Published on March 18th, 2012 | by Daulton Dickey3
Descartes and the Doubting Mind by James Hill (Continuum Studies in Philosophy)
On the field of history, many actors play a key role in shaping human events. Socrates tutored Plato, who tutored Aristotle; Aristotle tutored Alexander the Great, who spread Hellenism through most of the known world, laying the foundation for the cultural unity we refer to as Western Civilization.
From Alexander to Julius Caesar, from Caesar to Jesus, from Jesus to Paul and Augustine, from Augustine to Aquinas and Copernicus, many people in some way helped to shape how human beings perceive—or react to—the world. When a person’s sayings or actions mold discourse, they create an intellectual wellspring from which multiple interpretations emerge. Historians and thinkers continue to dissect Alexander and Caesar’s careers, for example; theologians and philosophers search for nooks in the sayings and deeds of Jesus or Paul. When great people endow the world with great concepts or actions, the world remembers these people by recording ambiguities, rifts in cultural and historical interpretations of these people and their works.
When Copernicus proposed an argument in favor of a heliocentric model for the movement of bodies in space, his concept proved alien to many people—some of whom suppressed and denied his radical approach to interpreting the universe.
Before Copernicus, many people believed the sun revolved around the earth. Known as a geocentric model, the theory had been established in 150 AD by Claudius Ptolemy, a Roman polymath living in Egypt. At its core, the theory stated that the earth was fixed in the center of the universe and that all celestial bodies revolved around it.
Setting religious doctrine aside, this simply seemed to be common knowledge. And it was taken as common knowledge because our senses seemed to verify it: glance at the sky throughout the day and you’ll watch the sun circle the earth. Information provided by your senses establish subjective models for reality. Our ancestors assumed these models reflected absolute reality because they were inferred from information provided by our senses.
Seeing is believing, as the old saying goes.
But Copernicus’s theory shattered that notion for many people, injecting a disturbing question into the intellectual sphere—and we’ll steal a line from Chico Marx to phrase it: “Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?”
For many thinkers, including Rene Descartes, Copernicus’s question revealed an unsettling proposition: information derived from our senses may not represent absolute reality—though this phrasing, it should be noted, is mine.
Descartes’s response to the question of what we’d now call ‘empiricism’—of sense-based knowledge—shaped intellectual discourse for the next four hundred years. The questions he asked, the conclusions he drew, continue to inspire serious academic research and interpretation.
All philosophy, it was said, is a footnote to Plato. But we might also say that all modern philosophy has at its root a dialogue between those who agree with Descartes—whom we call Cartesians—and those who disagree—broadly or specifically—with the Cartesians.
We must question our fundamental beliefs—this was at the core of Descartes enquiry. How can we know that what we take to be true is, in fact, true? To Descartes, we shouldn’t take anything based on experience and sense-perception to be true without rigorously testing everything, and, he asserted, we must develop rigid methodologies to test every claim we examine.
This type of doubt enabled Descartes to turn to the mind, something he classified as a ‘substance’—essentially, an object distinct from the body. For centuries, philosophers and scholars took Descartes definition of the mind—res cogitans, a ‘thinking thing’—to be a broad definition encompassing consciousness, specifically phenomalist consciousness—the moment-to-moment interaction with reality.
In Descartes and the Doubting Mind (Continuum, 2012), James Hill presents an argument challenging long held assumptions that produced foundations for interpreting Descartes’ theory of the mind. Throughout the book, he presents nuanced arguments based on careful readings of Descartes’ books and letters, focusing largely on Meditations on First Philosophy (1641).
“This book,” Hill writes, “is written in the conviction that it is actually not obvious what Descartes means by a ‘thinking thing’ and his meaning only becomes clear on careful investigation of his metaphysics and particularly of the method of doubt with which it is introduced.” (p. 1)
Descartes sought to free intellectual development from the constraints of the senses by focusing on res cogitans, a thing capable of producing material independent of sense experience. Hill argues that Descartes implicitly sought to refute empiricism—the notion that all thought has as its basis images derived from the senses.
In the 17th century, when Descartes was composing his metaphysics, empiricism seemed on the verge of rooting scientific thought and development in sensual modes. Hill tells us Descartes distinguished two threads of empiricism: Aristotelian and Epicurean, where the latter is more dogmatic in its appeal to the senses—famously, Epicurus denied the theoretical size of the sun as being larger than the earth because sense experience tells us the sun we see in the sky isn’t very large.
“The challenge for Descartes,” writes Hill, “whose understanding of nature was of a mathematico-geometrical kind, was to show why empiricism must fail in doing the job of grounding science. It fails, he thought, precisely because it put too much trust in the senses. This trust, which was common to the Aristotelian and Epicurean traditions, was, in Descartes’ view, a fatal obstruction to scientific enterprise.” (28)
In his groundbreaking inquiries into the human mind—and of human understanding—Descartes discerned the thinking thing, placing emphasis on a priori knowledge: our scientific models show the sun to be many times larger than the earth; if we place our trust on the mathematical principles from which the sun’s true size was derived, then we should concede that our knowledge of the size of the sun cannot be derived from sense experience alone; therefore, it’s reasonable to conclude that an intellect distinct from the senses established the mode of thought capable of producing the principles at the heart of our understanding of the actual size of the sun.
By establishing a method of doubt capable of leading the intellect away from sense experience, Descartes famously established a theoretical baseline for all human knowledge. Beginning with the question of our most basic truths, namely how can we know we exist, he concluded that his ability to doubt showed something capable of doubting, famously phrasing his conclusion in Latin: cogito ergo sum—‘I think, therefore I am.’
Hill throughout demonstrates a nuanced approach to reading Descartes, providing a new interpretation, one that may refocus attention directly on Descartes’ views. For centuries, Descartes’ method of doubt was assumed to be a universal method, enabling philosophers like Hume and Spinoza to challenge the method, claiming as Hume did, that “The Cartesian doubt … were it ever possible to be attained by any human creature (as it plainly is not), would be entirely incurable; and no reasoning could ever bring us to a state of assurance and conviction upon any subject.” (cited, p. 3)
In questioning Descartes method and certain presuppositions it requires, Spinoza wrote, “if it is once allowed that a proposition which is self-evident and logically necessary may not be true, any argument to remove this skeptical doubt must presuppose what it is trying to prove, and so be circular.” (cited, p. 59)
These arguments are examples of widespread resistance to Descartes’ philosophy. But, Hill argues, they are based on a misreading of Descartes, specifically in the notion of doubt—some critics assumed doubt implied universal doubt, which Hill argues against—and the concept of the mind as a ‘thinking thing’—a broad idea from which Hill infers subtle yet crucial distinctions, enabling us to view Descartes’ philosophy in a new light.
Throughout this short volume, James Hill writes with authority and clarity. He seems to assume the reader has little previous knowledge of the topic and its components, resulting in an argument accessible to newcomers yet specialized enough to engage those well-versed in the field.
Descartes and the Doubting Mind is an important addition to the field of philosophy, particularly for those interested in empiricist/rationalist arguments. While the book might renew discourse, it probably won’t serve as a final word in arguments for or against empiricism or rationalism—but it is clearly an important entry in the long-standing argument between Cartesians and their critics, serving as another testament to Descartes and his monumental influence in shaping modern thought.
Continuum Studies in Philosophy
16 Feb 2012