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Cartesian Method in the Meditations on First Philosophy


A. Meditations on First Philosophy (1641)

1. First philosophy: general characteristics

2. Meditations: Descartes designed his Meditations not as a static set of ‘facts’ (theses, propositions), but as a dynamic series of exercises whose impact could be felt only by those who were willing to follow the author and internalize the reflections they contained: “I would not urge anyone to read this book except those who are able and willing to meditate seriously with me” (from the Preface).

General traits

B. Cartesian method

I) Historical Background of Skepticism

a) Pyrrhonian skepticism

b) Central theses of Pyrrhonian skepticism:

1. All knowledge claims or assertion are characterized by an equal balance of conflicting evidence (equipollence) based on:                                            

2. the appropriate cognitive response to the above condition of knowledge claims is the consistent suspension or withholding (epochē) of assent.

3. Skeptical suspension of belief results in a serene, tranquil, unperturbed state of mind (ataraxia), which is the therapeutic cure for dogmatism (rash belief in what is non-evident or characterized by equal evidence pro and con, for and against).

II) Descartes’ method of doubt

a) Epistemological orientation: establish certain, indubitable, secure foundation of knowledge impervious to the radical challenge of skepticism. This epistemological purpose reflects Descartes’ foundationalist framework modeled after mathematics. The foundationalist model of knowledge is based upon an analogy with the act of building:

b) Cartesian doubt

1. Methodical: doubt (skeptical attitude) is used strictly for methodical purposes, as a means (instrument or tool) to the achievement of secure and certain knowledge (final goal or end). As such, methodical doubt is a systematic procedure, consisting of a series of steps, designed to demolish our cognitive prejudices (preconceived opinions) in order to establish a new and firm foundation for knowledge and the sciences. Therefore, methodic doubt is a negative, critical, preliminary stage of Descartes’ inquiry and ultimately oriented toward the positive achievement of a secure, reliable foundation. Accusations that Descartes was a skeptic are therefore misguided or malicious:

Since I wished to devote myself solely to the search for truth, I thought it necessary to do the very opposite and reject as if absolutely false everything in which I could imagine the least doubt, in order to see if I was left believing anything that was entirely indubitable.                         —René Descartes, Discourse on Method, Part IV

2. Hyperbolic: methodic doubt is deliberately designed to be exaggerated or excessive in order that anything capable of the least doubt is rejected as if it were false, and therefore also rejected as a candidate for certainty. There are several defining features of hyperbolic doubt:

3. Object of Doubt: preconceived opinions or prejudices (praejudicia) is a quasi-technical term which Descartes employs to refer to the unexamined, uncritical, and unreflected prejudgments which have become over time a kind of habitual second nature. These cognitive preconceptions are biased beliefs that preclude (render impossible) the free intellectual attainment of truth (cf. PP I.1). Since they exert an enormous influence on the individual, they require an equally enormous effort in order to free oneself from their grip. Methodic doubt is precisely this determined effort.

a) Sources of preconceived opinion (praejudicia):

4. Systematic order of doubt: methodical doubt proceeds in an orderly and systematic fashion, moving from what is most doubtful to what is least doubtful. This methodical progression exhibits a correspondence between degrees of doubt and specific objects of doubt.

Degrees of Doubt  

Objects of Doubt  

Argument from illusion

Particular objects of sensory perception

Dreaming argument  

External world in general

Deceiving God dilemma


Malicious demon or evil genius

all the above object domains