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The Epistemology Of Rene Descartes Philosophy Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 3298 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Human life is such that each one lives uniquely. Individuals live by unique choices that result special traits possessed by them. These special traits in individuals are what make other people to remember them. While some people are remembered for right things others on the contrary, are remembered for wrong ones. In the light of this fact of life, Descartes, a French philosopher, mathematician and scientist was and is still for his great thinking ability. Popularly known as the father of philosophy, Descartes invented analytic geometry therefore it is accredited to him first philosopher to describe the physical universe in terms of matter and motion. He was also the first person who attempted to formulate simple, universal laws of motion, which govern all physical change (Wilson, 1991).

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In addition, Descartes was not only remembered for the above achievements, he also contributed to academic knowledge. One of such contributions was the “Discourse on the method of rightly conducting one’s reason, and seeking truth in the sciences (1637), commonly known as the Discourse on method” (p. 159). After observing the above truth, he was thinking that his existence was so firm and sure that being a religious philosopher, he was incompetent of shaking it, he decided that he could accept it as the first principle of the philosophy he was seeking. While he could imagine that he had nobody and that there was no world and no place for him to be in, he could not pretend that he did not exist. Accordingly, Descartes realised that he is entirely distinct from the body.

Descartes was also remembered for his contribution to academics. In this sense, his meditation on first philosophy (1641) which may have been his most important work is a practical example (Wilson, 1991). Here, Descartes argues that one has some reason to doubt the truth all because of one’s beliefs about the physical world. Therefore, one should suspend belief in the existence of physical world. However, what then Descartes is? In response to this thought infuriating question, Descartes referred to himself as “A thing that thinks”. What is that? A thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, is willing, is unwilling, and also imagines and has sensory perceptions. One of his works, Principles of philosophy (1644) cannot be undermined for the role in plays especially in the field of philosophy. Descartes’ philosophy was popularly known as Cartesianism (Wilson, 1991)

His life

Descartes was born 1596 at La Haye, which is a little town in Touraine (France) and was educated at Jesuit College by studying philosophy and mathematics. He also has degree in law at the University of Poitiers, his hometown (Williams, 1967). While he was studying in the above institutions, he began to perceive that many of the arguments he learnt by various authorities were invalid which he did not know from the starting and he began to question himself which one should be believed. Later Descartes joined the army and travelled widely as a soldier but did not experience any opposition. This taught him that man was more varied and equally opposing the world of books. On the basis of this lesson, he started by questioning whether there was anything man could be sure of or know for certain (Magee, 1998). Having thought of all his questions, he decided to settle at one place in Holland and this allowed him to have the freedom to examine the foundations of human thought by investigations which took the form of philosophy, mathematics and science.

In philosophy his work took two forms such as Discourse on Method which was published in 1937 and Meditations published 1641. Because of his knowledge in philosophy, Queen Christina who came from Sweden invited him to Stockholm to teach her. Magee, (1998) asserts that Descartes died from pneumonia in 1650. Having looked at Descartes’ life histroy, it important to consider at Descartes’ philosophy of doubt.

Philosophy of Descartes

It is essential to give a brief meaning of the term philosophy in order to enhance better understanding of Descartes’ philosophical views. Beck says the word philosophy comes from a Greek philia meaning “love” and Sophia meaning “of wisdom”. It is the “theory or principle of anything” (Beck, 1963). On the other hand, Honderich defined philosophy as “rationally critical thinking, of a more or less systematic kind about the general nature of the world” (Honderich, 1995 p. 666). Metaphysics or theory of existence, the justification of belief, and the theory of knowledge and many more are all good examples. Again, Young (1973) defined philosophy as man’s attempt to mix up himself scientifically. Based on the above definitions, one will say that philosophy is simply any knowledge one acquires and the progressive examination of such knowledge to see whether it is true and real. Haven defined Philosophy; it is good to consider one aspect of Descartes’ philosophy, the “Discourse on Method.”

By starting an account of the individual parts of Descartes’ tree of knowledge, it is essential to discuss his method in other to understand the steps he follows. Method here focuses Descartes earliest philosophical writing, the Discourse on the method. In the second part of the discourse, the method appears in four forms. They are:

Never to accept anything as true if one does not have evident knowledge of it truth. That is one should carefully avoid precipitate conclusions and preconceptions.

To divide each of the difficulties Descartes examined in as many parts as possible. That is to say, to be able to examine well one needs to divide whatever he or she is examining into sections to be able to do a good job.

In other for Descartes to direct his thoughts in an orderly manner, he begins with the simplest and most easily known objects in other to ascend little by little and continue with the most complex knowledge. In doing this one will be able to learn for stage to stage as he or she advances.

