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Our reading of Descartes introduces us to the area of philosophy known as epistemology, which is the theory or study of knowledge (“epistēmē” is the Greek word for knowledge). Through his method of radical doubt, Descartes seeks to alienate us from our common-sense beliefs and then to reacquaint us with ourselves and our world under a new, different guise. He also seeks to subvert, and to replace, Aristotle’s philosophy. (Take another philosophy class to read him!) For example, for Aristotle, the soul is the so-called form of the body: different kinds of organic structures (plants, animals, and human beings) exhibit different kinds of souls (nutritive, sensible, and rational). By contrast, Descartes identifies the soul with the mind, with the upshot that for him plants and non-human animals are no longer “animated” (“anima” is the Latin word for soul), but instead to be understood in terms of matter in motion (in a word, “mechanistically”).
Descartes recognizes that we can’t just make up our minds to change our beliefs, or at least that there are limits to what we can will ourselves to believe—say, that you don’t have a body. Hence, he takes his readers through a series of guided meditations.
1) Are there are any beliefs that you once held, but now have come to doubt? Think of a few examples (say, Santa Claus, if you really can’t think of other examples at first). Then explain how you came to doubt them.
2) Do Descartes’ meditations succeed in leading you to doubt or rethink any of the beliefs that the meditations focus on—whether about the world, or about what you are, or about the nature of your body? Explain why or why not.