A key introductory philosophy textbook, making use of an innovative, interactive technique for reading philosophical texts Reading Philosophy: Selected Texts with a Method for Beginners, Second Edition, provides a unique approach to Reading Philosophy, requiring students to engage with material as they read. It contains carefully selected texts, commentaries on those texts, and questions for the reader to think about as they read. It serves as starting points for both classroom discussion and independent study. The texts cover a wide range of topics drawn from diverse areas of philosophical investigation, ranging over ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of mind, aesthetics, and political philosophy. This edition has been updated and expanded. New chapters discuss the moral significance of friendship and love, the subjective nature of consciousness and the ways that science might explore conscious experience. And there are new texts and commentary in chapters on doubt, self and moral dilemmas. * Guides readers through the experience of active, engaged philosophical reading * Presents significant texts, contextualized for newcomers to philosophy * Includes writings by philosophers from antiquity to the late 20th-century * Contains commentary that provides the context and background necessary for discussion and argument * Prompts readers to think through specific questions and to reach their own conclusions This book is an ideal resource for beginning students in philosophy, as well as for anyone wishing to engage with the subject on their own.
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Preface to the First Edition
Preface to the Second Edition
Sources and Acknowledgements
Introduction to the Problem
Introduction to Descartes
Commentary on Descartes
Introduction to Moore
Commentary on Moore
Introduction to the Problem
Introduction to Descartes
Commentary on Descartes
Introduction to Ryle
Commentary on Ryle
Introduction to the Problem
Introduction to Hume
Commentary on Hume
Introduction to Feagin
Commentary on Feagin
Introduction to the Problem
Introduction to Lemmon
Commentary on Lemmon
Introduction to Foot
Commentary on Foot
Introduction to Nussbaum
Commentary on Nussbaum
Introduction to the Problem
Introduction to Aristotle
Commentary on Aristotle
Introduction to Stroud
Commentary on Stroud
Introduction to the Problem
Introduction to Williams
Commentary on Williams
Introduction to Nozick
Commentary on Nozick
Introduction to the Problem
Introduction to Locke
Commentary on Locke
Introduction to Williams
Commentary on Williams
Introduction to the Problem
Introduction to Schopenhauer
Commentary on Schopenhauer
Introduction to Wolf
Commentary on Wolf
Introduction to the Problem
Introduction to Nagel
Commentary on Nagel
Introduction to Churchland
Commentary on Churchland
Introduction to the Problem
Introduction to Hume
Commentary on Hume
Introduction to Anscombe
Commentary on Anscombe
Introduction to Some Problems
Introduction to Boyle and Locke
Commentary on Boyle
Commentary on Locke
Introduction to Berkeley
Commentary on Berkeley
Further Reading and Resources
End User License Agreement
Table of Contents
Reading Philosophy is a series of textbooks offering interactive commentaries on selected readings, and covering the major sub-disciplines of the field. Each volume contains a number of topical chapters each containing primary readings, accompanied by an introduction to the topic, introductions to the readings as well as the commentary. Edited by leading scholars, the aim of the books is to encourage the practice of philosophy in the process of engagement with philosophical texts.
Reading Philosophy, First EditionSamuel Guttenplan, Jennifer Hornsby and Christopher Janaway
Reading Philosophy of LanguageJennifer Hornsby and Guy Longworth
Reading Aesthetics and Philosophy of ArtChristopher Janaway
Reading EpistemologySven Bernecker
Reading MetaphysicsHelen Beebee and Julian Dodd
Reading EthicsMiranda Fricker and Samuel Guttenplan
Reading Philosophy of ReligionGraham Oppy and Michael Scott
Samuel GuttenplanJennifer HornsbyChristopher JanawayJohn Schwenkler
This edition first published in 2021© 2021 John Wiley & Sons Ltd
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The right of Samuel Guttenplan, Jennifer Hornsby, Christopher Janaway and John Schwenkler to be identified as the authors of the editorial material in this work has been asserted in accordance with law.
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Library of Congress Cataloging‐in‐Publication Data
Names: Guttenplan, Samuel D., author. | Hornsby, Jennifer, author. | Janaway, Christopher, author. | Schwenkler, John, author.Title: Reading philosophy : selected texts with a method for beginners / Samuel Guttenplan, Jennifer Hornsby, Christopher Janaway & John Schwenkler.Description: Hoboken, NJ, USA : Wiley-Blackwell, 2021. | Series: Reading philosophy | Includes index.Identifiers: LCCN 2020012773 (print) | LCCN 2020012774 (ebook) | ISBN 9781119094678 (paperback) | ISBN 9781119094685 (adobe pdf) | ISBN 9781119094692 (epub)Subjects: LCSH: Philosophy–Introductions.Classification: LCC BD21 .G88 2020 (print) | LCC BD21 (ebook) | DDC 100–dc23LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2020012773LC ebook record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2020012774
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Philosophy is intriguing even to those who know little of it. But the sort of philosophy studied at universities is difficult to enter into on one’s own. The reactions we had to a previous, shorter version of the present material convinced us that we had hit upon a particularly useful way of taking people into the subject – one that preserves what is most fascinating about it while facilitating serious study. We became convinced that there would be a wider audience for a book with these aims.
