Explain and discuss the significance of Descartes' work on Epistemology.

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Explain and discuss the significance of Descartes’ work on Epistemology.

During the time of one of the greatest modern thinkers and philosophers - Rene Descartes (1596-1950), Philosophy and science were overlapped. Physics was known as ‘Natural Philosophy.’ Descartes used the word ‘Philosophy,’ (meaning the ‘Love of Wisdom’) to include science. Descartes thought of Knowledge as being represented as the ‘Tree of Knowledge,’ with the roots as Metaphysics, the trunk was Physics, and the branches were the other sciences. Metaphysics meant to Descartes what we call ‘Epistemology’ which was derived from the Greek words ‘episteme’ (knowledge) and ‘logos’ (discourse about). Hence, Epistemology means the ‘Theory of Knowledge,’ which is the study of nature, source, limits and validity of knowledge that includes such questions as “What is knowledge? How can knowledge be obtained? What is the difference between knowledge and belief?” There are two opposed epistemological theories, which are empiricism and rationalism. The centre areas of disagreed concern are the source of our ideas and how we know necessary truths. Empiricists, such as that of Aristotle (384-322 BCE) - argued that knowledge of the form was ‘a posteriori’ – we only develop knowledge of the form of, e.g. a horse, after contact with lots of horses.  and also claim our ideas are derived from sense-experience. Rationalists, for example like Plato (428-347 BCE) - who thought ‘a prior’ was possible. Plato tried to show that mathematical knowledge was innate and not derived from sense experience, and also believed that our ideas were discovered by ‘a priori’ reasoning. Epistemology has been a major concern of philosophers ever since the philosopher Descartes called attention to its importance in the 17th century. Descartes was a rationalist, who played a prominent role in shaping the agenda and thus became the founder of modern philosophy. Descartes, as shown at the beginning of his ‘Meditations,’ was in search for indubitable knowledge (i.e. knowledge that which cannot be doubted). In order for knowledge to be indubitable, Descartes believed that it must first be ‘clearly and distinctly’ shown to the mind. He adopted the idea that anything clearly and distinctly ‘perceived’ is true, and later the same for ‘conceived.’ Also, for knowledge that cannot be doubted to be found, Descartes’ ‘Cogito Ergo Sum,’ meaning ‘I think therefore I am,’ was the starting point to his search for indubitable knowledge. In this essay, we will ‘explain and discuss the significance of Descartes work on Epistemology’ with reference to various authors such as Cottingham, John Shand, William Reaper and Linda smith, and to different philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, and Augustine. At the end of the essay, we will draw up a conclusion by summing up the feeling of each paragraph, and then giving a general conclusion on that i.e. explaining and discussing the significance of Descartes’ work on Epistemology.

Descartes’ epistemology is nowadays better known than the metaphysics it supported. His aim was to show that the only safe and reliable knowledge is what we would now call ‘scientific knowledge.’ Like many at the time, he held that the sense-based, classificatory knowledge of the Aristotelian orthodoxy was unreliable at best but instead of giving up on natural knowledge and adopting the fashionable sceptical ideas of the time, he tried to show that genuine and lasting knowledge could be achieved, but only if we swept away the traditional learning and started again from scratch. This is what made Descartes’ work on epistemology so important, is that unlike the other philosophers prior to his time, Descartes was the first to supposedly not rely on others’ teachings, when discovering if or not there is indubitable knowledge. Thus, as we have seen, at the commencement of Descartes’ epistemology, Descartes was in search for indubitable knowledge. The philosopher Bernard Williams in his book ‘The Great philosophers’ said that Descartes thought “that you should not accept as true anything about which you could entertain the slightest doubt … Descartes was trying to get to the foundations of science … In order to put the foundations of knowledge beyond the reach of scepticism he said to himself, in effect: ‘I will do everything that sceptics can do, only better. By pressing the sceptic inquiry hard enough, I hope to come out the other side with something that will be absolutely foundational and rock hard.” However, as Descartes had discovered, he could not know for sure, which of his beliefs were certain. As the Bryan Magee puts it forward, in his book ‘The Great Philosophers’ – “Certainty is a state of mind, whereas truth is a property of statements, which usually reflects to the way things are out there in the external world … Descartes believed that only if you had grounds for certainty, could you know you had hold of the truth … Therefore that pursuit of truth involves the pursuit of certainty.” Aristotle and Plato were other philosophers in search for knowledge – Plato thought true knowledge was that of his forms, and so exact knowledge could be confirmed by comparing what was being analysed to that of his forms, he believed in ‘a priori’ reasoning. Aristotle disagreed with his teacher Plato. He argued that knowledge of the form was ‘a posteriori’ – we only develop knowledge of the form of, e.g. a horse, after contact with lots of horses. So, he knew he had to start again, right from the foundations, for him to establish anything at all, in the sciences that were stable and likely to last. Thus, Descartes wrote his ‘Meditations on Philosophy,’ a kind of diary he presents his readers with that asserts to be the record of a spiritual retreat. The ‘Meditations,’ presents the record of this fictional six-day journey, with each day picking up from where he left off the day before, to follow through the train of thought wherever it may lead i.e. to the position that he has held all along, which is indubitable knowledge. Therefore, Descartes came up with two principle methods ‘Foundationalism’ and ‘Doubt,’ to eliminate all false beliefs, he had been led to believe during his life. He gave the example of ‘an architect’ to explain his principle method of ‘Foundationalism’ – “Throughout my writings I have made it clear that my method imitates that of the architect. When an architect wants to build a house which is stable on ground where there is a sandy topsoil over underlying rock, or clay, or some other firm base, he begins by digging out a set of trenches from which he removes the sand, and anything resting on or mixed in with the sand, so that he can lay his foundations on firm soil. In the same way, I began by taking everything that was doubtful and throwing it out, like sand...” Thus the central insight of foundationalism is that a system of epistemic justification can be fashioned after the manner of a structurally sound house. Such a house might owe its unshakability to two features: a firm foundation and a well-anchored superstructure consisting of tightly linked support beams firmly grounded into the foundation. Likewise, where warrant is construed in terms of unshakable certainty, a system of knowledge might emerge from two parallel features: a foundation of unshakably certain first principles, and a superstructure of further claims anchored into the foundation by means of unshakably certain inference. Among its considerable alleged benefits, foundationalism provides the means for a potentially indefinite expansion of one's stock of knowledge, from relatively insufficient beginnings. This is especially significant where there are few first principles. Though the method of foundationalism brilliantly allows for the expansion of knowledge from little beginnings, the method is incomplete if prejudices thwart our ability to identify the foundations. To help "set aside" these preconceived opinions, Descartes devises a second method--the method of doubt.

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At the opening of his first meditation, Descartes asserted the need to “demolish everything completely and start again right from the foundations.” This was known as Descartes ‘Mehodological Doubt.’ Descartes' aim, however, is not that of "the sceptics, who doubt only for the sake of doubting," but instead "to reach certainty.” He used the example of a ‘basket of apples,’ to show how one can claim indubitable knowledge. Descartes said that you examine all human knowledge to see if it can be doubted. If it is dubitable, then it is “infected,” thus it must be mercilessly rejected as flawed. ...

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