing reasons for doubting increasinglylarge collections of our beliefs, until, it seems, there is “not one of [our] former beliefs about which a doubt maynot properlybe raised” (2:14–15; AT 7:21). He ends the meditation bydescribing 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 byusing his senses: bylooking at things, smelling them, tasting them, listening to them, and touching them. At the start he alludes to problems of ordinarysense-deception, but he quicklyzeroes in upon the beliefs for which no such problems arise: “for example, that I am here, sitting by the fire, wearing a winter dressing-gown, holding this piece of paper in myhands” (2:13; AT 7:18). He raises two reasons for doubting such beliefs: first, that he is like madmen, who “saytheyare dressed in purple when theyare naked,” and second, that he can find “no sure signs bymeans of which being awake can be distinguished from being asleep” and dreaming (2:13; AT 7:19). Further reflection suggests that these considerations also count as reasons for doubting manyquite general beliefs, for example, the belief that eyes, heads, and hands exist (2:13–14; AT 7:20).

Still untouched, however, are “the simplest and most general things” that are dealt with by“arithmetic, geometryand other subjects of this kind” (2:14; AT 7:20). But Descartes finds reasons for doubting these beliefs too. How, he wonders, does he know that his omnipotent Creator has not made him so that he is deceived in these beliefs—even in his belief that two plus three equals five—as well as in all of his sense-based beliefs? Or if God does not exist, how does he know that his original cause—“fate or chance or a continuous chain of events”—has not botched his creation so that he is “deceived all the time” (2:14; AT 7:21)?


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