Throughout to make enumerations complete and reviews it comprehensively, Descartes said he could be sure of not leaving anything out. That goes to say nothing is left out that cannot be examine. Given the general nature and apparent obviousness of these rules, it is not surprising that many of Descartes’ contemporaries suspected him of hiding his real method from the Garber, (1998)

Descartes raises a problem for the method itself to confront, indeed the first problem is the most useful investigation one can make at this stage is to ask. What is human knowledge and what is its scope? These questions are task that everyone with the slightest love of truth ought to undertake at least once in life, since the true instruments of knowledge and the entire method are involved in the investigation of the problem. While it is not entirely clear what Descartes had in mind, it is difficult to assume that he was raising the problem of the justification of intuition itself, the epistemological foundation of the method. In framing the method in the rules, Descartes takes for granted that he has a faculty, intuition, by which he is capable of grasping truth in some immediate way, and what he knows by intuition is worthy of trust. However, why should one trust intuition? This, in essence, is one of the central questions in the meditations; Descartes argues that whatever one perceives clearly and distinctly is true (Garber, 2003).

The central concern of Descartes’ earlier writings was method, in both the rules and the Discourse (Garbet, 1998). Although central to Descartes doubt was certainty, his path to certainty stated with doubt. In Descates meditation, he gave it the name doubt, Descartes realised it was important for once in the course of life to doubt, because help demolish everything fully and start from the beginning if one wanted to set up anything at all in the sciences that was firm and probable to last. Looking at that, Descartes presents a sequence of three sceptical point of view designed to abolish his existing way of life in training for replacing them with certainties. Descartes approach is to dimish his beliefs one by one but by discouraging the fundamental prnciples on which they rest. Even as some of these opinion can be found in versions in the Discourse and in further writings by Descartes, they get their fullest explanation in the meditations (Garbet, 1998).

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Descartes directed his argument at the naive belief that everything is learned through the senses is worthy of belief. He also points out that from time to time he found that his senses deceived him and it is prudent never to trust completely those who have deceived one even once. On the other hand, he argued that his famous dream was directed against the somewhat less naïve view that the senses are at least worthy of belief when dealing with middle sized objects in one immediate vicinity. Descartes continue by saying that a brilliant piece of reasoning as if he was not a man who sleeps at night. He plainly saw that there are never any sure signs by means of which being awake can be distinguished from being asleep. But even if he doubts the reliability of what the senses seem to be conveying to him right now, Descartes supposes that the dream argument still leaves open the possibility that there are some general truths, not directly dependent on his present sensations, that he can know.

With this in mind, the sceptical arguments of Meditation he complete, he is finally compelled to admit that there is not one of his former beliefs about which a doubt may not properly be raised. Nevertheless, Descartes notes, that his habitual opinions keep coming back. It is for that reason that Descartes posits his famous evil genius. He said he would suppose therefore that not God, who is supremely good and the source of truth, but rather some evil genius of the utmost power and cunning has employed all his energies in order to deceive. The evil genius (sometimes translated as the ‘evil demon’) is introduced here not as a separate argument for doubt, but as a device to help prevent the return of the former beliefs called into doubt (Magee, 1998)

These arguments have a crucial function in Descartes’ project. These arguments free one from all preconceived opinions, and provide the easiest route by which the mind may be led away from the senses. In this way, the sceptical doubt of Meditation Descartes prepares the mind for the certainty to which he aspired. However, in the third replies, responding to criticisms from Hobbes, Descartes notes two other roles that the sceptical arguments play in his thought. Descartes remarks that they are introduced so that he could reply to them in the subsequent meditation. To continue to maintain that sensation is not entirely trustworthy as a guide to how things really are, the first sceptical argument is never fully answered, though he carefully sets out the conditions under which one can trust the senses). Finally, he notes that the arguments are there as a kind of standard against which one can measure the certainty of his later conclusions: Descartes wanted to show the firmness of the truths which he propounded later on, in the light of the fact that they cannot be shaken by these metaphysical doubts. In all these ways, Descartes presented himself as addressing the sceptic, and defending a kind of dogmatic philosophy.

After Descartes had attentively examined what he was, and saw that he could pretend that he had no body. In addition, that there was no earth or place that he could exist. He could not for all that, pretend that he did not live, and that on the opposite, from the very fact that he think of doubting the truth of other things. It followed very clearly and very surely that he did exist. On the other hand, if Descartes had only ceased to think, although all the rest of what he had ever imagined had been true. He would have had no reason to believe that he existed; he thereby concluded that he was a substance, of which the whole essence or nature consists in thinking. Descartes said in order to exist, needs no place and depend on no material thing; that is to say, the mind, by which he is, is distinct entirely from the body. Moreover, even that it is easier to know that and that even if the body were not, it would not cease to be all that it is (Cahn, 1996).

After Descartes had examined himself, he considered in a general sense what is needed for his proposition to be true and certain. Since he had just found one he knew to be so. He thought that he ought also to know what this certainty consists and having noticed that there is nothing at all in this. “I think, therefore I am,” (Magee, 1998 p.86) which assures him that he is speaking the truth, except that he sees very clearly that in order to think one must exist. Descartes judged that he could take it to be a general rule that the things one conceives very clearly and very distinctly are some how difficult in being able to recognize for certain which are the things one sees.

