Methodic doubt

Methodic doubt

Methodic doubt ("Hyperbolic doubt") is a systematic process of being skeptical about (or doubting) the truth of one's beliefs, which has become a characteristic method in philosophy. This method of doubt was largely popularized in the field of philosophy by René Descartes (1596-1650), who sought to doubt the truth of all his beliefs in order to determine which beliefs he could be certain were true.

Cartesian origin

Descartes' method of doubt (broken into four "scientific" steps including a. accepting only information you know to be true b. breaking down these truths into smaller units c. solving the simple problems first d. making "complete" lists of further "problems") is also known as "hyperbolic doubt" or having the tendency to doubt, since it is an extreme or exaggerated form of doubt. [Burnham & Fieser (2006), §2c.] (Knowledge in the Cartesian sense means to know something beyond not merely all reasonable, but all possible, doubt.) In his "Meditations on First Philosophy" (1641), Descartes resolved to systematically doubt that any of his beliefs were true, in order to build, from the ground up, a belief system consisting of only certainly true beliefs. Consider Descartes' opening lines of the "Meditations":

In Meditation I, Descartes stated that if one were mad, even briefly, and the insanity might have driven man into believing that what we thought were true, could be merely our minds deceiving us. He also brought another reasoning in which there was no reliable way of distinguishing when one was awake or was dreaming. This raises the question, 'How can you tell what is real when you cannot even tell when you are awake or asleep?' His third reasoning stated that there could be 'some malicious, powerful, cunning demon' that had conceived us, preventing us from judging correctly.

However, while methodic doubt has a nature, one need not hold that knowledge is impossible in order to apply the method of doubt. Indeed, Descartes applied methodic doubt to everything from God, to the external world, and even to himself, but ultimately concluded that he could be certain of each. For example, Descartes' attempt to apply the method of doubt to the existence of himself spawned the proof of his famous saying, "Cogito ergo sum" (I think, therefore I am). That is, Descartes tried to doubt his own existence, but found that even his doubting showed that he existed, since he could not doubt if he did not exist.


References and further reading

* Burnham, D. & Fieser, J. (2006). "René Descartes". "The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy", J. Fieser & B. Dowden (eds.). < [] >.
* Cottingham, Stoothoff, and Murdoch (eds.). (1984). "The Philosophical Writings of Descartes". Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
* Descartes, René. (1641). "Meditations on First Philosophy". In Cottingham, et al. (eds.), 1984. Online at < [] >.
* Newman, Lex. (2005). "Descartes' Epistemology". "The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy", Edward N. Zalta (ed.). < [] >.

ee also

* Cartesian doubt
* Philosophical method
* Philosophical analysis
* René Descartes
* Analytic philosophy

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