Understanding Descartes’ Method of Doubt
Clear your mind, if you will, of everything you have ever seen or known to be true. To begin understanding Rene Descartes’ method of doubt, you need to suspend all prejudice and prior judgments and start with a clean slate “for the purpose of discovering some ultimate truth on which to base all thought.” (Kolak, Pg.225). Discouraged with much skepticism from his own beliefs, Descartes was embarrassed of his own ignorance. He set out to try and accomplish the task of finding an absolute truth in which he would base his beliefs. Placing upon himself a task to find an axiom or absolute truth to base all thought, “he ventured as a youth in travel to collect a variety in experiences to derive some profit in which he would be benefited.” (Kolak, Pg.225). When analyzing the method of doubt “you must take complex conceptions into their constituents until the irreducible elements are simple, clear, and distinct ideas, and show that all such basic ideas can be derived from, or can depend upon, the primary consciousness of a being that it thinks.” (Durant, Pg.639).
Two types of “knowing”
First, understanding that there are conceptually two types of “knowledge or knowing” aposteriori, and apriori, you can further understand where Descartes is coming from with his representations of his elucidations. Knowledge that is based solely on the sense and reasoning that comes through the senses is understood as aposteriori, and its foil a priori is understanding through reasoning. At this point, Descartes has already discarded aposteriori knowledge on the basis that his senses are deceiving and it is not a credible way to base one’s beliefs. (Descartes, Pg.19). On the other end of the spectrum, apriori knowledge ,which is an understanding based on reasoning, is a more efficient way of explaining the method of doubt presented by Descartes.
Method of Doubt Step One
On the journey to find truth to base all thought upon, Descartes explains his first step in doing so. “Never accept anything for true which I did not clearly know to be such; that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitancy and prejudice, and to comprise nothing more in my judgment than what was presented to my mind so clearly and distinctly as to exclude all ground of doubt.”(Kolak, Pg.228). Assuming that everything you see is fictitious, Descartes believed he had no senses at all; “body, shape, extension, motion, and place are unreal.”(Weissman, Pg.23). Our senses have failed us all at one point or another in our lives, so why use the senses as a base for thought? The most famous quote and philosophy by Descartes in history ever, “Je pense, donc je suis, cogito ergo sum” (Durant, Pg.639). “I think, therefore I am” was the first step towards a basis to understand truth, and leaning away from truth through the senses.
Method of Doubt Step Two
The second argument that Descartes defends is another question posed towards the senses. How can we take anything as real if our dreams cannot be deciphered from reality? In dreams there lies deception by similar illusions found in reality. So we must make sense that “there are no certain marks by which the state of waking can ever be distinguished from sleep.” (Kolak, Pg.239). Descartes recollects sitting next to the fire and feeling the warmth and the realness that related to it, but we still feel the warmth of the fire outside the dream.
Having already a preconceived notion that there exists a supreme power of God, Descartes says, “I cannot avoid conceding that, at least if he wishes, it is easy for him to make err even about things that I think I see most clearly with my mind’s eye.” (Weissman, Pg.32). He basically states in his meditations that if there is a God, and he is perceived as good, why would he deceive our thoughts? This brings up the evil deceiver argument. If we can only know that our existence is real, who is to say that there is not an outside force that makes of the rest of our reality that we supposedly live? If our dreams are just distorted pieces of our reality and our reality is merely a show put on by the evil deceiver, we know for certain we cannot base our beliefs on what we see and the tools unto which we use to perceive it; i.e. extension, hands, and eyes.
Descartes makes it clear that we cannot be certain of anything. The method of doubt brings us to understand this better by giving a set of guidelines to follow to systematically understand and get closer to some kind of truth. By trying to find some truth to base all thoughts on, Descartes tried to find an absolute truth by coming to the realization that nothing he believed was of any truth. Although not finding much truth in his journeys, he found a systematic way to come closer to finding truth. Descartes was presented with a problem of not “knowing” anything, and by creating the method of doubt he came closer to finding the truth.
Works Cited Page
Durant, Will ; Ariel. (1961). The Story Of Civilization. The Age Of Reason Begins. New York: Simon ; Schuster.
Weissman, David. (ED.). (1996). Rethinking The Western Tradition. New York: Vail-Ballou Press.
Descartes, Rene. (1998). Meditations And Other Metaphysical Writings. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc.
Kolak, Daniel. (2001). Lovers Of Wisdom: An introduction to philosophy with integrated readings. (Second Ed.).