Descartes's Method of Doubt

1. Introduction

Citation Information

Allan, Leslie 2017. Descartes's Method of Doubt, URL = <>.

Portrait of René Descartes (1596-1650). Author: Frans Hals

René Descartes is widely regarded as the founder of modern philosophy. In rejecting the foundations of the scholastic school in which he was brought up, he sought to undertake a thoroughgoing review of claims to knowledge. Although there remained vestiges of scholasticism in Descartes's theory of knowledge, his systematic method of doubt was seen as a break with the authoritarian past. For Descartes, his method did not lead to the depressing solipsism later eloquently developed by David Hume. In contrast, he regarded his revolutionary approach as laying the ground for rationally accepting certain indubitable principles.

In his Discourse on Method [1637], Descartes shared his story of how his method of doubt crystallized out of his fascination with the analytic method of mathematics. This discipline, he believed, embodied the paradigm case of knowledge certainty. Although this view was later rescinded, albeit temporarily, in his Meditations on First Philosophy [1641a], he believed this mathematical method of intuitive deduction of certainties from intuitively indubitable principles could be applied equally to other areas of knowledge to also yield incorrigible truths.

The starting point for Descartes's method of doubt was the rejection of all of his former beliefs. This was necessary, he thought, in order to leave a clean path for the indubitable knowledge he would derive from reason alone. For this initial purging, his method demanded that he reject all of those beliefs for which it was possible to entertain even the slightest amount of doubt. Since, he argued, all his former beliefs were derived either directly or indirectly from the senses and could not therefore be trusted, a complete and thoroughgoing skepticism was a necessary first step to arriving at the truth.

In the first part of this essay, I begin with an examination of Descartes's notion of the cogito. I argue that Descartes did not succeed in warding off the challenge of Humean solipsism and that he got no closer to uncovering the metaphysical nature of the self. A defining characteristic of Descartes's theory of knowledge is its reliance on the existence of a God to guarantee the veracity of his clear and distinct ideas. In §3, I examine Descartes's 'infinity' proof for the existence of such a divine being. I offer an alternative coherent theory of how we understand the concept of infinity that does not rely on theological presuppositions.

In the final section of this essay, I explore Descartes's other key arguments for the existence of God and his treatment of God's attributes. In determining God's qualities, I argue that Descartes's methodology depends heavily on the theologian's subjective impressions. Likewise, I argue that his proofs for the existence of God are inherently circular, relying as they do on the existence of God to underwrite the veracity of the premises used in his proofs.

Copyright © 2017

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