Following this, Descartes reflected on the fact that he had doubts about his being which was not completely perfect. He saw clearly that it takes a greater perfection to know than to doubt. He decided to inquire whence he had learned to think on some things perfect than himself. He clearly recognized that this must have been from some nature which was in fact more perfect than him. As for the notions he had of several other things outside himself, such as the sky, the earth, light, heat and a thousand others, he did not have the same concern to know their sources.

The reason is that Descartes saw nothing in them which seemed to make them superior to him (Bronslein, Krikorian, & Wiener, 1964). He believed that if they were true, they were depending on nature, inasmuch as it is. Nevertheless, he could not make the same judgment concerning the idea of a Being (God) more perfect than him. For Descartes to hold his doubts from virtually nothing was evidently impossible. It is contradictory that the more perfect should proceed from and depend on lower perfection, than it is that something should emerge out of nothing. Descartes could not hold the existence of God to himself. As the result it remained him that it must have been put into him by a Being whose nature was truly more perfect than his and which even had in itself all the perfection of which he could have any idea, that is to say, in a word, which was God. Descartes added that since he knew some perfection that he did not have, he was not the only being that existed but that there must be of necessity a more perfect, whom he depended, and from whom he has acquired all he had (Tomlin, 1950). For, if he had been alone and independent of all other, so as to have had from himself this small portion of perfection that he had by participation in the perfection of God he could have given himself. By the same reason, all the remainder of perfection that he knew him to lack, and thus to be him infinite, eternal, immutable, omniscient, all powerful, and finally to have all the perfections that he could observe to be in God. Upon the reasoning by which he had proved the existence of God, in order to understand the nature of God as far as his own nature was capable of doing. Concerning all the things of which he found in himself some idea. Whether this idea was a perfection or not to have them and he was assured that none of those which indicated some imperfection was in him (Williams, 1967).

Therefore, he saw that doubt, inconstancy, sadness and similar things could not be in him, seeing that he himself would have been very pleased to be free from them. Further, he had ideas of many sensible and bodily things. He even considered himself dreaming, and that everything he saw or imagined was false, nevertheless, he could not deny that the ideas were really in his thoughts. However, because he had already recognized in himself very clearly that intelligent nature is distinct from the corporeal. Considering that, all composition is evidence of dependency, and that dependency is manifestly a defect. He then judged that it could not be perfection in God to be composed of these two natures. Consequently, he was not so composed that, if there were any bodies in the world or any intelligences or other natures that were not perfect. Therefore, their existence must depend on his power, in such a way that they could not subsist without him for a single instant (Urmson, 1967).

He sets out after that to seek other truths; and turning to the object of geometry. Descartes conceived the above statement as a continuous body, or a space extended indefinitely in length, width and height or depth. It can be divisible into various parts, which could have various figures and sizes and be moved or transposed in all sorts of ways for the geometers take all that to be in the object of their study. He went through some of their simplest proofs and having observed that the great certainty that everyone attributes to them is based only on the fact that they are clearly conceived according to the rule he spoke of earlier. He noticed also that they had nothing at all in them, which might assure me of the existence of their object. Thus, he very well perceived that if a triangle is to be given, its three angles must be equal to two right angles, but he saw nothing, for all that which assured him that any such triangle exists in the world. Whereas reverting to the examination of the idea he had of a perfect being (Young, 1973). He found that existence was comprised in the idea the same way the equality of the three angles of a triangle to two right angles is comprised or as in the idea of a sphere. The fact that all its parts are central, or even more obviously so; and that consequently it is at least as certain that God, who is this perfect Being, is, or exists, as any geometric demonstration can be. In view of the above discussion, it is important to reach an agreeable conclusion.


In conclusion, it is good for people to learn and be well educated or even in the process of learning to do critical thinking and question their thought over things they have learnt. For instance, Ghana Christian University College students are not suppose to be gullible in their learning but should spend reasonable time to evaluate ideas. In doing so, the good example of Descartes would be true to life. Even though, Descartes’ certainty of doubt led him to know the existence of God and realized that his mathematical skills, philosophy, and many more were not enough without knowing that God exists, not everybody will be like him. Many people will have doubted almost everything else in the existence of God. Therefore, it is good as one advance in quest for knowledge, to question things concerning nature, life, and creation. However, this has to be done on the plain grounds of truth. One can imply that it took the grace of God for Descartes, with all his educational background to admit the fact that God exists. One’s doubt must lead him or her to search for the truth. Even though Descartes’ doubt brought him to the knowledge of God but it is also possible that at point the devil would have used him to write other book, which could condemn God. One will suggest that knowledge is dangerous when used to destroy natural phenomena that God has put in place.


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