How successful is Descartes in his quest for epistemology?


‘I am… only a thinker which thinks, that is to say, a mind, understanding or reason, terms whose significance was hitherto unknown to me,‘ The latter is an extract from Descartes second meditation “Of the nature of the human mind, and that it is easier to know than the body.“ This sentence briefly sums up  the concept of Descartes work in the field of epistemology. 

Descartes was a 17th century philosopher who founded the concept of ‘Cartesian doubt’ sometimes referred to as methodical doubt, a process of elimination used to discard everything that could not be categorised as absolute, reliable truths on his quest for epistemological certainty.

To concisely summarise his theory of knowledge, Descartes first disregards the bodily senses. Such as sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. This is because the senses have been known to deceive us on occasion, we know this through experience of illusions, hallucination, dreams etc. Descartes then goes on to consider whether we can be sure we are not dreaming, and once more he fails to find a substantial argument that proves this statement, so he must reject this.

Cartesian doubt even rejects fundamental mathematical truths, as there is a possibility that God (or another ‘force of the universe’) is tricking us into thinking something that might not necessarily be true (if one would then state that there is no God, thus how can he deceive us? Descartes would simply say the fact we were not created by a perfect being makes us more liable to commit errors.)

His penultimate reflection is based on the idea that an ‘evil demon’ (used as a psychological experiment, more than a literal “demon”) has created our lives as an elaborate illusion. As we cannot disprove that we are not being manipulated by some external entity, this too we must reject. 

This brings us to one conclusion: We are a being that is able to contemplate and question it’s own existence by submitting it’s knowledge of the world to these ‘tests’. This dubiousness, this doubt and contemplation is the only thing we can be certain of. As a being that can doubt things and engage in a thought process, we can assume the existence of thoughts. 

Descartes did not share the platonic concept that ideas exist independent of time, space and a thinker and this consequently proves the existence of a thinker that exists. Finally, Descartes can conclude that; ‘The only certainty is that I do not know what to know for sure.’ We are a being that is contemplating, that is questioning it‘s own existence, and this is the only thing we can solidly know from this comes the well known phrase (known as ‘The Cogito‘) ‘I think, therefore I am.’

There are several criticisms that can be made of Descartes’ theory of knowledge; in this essay I will look at two particular ones in detail and reflect on how Descartes might have responded to them.

The first and perhaps most obvious criticism I will look at is the one that states that The Cogito is a “circular argument.” What this means is that Descartes makes a supposition that the self exists before he can being to explain his theory. 

The use of the word ‘I’ in ‘I think therefore I am’ implies that there is already a being in existence, before Descartes can explain the terms on which this latter statement rests. Thus, we could say that Descartes’ Cogito is in fact an invalid argument that, when looked at logically, seems absurd and only seems to explain something that Descartes is assuming already exists. 

However, Descartes could easily have counteracted this argument by stating that thoughts require a thinker and so by using the verb ‘to think’ we are merely stating the existence of a by-product of our existence, and consequently affirming our existence.  

Descartes could  also have responded to this criticism by saying that the Cogito is not necessarily a rationalist, logical argument, but rather that  it is a statement of an obvious intuitive truth.  Having said this, the fact that Descartes defines The Cogito as an ‘obvious truth’ undermines the purpose of his meditations - if this is an obvious, incontestable and inherent truth then the process of Cartesian doubt is unnecessary and rendered invalid. 

Perhaps Descartes would counteract this latter statement by saying Cartesian doubt is merely the validation of the ‘obvious truth’ label he gives the cogito - a  confirmation of it’s fundamentality, if you will.

 Some philosophers have even reproached the theory for using the words ‘I think.’ Perhaps he ought to have just stated the  existence of thoughts, because The Cogito seems to otherwise rely on a presumption that thoughts need to be created by a certain being. 

Plato for example, would contest that ideas and thoughts exist independently to the existence of humans in a realm separate from space and time (‘the Realm of the forms’). He could even base the response to this criticism on the failure of language to communicate his ideas with more cogency. If we deconstruct The Cogito, we realise that the use of the word ‘I’ is not ideal, and neither is the verb ‘to think’. As aforementioned, I presupposes a thinker, whereas ‘think’ is a process which can only occur when a thinker exists, and so it is another assumption that it made. We could suggest that logically, The Cogito ought to be ‘There are thoughts.‘

Secondly, we must question why Descartes values reason to such a high extent, when he doubts many other aspects of life that seem to humans both logical and indubitable (such as mathematics and the certainty of conscience) if he believes that these two latter concepts deserve to come under scrutiny, then why does he not subject rationality to the same scepticism? 

This argument shows that his ‘Cartesian doubt’ concept clearly does not apply to absolutely everything, and this shows that Descartes is using it to his own advantage somewhat. He assumes everything that can be validated via logic and rational thinking is a certain truth, but are not all logical statements the products of our empirical view of the world?

He might have responded to this by saying that the entire principles of philosophy are founded on the basis of reason: of valid argumentation and logical thinking and consequently rationality is far superior in the philosopher’s eyes to any of the other elements subjected to Cartesian doubt in his theory. I personally think this response is flawed; a theory that searches for absolute knowledge ought to be absolute in it’s method and regard everything as equally dubitable and not place anything on a pedestal. 

Furthermore, an empiricist might state that rationality isn’t in fact as reliable as the senses, as we can be proved concretely wrong about reason (for example the paradox of “Achilles and the tortoise”) whereas deception through the senses is always temporary (Dreams, hallucination, optical illusions etc.)

Moreover, Descartes states that there is a dualism (separation) that exists between the mind and body, yet fails to explain how the two interact. Descartes came up with this concept of dualism because in The Cogito, all that is confirmed is that we are a thinking entity. It does not however prove the existence of our physical body. 

There must therefore exist a separation between these two, otherwise the existence of the mind would also mean the existence of the physical body. How then can a non-material substance interact with a material body? As Descartes cannot prove that animals experience rational though he sees them as bodies without minds.

 How can he then prove the existence of other human minds if he cannot show the link between the mind and physical body? We are left with a solipsistic overview of the world, where one can only be sure of one’s own existence. Perhaps Descartes could explain the connection between mind and body as no more but a coincidence.  

Descartes was known to have believed that the mind (or ‘soul’) and body interacted at a particular physical point in the body, the pineal gland (which is known today to control our body rhythms) but in the 17th century, the pineal gland was attributed particular importance due to it’s location deep in the brain. With today’s science, we have shown that the pineal gland is of no particular importance to the brain and so perhaps Descartes would need to find a response to this question of mind/body interaction. 

Today’s science shows how the brain and body interact through a series of electrical impulses and so we can more or less write off Descartes’ idea of mind/

Some would even reproach The Cogito as a theory that simply doesn’t confirm enough: Yes, it shows us that we are a thinking, existing mind, but it doesn’t not tell us of the nature of that mind, or the nature of our existence, as we have said before, The Cogito could  be shortened to ‘There are thoughts.’

Descartes might have answered this by saying that on a quest for unquestionable epistemological certainty there is very little that can be solidly established and we cannot expect to discover every aspect of the human mind. 

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