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An Evaluation on Rene Descartes' Methodic Doubt

Updated on September 4, 2019

An Evaluation of Rene Descartes’ Methodic Doubt

By Ian Mart H. Lomboy

  1. I. Introduction

In the realm of philosophical investigation of human knowledge, many theories were developed and endeavored to give different notions regarding the truth of knowledge or on the possibility of the certitude of knowledge. One of those theories was Skepticism; Skeptics believed and edified that truth in knowledge or certainty is impossible to attain and “this principle has come to be understood as the view that we know nothing, or that nothing is certain, or that everything is open to doubt”.[1]

In the modern period, Rene Descartes argued that the human mind can attain certainty through a method which he called Methodic Doubt. This method explained that a person must first doubt all knowledge that has been accumulated, either previous or new knowledge, and then examine it to arrive at the point of certitude. The difference between the two theories, Skepticism and that of Rene Descartes, regarding the idea of Doubt in the approach of knowledge is that the skeptics begin in doubt and only end in doubt while for Descartes albeit started in doubt and in the end attempted to attain certainty. In line with the statements stated above the question was raised: Is the methodic Doubt of Rene Descartes a reasonable attempt to attain certainty?

This study will endeavor to answer the question above to explain Rene Descartes’ theory of Methodic Doubt and to evaluate the plausibility of the theory.

a. Scope and Limitation

The scope of this study will be an evaluation and explanation of Rene Descartes’ concept of the Methodic Doubt. Since Rene Descartes’ Methodic Doubt is vague, the study will limit itself to the English translation of the method that was presented in his work entitled Discourse on Method and to the commentaries of the said work.

b. The Life and Importance of Rene Descartes

Philosophy started around 6th century B.C. in ancient Greece, and it was highlighted in the time of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. The ideas of these three great thinkers especially Aristotle were used, developed, and elaborated in the Mediaeval Period particularly by the Scholastics. During the Dark Ages the importance of knowledge was lost or forgotten, but brought back by the Renaissance with a humanistic outlook of knowledge then followed by the Reformation of the church. After that, philosophy remained stuck in the realm of Scholasticism. When Rene Descartes arrived with his revolutionary way of thinking, the approach towards knowledge was changed and this was the start of modern period of philosophy.[2] Here lies the importance of Rene Descartes.

Rene Descartes was born on March 3, 1596 at La Haye, France. In 1605 at the age of ten, he started his study at the Jesuit College de la Fleche, a prestigious school patronized by Henry IV. He left La Fleche in 1614 and continued his study at the University of Poiters in 1615 to study law. In March 1619, Descartes traveled to Germany and joined the army of Maximillian in Bavaria, and during that time he had a vision that could solve his problem about the uncertainties of knowledge. In the evening of that day he experienced three consecutive dreams which he interpreted as a sign to start his work in the search for truth. This was the beginning of Rene Descartes as a public thinker. Throughout his life he lived in solitude and loved to travel to different places where he developed and wrote his works. Some of his prominent works are Meditations concerning First Philosophy and Discourse on Method. He died on February 11, 1650.[3]

II. The Notion of Methodic Doubt

a. Overview on the notion of Doubt

What is the notion of Doubt for Rene Descartes? What is the aim of his idea? We already discussed the difference between the idea of Doubt of the skeptics and of Rene Descartes. To reiterate, the skeptics’ doubt was raised merely for the sake of doubting, but for Descartes a doubt is used in order to free one’s mind of all prejudices, so that one might find at length certain truth on which all knowledge rests.[4] Thus, Descartes proposed the notion of doubt as an instrument that can lead us in the search for certainty. This notion implied suspension and examination of one’s judgment in order to have confidence in knowing certainty. It implied that certainty is attainable, and it somehow was a resolution to the negative approach of the skeptics toward knowledge. Descartes emphasized that the “idea of doubt is not an end, but only a means. It is a means in a psychological and philosophical way.”[5]In the psychological way, Descartes advocated doubt as an art; an art that can free us from the influence of our deceptive senses. He only persuaded us not to be careless in making conclusion because our senses may deceive us. “By practicing this art, we will become use to assenting only to clear and distinct ideas, and this is the essence of Descartes whole method.” It is also a means, in a philosophical way because it gives his physics a metaphysical foundation.[6]

