• frank
    14.5k
    This is a free version of the Meditations on First Philosophy by Descartes. I don't actually know how it rates as a translation, but it's easy to read on a phone, so I'm using it. Plus it's by marxists.org, so what could go wrong? :cool:

    So let's consider what can be called into doubt!
  • frank
    14.5k
    These are the opening words of the first section:

    FIRST MEDITATION: On what can be called into doubt

    "Some years ago I was struck by how many false things I had believed, and by how doubtful was the structure of beliefs that I had based on them. I realized that if I wanted to establish anything in the sciences that was stable and likely to last, I needed – just once in my life – to demolish everything completely and start again from the foundations. It looked like an enormous task, and I decided to wait until I was old enough to be sure that there was nothing to be gained from putting it off any longer. I have now delayed it for so long that I have no excuse for going on planning to do it rather than getting to work. So today I have set all my worries aside and arranged for myself a clear stretch of free time. I am here quite alone, and at last I will devote myself, sincerely and without holding back, to demolishing my opinions."
  • frank
    14.5k
    I particularly like the last line:

    "I am here quite alone, and at last I will devote myself, sincerely and without holding back, to demolishing my opinions."

    This piece is one of the first important works of philosophy not written in Latin. It was written in French. Bibles were starting to be written in vulgar languages so the common people could read it. In keeping with this, Descartes wanted everyone to be able to read his work.

    "Descartes said that he wrote in French so that all who had good sense, including women, could read his work and learn to think for themselves.". -- britannica.com.
  • Fooloso4
    5.3k
    Unfortunately, this translation does not include the Dedication, Preface, and Synopsis. They can be found here

    Writing in the shadow of what happened to Galileo at the hand of the Church, Descartes dedication to the faculty of theology is both revealing and concealing. He tells them that once they understand the principle behind his undertaking they will protect it. This raises the question of what that principle is. Telling them that they will protect it is perhaps misdirection, but determining whether this is the case requires understanding what that principle is.

    The second paragraph begins by declaring the superiority of philosophical demonstration and natural reason over that of theological argument. He goes on to defend belief in a way that defies natural reason and runs counter to the principle behind his undertaking:

    It is of course quite true that we must believe in the existence of God because it is a doctrine of Holy Scripture, and conversely, that we must believe Holy Scripture because it comes from God; for since faith is the gift of God, he who gives us grace to believe other things can also give us grace to believe that he exists.

    Of course, as he has just noted, the unbeliever is not persuaded of the truth based on a doctrine of Holy Scripture or faith and grace. Indeed, as he immediately goes on to say:

    But this argument cannot be put to unbelievers because they would judge it to be circular.

    The argument in the dedication contains its own circularity.

    ... in geometry everyone has been taught to accept that as a rule no proposition is put forward in a book without there being a conclusive demonstration available ...

    In philosophy, by contrast, the belief is that everything can be argued either way; so few
    people pursue the truth, while the great majority build up their reputation for ingenuity by boldly attacking whatever is most sound.

    Hence, whatever the quality of my arguments may be, because they have to do with philosophy I do not expect they will enable me to achieve any very worthwhile results unless you come to my aid by granting me your patronage.

    ... As for the atheists, who are generally posers rather than people of real intelligence or learning, your authority will induce them to lay aside the spirit of contradiction; and, since they know
    that the arguments are regarded as demonstrations by all who are intellectually gifted, they may even go so far as to defend them, rather than appear not to understand them.

    On the one hand he argues that philosophy like geometry relies on conclusive demonstration, but on the other, since unlike geometry in philosophy everything can be argued either way, it is not demonstration but being persuaded on the authority of the Church that such demonstrations exist that one accepts them as true.

    To pursue the truth itself requires something else:

    In the same way, although the proofs I employ here are in my view as certain and evident as the proofs of geometry, if not more so, it will, I fear, be impossible for many people to achieve an adequate perception of them, both because they are rather long and some depend on others, and also, above all, because they require a mind which is completely free from preconceived opinions and
    which can easily detach itself from involvement with the senses.

    Preconceived opinions, including the opinions of the Church stand in the way of the few who are to achieve an adequate perception. Descartes makes a distinction between an exoteric teaching for the many and an esoteric method of inquiry suitable only for the few.

    He cites two passages, the first from the Book of Wisdom, Chapter 13 and the second from Romans, Chapter 1, in support of the claim that God may be more easily and more certainly known than the things of this world. He will do this by doubting everything the senses tell us, but both passages do just the opposite, they move from the things of this world to God their creator. Both are rendered unreliable, however, if, as he proposes in the first meditation:

    I will suppose therefore that not God, who is supremely good and the source of truth, but rather some malicious demon of the utmost power and cunning has employed all his energies in order to deceive me.
  • Benj96
    2.2k
    . I am here quite alone, and at last I will devote myself, sincerely and without holding back, to demolishing my opinions."frank

    I quite like the statement also. It's quite something to declare that one is going to abolish all that they know and start from scratch.

    There is irony here however, in that his demolishing of personal opinion leads to development of a communicable statement (personal opinion) to replace it.

    Anything one expresses is a voice of opinion pertaining to value - something worth expressing to others.

    So in even the act of writing his thoughts, Descartes was asserting the usefulness of his insights to others. And thus assuming such. A lack of doubt. As doubt prevents one from communicating if they have intense doubt as to what they are imparting, as likely doubt would lead instead to further personal isolated consideration/contemplation rather than determination - voicing ones ideas as determined and ready to be shared (opinion)
  • frank
    14.5k
    So in even the act of writing his thoughts, Descartes was asserting the usefulness of his insights to others. And thus assuming such. A lack of doubt. As doubt prevents one from communicating if they have intense doubt as to what they are imparting,Benj96

    Absolutely. Descartes wasn't a solipsist. Notice his reasons for starting this project:

    Some years ago I was struck by how many false things I had believed, and by how doubtful was the structure of beliefs that I had based on them. I realized that if I wanted to establish anything in the sciences that was stable and likely to last, I needed – just once in my life – to demolish everything completely and start again from the foundations.Descartes

    He's saying he feels he's been bamboozled and wants to start fresh, not just for himself, but for science

    He lived at a time when the Catholic Church made decisions about which math problems were proper to examine and which shouldn't be. When he says "the foundation" it appears he's talking about something anyone could discover, not just clergymen. Do you agree with that?
  • Benj96
    2.2k
    its interesting to note his willingness to venture into unknown territory yet at the same time abide by church law.

    It seems then Descartes was appeasing both the church and his freedom to think.

    The irony then being that the churches views are set, and anything that is set does not pertain to freedom (the unset).
  • Benj96
    2.2k
    When he says "the foundation" it appears he's talking about something anyone could discover, not just clergymen. Do you agree with that?frank

    Yes indeed. I certainly agree. This was his attempt at opening the book on pure reason and logic, all assumption set aside. This is remarkable for the time he lived in.

    However, I cannot help feeling he had a certain enduring angst about the church and it's power. And might have cautiously framed his views in a fashion pertinent to church agreeability, at compromise with absolute unadulterated free thought.

    We can acknowledge the church was certainly a domineering authority at the time. And to go against such an authority was dangerous indeed. So I wonder, if he has been influenced by such acknowledgements in his endeavors.
  • Fooloso4
    5.3k
    its interesting to note his willingness to venture into unknown territory yet at the same time abide by church law.Benj96

    He took his motto from Ovid:

    He who lived well hid himself well. (Bene qui latuit bene vixit)
  • Benj96
    2.2k
    I think this is a good quote but certainly not a perfect one. Yes it is applicable even today. There are thoughts available to a person that should they be proclaimed, put one in direct existential danger.

    There is freedom of thought within the privacy of mind. But freedom of speech is much reduced. As it leads to reactive interpretation by others and thus action, which may be against you.

    To say what one truly thinks could result in them being persecuted, based on the degree of morality or quality of what they think, as the deceitful/ dishonest cannot stand/abide any fundamental expression of truth and will thus attack it to preserve their own ideas and beliefs.

    So long as there is a psychopath in power, lacking empathy, totally selfish and desiring domineering control of the narrative, anything that sways the general moral directive in a positive sense (privelaging equality, responsability and empathy) is a direct threat to their selfish ways and must be destroyed.

    In that sense I'm inclined to say "who lived semi-well" hid himself well. He who lived well, did not hide himself, and put a target on his back/sacrificed his safety purely for the benefit/teaching/education of others. As martyrs did.
  • frank
    14.5k
    However, I cannot help feeling he had a certain enduring angst about the church and it's power. And might have cautiously framed his views in a fashion pertinent to church agreeability, at compromise with absolute unadulterated free thought.Benj96

    He seemed to be optimistic that he could win them over and bring reforms to the Church.

    I was never too interested in his proof of God until I read that B. Russell said his proof works.

