Philosophy March 7, 1999 Descartes Extreme Philosophy The philosopher/scientist/mathematician Rene Descartes lived in a time of sweeping changes across all realms of knowledge. Descartes himself was responsible for many of these changes, one of which was a strong advancement in philosophy. Descartes Meditations on First Philosophy tackle, among many things, two difficult philosophical issues. The method in which these issues are dealt with, however, tends to be on the extreme side, since Descartes is determined to build upon ideas that are indubitable. Descartes meditations give a great deal to the field of philosophy, but they could have been composed in a more understandable way for people. Rene Descartes lived in an era of both extreme skepticism and scientific advancement.

This era, the Scientific Revolution, occurred between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. During this era, strong advancements were made in seemingly every area of scholarly knowledge. One important element that arose during these times was skepticism, the denial of anything that could reasonably be denied. Skeptics existed to exploit any mistake made by scientists and scholars, as every idea and piece of knowledge would be subject to attack unless it was indisputable. So, if someone wanted to make a contribution to a scholarly field, they needed to make sure it would survive under scrutiny of the skeptics.

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Descartes was himself a man full of contributions to the world of knowledge, and luckily enough a bit of a skeptic. Only by being able to think like a skeptic was Descartes able compose his meditations with so few weak points. Descartes Meditations were written in extreme defense against all types of skepticism. The only weak points Descartes left in his Meditations were those which he based upon religion. Religious skepticism was a particularly large obstacle to his philosophy, since the easiest way to support all of his knowledge was to affirm the existence of an all-loving God. Descartes had three separate proofs- causal, ontological, and design- for the existence of God that could be a foundation for the rest of his philosophy. However, he knew that some skeptics would deny the existence of God no matter what, so there needed to be some foundation that did not rely on faith. This foundation was the statement “I am, I exist”, which according to Descartes must necessarily be true every time he utters it. Descartes proves all this and leaves nothing vulnerable to the skeptics, but his methods are quite extreme.

Perhaps Descartes could have defeated his skeptics by proving his philosophical goal in a slightly different manner. Descartes main two philosophical goals in the Mediations were to prove the existence of God and to demonstrate the distinction of the soul from the body. To prove these two points, Descartes writes six separate meditations which delve deep into the philosophical recesses of his mind. The task of proving the existence of God seems easier for Descartes than proving that the body and soul exist separately. Once he proves that there is a God, however, he is able to prove the existence of the body and the soul.

Descartes begins his meditations by denying everything he knows unless it is absolutely certain. Once one certain idea is found, only then may he proceed to rebuild upon that everything he knows. Arriving at his two goals this way will leave absolutely no doubt in his mind or those of his skeptics. Although the Meditations are built to withstand criticism, the work as a whole is not as strong as it could be. Descartes goes to such great extremes to prove his points and develop his arguments that they seem at times silly. Some of his assumptions are made in confusing circumstantial situations and are therefore borderline on the absurd.

The idea of reality existing in various degrees is incomprehensible to most people, even the scholars of that era. At other times Descartes is talking about weird looking animals and the fact that he really is a gourd. Times like these make his philosophy very extreme and almost incredible to people who do not fully understand Descartes methods. Descartes philosophy would be much more credible if the goals were met without having to go to such extremes. The separate existence of the body and the soul could have been affirmed with much less thought if Descartes had used the existence of God as his archemedean point instead of “I am, I exist”.

Descartes would contest that the skeptics would refute this God-based argument without hesitation. Also, the meditations were written during the era of the Reformation, when religious support by the great minds of the day would have been greatly appreciated. Descartes did promote the existence of God, but his philosophy used God only as a second base. He could have showed more support for the church more by making God his primary base, or his archimedean point. After all, no matter how many people refuse to believe in God because of their own stubborn fears or radical ideas, Gods existence can be proved in many ways. Although Descartes is correct on Gods existence and nearly all the rest of his assertions, one particular profession stands in the gray Descartes insistence that people cannot be absolutely sure that they are dreaming is not completely correct.

When people are truly awake in reality, they are absolutely certain that they are awake. Only when they are sleeping are they able to be fooled that they are awake when they really are not. No matter how many times a person “wakes up” in a dream and is under the false impression that they are awake, when they finally wake up into reality, they will be certain that they are awake and alive. In this moment of awareness a person could affirm that his body does exist and is separate from his soul. This is assuming that God is not some “evil genius” who would deceive people, of course, but that is defeated when God is proved anyway.