According to Fr. Frederick Copleston, SJ, Rene Descartes’ notion of Doubt, wants to build a system of true proposition in which nothing would be presupposed which was not self evident and indubitable.[7] This was the main aim of Descartes to know certainty and to have a method that will serve as a secure foundation that will unite and integrate all previous and new knowledge. Although historically, skepticism was not really a problem of Descartes, but because the aim of this method was to establish certitude or encourage that certainty is attainable, it opposed the doctrine of skepticism. This is somehow a positive approach to the notion of Doubt in the realm of knowledge.

Now we ask what factor influenced Descartes in the establishment of the method of doubt. In the Discourse on Method Descartes said:

I took especially great pleasure in mathematics because of certainty and the evidence of its argument. But I did not yet notice its true usefulness and thinking that it seemed useful only in mechanical arts, I was astonished that, because its foundation were so solid and firm, no one had built anything more noble upon them.[8]

For Descartes, mathematics has a firm and solid foundation of knowledge; the well demonstrated data in mathematics drew Descartes or influenced him in his theory of knowledge.

How did Rene Descartes conceive the idea of the method? According to Donald A. Cress, who translated the Discourse on Method, it stated in the editor’s preface of the book that the conception of the method started when Descartes was meditating on the uncertainties of his knowledge. This was on November of 1619; he was sitting in a poele, a small stove heated room, looking for the basis for all knowledge that can encompass all the knowledge with unity and certainty. After having a vision, he started working on it. This was also affirmed by Stephen Gaukroger, a biographer of Descartes, that the vision of Descartes during his meditation was the beginning of his general theory of the method.[9]

b. The Method of Doubt

Why did Rene Descartes develop this system or method? What is the Method of Doubt? What is the approach of Descartes regarding this method? Rene Descartes developed the Method of Doubt because of the false knowledge or opinions that he accepted as truth from the past. He believed that because those false opinions existed, then all knowledge is open to a reasonable doubt. But why do false opinions exist? Descartes explained that one cause of these false opinions or the uncertainty of knowledge is our senses. He believed that our senses are deceptive and cause error in our knowledge. For this reason, he realized that there is a need of establishing a method that can hold a firm foundation of knowledge[10]. He stated:

From the time I became aware of this, I realized that for once I had to raze everything in my life, down to the very bottom, so as to begin again from the first foundations, if I wanted to establish anything firm lasting in the sciences.[11]

Now, what is the Methodic Doubt? The Methodic Doubt showed or illustrated the four chronological order of the method and these were presented in Part Two of his book, Discourse on Method.

The first was never to accept anything as true that I did not know evidently to be so; that is, carefully to avoid precipitous judgment and prejudice; and to include nothing more in my judgments than presented itself to my mind with such clarity and distinctness that I would have on occasion to put it in doubt.[12]

The first method explained that to begin the method, one must be in the state of doubt. One must doubt all previous and new knowledge accumulated, for our senses are deceptive and might lead us to error.[13] However we must keep in mind that to doubt does not mean thinking that our beliefs are false. It means suspending judgment as to their truth. It is neither believing nor disbelieving; believing means an affirmation on the judgments of knowledge as true, while disbelieving means denying the truth of the knowledge. Thus, the first stage implied only that one must first suspend or withhold judgments in knowledge in order to avoid prejudices.[14]

In the second, third, and fourth method, Rene Descartes illustrated the next steps towards certainty. These following steps were lacking in the doctrine of Skepticism; they do not go beyond the stage of doubt, unlike Descartes who attempted to go beyond the doubt as he illustrated these steps:

The second, to divide each of the difficulties I was examining into as many parts as possible and as is required to solve them best. The Third, to conduct my thoughts in an orderly fashion, commencing with the simplest and easiest to know objects, to rise gradually as by degrees, to the knowledge of the most composite things, and even supposing an order among those things that do not naturally precede one another. Last, everywhere to make enumerations so complete and reviews so general that I would be sure of having omitted nothing.[15]

