Descartes' Method of Doubt

By Janet Broughton | Go to book overview

CHAPTER
6

Using Doubt

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 strategywith the power to go up against the authorityof common sense.

We could imagine that for Descartes, the “method of universal doubt” concerns nothing more than this. Such a method would greatlywiden the scope of doubt from its everyday limits, and it would require us to suspend judgment about everything that falls within that widened scope. It would not, however, be constructive: it would not point us toward propositions to which we could assent, nor would it help us to answer the question how there could be anypropositions to which we could assent, or the question how we could hope to discover them. These are urgent questions if the point of the First Meditation is to guide our assent so that we can reach lasting results in the sciences. For how can any propositions lie beyond the scope of the First Meditation doubts? The first two radical grounds for doubt seem to have within their scope each member of the class of beliefs Descartes has acquired byusing his five senses, and the second two seem also to have within their scope each member of the class of simple and evident matters. And wouldn't any proposition eligible for inclusion in a lasting science be a member of one of these two classes or rest upon propositions that are members of one of these classes? In fact, it looks as though if Descartes is to assent to anything, he must find some wayof discovering absolute certainties other

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