Reading Philosophy will have appeal both to those beginning their study of philosophy at a conventional university and to those who want to engage with the subject on their own. Unlike introductory books which confine themselves to telling you about the subject, this one requires you to do philosophy. We think that its direct approach makes the book valuable for both students and other readers. It can be used as the set reading in seminars in introductory courses: it is based on material that has served this purpose at our own Birkbeck College. But the book is also suitable for individuals working without a teacher. Whoever uses it will be well prepared for further study in philosophy, and, we hope, will be encouraged to pursue it.
Philosophy is intriguing even to those who know little of it. But the sort of philosophy studied at universities is difficult to enter into on one’s own. Reading Philosophy was designed to overcome this difficulty. It is a book for those who want genuinely to engage with the subject, either on their own or in the context of taught introductory courses.
Reading Philosophy has a history. In the 1990s, Guttenplan, Hornsby, and Janaway all taught at Birkbeck, University of London, and compiled an unpublished version of some of the present material. Students’ reactions convinced us that we had hit upon a particularly useful way of taking people into the subject – one that preserves what is most fascinating about it while facilitating serious study. Certain that there would be a wider audience for such a book, we added some material for the publication of the 2003 edition of Reading Philosophy. It has been well received by both students and teachers. After our experience at Birkbeck, this didn’t surprise us. Unlike introductory books which confine themselves to telling you about the subject, this one requires you to do philosophy. We think that its direct approach makes the book valuable for both students and other readers.
When Wiley‐Blackwell suggested a second edition, we decided to add chapters so as to expand the range of topics while retaining the book’s innovative character. It was at this point that John Schwenkler joined the project. John’s experience of using the book in a course he taught led him to make suggestions for an additional reading in Chapter 1, as well as suggestions for revising several other chapters. He also compiled two new chapters. This expanded second edition still serves our original aims: to introduce students to philosophy while preparing them for further study, and to make it possible for those studying on their own to appreciate the richness of our subject.
SG, JH, CJ, and JS
The publisher gratefully acknowledges the following for permission to reproduce copyright material.
Anscombe, G. E. M., ‘Causality and Determination’, from an inaugural lecture published by Cambridge University Press in 1971, reprinted by permission of the publishers and author.
Boyle, Robert, ‘The Origin of Forms and Qualities’ from
Selected Philosophical Papers of Robert Boyle
, ed. M. A. Stewart (Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1979).
Churchland, Patricia S., ‘The Hornswoggle Problem’, from
Journal of Consciousness Studies
, 3 (1996), pp. 402–8.
Descartes, René, ‘Meditations’ from
Descartes: Meditations on First Philosophy: with Selections from Objections and Replies
, trans. John Cottingham (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1987).
Feagin, Susan L., ‘The Pleasures of Tragedy’ from
American Philosophical Quarterly
, 20 (1983), pp. 95–104.
Foot, Philippa, ‘Moral Dilemmas Revisited’, from
Moral Dilemmas and Other Topics in Moral Philosophy
(Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2002), pp. 175–80.
Lemmon, E. J., ‘Moral Dilemmas’,
, 71 (1962), pp. 139–58, copyright 1962 Cornell University. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
Moore, G. E., ‘Proof of an External World’, from
Proceedings of the British Academy
, 25 (1939), pp. 273–300.
Nagel, Thomas, ‘What Is it Like to Be a Bat?’, from
The Philosophical Review
, 83 (1974), pp. 435–50.
Anarchy, State and Utopia
(Basic Books, New York, 1977).
Nussbaum, Martha C., ‘The Costs of Tragedy: Some Limits of the Cost–Benefit Analysis’, from
Journal of Legal Studies
, XXIX (2000), pp. 1005–19.
Ryle, Gilbert, ‘Descartes’ Myth’, from
The Concept of Mind
(Hutchinson, London, 1949), pp. 11–24.
Prize Essay on the Freedom of the Will
, ed. Günter Zöller, trans. F. J. Payne (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999).
Stroud, Sarah, ‘Epistemic Partiality in Friendship’, from
, 116 (2006), pp. 498–524.
Williams, Bernard, ‘The Idea of Equality’ from
Problems of the Self
(Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1973), copyright Bernard Williams .
Williams, Bernard, ‘The Self and Its Future’ from
Problems of the Self
(Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1973), copyright Bernard Williams.
Wolf, Susan, ‘Asymmetrical Freedom’, from
Journal of Philosophy
, vol. 77, no. 3 (1980), pp. 151–66.
Every effort has been made to trace all the copyright holders, but if any has been inadvertently overlooked, the publishers will be pleased to make the necessary arrangement at the first opportunity.
, trans. W. D. Ross.
Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous
A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge
A Treatise of Human Nature, Book I: Of the Understanding
Hume, David, ‘Of Tragedy’ (1757).
An Essay Concerning Human Understanding
Central to the study of philosophy are certain persistent, sometimes elusive, and always puzzling questions. Anyone who thinks at all is likely to have reflected on at least some of the following: the contingency of our birth and the inevitability of death; the nature of consciousness; our propensity to find moral value in various kinds of action and character; our tendency to create political and social institutions; our sense of choosing freely; our appreciation of those objects we classify as art; our capacity to construe sounds and marks as meaningful, communicatively useful elements in languages. Reflection on such aspects of human existence leads to many questions. How much can we really know? Does human life have a purpose? Is the world essentially material? What is value? Can we define art and beauty? Should some people be more important to us than others? Do we owe special kinds of obligation to societies or governments? What is human freedom? How can sounds possess meaning? These are a small sample of the sort of questions characteristic of philosophy.
