Descartes Missing Doubts

May 19, 2011 — 1 Comment

490px-Frans_Hals_-_Portret_van_René_DescartesIf you’ve studied philosophy at any point (pop culture even counts on this one) then you are most likely familiar with Rene Descartes and his famous saying “I think, therefore I am.”

You may even know the Latin, cogito ergo sum. Bonus points for you, even more so if you know that Descartes’ modus operandi was systematic doubting. In trying to establish a firm foundation for knowledge, Descartes decided to doubt absolutely everything until he could rest on a sure proposition.

In his own words, Descartes wanted to, “accept nothing as true which I did not evidently know to be such” (Discourse on Method). The revelation of his own doubting was what he eventually landed on as a indisputable starting point for knowledge, hence his statement (literally): “I doubt, therefore I am.” In other words, Descartes hadn’t seen Inception so he felt comfortable trusting his own doubting as a certain state of affairs.

Descartes’ doubting was his own spinning top so to speak.

Now, what might be a surprise to you is that most philosophers today consider Descartes’ quest for a firm foundation in epistemology to be a failure. He did not return with the elixir that he had hoped he did. In reality, he opened what is known as an epistemic gap between thought and reality which the philosophers that followed him tried desperately to repair.

By the time Kant came along, he just conceded defeat and admitted there was no bridging this divide.

All of this could have been avoided (maybe) had Descartes been a little more systematic in his doubting. Here then is short list of items that Descartes failed to take into account. In other words, while Descartes tried to strip himself of any assumptions in developing his method, here’s what he forgot:

  • He assumed his own reasoning powers were in tact and functioning properly
  • He assumed that human beings in general had properly functioning reasoning abilities
  • He assumed a method for knowledge could proceed without reference to God
  • He assumed that the difficulties in the reliability of knowledge were merely intellectual
  • He assumed it was morally acceptable to search for a method self-reliantly
  • He assumed issues regarding knowledge were not moral or spiritual
  • He assumed the French language was adequate for making truth claims
  • He assumed his own usage of French was correct
  • He assumed the thoughts in his head corresponded to some kind of external reality
  • He assumed the doubting that he recognized was in fact his own and not someone else’s
  • He assumed that his own experiences were capable of being prescriptive for others
  • He assumed that his memory was reliable and that his private experiences actually happened in the past
  • He assumed a uniformity to the natural world that enabled future experiences continuity with the past

Now I could probably go on, but I think you get the point. Some of these are from an appendix in this book and others are from my own thinking in the past few years. The point is that Descartes really wasn’t systematic in his doubting. Rather than attempting to repair the breach, postmodern thinkers have actually just picked up Descartes’ mantle and taken it on down the road.

What I’ve noticed with some postmodern thinkers is that they are much more systematic than Descartes ever dreamed and so are really just taking his ideas to their logical conclusions. The other thing I noticed is that unless you submit to some kind of authority like God and His Word, there is really no escape from some of the conclusions that are drawn from this kind of systematic doubting.

That is probably another post in and of itself, but unless you’re willing to submit your reasoning to God and the foundations provided in Scripture,  better to be consistent and take Descartes all the way down the road to postmodernism. There are really only two legitimate ways to go.

Or as my philosophy professor was fond of saying, “Christ or Nietzsche, you pick.”

Nate

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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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