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Descartes’ Method of Hyperbolic Doubt
This week, we will discuss and assess our excerpts from Descartes’s First Meditation.
Specifically, address in as much detail and clarity as possible the following questions:
Hyperbolic doubt: At the beginning of the First Meditation, Descartes announces that he seeks “to set aside all the opinions which I had previously accepted” (p. 177). Why does Descartes wish to do this? Do you consider his reasons for doing this reasonable? Why or why not? Do you consider his epistemological project important? Why or why not? The testimony of our senses: The first doubt that Descartes discusses focuses on the idea that our senses occasionally mislead us. What conclusions does Descartes draw from this? Do you agree with his line of thought? Why or why not? The dream argument: Descartes’ celebrated dream argument–located in the fourth paragraph of our excerpt–ends with the conclusion that there exists no test that one can use to determine whether or not he is dreaming. Why exactly does Descartes believe this? (HINT: For any possible test, could it be the case that we merely dream that we perform that test?) Do you think that Descartes’ reasoning about this is correct? If not, please identify exactly where his errors lie. HELPFUL NOTE: A “hyperbolē” (from which we get the adjective “hyperbolic”) is “an exaggerated statement or claim not meant to be taken literally.”
(Ex: “I read that definition over a million times before it made sense to me.”)
If you keep in mind that Descartes’ doubt is intended to be exaggerated in order to make a point, a lot of what he is saying might make more sense. He does not intend the complete doubt of sensory information to be taken literally, but by going “over the top” (another hyperbole), he calls attention to the fact that sensory information (which he doesn’t want to touch with a hyperbolic ten-foot pole) will never be as certain as pure knowledge.
When my head exploded, I saw the hand-writing on the wall, and a light came on; then, a little bird told me that some folks might not understand the meaning of “hyperbolic.” 🙂