descartes & skepticism

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  • Descartes and SkepticismAuthor(s): Marjorie GreneSource: The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 52, No. 3 (Mar., 1999), pp. 553-571Published by: Philosophy Education Society Inc.Stable URL: .Accessed: 07/09/2013 18:34

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    I HE HYPERBOLICAL DOUBT OF THE FIRST MEDITATION is often taken for the epitome of skepticism.1 Thus Myles Burnyeat, in his 1982 paper, "IdeaUsm and Greek Philosophy: What Descartes Saw and Berkeley

    Missed," argues that Descartes goes further than the ancient skeptics in doubting the existence of his own body?a given of everyday expe

    rience they never doubted. Nor was "the existence of the external

    world," which was imperiled by the agency of the evil demon and has been recurrently questioned ever since, a mayor subject for doubt in

    the skeptical tradition.2 Moreover, Burnyeat explains, Descartes was

    Correspondence to: Department of Philosophy, Virginia Polytechnic In stitute and State University, Blacksburg, VA 24061. 1

    "HyperboUcaT is the term Descartes uses in the Meditations to refer to his method of doubt: see Oeuvres de Descartes (hereafter, "AT,

    " cited with

    volume and page number), ed. Charles Adam and Paul Tannery, 12 vols.

    (Paris: J. Vrin/CNRS, 1964-76), 7:89. Unless otherwise indicated, translations are from The Philosophical Writings of Descartes (hereafter, "CSM," cited

    with volume and page number), trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985-1991). Gueroult explains the significance of this term: "Methodological and system atic doubt, which is fictive and proceeds not from things but from the resolu tion to doubt, differs from true doubt which results from the nature of things and can engender skepticism_It is because of its systematic and general ized character that it deserves the name hyperbolic, in accordance with its et

    ymology, from hyperbole, excess; in rhetoric it designates a figure by which one gives the object in consideration a higher degree of something, whether

    positive or negative, it does not possess in actuaUty"; Martial Gueroult, Des cartes' Philosophy Interpreted According to the Order of Reasons, trans.

    Roger Ariew (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 1:20; Des cartes selon L'Ordre des Raisons (Paris: Aubier, 1968), 1:40-1. Gueroult pro ceeds to explain how this hyperbolic character explains the nature and order of the doubt in the First Meditation. It is unfortunate that the Cambridge translators render "hyperboUc" as "exaggerated," thus missing the technical rhetorical significance of the term, which Descartes would certainly have been aware of: CSM, 2:61. 2

    Myles Burnyeat, "Idealism and Greek Philosophy: What Descartes Saw and Berkeley Missed," Philosophical Review 90 (1982): 3-40. On the novelty of needing a proof for the existence of the external world, see Vincent

    The Review of Metaphysics 52 (March 1999): 553-571. Copyright ? 1999 by The Review of Metaphysics

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    able to carry skepticism to this extreme because his doubt was merely

    methodological: it left his provisional rules of conduct intact while he was searching theoretically for a truth that would itself be in the first

    instance theoretical. Of course we should not forget that eventually,

    Descartes beUeved, the truth he was on the way to discovering would

    have exceUent consequences for practice also, namely, in medicine,

    mechanics, and mora?ty.3 Meantime, however, Burnyeat is certainly

    correct in maintaining that Cartesian doubt was indeed insulated

    against practice?as Hume's doubt would eventually be also, confined

    as it was to his closet.4 So Descartes, and other modern skeptics after

    him, could be as skeptical as you Uke, as skeptical as any one can be.

    The ancient skeptics could not go that far, Burnyeat argues, because it

    was daily Ufe they were concerned with, not some purely theoretical

    gambit. Like the philosophers of other Hellenistic schools ?though

    differently, of course?they were seeking peace of mind, and they

    wanted to eliminate those unnecessary questions about hidden

    things?causes or "ultimate" rea?ties?that served to obstruct the

    state of mind they caUed "tranquil?ty." Merely methodologicaUy, doubt can become much more radical, and it is that radicalization

    that, with the help of his demon, Descartes accompUshes.

    As an account of the difference between Descartes' doubt and

    the devices of ancient skepticism?or its early modern inheritors, Uke

    Montaigne or Charron?Burnyeat's exposition is certainly correct in

    the letter, and, as far as the skeptical tradition goes, certainly Ulumi

    nating. Without touching on the differences between recent interpret

    ers of Pyrrho or Sextus, we can take as read the general interpretation

    of the tradition they all to some extent share.5 Moreover we can see

    Carraud, "L'esistensa dei corpi: ? un principio della f?sica cartesiana?" in Des

    cartes: Principia Philosophiae (1644-1994), (Naples: Vivarium, 1996), 153

    79. If it is objected that in Outlines of Pyrrhonism, 72-5, Sextus does raise

    questions about external objects, it should be noted that it is the dogmatists' theories that he is examining; this is not part of his own skeptical argument in

    book 1. I am grateful to Gisela Striker for calling my attention to this pas

    sage. 3 See the preface to the French edition of the Principles, AT, 9(2): 14. 4 In fact, according to Descartes' disciple R?gis, whom Gueroult cites in

    the passage quoted in note 1 above, only natural doubt can generate skepti

    cism; there is no such danger in methodological or hyperboUc doubt. 5 See The Original Skeptics, ed. Myles Burnyeat and Michael Frede (In

    dianapolis: Hackett, 1996). A different way of contrasting Descartes with the

    ancient skeptics is presented by Stephen Gaukroger in his recent biography of Descartes as well as in a paper on ancient skepticism: Descartes: An Intel

    lectual Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 309 and "The Ten

    Modes of Aenesidemus and the Modes of Ancient Skepticism," British Jour

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    that Descartes was, in a sense, proceeding to a more radical, yet (or

    because) less than practical skeptical position.6

    Descartes himself insists on this aspect of his method of doubt, for example, in his reply to the Fifth Objections. Gassendi has ac

    cused him of frivolity in the First Meditation doubt; Descartes repUes that of course he recognizes the distinction between the actions of Ufe and the investigation of the truth: only in the latter can one pursue doubt as far as he has done.7 He has made the same point elsewhere,

    he insists: the reference is to the synopsis, where he had admitted that "no sane person" had ever really doubted, in practical terms, that

    there was a world, that people have bodies and so on.8 Indeed, even

    for the less hyperbolical doubt of the Discourse he had been careful to

    distinguish between his philosophical enterprise and the tentative mo

    rality he followed while pursuing it.9 I shall return to this passage in the Replies in another context.

    Meantime, however, I should remark that the same passage casts

    doubt on another aspect of Burnyeat's argument: namely, that Des

    cartes himself understood the difference between his own skepticism and that of the tradition as historical scholars now interpret it. After

    distinguishing between the actions of Ufe and the quest for truth, he continues: "for when it is a question of organizing one's Ufe, it would, of course, be fooUsh not to trust the senses, and the sceptics who so

    neglected human affairs to the point where friends had to stop them

    falling off precipices deserved to be laughed at."10 That is precisely the caricature of Pyrrhonism that Burnyeat and others have been re

    jecting. It was a commonplace, and I see no good reason to suppose

    nal for the History of Philosophy 3 (1995): 371-87. Gaukroger argues that the ancient skeptics were not skeptics at all, but relativists. While his discus sion in the Descartes book c


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