Pragmatic Point: The Failure of the Cartesian Method of Doubt

In his Meditations on First Philosophy, Rene Descartes utilizes a method of doubt in order to determine whether or not there is any such thing as certainty. The American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce later critiques Descartes not necessarily on the basis of what many other philosophers find fault with in Descartes, but rather on the very method of doubt itself. While there appears to be plenty of room for debate about whether or not Peirce is fair to Descartes with respect to parts of Descartes’ method of doubt, Peirce is justified in the main point of his critique which is to point out that Descartes is not utilizing any form of doubt involved in true inquiry like that of which Peirce writes.  

            Descartes attempts to demonstrate the truth of metaphysical claims about God, souls, and certainty. He wants to prove these by using a method of doubt which he was apparently surprised by when he was much younger.

Some years ago I was struck by the large number of falsehoods that I had accepted as true in my childhood, and by the highly doubtful nature of the whole edifice that I had subsequently based on them. (Descartes 12)

 When Descartes writes that he was “struck”, he implies at least a bit of surprise on his part when it came to discovering not just the falsehood of some of the minor beliefs he adhered to, but a “large number” of substantial beliefs which provided the foundation for an “edifice” of other beliefs. (Descartes 12) If one takes him at his word, Descartes is completely undone by the doubt he has encountered and in his Meditations finally been able to further cultivate.

So serious are the doubts into which I have been thrown as a result of yesterday’s meditation that I can neither put them out of my mind nor see any way of resolving them. It feels as if I have fallen unexpectedly into a deep whirlpool which tumbles me around so that I can neither stand on the bottom nor swim up to the top. (Descartes 16)

Imagery of a deep whirlpool certainly serves to encourage the sentiment that Descartes finds himself genuinely lost. Likewise there is an apparent sincerity in Descartes by virtue of his mentioning the potential for finding no certainty at all at the end of his project.

Anything which admits of the slightest doubt I will set aside just as if I had found it to be wholly false; and I will proceed in this way until I recognize something certain, or, if nothing else, until I at least recognize for certain that there is no certainty. (Descartes 16)

Given that Descartes’ method of doubt truly does aim for the foundations upon which the rest of his beliefs rest, this would sufficiently demolish all of his beliefs, leaving him with nothing he states that he has set out to accomplish. Unfortunately stating the things which he sets out to accomplish does not necessarily comport with a desire to be intellectually honest but instead makes it seem as though he will stop at nothing to satisfy himself with a rationalization of previously held beliefs, which is precisely what Peirce accuses the metaphysicians of doing. (Buchler 2, 228)

            Why Descartes would so explicitly state his motivations and then act as though he sincerely sets out to destroy his beliefs is a puzzling question. In spite of the apparent sincerity of doubt already discussed, Descartes’ earlier letter to the Sorbonne makes him look at least somewhat dishonest in his methodology. It should not be forgotten that Descartes thinks, “demonstrative proofs ought to be given with the aid of philosophy” so that unbelievers can accept, “that the human soul does not die with the body, and that God exists”. (Descartes 3) This he hopes to show through “natural reason”, and so he enters into doubt already having a clearly established goal in mind. (Descartes 3) His doubt is a farce because it is only used as a means to accomplish a previously determined end.

            Descartes proceeds to find certainty starting with radical skepticism which is employed in order to defeat the skeptic in terms of certainty and religious doctrine.

What I have done is to take merely the principal and most important arguments and to develop them in such a way that I would now venture to put them forward as very certain and evident demonstrations. I will add that these proofs are of such a kind that I reckon they leave no room for the possibility that the human mind will ever discover better ones. (Descartes 4)

 Further evidence that Descartes is not really out to encounter what will shake his beliefs to the core comes from his ignoring other potential skeptical arguments in order to get on to his own contrived versions. For example, he glosses over the possibility that he is insane.

Again, how could it be denied that these hands or this whole body are mine? Unless perhaps I were to liken myself to madmen, whose brains are so damaged by the persistent vapours of melancholia that they firmly maintain they are kings when they are paupers, or say they are dressed in purple when they are naked, or that their heads are made of earthenware, or that they are pumpkins, or made of glass. But such people are insane, and I would be thought equally mad if I took anything from them as a model for myself. (Descartes 13)

 Descartes remains safe while clinging to his cherished beliefs and pursues doubt only as a sort of imagined problem rather than something which will actually influence his behavior. He is only pretending, and feels quite safe.

I think it will be a good plan to turn my will in completely the opposite direction and deceive myself, by pretending for a time that these former opinions are utterly false and imaginary… In the meantime, I know that no danger or error will result from my plan, and that I cannot possibly go too far in my distrustful attitude. This is because the task now in hand does not involve action but merely the acquisition of knowledge. (Descartes 15)

 This is rather ironic since Peirce’s pragmatic theory of belief is that a belief is “a conscious, deliberate habit of action”. (Buchler 42) If someone believes something then that person will act as though he or she believes it; belief is defined in terms of action according to Peirce. Of course inquiry stemming from doubt does not lead to immediate action, but surely a change in action is to be expected when beliefs are threatened. Peirce correctly picks up on the fact that Descartes wants none of this, as is evident from some of the comments Descartes makes.

I happily slide back into my old opinions and dread being shaken out of them, for fear that my peaceful sleep may be followed by hard labour when I wake, and that I shall have to toil not in the light, but amid the inextricable darkness of the problems I have now raised. (Descartes 15)

            Pierce does not believe that we can “begin with complete doubt” as Descartes would propose we do. (Buchler 228) Instead, Peirce believes that, “We must begin with all the prejudices which we actually have when we enter upon the study of philosophy”. (Buchler 228) However, Descartes may not differ too much from Peirce on this point, for he writes about an author making an objection to his work who, “has not realized that the term ‘preconceived opinion’ applies not to all the notions which are in our mind (which I admit it is impossible for us to get rid of) but only to all the opinions which we have continued to accept as a result of previous judgements that we have made.” (Descartes Obj. Repl. #204)

What is really needed in this case is a clearer demarcation between those beliefs we allegedly can and cannot dump from the mind in the Cartesian method of doubt and an explanation as to how this affects the whole Cartesian process. It is no secret that Descartes assumes a great many things in his work, such as sanity (which was already discussed), the law of non-contradiction, and several features about the nature of identity or self.

            It depends upon how Descartes is interpreted as to whether or not Peirce really has said anything new with regard to the Cartesian project. The personal commitments of Descartes, as well as his emphatically proclaimed motivations for his endeavor leave one with a sense that Peirce is the victor here. This is simply because Descartes does not doubt everything and apparently struggles to conjure up reasons to doubt at all, resulting in an alleged skepticism Peirce rightly terms “a mere self-deception, and not real doubt”. (Buchler 228) He concludes that “no one who follows the Cartesian method will ever be satisfied until he has formally recovered all those beliefs which in form he has given up”. (Descartes 228) For the reasons discussed here, this seems to be the case, and thus Peirce is correct in finding the problems he does with Descartes.

Works Cited

Appendix Fifth Obj/Replies, m#204.

Justus Buchler. Philosophical Writings of Pierce. Dover. NY. 1955.

René Descartes. Meditations on First Philosophy: With Selections from the Objections and Replies. Cambridge University Press; Cambridge, UK. 1996.


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