PHIL 230 Handout 1 Descartes' Meditations

I. Descartes' Background

A. Born in La Haye in the district of Touraine, France, March 31, 1596. His lineage was one of minor nobility.

B. At the age of 10 he was sent to a Jesuit school (La Fleche) where he was allowed to rise as late as he pleased (the school's rector was a relative). He went to the University of Potiers to study mathematics, but studied law instead. He wrote on music, fencing, and studied architecture and the Dutch language while in the military.

C. Had a philosophical awakening in 1619 when he discovered a method to sweep away philosophical and scientific confusions of his day.

D. Some of his important philosophical works:

1. Treatise on the World (1633). Suppressed because of the Inquisition.

2. Discourse on Method (1637). Widely criticized, its authorship was kept a secret.

3. Meditations on First Philosophy (1641).

4. Principles of Philosophy (1644).

5. Passions of the Soul (1649).

E. Descartes contracted pneumonia (due to fighting the cold to teach Swedish Queen Christina philosophy) and died on February 11, 1650.

II. Intellectual Climate During Descartes' Lifetime:

A. 17th century is called the "century of genius."

1. Rembrant and Vermeer

2. Shakespere and Milton

3. Galileo and Kepler

4. Pascal, Spinoza, and Leibniz

B. 17th century was also a period of doubt

1. in the 16th century Copernicus challenged the Ptolemaic picture of the solar system (earth at the center.

2. Changing conceptions of astronomy challenged the senses -- the sun looks like it rises.

3. Changing conceptions challenged common sense -- part of the meaning of "earth" was "that which is motionless."

4. Changing conceptions challenged Aristotle's account of the universe -- which had been accepted for centuries! (This account unified the sciences, including morality, into one coherent and organic philosophical system).

5. Copernican Revolution challenged religion.

a. Apparent contradiction to Bible -- see Joshua 10:12-13.

b. Church officially accepts Aristotle's picture of the universe.

c. Church is actively suppressing Galileo, who ultimately recants.

III. Meditation I

A. The Method of Doubt:

1. Doubting should be reasonable and systematic.

2. Beliefs that survive the method of doubt are retained, the rest are discarded (Descartes compares the method to sorting through a barrel of apples to discover which are edible).

3. The surviving doubt-tested beliefs are to be used later in a reconstruction of knowledge. They function like the axioms of geometry.

B. Three Stages of Doubt

1. The Argument from Sensory Illusion:

[1] Our senses deceive us some of the time.

[2] Whatever can happen some of the time, possibly can happen all of the time.


[3] It's possible that our senses deceive us all of the time.

2. The Dream Argument:

[1] Some dreams are so vivid so as to seem real.


[2] Any waking experience could be a vivid dream.

3. The Evil Demon Argument:

[1] It's possible that an evil demon exists that deceives me about the existence of an external world and the truths of mathematics (a priori inferences in general).

[2] Anything that it's possible to be deceived about are not reliable sources of knowledge.


[3] Apriori inferences and the belief in the external world are not reliable.