It is one thing to be puzzled, another to formulate clear questions which both capture the puzzlement and are precise enough to offer hope of resolution. Throughout the recorded history of human reflection, enormous effort and intelligence have been devoted to sharpening and answering such questions – in the attempt, one might say, to reduce the giddying wonder of it all. Some of these efforts have produced large‐scale theories about human life and knowledge, some have been devoted only to quite specific issues. And attempts to answer questions have generated new questions.
The consideration of philosophical questions has produced a written record going back more than twenty‐five hundred years, which has contributors from every age and culture. With a little imagination, one can conceive these contributors as participants in an enormously complex polyglot conversation. Think of those now joining this discussion – a position that you might well be in. What is the likelihood of being able to pick up its thread without some kind of guidance? ‘Close to nil’ would seem to be the answer. It is difficult enough to pick up the thread even of ordinary conversations that have been going on for some time in your absence.
Of course, it is fanciful to think of the whole of philosophy as literally a conversation. Many of the supposed participants know nothing of one another, and do not even speak or read one another’s languages. And different participants have been occupied with different questions. It might be more realistic to think of philosophy as made up of a great number of more circumscribed conversations, in which the participants have actually communicated, directly or indirectly. There would then be a range of discussions to join. But the point would remain: newcomers to each discussion need some guidance.
Participants in philosophy’s conversations will constantly assess the answers others offer to questions, and refine the questions asked. Ideas proposed and conclusions reached are not the property of any one participant. The project is a shared one and has truth as the common goal. Moreover, in order to persuade one another that genuine questions receive true answers, participants will at least implicitly have to agree on what counts as a good argument. This means that the conversations of philosophy have the form of reasoned debates with a logical structure.
The image of philosophy as a conversation of this kind makes a further useful point. Joining in a reasoned debate requires more of you than simply knowing what others have said: you must be prepared to contribute something of your own. You count as having joined in this or that stretch of philosophical discussion only if you participate actively.
Reading Philosophy is designed not only to help you pick up some threads, but also to encourage you to find your own voice. It is a book for beginners – for those newly joining in philosophical conversations. There is nothing special that we expect readers to know before coming to the book: all we assume is some interest in the subject. The book is distinctive in that it teaches you a technique for reading and analysing philosophical texts, and gives you the opportunity to practise and refine the technique as you go. From the start you will be learning actively, and acquiring the skills which experienced philosophers use in reading and in generating thoughts in response to those texts.
You might wonder why there would be any question about how to read philosophy. Unless it contains technical jargon (which we have tried to keep to a minimum here), a page of philosophical writing usually looks like ordinary prose. If you can read a newspaper article or a short story, surely you can read philosophy too? The answer is that you can, but you will most likely need some practice before you can get the most out of it. One way to acquire such practice might be to read and keep reading and hope that you will gradually see how philosophers go about their work. Many introductions take that approach, and it can be effective. But our aim is to instruct you from the start on how to read philosophy well. This is why we have included interactive commentaries in this book.
By using our commentaries, you will be able to reflect on the process of your own reading and, we hope, acquire some of the basic skills of philosophy more quickly and in a more structured manner. Structure is everything in reading philosophy. A piece of philosophy is never a mere list of points. As you read and take notes, you should always be making connections between premises and conclusions. (An author’s premises are the assumptions on which his or her reasoning is based. The conclusion of a piece of reasoning is its endpoint or destination – a destination which the author intends you to reach from the premises.) We try to help you to make such connections. We involve you actively in reading, by making explicit what sort of questions you should be asking, and where to look in the texts for answers.
The texts in this book provide samples of high‐quality philosophical writing spread over eleven philosophical topics. Our selection has been made so that:
Each text presents a clear, well‐argued answer to a central philosophical question.
They are accessible to the beginner without being over‐simple. None of the pieces was originally written to be introductory – they all take you straight into serious philosophical work ‘at the deep end’ – but in most cases we have edited them with an eye to the needs of the newcomer to philosophy.
Each text gives the reader plenty of scope for discussion and argument.
Taken together, they cover a wide range of topics drawn from different areas of philosophical enquiry: ethics, philosophy of mind, aesthetics, political philosophy, metaphysics, and epistemology (or theory of knowledge).
They acquaint the reader with philosophical writings from different historical periods. Philosophy is a subject in which there is no prejudice concerning the age in which something was written. Many of the texts in this book are taken from twentieth‐century work; but also represented are ancient philosophy (Aristotle), the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Boyle, Locke, Berkeley, Hume), the nineteenth century (Schopenhauer), and the present century.