Although Descartes would probably think of some way to defeat this statement or just reaffirm that people can never surely know if they are awake, this argument would stand much better with those people who are not as intellectual as Descartes. Just a few small refinements in Descartes arguments would really help him achieve his goal more quickly, easily, and directly. Most importantly, the existence of God should be the archimedean point in the Meditations. Anything that recognizes the existence of God should hold Him as the basis for all else that follows. No matter how complex his methods, Rene Descartes did in fact prove the existence of God and the distinction of the body from the soul.


When I was born, I did not know the difference between right and wrong. Now, I do. The word philosophy means
the love of knowledge. One type of knowledge is propter quid, which ask the question why or how. In this paper, I
will demonstrate how Socrates, Hume and Aristotle, three well known philosophers, would explain how I acquired
this knowledge in relation to the principles of right and wrong.
Socrates is the first philosopher, I will discuss. Since Socrates did not write anything down, Socrates thinking is told
through his student, Plato, who wrote his teachers thoughts. Socrates is an idealist who believes that things are in
born. Therefor he believed that before we are born our soul knows everything, but when we are born our mind is a
tabular rasa (blank slate). As we grow day by day, we recollect the knowledge from our soul.
the soul, that is, the human mind, before it is united with the body, is aquatinted with the intelligible world or the
world of Forms. In this prior existence, the true knowledge. After its union with a human body, a persons mind
contains its knowledge deep in its memory. True knowledge in this world consists of remembering, in reminiscence
or recollection. What the mind or soul once knew is raised to present awareness by a process of recollection aided by
the technique of dialect or the Socratic method. (Stumpf 260)
This is known as the theory of recollection. The theory of recollection is told through Plato in the Phaedo and the
In the theory of recollection “Socrates answer to the paradox is that knowledge is recollection. This thesis allows a
man to have ideas of which he later becomes conscious by recollection; thereby overcoming the sharp division
between not-knowing and knowing, and justifying inquiry.” (Sternfeld, 35) Socrates states in the Meno ” A man
cannot inquire about what he knows, because he knows it, and in that case he is in no need of inquiry, nor again can
he inquire about what he does not know, since he does not know what he is to inquire.” (Plato 80E) This theory of
recollection may explain why we often say that we had certain knowledge before we leaned it or heard it for the first
time. It is often said that we are born with concepts and it is these concepts that structure our minds, beliefs, and
“In his dialogue entitled the Meno, Plato illustrates how Socrates is able to show that even a young uneducated slave
boy knows some truths of geometry not because somebody taught him that subject but because be naturally knows
the relationship of various ideas to each other.” (Stumpf 260) This quote illustrates how Socrates thought that the
uneducated boy knew geometry. He recollected it from his soul. In the Meno, Socrates states that the boy is
“recovering by oneself knowledge within oneself.” (Plato 85D) Knowledge in the Meno is perceived as having an
acquaintance with the object, but not knowing how it functions. Socrates states here that true knowledge is that is
learned. Once learned, we remember that knowledge and apply it when needed. This can be done through
recollection or memory. As an occasion arises that requires the use of this knowledge, we can use the abilities of our
mind and recollect the knowledge for the circumstance.
I interpret Socrates to mean that I was born with a knowledge of right and wrong, but I needed to experience
situations where I needed to recall this knowledge. He makes reference to the initial knowledge being in the soul.
Hume is the second philosopher I will discuss. Humes beliefs are different from Socrates. Hume believes that we
were born knowing nothing, and everything is learned. He feels that as we grow, we learn the difference between
right and wrong from our experiences. The present comes from the senses and the past is in our memory. Hume
shows how knowledge begins form the experiences we encounter through our five senses.
It is said of Hume “it is the use he makes of the principle or the association of ideas, which enters into most of his
philosophy. The principle of association helped the empiricists to explain our powers of thinking consistently with
their view that our ideas are derived from experience, and that they are not innate.” (Sorabji 42) Unlike Socrates,
Hume does not believe certain knowledge is within our soul.
Hume uses the concepts of impressions and ideas. “Impressions and ideas make up the total content of the mind. The
original stuff of thought is an impression, and an idea is merely a copy of an impression.” (Stumpf 288) According
