Descartes' Method of Doubt

By Janet Broughton | Go to book overview

CHAPTER
2

Ancient Skepticism

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 features of the Academic and Pyrrhonian skepticism with which Descartes must have been familiar.1 I will then return in chapter 3 to the meditator and his maxim.

There are three features of ancient skepticism that I want to bring out. The first is that ancient skeptics were not directly concerned with knowledge or certainty or with the grounds for doubt that would make us withdraw claims to knowledge or certainty. Rather, they were directly

____________________
1
See 1:181–82 (AT 9B:6–7); 1:309 (AT 8B:367); 2:121 and 243 (AT 7:171–72 and 351); 2:413 (AT 10:519–20); and esp. 2:94 (AT 7:130), where Descartes says, “I have seen many ancient writings by the Academics and Sceptics on this subject [of reasons for doubting corporeal things].” But it is not clear whether he himself read Cicero's Academica or any of the works of Sextus Empiricus. Certainly he read other works of Cicero (Gouhier 1958, 93), and he seems to have regarded Cicero's prose as a model of clarity (3:166; AT 3:274). Too, there are Stoic strains in his thought and outlook, as Gouhier for one points out, which might have made Academica of special interest to him. But not even Charles Schmitt (1972) can say whether Descartes read Academica. Nor, as far as I know, is there any decisive evidence that Descartes read anything by Sextus. Still, Descartes rarely has much to say about what he has read, and I do not think he would refer to the arguments of the Pyrrhonists and Academic skeptics without being fairly well acquainted with them, whether through reading the primary texts or through reading secondhand accounts of them.

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Descartes' Method of Doubt
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Descartes's Method of Doubt *
  • Contents vii
  • Preface ix
  • Abbreviations xv
  • Descartes's Method of Doubt *
  • Introduction 1
  • Part One - Raising Doubt *
  • Chapter 1 - Who is Doubting? 21
  • Chapter 2 - Ancient Skepticism 33
  • Chapter 3 - Reasons for Suspending Judgment 42
  • Chapter 4 - Reasons for Doubt 62
  • Chapter 5 - Common Sense and Skeptical Reflection 72
  • Part Two - Using Doubt *
  • Chapter 6 - Using Doubt 97
  • Chapter 7 - Inner Conditions 108
  • Chapter 8 - Outer Conditions 144
  • Chapter 9 - Reflections 175
  • References 203
  • Index 211
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