As currently practised, philosophy has much greater diversity than could be represented in a single book. We believe that the historical range of Reading Philosophy gives a rich sense of what philosophy is, and prepares the reader well for different approaches to the subject. Most of the writers we have selected might be described as belonging to a tradition of analytical philosophy. Analytical philosophy started as a movement concerned with specific issues in logic and the sciences, and it has probably been the dominant approach to the subject in the English‐speaking world since the early twentieth century. But the recent writers we have chosen are analytical philosophers only in a very broad sense: they attach especial importance to argument and clarity of expression and try to avoid dogmatic pronouncements. In this respect you should find the texts by analytical philosophers little different from those by earlier philosophers such as Descartes, Hume, or Schopenhauer. So while it is fair to say that we concentrate on a certain style of reading philosophy, the skill we want you to acquire should enable you to read any philosophical material with greater confidence and fulfilment.
A chapter in the book has the following pattern:
A general introduction to the problem.
The first text, with arrow markers, preceded by a brief introduction and followed by an interactive commentary using the text’s arrow markers.
A second and sometimes also a third text, presented in the same way.
Our system of arrow markers – , , and so on – will enable you to link our commentaries with detailed portions of the relevant text. The texts include the markers clearly in the margin, and commentaries invite you to study selected parts of a text rather than skimming through the whole.
We envisage the reader using a chapter in something like the following way. Start with the chapter’s introduction. Tackle one text at a time. First read it through to gain a general idea of the argument, then read it a second time more carefully, pausing and taking a few notes, if that is helpful. Then read the commentary on that text slowly, stopping at the boxed questions or tasks. ‘Zoom in’ on each question or task in its own right, and work on it before moving on. If you use the commentary in this way, you will find yourself continually going back to specific passages in the original text, taking your guidance from the arrow‐marker system.
The commentaries can be described as interactive because they do not simply explain and comment, but give the reader tasks to carry out. Here are some examples:
Do you agree with Wolf that the cases she’s described show that morally right actions cannot be psychologically undetermined? How might someone object to her position?
Re‐read the paragraph which starts at . Now see whether you can say what Ryle’s argument in this paragraph is using three or four sentences of your own.
Read from to in the text, and formulate your answer to these questions: (1) What is the definition of freedom Schopenhauer starts with? (2) What is the revised definition he reaches? (3) Why does he need the revised definition?
In all these cases the material in the shaded boxes prompts you to think through a specific question for yourself. In the last two examples the boxes guide you to parts of the text that are most important to re‐read; you will find these parts of the text easily using the marginal arrow markers. We believe that the method of boxed questions and tasks, combined with the system of arrow markers, is a novel and effective way of leading the reader through the experience of active, engaged philosophical reading.
It is not essential to read every chapter. We have arranged them in an order so that the material we think of as more demanding comes later on. You may be on a course which emphasizes metaphysics, in which case the most relevant chapters will be those on self, mind and body, personal identity, free will, consciousness, causality, and the qualities of material things. You may be mainly interested in thinking about topics in ethics, political philosophy, or aesthetics, in which case other chapters will be more obvious choices. But whatever else you read, it is advisable to start by working through Chapter 1, whose first text is a short extract from Descartes; the commentary on this is particularly detailed, and it gives general advice on how to read – advice that you can apply to the remaining texts. Chapter 2 follows on naturally from Chapter 1, but the reader (or course organizer) can use the remaining chapters selectively.
Philosophy is a challenging and exciting activity, but not all philosophical questions fascinate everyone equally. Sometimes a topic has to get under your skin and perplex you somewhat before you can work on it for any length of time. For any given reader this may happen with only a few of the topics in this book. For this reason, it is good advice to devote your time to those topics that most attract you. Doing so will improve your philosophical abilities more effectively than trying to spread your attention evenly over everything in the book. When you find some particular topic fascinating, you will want to explore further and read more about it. The online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (https://plato.stanford.edu) is a very useful source.
If you find yourself wanting to re‐read a particular piece several times, if you feel impelled to write a couple of pages giving reasons why one of our authors is wrong, if you become keen to discuss and discover more about one of the issues we present here – then you are really doing philosophy.
A question raised by many philosophers in recent centuries has been: ‘What can I know?’ Other versions of the same basic question might be: ‘What can I be certain of?’ or ‘What cannot be called into doubt?’ If a philosopher thinks we cannot know something – or that we cannot be certain of it, or that it must be called into doubt – then that philosopher is known as a sceptic about that thing. A sceptic is a doubter of something. Scepticism is a view that says that things are in doubt.
A traditional example would be scepticism about whether there is a world of ordinary objects ‘out there’. We usually think that we know there are such objects around us, and that we are not just experiencing the contents of our own minds. A sceptic about ordinary external objects would be someone who argued that we do not know this, that we cannot be certain of this, that this should be called into doubt. The kind of conversation which is the butt of jokes about philosophy, the ‘Can I know there is a glass of water here on the table?’ kind, is a conversation you might have with a sceptic about ordinary external objects.
Often a philosophical writer will use scepticism as a tool, in order to discover just what can be known, or what we can be certain about. Then the aim is to strengthen our confidence in knowledge by challenging it to beat the arguments of a sceptic. The sceptic need not be a real person. Rather, one may simply imagine debating with a person who is determined to show that little or no knowledge is possible.
Debating with an imaginary sceptical opponent is an instance of a common technique used in philosophical writing: the technique of conducting a dialogue. Some philosophers have actually written dialogue between two or more characters, Plato being the unparalleled master of this style. But there can be dialogue in more disguised forms in a piece of writing.
Very frequently a philosopher will make a point, then follow it with ‘But someone might object …’ or ‘Suppose someone were to say …’. An opponent pops up in the text in order that the author can ‘reply’, advancing his or her own case by answering an objection he or she has thought of. A still more disguised form is what we could call the ‘dialogue in a single voice’, an example of which we find in our first passage.
This short piece is one of the most famous pieces of philosophical writing. There can scarcely be a student of Western philosophy anywhere who has not read and puzzled over the First Meditation, written by the French philosopher René Descartes in 1641.
René Descartes (1596–1650) was one of the greatest thinkers of his day and is often called the father of modern philosophy. He did important work in physics and mathematics, and in philosophy was most influential for his views about the foundations of knowledge, and his distinction between mind (or soul) and body. He was in search of a complete system of knowledge, in which he would prove the existence of God, understand the nature of the human mind, and establish the principles on which the material universe can be studied. The Meditations on First Philosophy was published originally in Latin and in French. It is a masterpiece of compressed argument from the period of Descartes’s mature philosophy.
Descartes gives his First Meditation the title ‘What Can Be Called into Doubt’. He tries here to press doubt to its limit. The basic pattern is this: the author argues that something or other can be doubted, finds a reason for resisting that doubt, then invents a new reason for pushing the doubt further, then finds another reason for resisting, then invents a new reason for doubting. Hence the description ‘dialogue in a single voice’.
Descartes is not a sceptic: he is using a dialogue with scepticism in pursuit of knowledge. But he is trying in the First Meditation to give the sceptical line of thought the strongest argument he can find. The aim is to discover certainty, but to do so only after making doubt as thorough as possible.
There are six Meditations altogether and, although they form a relatively short work, Descartes announced large ambitions in its subtitle: he wanted to demonstrate the existence of God and the distinction between the body and the soul (the distinction known as dualism). But for now the reader should concentrate simply on the selected passage, which consists of the whole of the First Meditation in an English translation.
Some years ago I was struck by the large number of falsehoods that I had accepted as true in my childhood, and by the highly doubtful nature of the whole edifice that I had subsequently based on them. I realized that it was necessary, once in the course of my life, to demolish everything completely and start again right from the foundations if I wanted to establish anything at all in the sciences that was stable and likely to last. But the task looked an enormous one, and I began to wait until I should reach a mature enough age to ensure that no subsequent time of life would be more suitable for tackling such inquiries. This led me to put the project off for so long that I would now be to blame if by pondering over it any further I wasted the time still left for carrying it out. So today I have expressly rid my mind of all worries and arranged for myself a clear stretch of free time. I am here quite alone, and at last I will devote myself sincerely and without reservation, to the general demolition of my opinions.
But to accomplish this, it will not be necessary for me to show that all my opinions are false, which is something I could perhaps never manage. Reason now leads me to think that I should hold back my assent from opinions which are not completely certain and indubitable just as carefully as I do from those which are patently false. So, for the purpose of rejecting all my opinions, it will be enough if I find in each of them at least some reason for doubt. And to do this I will not need to run through them all individually, which would be an endless task. Once the foundations of a building are undermined, anything built on them collapses of its own accord; so I will go straight for the basic principles on which all my former beliefs rested.
Whatever I have up till now accepted as most true I have acquired either from the senses or through the senses. But from time to time I have found that the senses deceive, and it is prudent never to trust completely those who have deceived us even once.
Yet although the senses occasionally deceive us with respect to objects which are very small or in the distance, there are many other beliefs about which doubt is quite impossible, even though they are derived from the senses – for example, that I am here, sitting by the fire, wearing a winter dressing‐gown, holding this piece of paper in my hands, and so on. Again, how could it be denied that these hands or this whole body are mine? Unless perhaps I were to liken myself to madmen, whose brains are so damaged by the persistent vapours of melancholia that they firmly maintain they are kings when they are paupers, or say they are dressed in purple when they are naked, or that their heads are made of earthenware, or that they are pumpkins, or made of glass. But such people are insane, and I would be thought equally mad if I took anything from them as a model for myself.
A brilliant piece of reasoning! As if I were not a man who sleeps at night, and regularly has all the same experiences while asleep as madmen do when awake – indeed sometimes even more improbable ones. How often, asleep at night, am I convinced of just such familiar events – that I am here in my dressing‐gown, sitting by the fire – when, in fact I am lying undressed in bed! Yet at the moment my eyes are certainly wide awake when I look at this piece of paper: I shake my head and it is not asleep; as I stretch out and feel my hand I do so deliberately, and I know what I am doing. All this would not happen with such distinctness to someone asleep. Indeed! As if I did not remember other occasions when I have been tricked by exactly similar thoughts while asleep! As I think about this more carefully, I see plainly that there are never any sure signs by means of which being awake can be distinguished from being asleep. The result is that I begin to feel dazed, and this very feeling only reinforces the notion that I may be asleep.
