This is written on an excerpt from the first Meditation. If you don't have it get it.
1. Central Point: In this passage Descartes aims to establish the grounds for what will eventually be called the Transcendental nature of human perception. What is important to note in his efforts is that he seamlessly incorporates his foundationalism as an unspoken rule for thought; he assumes it with his language and does not open it to question by attempting to justify it. What Descartes tries to do in this passage is instill doubt in the reader about how reliable the senses are as a source of truth and knowledge.
2. Reasons: Descartes uses the simple and often ignored instances of sensible deception to expose the unreliable nature of the senses as sources for truth. He cites the sun as an example; it always appears to us to be much smaller than it indeed is; as with other things that are distant. It is quite often that a situation arises when ‘knowledge’ gathered via the senses is exposed as false. Thus, says Descartes, we cannot trust anything fully which has deceived us once. He does slightly delve into the distinction between sensible deductions and mathematical investigations as empirical and a priori (he doesn’t use this term), respectively, but he end’s up not dealing with it completely correctly, and it isn’t directly pertinent to the immediate concern of the passage. The main reasoning he employs is basically as such: I) To gain real knowledge I must break down every thing I’ve ever known and start from scratch; the most base thing(s) I can know, and build from there myself. This is a subtle and easy to miss explication of his strict foundationalism. II) It is more timely to break down the whole of my own knowledge from the foundations, rather than each belief at a time; thus I will begin with the mechanism from which I derive a majority, if not all, of my beliefs: my sensibility. Simple enough. If you need to start from the beginning start from the beginning, sensibility is where we derive most of our knowledge. But not all, right Rene? III) It is clearly true that I am deceived by my senses (the sun example, et al), thus my senses are not reliable sources of truths or knowledge. This is a very important leap, one I quite disagree with, but one that seems to make sense under his conditions. IV) Then what can we believe is true, what that I know do I have clear and distinct reason to believe that I do indeed know? Sensible things can be called into doubt, but what about geometry and other mathematical operations; these things seem harder to doubt. With this Descartes starts down a long and complicated road, with many forks, two particularly prominent ones. One of which breaks off into a very important conception of number stemming from the a priori intuition of time as a succession of thought, and the other of which breaks off into what Kant will eventually establish in his Transcendental doctrines. But that’s way off topic, and I don’t fully understand Kant (surprise!), so I’ll try to leave him out now. (It’s just hard to talk about Descartes in retrospect without thinking of how much better Kant did pretty much everything Descartes tried.
3. Discussion: I have two problems with Descartes argument. One is the Continental in me that wants to ask ‘what the hell is the point in you doubting the sensible world, you even admit that you’re going to be living in it anyway whether you make some monumental discovery or not, think about something less pedantic!’ Really that objection is a hard one to follow up on, which is why many people write continental philosophy off, but being as I am still new to most of this, I have a hopeful view of it all, and I see more humanity, in a broad sense, in the continental philosophers. Descartes and Kant (and I do enjoy them) make me want to sit and think about time and space and numbers and crap; Heidegger makes me want to experience life in a more full sense; and though if I enjoy both the difference may not appear much, but I see more realization of the full scope of humanity in the continentals, which leads me to keep them relevant in my mind and get pissed at Descartes sometimes for even bringing this all up. That was a waste of time and space [zing]. My real objection is thus: Descartes contradicts himself. To simplify this we will read A as “it is true that my sensibility is not trustworthy” (Not Trustworthy will mean ‘not a reliable source of knowledge’) and B as “it is true that I can be deceived by my sensibility.” And we will remember that the crux of Descartes’ doubts about the reliability of sensibility as a source of knowledge can be summarized as “A on the condition that B.” Considering these things, my objection is thus:
(I) If A on the condition that B and (II) on that condition that B I determine that A,
then (III) I can no longer trust that B, because I have determined that A.
His argument is circular and contradictory. I put it in the best logical form I could. He essentially contends that his senses are not trustworthy because he knows that they have deceived him, but by the very assertion that the senses are untrustworthy (as sources of knowledge) he contradicts himself because he destroys the qualification that he made: the senses cannot both be an untrustworthy source of all knowledge and thus written off, but at the same time be used as a trustworthy source of knowledge to observe themselves… to know that an empirical piece of knowledge is false, one must consult another contradicting piece of knowledge: how does Descartes know that he has been deceived when he sees the Eiffel Tower (humor me; it’s French, at least.) from a mile away and it seems to him the size of his pinky finger? Because he has been close to it and seen that it is indeed large
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