Saturday, February 6, 2010

Harry Frankfurt - Demons, Dreamers and Madmen

(Note: this post only covers Chapters 1-12)


1. Frankfurt begins his explication of the First Meditation with some general thoughts: Descartes' task is to find his generic identity as a rational creature (4). It is a characteristically religious endeavor that begins with the naivete of the reader and progresses toward illumination. He writes in the first person to entice the reader into his own perspective.

2. Descartes rehashes the arguments of skepticism to three ends: 1) to prepare the reader for the intellectual matters that lie ahead, 2) to respond to and deal with each of them, 3) to make the truths he eventually arrives at seem firm. He admits the difficulty of doubting our senses, as habit forces us into belief. But given that his purpose seems to be less substantive and more mood-setting, isn't Gassendi's criticism that the first meditation could simply be rewritten "Universal doubt!" justified? Frankfurt wants to distinguish two phases of the 1st Meditation: throwing out the beliefs and then re-examining each one. The first is easy, the second a bit more time consuming.

3. Descartes throws out his beliefs less because of their falsity and more because of their doubtability. Indeed, the pair truth/falsity is less important for D than certain/doubtful. But shouldn't the concept of reason he employs to distinguish certain/doubtful have been thrown out with his other beliefs? No, because D's task is precisely to make a provisional commitment to reason and see if it fails.

4. Frankfurt wants to analyze D's argument as a dialectic: first, there is the validity of the senses. Then, first antithesis: our senses are sometimes deceptive. Second thesis: the senses are sometimes deceptive. Second antithesis: is it possible that I'm mad? No. But let's revise the thesis just in case. Third thesis: whatever is perceived under ideal external conditions by an ideally qualified perceiver certainty exists (55). Third antithesis: what if I'm dreaming? The dream argument unsettles even this third thesis. Even on their best terms, the senses are incapable of providing certainty.

5. The problem D is confronting is how to formulate an alternative policy in terms of which no judgment will be certified except those that cannot be shaken by conflicting testimony (62). Frankfurt emphasizes that at this point in the Meditations, D is arguing from the perspective of common sense and not from a fully mature perspective. It is important to keep this in mind so as not to hang D for simply representing and not necessarily arguing for a common sense viewpoint.

6. So again, the dream argument means someone committed to their senses alone cannot distinguish physical objects and dream images (75). But dreams are like paintings, they might not themselves be real but surely represent something real. D argues that those things are the simple and universal elements of sensory objects (colors, shapes, etc.), which the imagination merely rearranges in dreams. Of course, one has to wonder what right D has to present a theory of the imagination at this point. But let's move on.

7. Frankfurt claims that the 1st Meditation only deals with sense material. So what about the mathematics discussion. His claim again is that math, for this naive subject of the 1st Meditation, is indeed extracted from sense data.

8. The existence of an omnipotent deity raises the possibility that there are no material objects at all, that even the most simple and universal things are not real (95) (because the non-existence of the material world means the non-existence of simples) (98). The hypothesis of an omnipotent deity leads to a slightly different way of doubting the truths of mathematics: while math doesn't need particular things for its truths to be valid (as physics needs objects, astronomy needs stars, etc.), but it does need something, anything to exist. If we can't be sure of the existence of anything, we can't be sure of the truths of mathematics.

9. The hypothesis that God somehow made me defective is the first thesis, which is then negated by the antithesis, God is good. But then we're at a dead end, universal doubt: we can neither decide on the existence of God, nor on whether his existence would allow our deception. It is possible that God allows us to always be deceived. But then, it seems even more likely that we are always deceived if we come from an even less perfect source. Frankfurt is showing here that we arrive at universal doubt without the introduction of God or the malin genie. God is brought in as an attempt to eliminate doubt. The malin genie is brought in not to prove universal doubt, but to entertain the possibility that our ideas are actually false, and not just doubtful.


10. At the beginning of the 2nd Meditation, Descartes turns to himself and finds a belief particularly immune to skepticism: SUM. This does not mean that I exist but rather that the statement sum is in a certain sense indubitable. There are a few ways in which he proves the certainty of this statement, though the most well-known runs as follows:

1. I am deceived in thinking that I exist.
2. If I am deceived about anything, then I exist.
3. Hence, if I am deceived in thinking that I exist, then I do exist.
4. Therefore I do exist.
5. If I do exist, then I am not deceived in thinking that I exist.
6. Therefore, I am not deceived in thinking that I exist.

It is therefore logically impossible to utter sum without it being true (137). The conclusion is not necessarily cogito ergo sum. The assertion is that whenever sum is considered, not necessarily believed, it is true. An interesting sidestepping of the question of belief. To repeat again, Frankfurt believes that D is not so much concerned with truth and falsity as he is with certainty and doubt. His aim here is to show that the certainty of sum is ubiquitous. Sum is permanently available as a solid foundation of knowledge because it is derivable from a premiss that is necessarily available whenever needed (152).

11. Res cogitans is introduced as a more explicit rendering of sum (156). Res cogitans is not my essence. As he says later in the 6th Meditation, my essence is to be a union of body and soul. Thinking thing is simply the only thing I can ascribe to myself indubitably at this juncture in the Meditations. It is indispensable to my existence but not, in itself, my essence.

12. What is clear and distinct perception (cdp)? To recognize something as necessarily true is to cdp it. Cdp does not in and of itself guarantee existence but only that we know what is necessarily involved in a concept. To cdp a triangle is to know that it has three sides. To cdp myself is to know that I exist. Existence is thus necessary attribute of myself in a way that it is not of the triangle.

Cdp is not, as is often thought, a kind of immediate, visual encounter with an object. It is, rather, an affair of reason (187). To perceive something clearly is to understands that there are no reasonable grounds upon which a thing can be doubted. To perceive something distinctly is to understand its implications and attributes. It is possible to perceive something clearly without perceiving it distinctly (he gives the example of pain), but not the other way around. In the end, Frankfurt argues that cdp is more a matter of prudence than it is absoluteness in method.

1 comment:

  1. Another central idea in the later chapter is that Descartes is not concerned with Truth, per se, rather he is concerned with certainty. This explains many features of his argument. Moreover, on the human level, it indicates that Descartes is only interested in some sort of coherence. What he is interested in getting beliefs that he can be certain of, certain that they will not be contradicted by other beliefs. He allows that there might be a Truth known to God that his certain, coherent beliefs do not correspond to. This is some kind of Descartes-as forerunner to Kant reading.