Suppose then that I am dreaming, and that these particulars – that my eyes are open, that I am moving my head and stretching out my hands – are not true. Perhaps, indeed, I do not even have such hands or such a body at all. Nonetheless, it must surely be admitted that the visions which come in sleep are like paintings, which must have been fashioned in the likeness of things that are real, and hence that at least these general kinds of things – eyes, head, hands and the body as a whole – are things which are not imaginary but are real and exist. For even when painters try to create sirens and satyrs with the most extraordinary bodies, they cannot give them natures which are new in all respects; they simply jumble up the limbs of different animals. Or if perhaps they manage to think up something so new that nothing remotely similar has ever been seen before – something which is therefore completely fictitious and unreal – at least the colours used in the composition must be real. By similar reasoning, although these general kinds of things – eyes, head, hands and so on – could be imaginary, it must at least be admitted that certain other even simpler and more universal things are real. These are as it were the real colours from which we form all the images of things, whether true or false, that occur in our thought.
This class appears to include corporeal nature in general, and its extension; the shape of extended things; the quantity, or size and number of these things; the place in which they may exist, the time through which they may endure, and so on.
So a reasonable conclusion from this might be that physics, astronomy, medicine, and all other disciplines which depend on the study of composite things, are doubtful; while arithmetic, geometry and other subjects of this kind, which deal only with the simplest and most general things, regardless of whether they really exist in nature or not, contain something certain and indubitable. For whether I am awake or asleep, two and three added together are five, and a square has no more than four sides. It seems impossible that such transparent truths should incur any suspicion of being false.
And yet firmly rooted in my mind is the long‐standing opinion that there is an omnipotent God who made me the kind of creature that I am. How do I know that he has not brought it about that there is no earth, no sky, no extended thing, no shape, no size, no place, while at the same time ensuring that all these things appear to me to exist just as they do now? What is more, since I sometimes believe that others go astray in cases where they think they have the most perfect knowledge, may I not similarly go wrong every time I add two and three or count the sides of a square, or in some even simpler matter, if that is imaginable? But perhaps God would not have allowed me to be deceived in this way, since he is said to be supremely good. But if it were inconsistent with his goodness to have created me such that I am deceived all the time, it would seem equally foreign to his goodness to allow me to be deceived even occasionally; yet this last assertion cannot be made.
Perhaps there may be some who would prefer to deny the existence of so powerful a God rather than believe that everything else is uncertain. Let us not argue with them, but grant them that everything said about God is a fiction. According to their supposition, then, I have arrived at my present state by fate or chance or a continuous chain of events, or by some other means; yet since deception and error seem to be imperfections, the less powerful they make my original cause, the more likely it is that I am so imperfect as to be deceived all the time. I have no answer to these arguments, but am finally compelled to admit that there is not one of my former beliefs about which a doubt may not properly be raised; and this is not a flippant or ill‐considered conclusion, but is based on powerful and well thought‐out reasons. So in future I must withhold my assent from these former beliefs just as carefully as I would from obvious falsehoods, if I want to discover any certainty.
But it is not enough merely to have noticed this; I must make an effort to remember it. My habitual opinions keep coming back, and, despite my wishes, they capture my belief, which is as it were bound over to them as a result of long occupation and the law of custom. I shall never get out of the habit of confidently assenting to these opinions, so long as I suppose them to be what in fact they are, namely highly probable opinions – opinions which, despite the fact that they are in a sense doubtful, as has just been shown, it is still much more reasonable to believe than to deny. In view of this, I think it will be a good plan to turn my will in completely the opposite direction and deceive myself, by pretending for a time that these former opinions are utterly false and imaginary. I shall do this until the weight of preconceived opinion is counter‐balanced and the distorting influence of habit no longer prevents my judgement from perceiving things correctly. In the meantime, I know that no danger or error will result from my plan, and that I cannot possibly go too far in my distrustful attitude. This is because the task now in hand does not involve action but merely the acquisition of knowledge.
I will suppose therefore that not God, who is supremely good and the source of truth, but rather some malicious demon of the utmost power and cunning has employed all his energies in order to deceive me. I shall think that the sky, the air, the earth, colours, shapes, sounds and all external things are merely the delusions of dreams which he has devised to ensnare my judgement. I shall consider myself as not having hands or eyes, or flesh, or blood or senses, but as falsely believing that I have all these things. I shall stubbornly and firmly persist in this meditation; and, even if it is not in my power to know any truth, I shall at least do what is in my power, that is, resolutely guard against assenting to any falsehoods, so that the deceiver, however powerful and cunning he may be, will be unable to impose on me in the slightest degree. But this is an arduous undertaking, and a kind of laziness brings me back to normal life. I am like a prisoner who is enjoying an imaginary freedom while asleep; as he begins to suspect that he is asleep, he dreads being woken up, and goes along with the pleasant illusion as long as he can. In the same way, I happily slide back into my old opinions and dread being shaken out of them, for fear that my peaceful sleep may be followed by hard labour when I wake, and that I shall have to toil not in the light, but amid the inextricable darkness of the problems I have now raised.
When we read a piece of philosophical writing, we are in most cases looking for a conclusion, and an argument which carries us to that conclusion. The conclusion is what the author is trying to convince you of. So to locate the conclusion you should ask, as you read: What am I supposed to believe, according to the author?
Then you should ask: What does the author do to make me believe that? In other words, try to locate the argument the author uses to reach that conclusion. So let us apply this approach to the First Meditation.
