Sunday, January 24, 2010

Modern Philosophy 2

For the class in Modern Philosophy I'm taking this semester, we have to write 15 two-paged papers (minimum) on philosophers such as Descartes, Hume, Locke, and Leibnitz. In this essay, I wrote about Descartes' Meditations (first and second). The following is my submission:

“Discourse on Method” was, essentially, preparation for “Meditations,” an exposition Descartes considered to entail his philosophical superstructure. In it, Descartes purposes to prove the existence of God and the immortality of the soul by means of unprejudiced reason. He believed that while faith is sufficient for religious men, common, indubitable premises must be utilized against unbelievers so as to show them to be without excuse for any continuance in practicing moral relativism.

In his summarization of his meditations, Descartes, in accordance with his method, outlined – in orderly fashion – the means by which he believed he could achieve certainty. Insofar as the synopsis pertains to his first and second meditations, Descartes asserted that one should firstly cast a skeptical eye on those things one holds to be true. So doing, that which is shown to be indisputable is made evident. The allegedly indisputable proposition for which Descartes argues is that mind which doubts self-evidently exists, whereby one is able to discern what the mind is in relation to the so-called body and that it is fallacious to assert that with death comes the annihilation of the mind.

In his first meditation, Descartes laid out his particular reasons for doubting those things which he formerly believed. Firstly, he was desirous of ridding himself of opinions which are uncertain. Descartes noted that because the senses sometimes convey to us deceptive information, one cannot be sure that any proposition said to be grounded in a sensation is not instead the result of insanity or dreaming. Even so, Descartes claims that it is sensible to suggest that what one perceives itself represents something (reality, one’s own imagination, etc.). Moreover, he argues that some principles apply in both reality and one’s own imagination – for instance, mathematics – in which case we know these things are certain. Given that others are sometimes in error when they think they are not, however, Descartes rhetorically questions how he can validly avoid such a dilemma. Upon consideration, he declares that what he has considered thus far are remarks which can at best only have a probability of being true, and for that reason they cannot be trusted. He concludes the first meditation defiantly, stating that the possibility of a virtually omnipotent and deceptive demon will not force him to judge that which is doubtful to be true.

In his second meditation, Descartes continues with the hypothesis that a demon is deceiving him. Descartes states that one thing of which he will never be convinced is that so long as he is conscious, he is some existent. The next question, then, is what “he” is. He begins by describing what he formerly believed he was: a man. Upon reflection, however, Descartes admits a certain circularity in language which would be infinitely difficult to explain the meaning of words with words. Passing from this question, he proceeds to ask what is or are the attribute[s] of the soul, and on this point Descartes is optimistic that he may also make headway into the question of his essence. So long as he thinks, he exists; hence, it is that differentiae which describe what he is: a thinking thing, a thing whose reflexive consciousness is not dependent on anything else. A thinking thing is, says Descartes, a thing that by nature “doubts, understands, [conceives], affirms, denies, wills, refuses; that imagines also, and perceives,” as each of these refers to capacities which cannot be disassociated from thought. Descartes proceeds to discuss the essence of allegedly physical bodies, bodies which, even if they change, remain the same in essence. The difficulty in explaining the reason for this intuition is exacerbated by the problem of language, yet Descartes believed that one who seeks true knowledge should not doubt that common speech can adequately function for these purposes; hence, Descartes concludes that what is applicable to the essence of bodies is even more applicable to his own essence (which is certain), which is to say that because the essence of the mind is immutable, it is even more certain that it is immortal and independent from the body.

Descartes obviously did not believe that everything should be doubted, for if that were the case, he would have no means by which he could escape doubt. At best, Descartes would be inconsistent with his own demands, for he presupposes his method and logical principles. While his strict adherence to high standards of what constitutes as knowledge is admirable, this qualification may be problematic, as Descartes does not explicitly show how his method or logical principles are indubitable.

In fact, that Descartes purports that propositions should be indubitable – otherwise, he would doubt them – implies that one’s first principle(s) from which he deduces his system should also be indubitable. But Descartes fails to provide a criterion according to which a first principle – a proposition which is by definition not derived – is indubitable. The other case may be that Descartes is implying that the truth of any proposition is contingent on the existence and validation of prior premises. Because premises are also propositions, however, this would imply a justificatory process which cannot be completed, yielding self-defeating skepticism.

A related problem due to Descartes’ methodology is that he seemingly approaches the question of knowledge ontologically rather than epistemologically; because he has not clearly explained his first principle(s), throughout his monologue, it at least appears he begs the question by continually referring to a reflexive essence without justifying the means by which he knows such an essence exists. It is unclear as to whether Descartes’ claim regarding the existence of his essence is an indubitable resultant from a series of premises according to which the claim is supposed to be justified, or if Descartes is simply explaining the historical process by which he came to believe his first principle. If the former case is true, Descartes’ first principle(s) is or are unclear. If the latter case is true, Descartes is describing a historical process which he does not justify by his first principle.

A final noticeable problem is itself alluded to within the meditations: that of language. Descartes notes, when attempting to define what is man, that using words to define words does not explain how concepts are mediated to the conscious. He glosses over this problem, only to face it again when attempting to define a “thinking thing.” It may be the case that this and other problems are referenced by Descartes in other parts of his work, but these are what I perceive to be the extant problems inherent to Descartes philosophical system.

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