    Thanks for coming aboard to read it!
  • Fooloso4
    5.3k
    He who lived well, did not hide himself ...Benj96

    There are different ways in which one might hide. An important and influential contemporary work on this is Leo Strauss' "Persecution and the Art of Writing". The complement of the art of writing is the art of reading. It is through the art of reading that we find what Descartes hides in his art of writing.

    for the benefit/teaching/education of others.Benj96

    One problem with writing, as Socrates notes in Plato's Phaedrus, is that what is said cannot be tailored to suit the reader. What may be of benefit to one person may be detrimental to another. Descartes gives us an example in the Dedication:

    And since in this life the rewards offered to vice are often greater than the rewards of virtue, few people would prefer what is right to what is expedient if they did not fear God or have the expectation of an after-life.

    For the benefit of others Descartes argues along traditional lines for the existence of God and the immortality of the soul; but he does not claim, as Proverbs does, that fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. In addition he equates soul and thinking, and is silent about an afterlife. The significance of this will become clearer when he replaces sin with erring, and connects the avoidance of error with perfectibility. The latter is accomplished not by obedience but by will and knowledge.

    In other words, there is a potentially harmful esoteric teaching hiding in the salutary exoteric teaching.
  • frank
    14.5k
    So how is he going to demolish his opinions?

    "My reason tells me that as well as withholding assent from propositions that are obviously false, I should also withhold it from ones that are not completely certain and indubitable. So all I need, for the purpose of rejecting all my opinions, is to find in each of them at least some reason for doubt. I can do this without going through them one by one, which would take forever: once the foundations of a building have been undermined, the rest collapses of its own accord; so I will go straight for the basic principles on which all my former beliefs rested."

    The glaring principle here is foundationalism:

    "Foundationalism is the view that if there is any knowledge or justified belief then that knowledge or justified belief rests on a “foundation” of knowledge and justified belief that does not depend on inference from anything else known or justifiably believed.". here.
  • frank
    14.5k
    I'll posit that most of the time, we're all foundationalist. We only back off of it when it gets problematic for us.
  • L'éléphant
    1.4k
    We only back off of it when it gets problematic for us.frank
    Foundationalism isn't problematic to me. If it's challenged, then I'd ask, on what grounds is foundationalism in error or false? No matter what their reasoning is against foundationalism, it is bound to be grounded on something else. Then they're left holding the bag.
  • Tom Storm
    8.1k
    It's true that everyone holds presuppositions that enable them to take the next steps in their thinking and beliefs. Not sure this implies foundationalism with a capital F, however. It gets messy when one says (as I often have) that they don't believe in metanarratives (like theism or Platonism or progress). But to have an organized anti-system is to have a system, right?

    Which is why I usually say I hold that human thought is paradoxical and that much of what we call reality is human projection based on our limited perspective. From this 'dimly lit' vantage point I generally hold that I (or any of us) don't have enough information or wisdom to make reliable judgements about the nature of reality.
  • L'éléphant
    1.4k
    But to have an organized anti-system is to have a system, right?Tom Storm
    Yes.

    Which is why I usually say I hold that human thought is paradoxical and that much of what we call reality is human projection based on our limited perspective. From this 'dimly lit' vantage point I generally hold that I (or any of us) don't have enough information or wisdom to make reliable judgements about the nature of reality.Tom Storm
    This would be a fair response against foundationalism -- but it also means that it hasn't undermined foundationalism.
  • Tom Storm
    8.1k
    Is there a difference for you between presuppositions and foundationalism?
  • L'éléphant
    1.4k
    Is there a difference for you between presuppositions and foundationalism?Tom Storm
    If you mean if foundationalism as a theory is on the same level of argument as presuppositions (statements expressing premises), no.
  • Tom Storm
    8.1k
    Agree. As I read it, Rorty and Derrida, and presumably other postmodernist/poststructuralists, dismantle the notion of foundationalism on the basis that a statement's truth or a particular discourse is really only ever verifiable in terms of other statements and discourses. So foundationalism isn't really a possibility for them. There is no irrefragable piece of knowledge that founds any thought system - not even the cogito. If this approach involves an act of performative self-refutation, or engenders a regress problem, that only seems to further suggest the inability to obtain a foundational justification. Thoughts?
  • L'éléphant
    1.4k
    There is no irrefragable piece of knowledge that founds any thought system - not even the cogito. If this approach involves an act of performative self-refutation, or engenders a regress problem, that only seems to further suggest the inability to obtain a foundational justification. Thoughts?Tom Storm
    Oh, I responded incorrectly, Tom. I meant to say, that foundationalism is itself a theory, a school of thought, if you will, which has a logical system of statements pointing towards their view. But to answer your question, yes, the postmodern tried to do away with the foundationalist notion of grounds. I actually disagree with them since they, too, were trying to ground their assumptions on some structure of society/government.