Before continuing with the commentary, go back to the text of the First Meditation, and try to answer this question: What is the conclusion that Descartes is trying to persuade the reader of by the end of the Meditation?
Descartes’s first two paragraphs are introductory. He tells us what the argument is going to be about (doubting his former beliefs) and what motivates it (the need to find some certainty). In these first two paragraphs Descartes states his aims quite clearly. He speaks of ‘the general demolition of my opinions’ and says that ‘for the purpose of rejecting all my opinions, it will be enough if I find in each of them at least some reason for doubt’. If he carries out these aims, the conclusion of his argument will be:
There is reason to doubt everything I believe.
You will not find these exact words in the text – this is a formulation of what Descartes’s conclusion should seemingly be.
It is vital in reading philosophy that you take time to formulate in your own words the proposition that you think is at issue in a text. A good method is to write down your formulation and have it in front of you as you read. Sometimes a great part of your work will be directed towards finding the author’s precise conclusion, so you should be prepared to revise your formulation as you read. Attempting to state the conclusion in writing, if necessary deleting it and re‐stating it a few times, would be a good use of your time, and note paper, while reading. This kind of active reading is usually more fruitful than waiting passively for something in the text to strike you.
The above proposition, ‘There is reason to doubt everything I believe’, should be the overall or final conclusion of Descartes’s train of thought, if he carries out what he says he aims to do. The argument to show what can be called into doubt begins in earnest in the third paragraph. Reading on from here, we should next ask: Where in Descartes’s text is the overall conclusion actually reached?
It can be easy to locate an author’s conclusions if they are clearly signposted. An author may say: ‘So we can conclude …’ or ‘So a reasonable conclusion from this might be …’. But sometimes a conclusion might simply be signalled by ‘Therefore …’ or ‘So …’. Or it may be more hidden, or even merely implied.
Read from the third paragraph of the First Meditation, and answer this question: Where does Descartes state his overall conclusion that there is reason to doubt everything he believes?
There is an explicit conclusion at the place marked in the text: ‘So a reasonable conclusion from this might be …’ But is this the conclusion we are looking for?
No, because here Descartes is concluding that only some branches of knowledge are in doubt, while others are ‘certain and indubitable’ – there is no reason, so far, for him to doubt everything. It takes more argument before we arrive at the overall conclusion.
Make sure you understand the difference between the conclusion at and the stated overall conclusion. If you have not found the statement of the overall conclusion in the text, keep looking.
Look carefully at the passage starting at . It is in these two sentences, ‘I have no answer to these arguments …’ and ‘So in future I must withhold …’, that Descartes states his overall conclusion. ‘I … am finally compelled to admit that …’ means effectively ‘I conclude that …’; and what Descartes is compelled to admit is ‘that there is not one of my former beliefs about which a doubt may not properly be raised’. For our purposes this says the same as ‘There is reason to doubt everything I believe’.
Two long paragraphs follow this conclusion. In them Descartes comments on the difficulty of remembering that every belief is doubtful, and invents a scenario (that a malicious demon might be deceiving him) as a means of counteracting his habitual confidence in his beliefs. The very last sentences, from to the end, do not really seek to convince us of anything more than the overall conclusion already stated, but rather make clear in dramatic fashion just how difficult it is to remain convinced of that conclusion. ‘Normal life’, in which we happily believe many things without asking whether we should doubt them, exerts a strong pull on the thinker.
Now we are in a position to look at the arguments which Descartes hopes will carry us to the sceptical overall conclusion.
We remarked earlier that Descartes’s method here could be called a ‘dialogue in a single voice’. From the third paragraph the argument advances in a series of ebbs and flows: the author adopts the point of view of sceptical doubt, then resists it, then gives more reasons for doubt, and so on.
So once again, analysing the structure of the piece may help the reader to follow it. At the word ‘But’ introduces the first reason for doubt: the senses have been unreliable, so we should call into doubt beliefs we acquire from or through the senses. But the very next sentence (‘Yet …’) is from the point of view of someone resisting doubt; some things the senses tell us cannot be denied, or doubted. The voice of doubt replies straightaway (‘Unless perhaps I were to liken myself to madmen …’), only to receive the objection ‘But such people are insane …’. And so on.
Starting at , mark out for yourself those passages (one or more sentences) which you think are advancing reasons for doubt, and those which you think are objections to the doubt. Proceed to the overall conclusion at .
You will find it helps to pay attention to connecting words such as ‘But’, ‘Yet’, ‘And yet’, ‘Unless’, and ‘Nonetheless’. But in the paragraph marked , Descartes uses the ironic expressions ‘A brilliant piece of reasoning!’ and later ‘Indeed!’ for similar purposes.
If you can see clearly where doubt is being advanced and where it is being resisted, you can now follow the separate arguments for doubt in the First Meditation.
The first argument for doubt is based on the idea that the senses have deceived us in the past, and so should not be trusted.
About this first argument, (1) Ask yourself: What would be some examples of the senses deceiving us? (2) Evaluate the argument: Does the fact of the senses sometimes deceiving us really give us reason not to believe in anything they seem to be telling us?
The second argument centres on the thought that some people have mad beliefs: if Descartes were like these people, then beliefs of his which seem undeniable to him could be completely wrong. But Descartes’s line in response to this doubt is that he cannot proceed with his philosophical argument at all on the basis that he might be insane. He must take it for granted that he is sane.
