Home Forums Newcastle Reading Group April 7th 2020- Descartes’ First Meditation Reply To: April 7th 2020- Descartes’ First Meditation

John Farrington

Some observations on the 1st Meditation. First to say is that the total Meditations is an anti-sceptic work, whereas the 1st Meditation is overwhelmingly sceptical as a first stage process by Descartes to ‘clear the decks’ in preparation for his attempt to re-establish a true foundation for human understanding. Being an anti-sceptic in his time was against the general philosophical and social trend. Scepticism was well established, starting from the reintroduction into Europe of Pyrronist scepticism ‘ all our beliefs are subject to doubt’. Then Erasmus’s ‘In Praise of Folly,’ Montaigne’s Essays, the 17C Scientific Revolution all continue the trend of Scepticism. So a reading of the 1st Meditation by itself would appear to be a strong endorsement for scepticism. But for Descartes, this was a first step – a ‘doubting process’ as a methodology for eliminating existing ideas and opinions – ie to ‘clear the mind’ in preparation for establishing what he calls ‘certain truths’ – a firm foundation for human knowledge. So he rejects the Senses as the first place where knowledge originates (and so rejects Aristotle and empiricism) – because our senses can deceive us, just a dreams can (ie what is real v. what is dreaming).He develops this idea further in relation to God and the ‘deceiving theory’.
Descartes is asking us to suspend our normal everyday judgements on what we take as true and real in the world around us in order to get to a clean slate from which to rebuild a true foundation for knowledge. Essentially Descartes seems to be setting up what today would be called a Thought Experiment.
But his rebuilding project raises many problems. Firstly, why does he include Mathematics in the list of things to be eliminated in this sceptical exercise, given that Mathematics is clearly a priori knowledge, which is precisely the direction in which he is taking us – ie it forms an important part of his ‘innate ideas’ concept as the true foundation of knowledge. Interestingly, although the expression ‘a priori’ had yet to be invented, the concept was well known, dating back to Euclid’s Elements, Plato’s Theory of Recollection (some knowledge is inherent in the human mind), and others too. So the concept of innate ideas/a priori knowledge is far from original in Descartes, just as the ‘Cogito’ in Meditation 2 is far from an original concept. St Augustine in the 4C used almost precisely the same words as Descartes does in the 2nd Meditation. It seems to me that these similarities with much earlier philosophers are not to be taken as mere points of minor interest, but are critically important earlier statements long before Descartes.