83David Hume’s Two Interpretations of Cartesian Doubt
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David Hume’s Two Interpretationsof Cartesian Doubt
Hume presents his observations regarding Cartesian doubtwhile explaining the kind of skepticism he considers necessary to prepare onefor the philosophic pursuit of truth (“antecedent skepticism”). He expressescon
icting assessments of Descartes’s recommendations concerning suchskepticism. Hume condemns extreme Cartesian doubt as absurd, but assertsmoderate Cartesian doubt to be indispensable. Both ways of understanding“antecedent skepticism” can be found in famous writings of Descartes.According to Hume, radical Cartesian doubt recommends“an universal doubt, not only of all our former opinions and principles, butalso of our very faculties; of whose veracity, say they [the Cartesians], wemust assure ourselves, by a chain of reasoning deduced from some originalprinciple, which cannot possibly be fallacious or deceitful.” Hume emphati-cally rejects this. “But neither is there any such original principle, which has aprerogative above others, that are self-evident and convincing:
or if there were,could we advance a step beyond it, but by the use of those very faculties, of whichwe are already di
e Cartesian doubt, therefore, were it ever possibleto be attained by any human creature (as it plainly is not) would be completely incurable; and no reasoning could ever bring us to a state of assurance andconviction upon any subject” (Hume 1902, 149–50; emphasis added).One can appreciate the force of Hume’s objection by con-trasting Descartes’s doubts of the validity of clearly and distinctly understoodrational inferences, doubts to which Descartes succumbs toward the end of Meditation 1, with the way Descartes purports to overcome these doubts:proofs consisting of a connected chain of such rational inferences, proofs that