I’m reading Janet Broughton’s Descartes’ Method of Doubt, and I was struck by how different Descartes seemed to me than he seems to mainstream Descartes interpreters. I’m assuming here that what Broughton takes for granted is generally accepted throughout contemporary Descartes scholarship, which seems like a decent principle.
The big difference is how much weight to give to the discussion of past failures at the start of Meditation One. Here is the Cottingham translation of the relevant passage.
Whatever I have up till now accepted as most true I have accepted 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.
I think Descartes is making, or at least proposing, the following argument.
- We cannot gain knowledge from any method that has deceived us once in the past.
- All our methods for forming beliefs have deceived us (at least) once in the past.
- So we have no knowledge.
I don’t think this argument is entirely contained in that paragraph. Perhaps some of the discussion of dreams is supposed to back up premise 1. But I do think the argument is entirely finished by the time the evil demon comes into the picture. As of course it must be, since we haven’t (as far as we know) been deceived by evil demons in the past, and this argument turns on errors we know we’ve made.
I have three opinions about the role of this argument in the Meditations, which I’ll state in increasing order of absurdity (or at least heterodoxy).
- The argument here is independent of the evil demon argument, so the evil demon argument is not the only sceptical argument Descartes makes.
- This argument, the argument from past failure, is the sceptical argument with which Descartes is primarily concerned.
- Descartes does not make what is commonly construed as The Evil Demon Argument. The evil demon enters the story not so Descartes can state a sceptical argument, but so we (and he) can appreciate the consequences of the sceptical argument that he has already made, namely the argument from prior error.
Perhaps the first of these points is widely held; I should finish the Broughton (and perhaps read other things) before commenting more. But I’m pretty sure 2 and 3 are not commonplace views. Still, I think they can make sense of several puzzling features of the text.
One of these puzzles, which Broughton mentions, is that Descartes never clearly expresses what is wrong with the Evil Demon argument. This would be odd if it was his key argument. But note that he does say what is wrong with the argument from past failure. Indeed, a centrepiece of the book is the argument that premise 2 of that argument fails, because the method Believe what you clearly and distinctly perceive has never led to failure.
I’ll say more about this when I finish Broughton’s book, but I thought I’d start by posting my quirky views, leaving the real arguments for them for later.