René Descartes (1596–1650) is widely regarded as the fatherof modern philosophy. His noteworthy contributions extend to mathematicsand physics. This entry focuses on his philosophical contributions in thetheory of knowledge. Specifically, the focus is on the epistemologicalproject of Descartes' famous work, Meditations on FirstPhilosophy. Upon its completion, the work was circulated to otherphilosophers for their comments and criticisms. Descartes respondedwith detailed replies that provide a rich source of further informationabout the original work. He indeed published the first edition (1641)of the Meditations together with six sets of objections andreplies, adding a seventh set with the second edition (1642).
On close inspection, these texts make no claim about the possibilityof introspective judgment error, because these texts — barringthe final sentence of the second passage — are not aboutfully formed judgments. Rather, Descartes is isolatingthe components of judgment. His two-faculty theory ofjudgment requires an interaction between the perceptions of theintellect and the will's assent (a theory elaborated in the FourthMeditation). A sine qua non of judgment error is thatthere be an act of judgment, but acts of judgment requireboth a perception and a volition. Descartes' claim that mereseemings “cannot strictly speaking be false” istherefore innocuous: for in isolating the mere seeming, he isolates theperceptual from the volitional. My merely seeming to see a speckledhen with two speckles could not, per se, involve judgmenterror, because it is not in itself a judgment.
Descartes Second Meditation Essay
Descartes' second main step is to argue from the premise (nowestablished) that an all-perfect God exists, to the general veracityof the C&D Rule — whereby, whatever is clearly anddistinctly perceived is guaranteed to be true. As Descartes tells us:“In the Fourth Meditation it is proved that everything that weclearly and distinctly perceive is true” (Synopsis, AT 7:15). Itis this second main step of the broader argument that will be developedhere.
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Prompt of essay: In the 2nd Meditation, Descartes attempts to determine what he is. Why does he reject the claim that he is a man? What, instead, does he think he is? Why?
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It would be misleading to characterize the arguments of theMeditations as unfolding straightforwardly according togeometric method. But Descartes maintains that they canbe reconstructed as such, and he expressly does so at the end of theSecond Replies — providing a “geometrical”exposition of his central constructive steps, under the followingheadings: definitions, postulates, axioms orcommon notions, and propositions (AT 7:160ff).
Study Guide to Descartes' Meditations: Part II - …
Famously, Descartes puts forward a very simple candidate as the“first item of knowledge.” The candidate is suggested bymethodic doubt — by the very effort at thinking allmy thoughts might be mistaken. Early in the Second Meditation,Descartes has his meditator observe:
René Descartes: The Mind-Body Distinction
Descartes thinks we're apt to be “tricked by ordinary waysof talking” (ibid.). In ordinary contexts we don't say thatit seems there are men outside the window; we say wesee them. Nor, in such contexts, are our beliefs aboutthose men apt to result from conscious, inferentially complex judgments,say, like this one: “Well, I appear to be awake, and the windowpane looks clean, and there's plenty of light outside, and so on, and Ithus conclude that I am seeing men outside the window.” Evenso, our ordinary ways of speaking and thinking often mislead. Descartes'view is that the mind's immediate perception does not, strictlyspeaking, extend beyond itself, to external bodies. This is an importantbasis of the mind-better-known-than-body doctrine. In the concludingparagraph of the Second Meditation, Descartes writes: