Skepticism at the Service of Dogma: Descartes and the Problem of the Criterion*

Scepticism begins by identifying some set of beliefs which are basic to our view of the world, and whose truth we do not question. It then identifies all the grounds for those beliefs: not the actual grounds that this or that person may have, but all the possible ground [e.g., potential falsifiers]. It proceeds to show that those grounds do not justify the beliefs. Mild skepticism argues that they do not prove the beliefs conclusively; radical skepticism argues that they offer no reason for believing at all.(8)

With the rediscovery in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries of writings of the Greek Pyrrhonist Sextus Empiricus, the arguments and views of the Greek skeptics became part of the philosophical core of the religious struggles then taking place [i.e., the Protestant Reformation]. The problem of finding a criterion of truth, first raised in theological disputes, was then later raised with regard to natural knowledge, leading to la crise pyrrhonienne of the early sixteenth century.(13)

I am certain that I am a thing which thinks; but do I not then likewise know what is requisite to render me certain of a truth? Certainly in this first knowledge there is nothing that assures me of its truth, excepting the clear and distinct perception of that which I state, which would not indeed suffice to assure me that what I say is true, if it could ever happen that a thing which I conceived so clearly and distinctly could be false; and accordingly it seems to me that already I can establish as a general rule that all things which I perceive very clearly and very distinctly are true.(16)

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