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Descartes’s Method of Doubt by Janet Broughton

Harry Bracken frets about Janet Broughton’s non-historical book on Descartes’ ideas.

This is a very careful and detailed examination of what Broughton takes to be René Descartes’ arguments on behalf of the Method of Doubt in his Meditations. The author says at the outset that “we cannot understand our philosophical history without understanding something about where our predecessors come from...” [her emphasis] It quickly becomes obvious this something of our ‘philosophical history’ is to be construed in an extremely narrow way, so narrow that Descartes appears lost in the mists of time. Although the language of the book is straightforward, it does not emphasize the historical details of Descartes’ life and works.

Descartes’ Method of Doubt (see sidebar) starts with scepticism, but Broughton seems to believe that the sceptic’s quest for certainty runs directly counter to our common sense beliefs. Sceptical doubts, she thinks, do not “occur to us in the course of everyday life.” (p.8) Accordingly, she takes legal practice to give us a handle on a common sense, nonsceptical appreciation of our world: “Any judge would declare a mistrial if a juror were to advance the dream argument as providing grounds for reasonable doubt about whether the defendant committed the crime with which he was charged.” (p.22) However, as Theodore Waldman showed, the doctrine of reasonable doubt itself apparently entered English jurisprudence as an ad hoc device intended to prevent the possibility of appeals to the dream argument, etc. More generally, one is entitled to question whether legal practice is a useful place to find commonsense- oriented principles suitable for challenging scepticism. In the light of the O.J. Simpson trial, examples drawn from American legal practice now seem more likely to belong in late night television comedies.

Broughton devotes a number of pages to exploring the dream problem in the writings of the great Pyrrhonian Sceptic, Sextus Empiricus. The dream problem has long vexed philosophers because if we could absolutely distinguish being in a sleeping or waking state, nightmares would be an absurdity. In any case, it is difficult enough figuring out what Descartes has to say about dreams without complicating matters by exploring the several passages in Sextus where dreams are discussed [mainly Outlines of Pyrrhonism I, 104, 113]. To understand Sextus on dreams, she would have us explore in detail the interpretations of Myles Burnyeat, Julia Annas, Jonathan Barnes, Michael Frede and the other Neo-Dogmatists. Their arguments present us with Sextus on the dream problem as well as with an overall picture of Pyrrhonism, one in which their polemical thesis that the Pyrrhonist cannot ‘live his scepticism’ is articulated. That is why I call them Neo-Dogmatists. There is something paradoxical that a book which proposes to illuminate Descartes’ Method of Doubt first takes us through some very complex and subtle (non-Cartesian) arguments by our contemporaries. Since these arguments are very much, as Sextus might say, matters in dispute (and contrary critics like James Hankinson are ignored) – the whole excursion seems to constitute a mistaken route to the heart of Descartes’ Method of Doubt.

As Broughton appreciates, in writing their Objections to the Meditations, his own contemporaries Hobbes, Mersenne and Gassendi objected in varying ways to the ‘excessive’ employment of scepticism in Meditation I. So where did Descartes get his scepticism from? Although Broughton doesn’t mention it, we’ve known for at least a century that Descartes was very familiar with the sceptical writings of both Michel de Montaigne (1533-92) and Pierre Charron (1541-1603). Richard Popkin has shown in his History of Scepticism that they played an important role in late 16th century philosophy and theology. Still earlier, the Savonarola circle, especially Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirandola (1469-1533) contributed to the diffusion of Sextus’ influence in the Italian Renaissance. For details and their rich elaboration, see the work of Luciano Floridi. Broughton mentions, but does not discuss, Montaigne’s cousin Francisco Sanchez (1552-1632), the author of Quod nihil scitur (‘That Nothing is Known’), with whose work Descartes was probably acquainted.

Mersenne raised the question of whether God lies or deceives and mentions the opinions of Gabriel Biel (1425-95) and Gregory of Rimini (d. 1358), though not John of Mirecourt (fl 1345). Copleston writes in his History of Philosophy that “If we care to bring in Descartes’ hypothetical ‘evil genius’, we can say that for John of Mirecourt we are not certain of the existence of the external world, unless God assures us that it exists.” Descartes would have been well acquainted with the nominalist tradition, but he seldom cites his sources. The socalled extreme nominalists are philosophically interesting because they sought to minimize any constraints theologians might impose on God, including the rules of logic. There is a considerable literature on whether Descartes’ God is subject to the rules of logic. As for ‘deception’, allowing God to deceive can be understood as merely an enhancement of His omnipotence.