The second method suggested finding the fundamental truth. The third method meant to discover the cause of the error, and the last method to understand everything clearly and distinctly. These were the Methods of Doubt of Rene Descartes; the methods he proposed that could lead us to certainty. However, this is not the total idea of Descartes’ methodic doubt. Later on I will discuss the last part of his method which is the Universal Doubt in line with his idea on the Cogito ergo sum. Now after knowing the methodic doubt of Rene Descartes, what is his approach to this method? Albeit the Method of Doubt is very difficult to exercise, the approach of Rene Descartes here was not forcing someone to follow or to practice the method. Rene Descartes endeavored to show his way of thinking towards his idea on how to know certainty. As he stated in the Discourse on Method: “Thus my purpose here is not to teach the method that everyone ought to follow in order to conduct his reason, but merely to show how I have tried to conduct mine.”[16] This is the theory of the Methodic Doubt of Rene Descartes.

IV. Descartes’ notion of Certainty

a. The notion of Certainty

Now that we are done with the Method of Doubt whose purpose was to find truth or certainty, we will try to answer the question: What does Descartes mean by Certainty? There have been many different notions regarding certainty, but for Rene Descartes described it in terms of indubitability.[17]It means that knowledge became certain if the said knowledge or idea had already passed through the series of enquiry and could not be questioned anymore. As what Fr. Frederick Copleston, SJ said earlier regarding the method of doubt, Rene Descartes was building a system of true proposition in which nothing would be presupposed which was not self evident and indubitable.[18] Knowledge then is certain if it is self-evident and indubitable.

However, some people interpreted this kind of understanding of certainty of Descartes as a prejudice on his part, a gratuitous philosophical ambition, and condition perhaps impressed by mathematics.[19]Theyare wrong because Rene Descartes affirmed only that mathematics has a possibility of attaining certainty. He never supposed that mathematical reasoning possessed the form of indubitability.[20]The bottom line here is that Descartes’ idea of certainty is expressed in a form of indubitability or in a knowledge that is indubitable. However, this is not the whole notion of Descartes on certainty. The best way he described certainty was in his idea of his most famous maxim “I think, therefore I am” or the “Cogito ergo sum”

b. The “Cogito ergo sum”

To explain the idea of the “Cogito ergo sum”, the questions that need to be asked are: how was Rene Descartes able to arrive at the idea of this maxim? What is this idea all about?

In the Second Meditation, Rene Descartes extremely leveled up his state of doubt due to the uncertainties of knowledge that could not be erased in his mind and that he wanted to solve. Rene Descartes doubted everything even the existence of his body. This is called the Universal Doubt.[21]In this state of doubt, Rene Descartes emphasized again that sense perception is not a certain foundation of knowledge because of its deceiving quality. Since all possible things are perceived by the senses, then everything is doubtful and there can be no certainty or no fundamental truth in knowledge. However, Rene Descartes realized that there was something left in certainty of which cannot be doubted: that is, he himself who doubts or his mind. It means that even if you doubt everything it cannot be denied that you yourself ‘are doubting’ that you exist. Furthermore, he also realized that even though he was deceived by an evil genius who led him into error, it could not be denied that even in error, he still exists as a thinking being or a being that was in error. Thus whatever reason for your doubt, it will only lead you to the idea of the certainty of existence of the mind. Whoever begins in doubt will reasonably be able to arrive at certainty. This was the idea that “I doubt, I think, therefore I exist.”[22]

We discussed earlier that according to Descartes, there was one thing that could not be doubted, and this was he himself who doubts. This statement was quite confusing because in the stage of doubt Rene Descartes already doubted the existence of his body, yet at that instance he asserted that he was certain that he doubted. To clarify this subject matter, Rene Descartes doubted only his body because it could be doubted, but not his reality as a thinking being because thinking or doubting proved that he exists which for him was certain because it could not be doubted. Thus for René Descartes, mind and body are separated. Lastly, in order that he might be certain and liberated from doubt, Rene Descartes ought to inquire as to the nature of the Perfect Being who exists. This idea of Descartes’ Perfect Being refers to God. And because God is a Perfect Being with a perfect goodness and truth, Rene Descartes recognized that God cannot be a deceiver because it would contradict the nature of the goodness of God. He realized that he could now know and distinguish the true from the false by the help of the Perfect Being. Thus he has now a reason to remove his Universal Doubt.[23] Moreover, Rene Descartes explained that the existence of God is similar to the idea of St. Anselm. According to Descartes, God exists in reality because he could think of an idea of a God who is infinite and perfect. Since he was a finite being, he could not be the source of the idea of an infinite being, hence, the idea of an infinite being from itself who is God that really exists.[24]

