We will write a custom Essay on Descartes Philosophy Regarding Knowledge specifically for you
301 certified writers online
Descartes considered knowledge as that which has absolute conviction and no doubt. For him, true knowledge was indubitable and unassailable based on the conviction of the truth of its claims. However, this is not to say that belief alone is the basis of knowledge; rather, Descartes explained that knowledge should be grounded in reality and must be justifiable. However, while this method of rational insight does make a significant point, it fails to take into consideration if the perspective from which this “absolute conviction” was created was wrong or misguided.
Gettier’s examination of “if justified true belief is knowledge” pointed out that truth, belief, and justification are actually insufficient clauses behind considering something as knowledge (Kyle 3). The example he used of Smith and Brown showed that Smith’s belief which he considered as knowledge at the time was merely luck or coincidence. In other circumstances with more permutations, Smith is more likely to be wrong rather than right (Gettier 121). While Descartes did mention that absolute conviction requires indubitability and thus rules out “being lucky” through sufficient justification, the case shown by Gettier proved that even instances of “absolute conviction” can be based on coincidence and luck.
This is why this paper will examine the viewpoint of Descartes regarding knowledge, deconstruct its basis, examine its faults, and compare it to the work of Gettier who conducted a counter examination. Overall, the assertions made in this paper are based on the view that the problem with the frame of reference of Descartes is that it is inextricably linked to an internalist perspective of knowledge and thus susceptible to error based on an individual’s personal perspective.
Descartes’ perspective on knowledge is based on the concept of “absolute conviction” which can be described as a surety of belief that is so strong that it cannot be destroyed. For Descartes, the development of knowledge starts with a “reason” that has sufficient strength that it cannot be disproven by another “reason”. Once this has been established, this “reason” becomes “conviction” and it is absolute conviction in the truth of a particular perspective that manifests in what is known as knowledge. However, for a conviction to be absolute, it is necessary for there to be no doubt in the truth of the knowledge developed.
This is why Descartes utilizes a process called “a method of doubt” wherein instead of merely a belief, the certainty behind the accuracy of a piece of knowledge is based on a lack of sufficient doubt. The more doubt a person has regarding the accuracy of a conviction, then the less likely it can be considered as being absolute. On the other end of the spectrum, the less doubt there is behind a conviction, the more likely it is to be considered as absolute (Descartes 144).
For Descartes, knowledge requires a certain justified belief since, without sufficient justification in the form of less doubt, then something cannot be considered as having “absolute conviction” and, as such, cannot be considered as knowledge. It is when a prospective gains a form of indubitability (something that cannot be doubted) that what can be considered as knowledge is complete or has achieved absolute certainty.
Issues with the Perspective of Descartes
The problem with the viewpoint of Descartes is that it is inextricably linked to an internalist perspective of knowledge. While a mind can perceive a statement as being true based on experience and observation, this truth is correct only within the confines of the mind. Gettier argues against the position of Descartes by showing that what can be defined as “justified true belief” can come about through false premises (Gettier 121). For example, a farmer has planted ten apple seeds into the ground, and from these seeds, ten apple trees have grown. The “truth” that the farmer has developed is that all apple seeds will grow into apple trees if they are planted based on his or her past observations and experience. If a farmer in another part of the world with lower soil quality were to plant ten apple seeds into the ground and only four became trees, then from that farmer’s perspective only a few apple seeds will grow into trees if they are planted into the ground.
From the perspective of Gettier, these two examples show that JTB (Justified True Belief) can be based on knowledge or viewpoints that are circumstantial or the result of coincidences. This is not to say that both farmers are wrong or that both are correct; rather, Gettier would state that the knowledge developed is highly dependent on individual experiences and thus inadequate. A result is a form of knowledge, but the accuracy of the knowledge developed is doubtful despite the participants (i.e. the farmers) having no doubt regarding the accuracy of their beliefs.
Counter-argument of Descartes
Descartes actually touched on this concept multiple times wherein he explained that the aspiration one should have regarding knowledge is not absolute truth; rather, it is absolute certainty regarding what one considers as being true. Knowledge for Descartes is thus based on an unshakeable certainty based on an individual’s conviction that what they believe is right. Unfortunately, this does not resolve the issue of knowledge development brought up by Gettier with the example of Smith and Brown in his article and the example of the farmers in this one. The problem with Descartes’ perspective is that it focuses more on personal interpretation rather than external contributions to accumulated experience to create an outcome that can be defined as knowledge.
Descartes, Rene. The Philosophical Writings Of Descartes. England: Cambridge University Press, 1984. Print.
Gettier, Edmund L. “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?” Analysis 23.6 (1963): 121. Print.
Kyle, Brent. “Knowledge As A Thick Concept: Explaining Why The Gettier Problem Arises.” Philosophical Studies 165.1 (2013): 1-27. Print.