descartes_guide1 - FIRST MEDITATION What can be called into...

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FIRST MEDITATION What can be called into doubt Descartes begins the First Meditation by saying that many of the beliefs he had long cherished were false, and that this made him think that the ‘whole edifice’ of his beliefs was ‘highly doubtful’. The realization that he has been mistaken leads him to think that the whole edifice of his beliefs may be threatened. What is his response to the threat of scepticism? ‘I realized that it was necessary, once in the course of my life, to demolish everything completely and start again right from the foundations if I wanted to establish anything at all in the sciences that was stable’. Descartes’ response to the problem looks paradoxical: it is not to turn his back on scepticism, but to embrace it. It is not to stop doubting, but instead to try to doubt everything: to refuse to accept anything that it is possible to doubt. Why? Because Descartes thinks that is the only way to discover whether there is something that cannot be doubted. If one has a house with rotten timber and shaky foundations, the solution is to demolish it, and find the foundations, and then rebuild from scratch. A different metaphor is given elsewhere, in his replies to some objections: 1 Suppose [someone] had a basket full of apples and, being worried that some of the apples were rotten, wanted to take out the rotten ones to prevent the rot spreading. How would he proceed? Would he not begin by tipping the whole lot out of the basket? And would not the next step be to cast his eye over each apple in turn, and pick up and put back in the basket only those he saw to be sound, leaving the others? If one has a basket full of apples, some of which are known to be rotten, the solution is to empty the whole basket out, and put back only the good ones. This 1 Objections were raised by a number of Descartes’ critics at the time of publication of the Meditations . The objections, and Descartes’ responses to them, are included in standard editions: see e.g. John Cottingham’s translation, Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, with Selections from the Objections and Replies (Cambridge University Press, 1986). — 5 —
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method, as applied to beliefs, is to doubt everything it is possible to doubt, in the hope of finding something that it is impossible to doubt. The goal is to take the sceptical challenge seriously, not by believing the skeptic outright, but rather by withholding assent to any belief that is vulnerable to the sceptical attack. ‘It will not be necessary for me to show that all my opinions are false’; instead ‘I should hold back my assent from opinions which are not completely certain and indubitable’. One does not have to literally inspect each belief, one at a time, as one would inspect each apple! Descartes says ‘I will not need to run through them all individually, which would be an endless task. ...I will go straight for the basic principles on which all my former beliefs rested’. Having shown the need for the method of doubt, the
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descartes_guide1 - FIRST MEDITATION What can be called into...

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