Descartes: Belief, Skepticism, and Virtue

Descartes: Belief, Skepticism, and Virtue

Descartes: Belief, Skepticism, and Virtue

Descartes: Belief, Skepticism, and Virtue


Davies explores neglected areas of Descartes' philosophy, such as his thoughts on virtue, and questions whether this will call for a reassessment of Descartes' role in western philosophy.


The account of Descartes' thought presented in this essay is an effort to answer the question: 'why should anyone bother with the sort of enquiry that Descartes describes?'

The puzzle that makes this question worth asking and answering is that quite a few people have studied, many have read, and large swathes of our culture have been influenced, both directly and indirectly, by Descartes; but I doubt that more than a very few people have ever followed the guidance Descartes repeatedly gives for the conduct of an enquiry. For instance, very few people, if any, have ever sought to impose on themselves the conditions of seclusion that Descartes thinks necessary for success in his undertaking. As few have sought really to rid themselves of all their prior opinions in order to philosophise. and probably even fewer have been prepared to seek clear and distinct ideas to the exclusion of all other. and so on; but these will do for now. That is, the overwhelming majority of people, including the people who have studied, read or been influenced by Descartes, have refused outright to adopt the most basic presuppositions of what he has to say.

Why has Descartes' theory of enquiry had so few takers? Naturally, there are many quick answers. Because it is silly. Because it is a long way round. Because it is impractical. Because it presupposes Cartesianism. Because it ends you up with Cartesianism. As with other quick answers, there is something in each of these. But there is also the fact that Descartes was a taker. This being so, we face two pretty clear options, on which, of course, many variations could be embroidered.

On the one hand, we might think, as some commentators do think, that all the studying, reading and influencing that has been going on for three hundred and fifty years has been a dreadful mistake. I propose no stronger reason against this than the consideration that is it uncharitable both to Descartes and to all those who, in varying degrees, have fallen under his spell.

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