Descartes Foundationalism And Modern Philosophy

The centrality of epistemology in modern philosophy is clearly due to Descartes. He himself tells us he is seeking to start from the foundations in order to build a firm and lasting structure in the sciences. Whatever the precise order of priorities in his mind, he certainly had two key objectives. One was to free scientific enquiry, once and for all, from the criticisms of Pyrrhonian scepticism, recently fashionable through the rediscovery of the writings of Sextus Empiricus (Descartes 1966; Curley 1978; Popkin 1979; Burnyeat 1982). Another was to free scientific enquiry, once and for all, from the theological suspicion and interference typified by the condemnation of Galileo.

To refute Pyrrhonian scepticism, Descartes carries some of its arguments further than they had been carried by its classical proponents, to whom Pyrrhonism was a practical stance that yielded peace of mind by generating suspense of judgement and the avoidance of dogma. Descartes raises sceptical doubts about the senses, and then about reason, as purely theoretical exercises that it would be absurd to take seriously in practice, but which he insists must be refuted if true certainty and assurance are to be found. Assuming, as an argumentative procedure, that any proposition that can be questioned is false, he finds there are two truths that he cannot question however resolutely he doubts: the fact of his own existence as a thinking being, and the fact that even if his thoughts and perceptions do not correspond to any outer reality, he cannot be in error about what his mental contents themselves are: the fact, as he expresses it, that mind is more certainly known than body. The Pyrrhonian sceptic had rested with appearances and suspended judgement about whether a non-evident reality lay behind them. This sceptic is replaced in Cartesian thought by a doubter who must accept he has knowledge of his own conscious states but needs reassurance about the very existence of a physical world beyond them, and even about the existence of other conscious subjects like himself. He confronts what has been called the Egocentric Predicament—the supposed challenge of solipsism. He wrestles with a radical form of doubt that no-one feels in practice, where the classical sceptic had embraced conventional opinion in the absence of anything demonstrably better. The Pyrrhonian did not query the existence of an outer reality, or that of a community of perceivers; he suspended judgement on whether he and other members of that community perceived it as it is. The truth he doubted his ability to attain was truth about a reality he assumed to be there. The Cartesian sceptic sees a way towards certainty by holding that his very doubts entail real knowledge of himself and his mental states, and seeking to use them to move outward.

It is well known that Descartes' attempt to move outward depends on the doctrine of clear and distinct ideas, whose veracity is guaranteed by proof of God's existence. This proof notoriously depends on the claim that the idea of God is one that, uniquely, could not be present in the mind if there were no being without to correspond to it. The so-called Cartesian circle is commonly thought to result from the fact that the demonstration of God's reality relies on the very rational processes God's perfection guarantees. Whether or not Descartes is guilty of this circularity is not our present concern (for discussion, see Hookway 1990: chs 3 and 4). What is of concern is that the 'foundationalism' of modern epistemology derives from the manner in which Descartes seeks to refute scepticism, and has two key components: first, the belief that the certainty of all real knowledge depends on the derivation of the propositions we claim to know from propositions of a privileged class that are beyond doubt; second, the belief that the propositions in this class are propositions that are uniquely accessible to, because they are in some sense within, the subject's consciousness—such as self-evident truths (for Descartes himself and his rationalist successors) or sensory experiences (for Locke and his empiricist followers).

But in seeking to establish the foundations of the sciences, Descartes was not only attempting to meet the challenge of scepticism. He was also seeking to create an accommodation between the scientist and Church authorities that would fend off the sort of interference that had humiliated Galileo. This required a sound base in theory for non-interference. Galileo's condemnation had arisen because he was unwilling to accept the supposedly conciliatory suggestion that his astronomical claims were mere convenient devices for predicting celestial phenomena (de Santillana 1955). Descartes wanted science to have the unquestionable underpinning that shows it tells us how the material reality of the outer world is. The foundations on which science is based show it to be the source of truth. But the truth science yields is truth about the material world: the Cartesian separation of the mental and the physical provides for the separation of the spheres of science and theology. In spite of the intractable difficulties of Cartesian dualism, which became obvious at once, it was a major cause of the nearly universal cultural assumption of our age that science and theology can have nothing to say to one another. Instead of Aquinas' view of human knowledge, in which secular learning and theological truth are continuous, we have a metaphysic designed to ensure their separation. The provision of a metaphysical and epistemological guarantee of the autonomy of science was an assumed objective of all the major systems of thought that succeeded that of Descartes, with the possible exception of Berkeley's (Warnock 1953; Bracken 1974).

It is widely agreed that the assumption of the autonomy of science has been the most important cultural factor in the secularization of modern Western society. As this secularization has deepened, the orientation of philosophical discussions of faith and reason has shifted. In Aquinas, their relationship was articulated in order to resolve debates about the proper place of secular science in a culture assumed to be Christian. While this is still nominally the assumption of Descartes and his successors, it is increasingly obvious that their relationship is now examined in order to determine whether a culture dominated by natural science can remain Christian.

Cartesianism, therefore, defined the role of the philosopher as the entrenchment of science in the face of an imaginary challenge from scepticism. Yet this challenge was not one that prevented scientific advance. When Kant came to state the problem of epistemology in the second edition of The Critique of Pure Reason in 1787, he said that the philosopher cannot question the reality of mathematics and natural science, but only explore what makes them possible; but this investigation is one that may well show metaphysics to be an activity that is quite unable to yield knowledge, even though the inclination to engage in it is deeply rooted in our intellectual natures (Kant 1929:56-7). He assumes theology to be a part of metaphysics. The scientist is conceded the right to proceed without waiting for the epistemologist's seal of approval; but the theologian may have to be headed off before he begins.

Naturally enough, the discharge of the philosopher's duty, thus understood, is commonly thought to depend on the success or failure of the enterprise of natural theology. Even though it did not owe its existence and practice to the

Cartesian view of the philosopher's function, the discharge of that function, once assumed, was thought to depend on how far natural theology could demonstrate the reality of God and the credentials of revelation in the way Aquinas had claimed. How else, after all, could the philosopher show that theology even has a subject matter?

Inevitably there were those who rejected philosophy's pretensions to adjudicate the claims of revelation. They were apologists who questioned the foundationalist objective of epistemology, and saw scepticism as the friend of faith, not its enemy. The foundationalist tradition has been paralleled by the tradition of sceptical fideism, which has seen natural theology as 'the sustained attempt to replace conversion by argument' (Maclntyre 1957:210). Let us now examine the two traditions.

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