The next argument, contained in the paragraph marked , is the argument about dreaming, which is generally rated as one of Descartes’s most powerful sceptical moves.
Read just the paragraph marked , preferably more than once. Ask yourself: (1) Is Descartes right in saying ‘there are never any sure signs by means of which being awake can be distinguished from being asleep’? (2) If he is right about that, why exactly does it call his beliefs into doubt?
In this argument Descartes first makes the point that for any ordinary belief he has – for example, ‘that I am here in my dressing‐gown, sitting by the fire’ – the very same could merely seem to be the case in a dream. However, that point itself is not sufficient to advance the doubt. The anti‐sceptical voice points out that ‘I know what I am doing’ right now when I am awake and looking at things, touching them, and so on. The sheer fact that I could have the same experiences when asleep does not remove certainty from my present beliefs.
But by the end of the paragraph Descartes realizes that unless he can know that he is not dreaming now, the possibility of there being a dream exactly like waking life is a threat to his knowledge. If he cannot know that he is not dreaming now, then for everything he now thinks he knows, it is possible that he is merely dreaming that he knows it. To dream that he knows something is not to know it. The result would be that he cannot know anything.
Before continuing, stop reading Descartes and think for yourself about these two questions: (1) Can you know that you are not dreaming now? (2) If you cannot know that you are not dreaming now, does it mean that you cannot know anything?
Both are rather hard questions. For now, note that if you answer No to question (1) and answer Yes to question (2), then you seem to have reached a sceptical predicament, where indeed you cannot really know anything.
However, Descartes does not see the Dreaming Argument as completely settling the issue of doubt. Total doubt is resisted in the passage that begins with the sentence ‘Nonetheless …’ ( ), leading on to the conclusion at that some things are certain. Notice that in this paragraph Descartes argues by analogy. The distinction between what can be doubted by the Dreaming Argument and what cannot is like a distinction familiar in paintings. The text makes the analogy crystal clear. The expression ‘like paintings’ at marks the entrance into the analogy; the phrase ‘By similar reasoning’ at the exit from it.
In other words, Descartes is not really talking about the distinction between real and imaginary things in paintings. He is interested in mathematical knowledge and knowledge of the basic nature of the material world: there are basic truths here that we can know with certainty, even if our beliefs about more specific kinds of things are doubtful. (It is worth wondering if Descartes is right here: might not the Dreaming Argument be more powerful than he realizes? For instance, why couldn’t he just be dreaming that it is certain that two and three added together are five?)
This position of relative certainty does not last long, however. The voice of doubt returns, to argue that an all‐powerful God could bring it about that everything I believe is false. This would be inconsistent with God’s being supremely good (says the voice of the objector) – but (replies the voice of doubt) you might as well say it would be inconsistent with God’s goodness if he let me be deceived ‘even occasionally’. But he does let me be deceived occasionally, so it cannot be inconsistent with his nature. Therefore, total deception cannot be inconsistent with his nature.
The argument has been re‐arranged here, in an effort to make it a little clearer. That is often a useful device as you read. Step back from the text, re‐order the steps of the argument, and add steps (premises or conclusions) that seem to be missing.
Finally, Descartes poses a dilemma: if there is an all‐powerful God, he could have deceived me about everything; if there is no God, there is nothing to guarantee that I am, as it were, well enough made to be safe from constant error. Either way, I could be going wrong in all my beliefs.
Ask yourself: How persuasive is this argument? In particular: (1) Is it not easier to think that a perfect God would allow me to go wrong sometimes than that he would allow me to be totally in error? (2) Is it clear why my beliefs are all in doubt if there is no God?
If his overall conclusion is right, then Descartes ought to stop trusting any of his existing beliefs, if he is serious about avoiding error. In order to suspend his trust in his beliefs, he invents an extreme and fantastical picture (at ): ‘some malicious demon of the utmost power and cunning has employed all his energies in order to deceive me’.
To spell things out a bit more, we might construct a sceptical Malicious Demon Argument which runs:
For all I know, a malicious demon could be systematically making me believe only things that are false.
So, for all I know, all my beliefs could be false.
So I have reason to doubt all my beliefs.
It is quite legitimate, as part of your reading of Descartes’s text, to set out an argument in this way and begin to explore whether it is convincing.
When you have looked at the different parts of Descartes’s argument in something like the above manner, you have asked: What is the author trying to convince me of? (What is the conclusion?) and How does the author try to convince me? (What are the arguments?) Now you are in a good position to ask yourself: Am I convinced? Do I think the conclusion is true? Do I think the arguments are good ones?
Considering the whole of the First Meditation, write down in your own words the argument for Descartes’s overall conclusion which you think is the most persuasive.
It must be said that among philosophers reflecting on the First Meditation recently, the Dreaming Argument and the Malicious Demon Argument are the two often thought to be most persuasive. But that is by no means the end of the story.
We can criticize even apparently strong arguments: they may contain false steps, or the steps may not hold together properly, or they may remain stubbornly puzzling. To show that an argument has any of these features is to begin to do philosophy oneself. Good philosophical reading generates philosophical writing.
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