to Hume, when you initially make a decision, right or wrong, this would be your impression. It would be an idea
when you needed to recall this decision.
Hume also speaks of knowledge being divided in two ways. He identifies the Relations of Ideas and Matters of Fact.
Relations of ideas are empirical facts and cannot be disputed. These include mathematical equations and scientific
Matters of fact, which are the second objects of human reason, are not ascertained in the same manner; nor in the
evidence of their truth, however great, of a like nature with the foregoing. All reasoning concerning matter of fact
seem to be founded on the relation of Cause and Effect (Stumpf 294)
The principle of cause and effect would indicate that you would need to actually experience a situation before being
able to determine if it were right or wrong. This theory does not include reasoning as a basis for you decisions.
Therefore, Hume would feel we know right and wrong from our experiences. We would only know that the stove is
hot because we experienced it. This theory eliminates the possibility that some of our decisions in life are based on
knowledge that we obtain, but do not actually experience. I have learned that if run in front of a car, I will be
injured, even though, I have not experienced this event.
Aristotle is the third philosopher I will discuss. “Perhaps the most important Platonist was Aristotle, for practically
every significant Western Philosopher who did not find inspiration in Plato followed the guidance of Aristotle.”
(Cantor 12) Aristotle was one of Platos students for over twenty years until Platos death. He wrote about many
areas of philosophy, including ethics. “In later life Aristotles medical background proved significant, providing
early training in empirical investigation and biological science.” (Cantor 11) This type of background added a new
dimension to philosophers ideas during this era. “Aristotle wrote as a man who having studied and mastered the
knowledge of the world, was trying to provide the principle and organization necessary for studying it
systematically.” (Cantor 13)
“Metaphysics”, one of Aristotles works, is concerned with a type of knowledge, that he thought could be rightly
called wisdom. He begins this work with the statement, “all men by nature deserve to know. This innate desire, says
Aristotle is not only a desire to know in order to do or make something.” (Stumpf 405) He feels we need to
understand the why of our decisions. Many feel that metaphysics is the study of abstraction and is difficult to apply
to everyday principles.
“Wisdom is therefore more than the kind of knowledge obtained from sensing objects and their qualities.” (Stumpf
406) These first principles and causes are the true foundation of wisdom, for they give us knowledge not of any
particular object or activity, but rather knowledge of true reality. “Wisdom is similar to the knowledge possessed by
the scientist who begins by looking at something, then repeats these sense experiences, and finally goes beyond
sense experience by thinking about the causes of the objects of his experiences.” (Stumpf 407) In this way Aristotle
uses his training in biological sciences. Aristotle feels that once you have some knowledge, additional knowledge
will build upon the initial knowledge. Therefore, it would be Aristotles opinion that knowledge as in right and
wrong would be derived by experiencing situations and using the wisdom learned from these situations to make
future decisions.
Aristotle also uses memory as a philosophical principle. “Aristotles account of memory is fuller that that to be
found in best know British empirist” (Sorabji 1) He related to a wide variety of things that may be remembered, but
required memory. Examples of these are “facts, that one learnt, contemplated, heard, or saw something; that one did
something the day before yesterday; what one saw or experienced and the past.” (Sorabji 1)
He uses images to make his point. He felt that what is in our mind is mental images. “Aristotles theory of
remembering requires not any kind of image, but an image that is a likeliness or copy of the thing remembered.”
(Sorabji 3) His image is in the memory.
In summary, I feel Aristotles basis for knowing right from wrong would combine wisdom and memory. Once we
have obtained wisdom from an event, it would be our memory that would recall the event.
Aristotles theory would best support my understanding of right and wrong. In order to make good decisions in life
you have to understand the basis for your rationale. By having this understanding, you can accept your decision and
not second guess yourself. I feel you need both wisdom and memory to make sound decisions. Socrates theory of
knowledge coming from the soul is unrealistic for me. I believe you have to experience situations or have
knowledge of related situations before you can decide if they are right or wrong. Humes principles of cause and
effect substantiate immediate learning, but you have to actually experience the event and cannot use reasoning to
make your decisions.


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