A few loose ends: versions of the cogito ergo sum argument (“I think, therefore I am.”) have long been taken, with good reason, to be found in the works of St Augustine. Indeed, as Broughton notes (p.43), Descartes says he is pleased that Arnauld calls this to his attention. But given the role which the cogito plays in the ‘refutation’ of scepticism and her exploration of the Method of Doubt, it is perplexing that the work of Leon Blanchet and later scholars is ignored. We know something (but not much!) about Descartes’ course of study at the Jesuit college at La Flèche. Still, we do know that Descartes was acquainted with the writings of the Jesuit theologian Francisco Suárez (‘the last of the scholastics’). But like Montaigne and Charron, Suárez does not appear in the author’s Index.

As I said at the outset, this is a carefully written book. Broughton takes us through Descartes’ text in terms of the structure of the logic of his arguments. Presumably, her goal is to illuminate the Method of Doubt. The style is familiar – it is that of much of contemporary philosophy. Hence its range is sharply restricted to the ‘logical’ structure of what are taken to be the arguments and thus it ignores both the ideas which drove Descartes and the goals he pursued. This is all the more puzzling because we know that Descartes was a furious polemicist, irascible in the extreme. Aside from seeking to provide a foundation for the new science, he makes it clear that he hoped that he would in effect, supplant Thomas Aquinas as the Doctor of the Church. Intellectual excitement permeates his writings. If most of our contemporary philosophers simply strive to portray Descartes’ Method of Doubt, ignoring his excitement in favor of a bland rehearsal of a set of putative logical connections, one wonders why they think Descartes bothered. Was he really concerned with precision in the filagree details of his arguments? Was that his passion? The evidence is very slight. As Broughton shows, Descartes could be very sloppy and evasive. He would not have passed muster in an introductory course in analytic philosophy. In spite of that, he has been ranked as a major philosopher since the mid-17th century. Why? Why do we now attribute to him a philosophy without ideas? Are we still trying to sort out his arguments to see whether they can be incorporated into a model of second order logic? Or did he have a very different agenda, an agenda which the practitioners of ‘modern’ anti-history fail to detect?


Harry Bracken is Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Arizona State University. He is retired from McGill University, Montreal. He has written books on Berkeley, Freedom of Speech, Descartes and Chomsky.

Descartes’s Method of Doubt by Janet Broughton. Princeton University Press, 2002. xv + 217. hb $35/£18.95 ISBN 0691117322.

“Mummy, Mummy, what’s Descartes’ Method of Doubt?”

The philosopher René Descartes would be 407 this year, if he had lived. He is generally regarded as the father of modern philosophy, and his works have been very widely discussed. Nonetheless, so far as I know nobody has ever pointed out that you only need to swap around two letters in ‘Descartes’ to get the name ‘Descrates’, which sounds much more like an ancient Greek philosopher (Socrates’ long-lost brother?) than a French one. But I digress. Descrates studied at the Jesuit college at La Flèche but then, tiring momentarily of matters of the spirit, decided he would rather kill people for money. He therefore signed up as a mercenary and went off to fight in the army of the Duke of Bavaria. But however hard he attempted to concentrate on the traditional pursuits of the dogs of war, he kept sliding back into the mire of philosophical speculation. He was blessed with a remarkably well-ordered mind, and in a ‘stove-heated room’ somewhere in the Germany, he had the sustained series of reflections which formed the basis of the Meditations.

Descartes lived in a time of great scepticism about matters religious and otherwise, and was therefore led to wonder what we can know for certain, if anything. Can we believe what we see with our own eyes? No, not even that, for our senses may be mistaken, or we might be dreaming. What about the truths of mathematics? Deliberately taking doubt to the extreme, he tried to imagine that a demon “of the utmost power and cunning” was attempting to deceive him about absolutely everything. Then he couldn’t be sure of anything at all, could he? Well, except for one thing. Even if all the contents of his thought were delusions and errors, he could at least know that he was having thoughts. Having found this one tiny foothold of certain knowledge, he immediately found another. In order to be thinking, surely he must exist? This realisation he expressed in Latin as “Cogito, ergo sum” – “I think, therefore I am.”

Having thus established the fact of his own existence, he went on to argue that as he had in his mind a clear and distinct idea of a perfect, benevolent Being, an idea too great to have originated within him, therefore God must exist, and that because God existed, and was benevolent, and therefore wouldn’t play mean tricks on poor René, therefore most of the world that appeared to his senses must be real too. In this way, Descartes’ method of doubt brought him from scepticism to certainty.

Rick Lewis

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