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Annonymous
[All page references and quotations from the Meditations are taken from
the 1995 Everyman edition]

In the Meditations, Descartes embarks upon what Bernard Williams has
called the project of \'Pure

Enquiry\' to discover certain, indubitable foundations for knowledge. By
subjecting everything to
doubt Descartes hoped to discover whatever was immune to it. In order to
best understand how and
why Descartes builds his epistemological system up from his foundations
in the way that he does, it is
helpful to gain an understanding of the intellectual background of the

17th century that provided the
motivation for his work.

We can discern three distinct influences on Descartes, three conflicting
world-views that fought for
prominence in his day. The first was what remained of the mediaeval
scholastic philosophy, largely
based on Aristotelian science and Christian theology. Descartes had been
taught according to this
outlook during his time at the Jesuit college La Fleché and it had an
important influence on his work,
as we shall see later. The second was the scepticism that had made a
sudden impact on the intellectual
world, mainly as a reaction to the scholastic outlook. This scepticism
was strongly influenced by the
work of the Pyrrhonians as handed down from antiquity by Sextus

Empiricus, which claimed that, as
there is never a reason to believe p that is better than a reason not to
believe p, we should forget about
trying to discover the nature of reality and live by appearance alone.

This attitude was best
exemplified in the work of Michel de Montaigne, who mockingly dismissed
the attempts of
theologians and scientists to understand the nature of God and the
universe respectively. Descartes felt
the force of sceptical arguments and, while not being sceptically
disposed himself, came to believe
that scepticism towards knowledge was the best way to discover what is
certain: by applying sceptical
doubt to all our beliefs, we can discover which of them are indubitable,
and thus form an adequate
foundation for knowledge. The third world-view resulted largely from the
work of the new scientists;

Galileo, Copernicus, Bacon et al. Science had finally begun to assert
itself and shake off its dated

Aristotelian prejudices. Coherent theories about the world and its place
in the universe were being
constructed and many of those who were aware of this work became very
optimistic about the
influence it could have. Descartes was a child of the scientific
revolution, but felt that until sceptical
concerns were dealt with, science would always have to contend with

Montaigne and his cronies,
standing on the sidelines and laughing at science\'s pretenses to
knowledge. Descartes\' project, then,
was to use the tools of the sceptic to disprove the sceptical thesis by
discovering certain knowledge
that could subsequently be used as the foundation of a new science, in
which knowledge about the
external world was as certain as knowledge about mathematics. It was
also to hammer the last nail
into the coffin of scholasticism, but also, arguably, to show that God
still had a vital rôle to play in the
discovery of knowledge.

Meditation One describes Descartes\' method of doubt. By its conclusion,

Descartes has seemingly
subjected all of his beliefs to the strongest and most hyberbolic of
doubts. He invokes the nightmarish
notion of an all-powerful, malign demon who could be deceiving him in
the realm of sensory
experience, in his very understanding of matter and even in the simplest
cases of mathematical or
logical truths. The doubts may be obscure, but this is the strength of
the method - the weakness of
criteria for what makes a doubt reasonable means that almost anything
can count as a doubt, and
therefore whatever withstands doubt must be something epistemologically
formidable.

In Meditation Two, Descartes hits upon the indubitable principle he has
been seeking. He exists, at
least when he thinks he exists. The cogito (Descartes\' proof of his own
existence) has been the source
of a great deal of discussion ever since Descartes first formulated it
in the 1637 Discourse on Method,
and, I believe, a great deal of misinterpretation (quite possibly as a
result of Descartes\' repeated
contradictions of his own position in subsequent writings). Many
commentators have fallen prey to
the tempting interpretation of the cogito as either syllogism or
enthymeme. This view holds that

Descartes asserts that he is thinking, that he believes it axiomatic
that \'whatever thinks must exist\' and
therefore that he logically concludes that he exists. This view, it
seems to me, is wrong. It should be
stated on no occasion, in the Meditations, does Descartes write \'I am
thinking, therefore I am\', nor
anything directly equivalent. Rather, he says:
"Doubtless, then, that I exist…and, let him deceive me as he may, he can
never bring it about that I
am nothing, so long as I shall be conscious that