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Descartes’s Provisional Skepticism, Morality, and Epistemic Bubbles

Date:09 March 2018
Author:Daniel Collette
Francesco de Goya, El sueño de la razón produce monstruos, Source: wiki commons
Francesco de Goya, El sueño de la razón produce monstruos, Source: wiki commons

In a time with unprecedented access to information, unraveling truth is sometimes overwhelming. When in an epistemic bubble, it is often easier to resign oneself either to that way of thinking, or to a sense of skepticism, than to experience the anxiety that arises from trying to escape social tribalism. While these options are limiting, Descartes offers advice that reminds us that there are other paths. His Discourse on Method guides us to seek truth, while being at peace with not yet knowing. It begins with reconsidering Part III.

The place of Discourse on Method Part III in Cartesian ethics is contentious. There are two popular readings of the morale par provision (contained in Part III): the traditional reading and a judiciary reading. The traditional reading calls the morale a provisional morality: Donald Rutherford succinctly describes the morale par provision as “just that—provisional rules that Descartes will follow while he carries out his search for knowledge” (Rutherford 2008). In short, it says that Descartes presents rules of morality intended to be temporary; rules for living while waiting for his metaphysics and physics which, upon completion, allow for a better morality to be provided – the flourishing fruit from his tree of philosophy. In the past decades, however, a different reading has become popularized, a juridical reading. Michelle Le Doeuff offers, for instance, that the par provision in morale par provision is a “juridical term meaning ‘what a judgment awards in advance to a party’” (1989). Here, the morale is not temporary, but something of a down payment – a set of general maxims that will be filled in with practical specifics later, as was customary for Stoics. But I believe a different reading should be considered that not only defends the traditional one in new ways, but also makes the Discourse a much richer text for us today.

The first two parts of the Discourse lay out Descartes’ method of doubt and rules of method, while in Part IV he lays out his Cogito (“I think, therefore I am”) and arguments for God’s existence needed to escape the methodological doubt. Then, two final parts allow Descartes to give examples of how his rules of method can be applied to discover truths, offering an outline of his future (natural) philosophy. Returning then to Part III, it is here that Descartes offers a morality, a morale par provision. I believe that a better way to understand the morale par provision is simply the conclusion of a Pyrrhonist mode, which itself is ethical.

 It is accepted that in composing the Discourse, Descartes draws influence from two Renaissance Pyrrhonian skeptics, Montaigne and Pierre Charron. The first parts of the treatise are written as an essay, a first person exploration traced with embellished autobiographical accounts and highlighting the Pyrrhonian doctrine of indifference. As it is well known, the Pyrrhonians were ancient Greek skeptics who believed suffering came from anxiety that arises from choosing between true and false beliefs, or from anxiety over the possibility of having chosen a false belief accidentally. They believed that this anxiety was unnecessary, and only caused by a mistaken belief that truth was evident. The doctrine of indifference, then, is the belief that since no proposition can be proven to be more compelling than the next, and that for every argument an equally compelling counter-argument can be offered, one should accept the uncertainty, focusing instead on inner tranquility, freed from the anxieties of being wrong. In Sextus Empiricus’s Outlines of Pyrrhonism, he describes that,

 Our assertion up to now is that the Skeptic’s end, where matters of opinion are concerned, is mental tranquility; in the realm of things unavoidable, moderation of feeling is the end. His initial purpose in philosophizing was to pronounce judgment on appearances. He wished to find out which are true and which false, so as to attain mental tranquility. In doing so, he met with contradicting equal force. Since he could not decide between them, he withheld judgment. Upon his suspension of judgment there followed, by chance, mental tranquility in matters of opinion. For the person who entertains the opinion that anything is by nature good or bad is continually disturbed. (I.VII, translation by Etheridge)

Following Montaigne and Charron, Descartes’s skepticism in Parts I and II is a Pyrrhonian skepticism, playfully pointing to all the compelling career paths he could have chosen, for instance, and why each is not worth pursuing. Descartes does not emerge from this mode until Part IV with his Cogito – in fact, immediately before offering the Cogito in Part IV Descartes offers a sketch of what he will later refer to his strongest skeptical arguments (AT I, 354; AT I, 558), the dream argument:

And finally, considering the fact that all the same thoughts we have when we are awake can also come to us when we are asleep, without any of them being true, I resolved to pretend that all the things that had ever entered my mind were no more true than the illusions of my dreams. But immediately afterward I noticed that, while I wanted thus to think that everything was false, it necessarily had to be the case that I, who was thinking this, was something. And noticing that this truth—I think, therefore I am—was so firm and so assured that all the most extravagant suppositions of the skeptics were incapable of shaking it.  I judged that I could accept it without scruple as the first principle of the philosophy I was seeking (AT VI 32; translation by Ariew).


This situates the third part of the Discourse in an interesting place. In Part I Descartes enters a skeptical mode that he is deeply immersed in until Part IV. 

Sextus Empiricus argues (and Montaigne and Charron after him): (1) human suffering is caused by worrying about judging false beliefs as true or true beliefs as false, and anxiety over having chosen wrongly, and (2) skepticism shows us that universal truth and falsity about the world is never evident. If both (1) and (2) are the case, then our anxiety is in vain. Thence, good and evil exist as psychological dispositions, and not in our judgments about the outside world. As a result of this perspective, behavior should include following the customs of one’s land – for since none can be judged true or false, following the customs of your country will lead to a peaceful life. The skeptic should also be resolute, as there’s no reason to sway from your opinion, especially if that opinion is indifference – a turbulent inner life lacks tranquility. The skeptic should focus on changing her desires and not the world, for to attempt otherwise is to misunderstand the cause of suffering. This is a quality shared with the Stoics, but in the case of the Pyrrhonists it is motivated by the dangers of mistakenly judging a truth as evident. Of course, it is also important to simply live one’s life; you don’t need epistemic certainty to eat or find shelter, for instance. These are the conclusions that Montaigne draws in Apology for Raymond Sebond and those that Pierre Charron concludes even more explicitly in his Wisdom II.2 – and, importantly, they are also the maxims that Descartes draws in the Discourse on Method Part III.

 By seeing Part III as a continuation of the skeptical mode he began in Parts I and II, the Discourse on Method as a whole becomes a crisper, and more elegant, text: Parts I-III are the skeptical project, beginning with skeptical epistemology and ending with skeptical morality—which is in fact the goal of Pyrrhonianism. Parts IV-VI are his constructive project, escaping from doubt, starting with the Cogito. The morality is provisional, then, because the skepticism is also provisional.

 In addition to offering what I believe to be a cleaner reading of the Discourse on Method and Part III, it also by happenstance becomes a more important text for today. There has been a great deal of discussion about epistemic bubbles and social tribalism in the past few years. In a time when more information is available than ever before, and only so much of it can be trusted, finding truth can be challenging for some and the answers are not always clear. It is easy to become overwhelmed by information, leading to anxieties.

 Traditional skepticism would tell us to embrace this uncertainty, to find tranquility in accepting that no evident fact of the matter is universally discoverable. While this would alleviate anxiety, it would be a costly choice given many pressing political and social issues that directly affect our lives and the lives of others. Descartes offers us an adapted skepticism that relieves anxiety, but doesn’t concede to withdrawing from the chaotic and often uncertain world. Descartes agrees that if we don’t yet have correct judgment we can still lead a flourishing life that is free of anxiety (Parts I-III). But rather than accepting this uncertainty as one’s fate as the classical skeptics would, he says we should continue to seek truth (Parts IV-VI). In this way, we have the liberty to escape epistemic bubbles, but live life that flourishes.


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