Descartes' Method of Doubt

By Janet Broughton | Go to book overview
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Reasons for Suspending Judgment

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 the objects of the senses, and since the difficulty of distinguishing the waking state from dreams is commonly pointed out, I am sorry that the author, who is so outstanding in the field of original speculations, should be publishing this ancient material” (2:121; AT 7:171). Descartes meekly replied:

I was not trying to sell [the arguments for doubting] as novelties, but had a threefold aim in mind when I used them. Partly I wanted to prepare my readers' minds for the study of the things which are related to the intellect, and help them to distinguish these things from corporeal things; and such arguments seem to be wholly necessary for this purpose. Partly I introduced the arguments so that I could reply to them in subsequent Meditations. And partly I wanted to show the firmness of the truths which I propound later on, in the light of the fact that they cannot be shaken by these metaphysical doubts. Thus I was not looking for praise when I set out these arguments. (2:121; AT 7:171–72)

And Burman reports that while Descartes may have regarded the deceiving God argument (actually its cousin, a “malicious demon” argument) as an innovation, he described much of the First Meditation as taken up with “the customary difficulties of the sceptics” (3:333; AT 5:147).


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