It is likely the case that no other work of philosophy has had an influence which is at the same time so massive and so different from the intended effect of its writer as Meditations on First Philosophy by René Descartes. In setting out to provide the thinking world with certainty about the accuracy of their perceptions, the reliability of their intuitions about the soul, and the existence of God—Descartes instead accidentally cast a spell of doubt over the ensuing centuries of epistemology and metaphysics.
This occurred because, perhaps regrettably, Descartes did a far better job of demonstrating the all-consuming challenge posed by following skepticism to its logical conclusions, than he ever did of overcoming that challenge. As it happens, I agree with the assessment of most philosophers that Descartes succeeds brilliantly in tearing the world down, then fails miserably in building the world back up. But I have found that my reasons for believing that usually differ from theirs . . . and I have also found that this difference sometimes stems from them not having a solid grasp on the logical structure of Descartes’ Meditations. For instance, the most popular objection to his argument is that it is an example of circular reasoning, and hence blatantly fallacious; that objection is a great example of a misguided response that misunderstands the case being made.
So, I decided to write this article, in order to both provide a clear presentation of Descartes’ argument against skepticism, and to also survey and evaluate an array of objections one might make against it. Now, let us explore together how René Descartes unintentionally left us all so mired in doubt:
Meditations on Descartes: