There are generally only two types of typical response to the problem of knowledge. This problem has two aspects. First, how have we got the knowledge about ourselves and the world around us and second, how confident are we that the knowledge accurately represents the world as we see it. Rationalists argue that the mind has the ability know ourselves and the external reality without having to use the data from our other unreliable senses. Knowing ourselves and the external world therefore guarantees that our knowledge is true accurate). On the other hand, empiricists deny that the mind has this ability and posit that the knowledge we have is based on the information from our senses. Yet another group, the skeptics, puts it that the unreliability of the data from our mind makes it impossible to know anything with certainty.
Descartes, a rationalist, claims that to prove that the mind is real and existing in a wider reality involves examining the things one thinks are true and setting aside those beliefs of which there is some doubt. The examination of all of one’s beliefs would however be a very long, impractical and chancy process. So, grouping of beliefs which will allow one to question a whole class on the commonality of their characters is necessary. One way of grouping beliefs is by focusing on the senses and reason from which beliefs are derived. This systematic process of doubting – or being skeptical about – the truth of one’s beliefs is what is referred to as methodic doubt or hyperbolic doubt (Descartes, 2006)
I think therefore I am.
In his essay Meditations on First Philosophy (1641) Descartes says that in matters of conduct it was necessary to follow some of the opinions which are known or suspected to be the truth and in thus reject everything that could be in doubt. This is because of our senses sometimes deceiving us (Descartes, 2006)
He continues by saying that he supposes that “nothing is such as they make us to imagine it” and because of the likelihood of erring in reason, he rejected all the former reasoning which he accepted as demonstrative and adds that taking into consideration that all the thoughts and ideas that come to us when awake also beset us in sleep he resolved to feign that everything that he has ever thought of are no less reality or truth than the illusions of dreams.
He observed also that he was unshaken in his belief and judged that there was no world; he could not feign that he does not exist. And therefore deduced that as a general principle, that all the things we conceive very clearly and very distinctly are true, but realized that the difficulty with this was the way of identifying the things that we cannot conceive distinctly. This he called the first principle of philosophy (Cottingham, S. and Murdoch P., 1984).
The first assertion to the fact that we are all thinking thing is true, this is even according to Hospers. In Hospers argument against “I think therefore I am” he agrees with the fact that we are all thinking beings. This is stems from the fact that we are either thinking or having phantasma when am awake or dreaming, it follows therefore that we are thinking. He however disregards the fact that “I am” includes ‘the mind, soul, understanding, reason’. He argues that it is not really valid to argue from ‘I am thinking’ to ‘I am thought’. This is because I, as a person who is thinking, am different from thinking, just as dancing is distinct from dancer ( Hospers, 1997)
If however we assume that nothing existed then we would be questioning the existence of everything, because if only one’s mind exists then one is inclined to wonder where does this mind exist if we are living in this false reality. ” (Hospers, 1997).
According to Hospers, there is a great difference between imagining. This is to mean that there is an array of difference between having an idea and conceiving the idea in the mind. In Descartes not showing the difference between the existence and non-existence of the ‘thinking’ and ‘I am’ he has used the old Aristotelian doctrine that stated that since substances could not be perceived well by the senses it was important to use reasoning to infer on some things.
Strength of the Objection
According to Hospers, there are three sequential conditions for a true propositional sense of knowledge. He argues that a preposition must first be true, because in claiming to know a preposition one is affirming that it is true, “knowing p is knowing that p is true” (Hospers). Then one must truly believe that the said preposition is indeed true, this arises from the fact that it is not possible to claim to know a preposition if you don’t believe in it. And thirdly, and most importantly, is that there must be evidence or a reason for believing a preposition is true. This reason should not be merely be an educated guess (Hospers, 1997).
Upon these premises therefore we can critique Mr. Descartes in that he assumes that an intelligent thing is the same as intellection. This is wrong since intellection is an action of the intelligent thing. It is a common knowledge that all philosophers distinguish an underlying subject from its actions, capabilities and capacities, in a nutshell, its properties and essences. A being itself therefore is completely different and can never be the same as its essence. Consequently, it is that a thinking thing is that thing that underlies the understanding, the mind or reason as its subject. It is therefore something factual. Mr. Descartes assumes that it is not corporeal. And this he does without proof. It is thus wrong to expect a correct conclusion from Descartes given that the premises he used were wrong and the inference, which depends on the premises, also wrong.
Knowledge depends on a person believing that a preposition he has is true, he believes it and has evidence to back it up with. If there is no adequate evidence to back up a belief, there is little gain in meaningless thinking and doubting. In such a condition one can no longer doubt because there is nothing left to be questioned. He says “you yourself can not specify any further test that, if performed, would resolve your doubt” (Hospers). He further illustrates this using the example that suppose a person says “I know that professor Brunning is present today” and cannot support this claim with, say, “I saw professor Brunning walk into her office” or “I talked with her two minutes ago.
Cottingham, S. and Murdoch P. (Eds.). (1984). The Philosophical Writings of Descartes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Descartes, R. (2006). Meditations of First Philosophy. Washington: ReadHowYouWant.com.
Descartes, R. and Lafleur, L. (1961). Rules for the Direction of the Mind. Paris: Liberal Arts Press.
Hospers, J. (1997). An Introduction to Philosophical Analysis. New York: Routledge.
Newman, L. (2005). Descartes’ Epistemology. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (Ed.).