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The Meditation is usually welcomed in one of two ways. First, it can be read as setting the foundations for the meditations that follow, where doubt is embraced as a powerful tool against Aristotelian philosophy. Second, it can, and often is, read standing on its own as the structure of modern skepticism. Descartes saw his Meditations as providing the metaphysical underlining of his new physics. Like Galileo, he sought to overrule two-thousand-year-old prejudices enforced into the Western tradition by Aristotle.
The Aristotelian thought of Descartes’ placed a great weight on the testimony of the senses, suggesting that all knowledge comes from the senses. The Meditator’s suggestion that all one’s most certain knowledge comes from the senses is meant to appeal directly to the Aristotelian philosophers who will be reading the Meditations. The motivation, then, behind the Meditation is to start in a position the Aristotelian philosophers would agree with and then, subtly, to seduce them away from it. Descartes is aware of how revolutionary his ideas are, and must pay lip service to the orthodox opinions of the day in order to be heeded. The Meditation can be seen as presenting skeptical doubts as a subject of study in their own right.
Certainly, skepticism is a much discussed and hotly debated topic in philosophy, even today. Descartes was the first to raise the mystifying question of how we can claim to know with certainty anything about the world around us. The idea is not that these doubts are probable, but that their possibility can never be entirely ruled out. And if we can never be certain, how can we claim to know anything? Skepticism cuts straight to the heart of the Western philosophical enterprise and its attempt to provide a certain foundation for our knowledge and understanding of the world. It can even be pushed so far as to be read as a challenge to our very notion of rationality.
No one actually lives skepticism–no one actually doubts whether other people really exist–but it is very difficult to justify a dismissal of skepticism. Western philosophy since Descartes has been largely marked and motivated by an effort to overcome this problem. I should note that Descartes’ doubt is a methodological and rational doubt. That is, the Meditator is not just doubting everything at random, but is providing solid reasons for his doubt at each stage. For instance, he rejects the possibility that he might be mad, since that would undercut the rationality that motivates his doubt.
Descartes is trying to set up this doubt within a rational framework, and needs to maintain a claim to rationality for his arguments to proceed. However, the Meditator realizes that he is often convinced when he is dreaming that he is sensing real objects. He feels certain that he is awake and sitting by the fire, but reflects that often he has dreamed this very sort of thing and been wholly convinced by it. Though his present sensations may be dream images, he suggests that even dream images are drawn from waking experience, much like paintings in that respect.
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