The next two posts return to Descartes’ First Meditation, considering what we mean by ‘knowledge’. These posts won’t attempt to reach any conclusion but will instead highlight points to keep in mind when thinking about Descartes and knowledge. When writing any philosophical essay, it’s important to state the question (or the task) in your own words as part of the introduction. You should also include in the introduction what your ultimate conclusion will be, even if it’s it say that you can’t reach any conclusion.
Hence the question here is ‘what can we learn about knowledge’? How do Descartes’ views help to expand our own understanding of knowledge? To answer this question, we also need to consider the background to which the philosopher was presenting his/her views? Is there one clear interpretation or many interpretations? If the latter, does one interpretation support the question we are trying to answer? We could come up with a composite theory, partially relying on Descartes. This could be called a pseudo-Cartesian view.
From reading all six Mediations, we discover that Descartes wanted to prove God’s existence. He therefore hoped to provide a foundation of knowledge on which he could be certain about, as this would lead him to his conclusions about God. In his preface to the mediations (actually the letter sent to the Sorbonne institute, where Descartes hoped to get funding), he seeks the support of the religiously-focused academy. His focus on the religious implications is based on the fact that he wants to convince atheists that God does exists.
So the Meditations should be understood in this light. They have a very specific purpose, and might not have accurately reflect Descartes’ true views. When we look at Descartes’ writing as a whole, we get the impression that God isn’t the central goal for him. In fact, his works on epistemology work the other way around. In these works, he wants to find a theory of knowledge that does not depend on whether God exists or not.
Some critics raise the objection that in reading Descartes all we manage to learn are things about his anxieties, and nothing to do with actual knowledge. However this does not seem correct. The Meditations do cover both aspects. Each mediation has been written to engage with the reader personally. Descartes wants the reader to contemplate each meditation in turn before resuming with the next one. He sees his process as being very practical. In the First Meditation, Descartes invites us to go through the same process of doubt, in which we ask ourselves what we can be certain of. In this way, we are learning for ourselves what knowledge is. This is a different way in which most people engage with philosophy.
In the First Meditation, Descartes expresses a desire to start at the foundations, similar to finding the foundations of a science. He seeks to find an absolute, certain body of knowledge, one that cannot be doubted. This theory of knowledge is known as foundationalism. By starting at the foundations, we can then follow reliable processes to come up with new forms of knowledge. This raises a number of further questions though. What is a ‘reliable process’? Is this the correct approach to follow to discover knowledge? Is absolute certainty of knowledge a reasonable requirement?
In order to have certain knowledge then, we must eliminate any possibility of doubt. It will be enough if we find some reason for doubt. We do not have to exhaustively find every reason for doubting something. Even a remote reason is enough, for this shows us that the knowledge isn’t certain.
After defining the problem, Descartes’ first approach is to consider how we acquire knowledge in the first place. This leads him to the senses argument. Descartes then sets himself the task of trying to undermine the reliability of the senses, which in turn will undermine a vast array of knowledge. Descartes points to clear cases where the senses lead us astray, such as in the case of illusions and hallucinations. Why should we trust something that’s deceived us at least once?
In philosophical arguments about perception, a realist will argue that knowledge comes directly from the world. Explaining illusions under a theory of realism is therefore not a straightforward task. The realist could perhaps argue that we have multiple sensations which conflict with one another, and only one of them must be the truth. But in other cases, we cannot verify what is ‘really there’ (such as in the case of an illusion). So Descartes is correct in saying that the senses do deceive us in ways that we might not even be aware of.
But Descartes next provides a counter-reply to his criticism of the senses. There has to be a limitation on how much we can doubt. While we can doubt some sensory perceptions, we cannot doubt everything. We can’t doubt for instance that an object has a certain size and a shape. So the senses argument cannot be used to doubt every single piece of knowledge.