    I would have to dig for their writings if you want to discuss this further.
  • Tom Storm
    8.1k
    No, that's cool. Thanks for the response, I was just looking for an overview. But it's moving away from the OP. Thanks.
  • Antony Nickles
    986

    It might help to examine the assumptions and conclusions he makes as he goes along.

    “ I should also withhold it from ones that are not completely certain and indubitable.”

    His criteria to assent to a truth is certainty and absence of doubt. Of course his ideal is a mathematical certainty. Wittgenstein later will show that this requirement is why philosophy overlooks our ordinary criteria for every different thing we do.

    “the visions that come in sleep are like paintings: they must have been made as copies of real things; so at least these general kinds of things – eyes, head, hands and the body as a whole – must be real and not imaginary.”

    He begins to account for our doubt by taking our most direct, best-case scenario, sensations, and concluding that we must make “copies”, which can then be mistaken, without undermining the possibility of something certain, which he creates and abstracts as what is “real” (as Plato did with the Forms). Which leads to a picture such as:

    much of what we call reality is human projection based on our limited perspective. From this 'dimly lit' vantage point I generally hold that I (or any of us) don't have enough information or wisdom to make reliable judgements about the nature of reality.Tom Storm

    “yet clearly I sometimes am deceived.”

    So in contrast, everything else is subject to doubt, or, to put it another way, possible failure, mistakes, error, thoughtlessness, hurt, tragedy, etc. As well, it is framed in a way that someone is deceiving him; in a sense, either God or himself. As if it weren’t a regular occurrence, but malicious, intentional, out of the ordinary.

    “On their view [that God does not exist], then, I am a product of fate or chance or a long chain of causes and effects.”

    He tries to give up on the idea of an “all-powerful” God, but, rather than accept uncertainty in the world, he assumes there are other forces of which I am the “perfect” product.

    “I don’t reach this conclusion [that doubt can be raised about anything] in a flippant or casual manner, but on the basis of powerful and well thought-out reasons.”

    I think most interesting is there is a sort of admission that this desire for certainty is driving the form of his answers; that it is “powerful”, like a basic human need, but he takes it as a validation or badge of honor rather than as a unexamined forced criteria.

    “But if I go on viewing them in that light I shall never get out of the habit of confidently assenting to [the law of custom and habitual opinions].”

    Again, almost as a throwaway sentence, he reveals something more interesting. It is the habitual assent that he is actually trying to throw off, and he makes the assumption that these are errors and uncertainties, to which the contrast is perfection, truth, and certainty, rather than conscious assent, or it’s opposite, what Emerson calls aversion, or Thoreau would call dissent. He warns against “laziness” and to be “on guard” against the “pull” of conformity. That we will need courage to shake ourselves awake (say in the metaphorical sense of: unconscious assent to the social contract) and that there is some violence and struggle that we must throw ourselves into. Hegel will refer to this “darkness” as the “dark path” in the Phenomenology of Spirit, when we begin to take apart our dichotomies.

    However, perhaps because he views dissent as crossing the rule of the church, he needs to be absolutely certain (to “counter-balance the weight of old opinion”) before defying the authority of the status quo (why he is in a sense “hiding”, as @Fooloso4 points out, his defiance). So maybe this is not just an epistemological treatise, but, hidden within, a political one.

    “However far I go in my distrustful attitude, no actual harm will come of it, because my project won’t affect how I act, but only how I go about acquiring knowledge.”

    I just want to point to Socrates discussion in the Meno of knowledge and action (virtue) as well as Wittgenstein’s uncovering that the desire for knowledge creates the excuse for our responsibility to act, or react to the other’s claim upon us. That, no, there may be harm in Descartes’ attitude.
  • frank
    14.5k
    It might help to examine the assumptions and conclusions he makes as he goes along.

    “ I should also withhold it from ones that are not completely certain and indubitable.”

    His criteria to assent to a truth is certainty and absence of doubt. Of course his ideal is a mathematical certainty. Wittgenstein later will show that this requirement is why philosophy overlooks our ordinary criteria for every different thing we do.
    Antony Nickles

    So let's look at the opening lines one more time.

    "Some years ago I was struck by how many false things I had believed, and by how doubtful was the structure of beliefs that I had based on them. I realized that if I wanted to establish anything in the sciences that was stable and likely to last, I needed – just once in my life – to demolish everything completely and start again from the foundations. It looked like an enormous task, and I decided to wait until I was old enough to be sure that there was nothing to be gained from putting it off any longer. I have now delayed it for so long that I have no excuse for going on planning to do it rather than getting to work. So today I have set all my worries aside and arranged for myself a clear stretch of free time. I am here quite alone, and at last I will devote myself, sincerely and without holding back, to demolishing my opinions."frank

    Anthony, what would you conclude the object of his project is? Is it to withhold assigning truth to anything that isn't certain in the way the conclusion of a mathematical proof is? Or is he putting aside his certainty for the sake of reexamining foundations? What do you think?
  • Fooloso4
    5.3k
    As with the God of Genesis Descartes creates the 'objective reality' in the Meditations in six days.