V. Evaluation on Methodic Doubt

We have already discussed the notion of Rene Descartes’ Methodic Doubt and Certainty. Now, based on my readings, there were various criticisms regarding the idea of Rene Descartes. I will not discuss all of them, but I will try to explain some problems of the Methodic Doubt. The problem that I would like to explain in this paper is that “the method of doubt in its very formulation seeks a strict demonstration to remove the initial doubt. To satisfy that demand it would be necessary to find the proof outside the intellect itself, or else there would be a complete begging of the question. That would require some non-rational and non-intellectual instrument of proof. The only alternative is to speak of demonstrating the very grounds of demonstration.”[25] The criticism questioned the absence of empirical aspect in knowledge because Rene Descartes focused only on the certainty of the existence of his mind which he examined carefully and ignored the things outside the mind. Thus, this theory failed to exceed in the act of knowledge. This attempt is a reasonable attempt towards certainty in a way that Rene Descartes systematically presented his reasoning on how he tried to attain certainty. However, in the act of knowledge the reasons of Rene Descartes are invalid because there is an object of knowledge; for not all knowledge depends on the knowing subject. We cannot think of an idea if there is no idea we can think of. Hence, the bottom line here is that the methodic doubt is an exaggerated method towards certainty especially Descartes’ Universal Doubt.

V. Conclusion

Going back to the major question: Is it reasonable that the attempt of Rene Descartes’ Methodic doubt could arrive at certainty? Based on the discussions that was presented, the researcher concludes that the methodic Doubt is an unreasonable attempt towards certainty because even though his ideas were presented systematically, his state of Universal Doubt was still erroneous; erroneous in the sense that he exaggerated his methodic doubt and denied the aspect of objective knowledge then suddenly arrived the conclusion of the validity of the objective knowledge without any elaborated reason. Hence, his epistemological attempt failed to explain the act of knowledge.


[1]Bary Stroud, The Significance of Philosophical Scepticism, (USA: Oxford University Press, 1984), vii.

[2]Paul Strathern, Descartes in 90 minutes, (USA: Ivan R. Dee Inc., 1996), 7-9.

[3]Garrett Thompson, On Descartes, (USA: Wadsworth, Thomson Learning Inc., 2000), 11-18.

[4]Benedict Spinoza, The Principles of Descartes’ Philosophy,(USA: The Open Court Publishing Company), 11.

[5]Garrett Thomson, On Descartes,37.

[6]Ibid.

[7]Frederick Copleston, S.J., History of Philosophy, (USA: Image Book Inc., 1960), 77.

[8]Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method, trans. by: Donald A Cress, (USA: Hackett Publishing, Inc., 1979),4.

[9]Stephen Gaukroger, Descartes: An Intelligent Biography, (USA: Oxford University Press Inc., 1995), 105.

[10]Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans. by: Donald A Cress, (USA: Hackett Publishing, Inc., 1979), 13.

[11]Ibid.,

[12]Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method, 10.

[13]Benedict Spinoza, Principles of Descartes’ Philosophy, (USA: The Open Court Publishing Company, 1993), 12.

[14] Garrett Thomson, On Descartes, 31.

[15] Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method, 10.

[16]Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method, 2.

[17]Bernard Williams, Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry, (USA: Penguin Group, 1978), 36.

[18]Frederick Copleston, S.J., History of Philosophy, (USA: Image Book Inc., 1960), 77.

[19]Bernard Williams, Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry, 36.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Benedict Spinoza,The Principles of Descartes Philosophy, 12.

[22] Ibid., 14.

[23]Benedict Spinoza, The Principles of Descartes’ Philosophy, 16.

[24]Ranilo Hermida, Critics, (Quezon City: 2015), 12.

[25]Ibid., 13.

© 2019 Ian Lomboy

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