In this essay I will be examining the logical impasse of not being able to attain certain knowledge without accepting the certainty of his sense of reason the meditator faces in meditations on first philosophy and discuss possible interpretations of the text that would explain the meditator’s use of circular argument.
The meditator’s endeavor in Rene Descartes’ meditations on first philosophy is introduced through a biographical account, with which any reader can relate. Realizing how in the past he had “accepted many false claims as true” and “how everything [he] had later constructed on top of those falsehoods was doubtful”, he feels the need to “tear everything down completely and begin from the most basic foundations”. His objective is to establish a body of knowledge which is absolutely certain.
To achieve this objective, the mediator takes two stages in meditations on first philosophy. The first is the demolition of what is uncertain and the second is the rebuilding of a new certain body of knowledge.
The process of demolition is reduced to the single task by the principle that knowledge is doubtable if what the knowledge is contingent upon is uncertain. Following the belief contained in the Aristotelian dictum that ‘nothing is in the intellect that was not first in the senses’, proving the uncertainty of knowledge gained from the senses is all that is necessary to prove that all the knowledge the meditator has about the world is uncertain. Tentatively beginning with cases in which he believes that he is misguided, such as optical illusions, he next resorts to more drastic measures, which he calls ‘hyperbolic doubt’. He imagines scenarios that would result in him being sensorially deceived such as hypothesizing that he is insane or that there is an omnipotent being making him sense what is not there. He rejects the insanity hypothesis saying that, “I myself would appear no less demented if I took something from them and applied it to myself as an example”. The reasoning here is that by hypothesizing his own madness he would invalidate anything he comes up with due to the inability of the mad self to reason correctly, and the exercise would thus be a self-defeating. This is an important move the meditator makes, because it is telling of his reluctance to cast doubt on his faculty of reason, which will be relevant to the main argument later on in this essay. The hypothesis the meditator does accept as rendering all perception doubtful, is the scenario where there is an all-powerful God using his unlimited capacity to make the mediator believe in not only the appearance of the external world, but in the existence of the external world itself when nothing actually exists.
Cast into a whirlpool of uncertainty, the meditator abortively grasps for something knowable until he finally feels something firm as he uncovers the famous cogito. Simply put, it is the idea that one’s existence is demonstrated by the fact that one thinks. But, again,...