    Without jumping too far ahead, a bit of explanation regarding this structure is needed. His use of the term 'objective' differs from ours. Objective reality refers to the ideas represented in the mind and differs from formal or actual reality. (Meditation 3)

    For now I will only note that unlike the God of Genesis, Descartes' God does not rest on the seventh day (Meditation 3 on preservation and creation).
  • Antony Nickles
    986
    Antony, what would you conclude the object of his project is?frank

    Of course we’re just getting started, so conclusions are premature.

    Is [Descartes’ object] to withhold assigning truth to anything that isn't certain in the way the conclusion of a mathematical proof is? Or is he putting aside his certainty for the sake of reexamining foundations?frank

    I will say that I think he started wanting to investigate what is normally unexamined; the hidden judgments and assumptions of our society (as he says, the “law of custom and habitual opinions”), as most of philosophy attempts to reflect on—ourselves embedded in our culture. But he floats away from an actual inquiry of instances of practices in the situations in which they happen, into an abstracted world encompassing every claim in every context. He jumps “straight for the basic principles on which all my former beliefs rested.” Plato makes the same mistake early on in the Theatetus when he skips over examples of knowing things to look for what knowledge is “itself” and then moves to theories of knowledge in the abstract, universally, like math.

    Descartes’ skipping over our ordinary examples of knowledge to try to be certain about something more “foundational” is not because “going through them one by one… would take forever”. He is worried about being deceived about our major concerns of custom and opinion, the “many false things [he] had believed”, like morality, politics—the things we are more uncertain about. It is fear that makes him want to start with something he seemingly can’t not know, his senses and his awareness of himself.
  • frank
    14.5k
    Antony, what would you conclude the object of his project is?
    — frank

    Of course we’re just getting started, so conclusions are premature.
    Antony Nickles

    I'm glad you're coming to it with an open mind.

    Continuing the first meditation:

    "Whatever I have accepted until now as most true has come to me through my senses. But occasionally I have found that they have deceived me, and it is unwise to trust completely those who have deceived us even once.

    "Yet although the senses sometimes deceive us about objects that are very small or distant, that doesn’t apply to my belief that I am here, sitting by the fire, wearing a winter dressing-gown, holding this piece of paper in my hands, and so on. It seems to be quite impossible to doubt beliefs like these, which come from the senses.

    "Another example: how can I doubt that these hands or this whole body are mine? To doubt such things I would have to liken myself to brain-damaged madmen who are convinced they are kings when really they are paupers, or say they are dressed in purple when they are naked, or that they are pumpkins, or made of glass. Such people are insane, and I would be thought equally mad if I modelled myself on them."

    So he's saying that he realizes that the senses can deceive us, but there are some propositions which seem impossible to doubt without claiming insanity. How can I doubt that these are my hands?
  • Manuel
    3.9k
    You could have involuntary movements in which case your hand is not being commanded by the will, in such cases you could say that the arm (or hand) is not yours. In ordinary circumstances this doesn’t arise. It’s important to keep in mind the history here, Descartes was breaking up with Scholastic thought and laying the foundations for modern science, this includes focusing on simplifying things, not attemtpting to explain everything all at once. Great thread.
  • frank
    14.5k
    It’s important to keep in mind the history here, Descartes was breaking up with Scholastic thought and laying the foundations for modern science, this includes focusing on simplifying things, not attemtpting to explain everything all at once. Great thread.Manuel

    Absolutely. He goes a step at a time.

    He starts with this:

    The things I believe to be true were learned through the senses.
    But there have been times when the senses deceived me.
    Therefore, it is wise not to completely trust any of the things I believe.

    In a Christian framework, one is expected to offer complete trust to the sayings of the Church. Descartes says that since we learned these sayings through our senses, and our senses can deceive us, it isn't wise to offer complete trust.
  • Manuel
    3.9k
    And that’s already an issue. Do the senses decieve us, or do we misread them? The senses do what they so, react to stimuli (internal or external).
  • frank
    14.5k
    We ask the world questions with our senses. We listen more closely, peer with squinted eyes. We feel for texture. Is that a falling star or an airplane? The world answers.

    I figured assigning deception to the senses was just a turn of phrase. You're saying there's more to it?
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