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Descartes and the Autonomy of Reason PETER A. SCHOULS MANY CAPABLE CRITICS HAVE ARGUED that, for Descartes, all our knowledge is thoroughly dependent on our knowledge of the existence of a veracious God. In other words, they have come to the conclusion that Descartes holds reason to be non-autonomous, and that he is genuinely concerned to give a validation of reason in terms which introduce arguments for the existence of God. They have been led to this conclusion by statements like the following. In the Discourse on the Method we read "that which I have just taken as a rule . . . that all the things which we very clearly and very distinctly conceive of are true, is certain only because God is or exists..." (HR 1, 105; AT 6, 38). 1 In the penultimate sentence of Meditation V we read that "the certainty and truth of all knowledge depends alone on the knowledge of the true God, in so much that, before I knew Him, I could not have a perfect knowledge of any other thing." And in the Reply to Ob]ections VI Descartes argues that since the atheist has "reason for doubting whether he may not be of such an imperfect nature as to be deceived in matters which appear most evident to him" the atheist's knowledge "is not immutable and certain"; it cannot become certain "unless he first acknowledges that he has been created by the true God, a God who has no intention to deceive" (HR 2, 245; AT 7, 428). Other commentators have argued that in spite of the prominence of talk about God in Descartes' writings, certainty, knowledge, truth, 2 is not, at least not entirely, dependent on knowledge of the existence of God. On their argument reason, for x All quotations from Descartes' writings are from the translation of Haldane and Ross, The Philosophical Works of Descartes (New York, 1955), vol. 1 and 2. The second reference, in each case, is to the Adam and Tannery (Euvres de Descartes. To attain certainty is not necessarily the same as to attain truth. An item may be indubitable, i.e., certain, says Descartes, but it may still be the case that what we can only take as certain is, nevertheless, not true. The argument for the validation of reason in Descartes has, in fact, been put in these terms: Descartes needs to prove that a veracious God exists in order to be able to show that what is indubitable is in fact true. See, e.g., Alan Gewirth, "The Cartesian Circle Reconsidered," The Journal of Philosophy, LXVII, 19 (1970), 668-685. This way of putting the problem is not, of course, limited to Gewirth, or to commentators writing in English. Henri Gouhier, for example, makes the same distinction in his Essais sur Descartes (Paris, 1949), pp. 143-154. [307] 308 HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY Descartes, is autonomous. The following are some of the passages on which this argument is based. In a passage from the Discourse preceding that from which I just quoted Descartes writes that since "this truth 'I think, therefore I am' was so certain and so assured that all the most extravagant suppositions brought forward by the sceptics were incapable of shaking it," he concluded that he "could receive it without scruple as the first principle" of his system. He then immediately proceeds to say that from this principle, which he knows to be "true and certain" he can establish "as a general rule, that the things which we conceive very clearly and distinctly are all true" (HR 1, 101-102; AT 6, 33). In Meditation H he searches for what he calls an Archimedean point, a point which he finds when he realizes that "I am, I exist, is necessarily true each time that I pronounce it, or that I mentally conceive it" (HR 1, 150; AT 7, 25). It is, apparently, possible to reach his Archimedean point before he comes to the existence of God; in fact, the point seems to be attained in spite of the supposition of the non-existence of God and the presence of "some evil genius not less powerful than deceitful" who employs "his whole...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-4586
Print ISSN
0022-5053
Pages
pp. 307-322
Launched on MUSE
2008-01-01
Open Access
No
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