René Descartes (1596-1650) was a famous French philosopher and one of the first most prominent people of the modern period when European thinkers began to develop innovative theories in scholastic philosophy. His primary interests were in physics and mathematics with the major concern on “methodology, justification, and certainty” (Wolff 42). Descartes opposed ideas suggested by the followers of Aristotelian philosophy, for example, Hobbes and Arnauld, etc. His vision allowed him to form the theory of knowledge.
It was developed due to intention to identify the procedures to be followed when exploring a question. Though this theory was widely objected, Descartes proceeded with its support as he believed any knowledge should be doubted before actually recognizing it as true knowledge. For this purpose, he established the famous Descartes’ method of a doubt.
Descartes suggested that every idea should be doubted and not be accepted as true by default, and be assessed. Method of inquiry is based on the intention to discover something. Method of the doubt implies that nothing recognized as true should actually be true, and thus, everything should be doubted before accepting the idea as 100 percent right. Method of the doubt could be outlined as illusion of true perception, comprehension in dreams, and deceitful god. The four rules of method of inquiry suggest 1) nothing should be accepted as true, 2) problem should be reviewed in minimal parts, 3) simple problems should be solved first, and 4) enumeration of facts not to omit something.
Three arguments of methods of doubt are the senses, dreaming, and the evil demon. Descartes argued senses might be deceiving, and things could be not what they seem at first occurrence. Veridical sensory knowledge is doubted for perceptions and judgements might be untrue and no one could tell right from wrong perception at first.
Dreaming was suggested by Descartes as a possibility of completely wrongful perception of the existing world due to person’s vivid imagination and inability to distinguish dreams from waking. Natural and mathematical truths typically remain unaffected by dreaming since green remains green, and one plus two is three, and in order to challenge such fundamental knowledge, method of doubting should be extended even more.
The evil demon is suggested as deceiving deity which makes a person to miscomprehend something on purpose. The issue is based on truthfulness of religious beliefs, and Descartes supposed that any absolute truth might be hypothetically doubted. Thus, evil demon might change the surroundings any time making individual’s beliefs null.
Descartes concludes in his Second Mediation that only one thing is true – ‘I am’ as it is not a derivative from any of the three arguments of the theory of the doubt. Descartes defeats his own skepticism by proving that his existence could not be a result of demon’s deceit, or a sensory mistake, or result of a dream. So, the only genuine truth is the very existence of a person.
To conclude, Descartes’ theory of knowledge is based on a suggestion that everything should be doubted and nothing could be believed into by default. External factors were regarded as possible ways of interference with knowledge, and thus every piece should be tested empirically before assuming to be true. The only genuine truth according to Descartes was person’s existence, as no one could be tricked about it.
- Wolff, Robert Paul. About Philosophy.11th ed., Pearson, 2011.