REPRESENTATIVE REALISM AND THE PROBLEM OF SKEPTICISM In Epistemology: Classic Problems and Contemporary Responses, Laurence BonJour argues that the only way for knowledge to have epistemic justification is through an internalist perspective. He begins, as many epistemologists do, with Descartes’ Method of Doubt. This method is his accepted starting point, but he differs from Descartes in how he accounts for knowledge of the external world. The purpose of this essay is to examine the account that Bonjour gives for knowledge of the external world, and to demonstrate that his account inescapably succumbs to complete skepticism. This will be accomplished by first looking at the Cartesian roots of Bonjour’s epistemology and introduce the problem of skepticism, delineate Bonjour’s proposed solution to the problem of skepticism, and finally to demonstrate that Bonjour cannot escape from this problem by means of his solution. Cartesian Roots and the Problem of Skepticism As stated in the introduction, Bonjour follows Descartes in his starting point for epistemology; the Method of Doubt. This method is the refusal to allow any belief that may have a possibility of being doubted. Descartes acknowledges that some of his beliefs have been proven to be false, so he wants to ground his beliefs on indubitable principles.1 This leads him to
1“But since reason already convinces us that we should withhold assent just as carefully from whatever is not completely certain and indubitable as from what is clearly false, if I find some reason for doubt in each of my beliefs, that will be enough to reject all of them. However, they need not all be reviewed individually, for that would be an infinite task; as soon as foundations are undermined everything built on them collapses of its own accord, and therefore I will challenge directly all the first principles on which everything I formerly believed rests.” René Descartes, Meditations and Other Metaphysical Writings, trans. Desmond M. Clarke (London: Penguin Classics, 1999), 18-19.



be skeptical of any belief that arrives via his senses. 2 His starting point is to consider everything he believes by way of sensation is completely false: “I will assume that everything I see is false. I believe that, among the things that a deceptive memory represents, nothing ever existed; I have no senses at all; body, shape, extension, motion, and place are unreal. Perhaps that is all there is, that there is nothing certain.”3 From this very skeptical beginning, the difficulty that Descartes faces is how to account for the external world.4 Bonjour comments on the problem and gives the only possible solution: Descartes now has what he describes as his ‘first instance of knowledge’: he knows that he exists and that he has states of mind of various specific sorts. But how is he to go beyond this still pretty meager beginning? The only very obvious way to get from such a purely subjective starting point to further conclusions of any sort about the world outside his mind is to find some sort of rationally cogent inference from the former to the latter, from the premise that he has such-and-such specific states of mind to the conclusion that something of such-and-such a specific sort exists in the mind-external world. 5 This is a very big problem indeed, with the result that, “if there are no rationally compelling inferences of this sort to be found, then it seems that Descartes’s knowledge will be confined forever to his own mind and its contents.”6 With such a damning consequence, the epistemologist who accepts Descartes’ methodology urgently requires a solution to the problem of skepticism.

2“Everything that I accepted as being most true up to now I acquired from the senses or through the senses. However, I have occasionally found that they deceive me, and it is prudent never to trust those who have deceived us, even if only once.” Ibid., 19. It is a pertinent question to ask Descartes at this point how he has come to find out that his senses have deceived him. 3Ibid.,


4This is especially evident as Descartes completely dissociates all thought from any sort of material body. The problem that he is faced with is how to explain me, because I am a thinking being and therefore incorporeal, but I seem to have control over the body I call mine. How is it possible for me to have this control over this body?

BonJour, Epistemology: Classic Problems and Contemporary Responses, 2nd ed. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2010), 14.



A Proposed Solution to the Problem of Skepticism The Solution of Descartes Descartes’ solution to the problem is the assertion that because he innately has the idea of perfection in his mind, it must follow that God exists. This innate “idea of a supremely intelligent, perfect and powerful being,” must correspond to a supremely perfect being that exists.7 The existence of this being is seen by “the fact alone that necessary and eternal existence is included in the idea of a supremely perfect being.”8 Because this God does exist, and goodness is part of the idea of perfection, the inference is made that this good God would not allow me to be so deceived by the intuitions I have about the external world. God is Descartes’ solution to the problem of total skepticism. The Solution of Bonjour Bonjour does not accept the solution offered by Descartes, stating that “the principle that Descartes actually suggests is extremely implausible, indeed difficult to really make very clear sense of.”9 He condemns Descartes’ solution on the grounds that it relies “on proofs of the existence of God that few other than Descartes would accept and on further claims about what such a being would or would not do that are questionable at best.”10 Furthermore, he points out that Descartes’ solution does not actually solve the problem, for it is difficult to say how much knowledge of the external world one actually has. There are still things about the external world that we believe falsely, but how can one adjudicate which beliefs are true and which false

7Descartes, 8Ibid.,


117. 15.

9Bonjour, 10Ibid.,



according to the proposed solution? There does not seem to be an objective way to evaluate whether a given belief is true or false. Bonjour’s criticism of this solution is sound. The problem still remains, then, as to how one can have knowledge of the external world given the Cartesian method. How does Bonjour seek to solve this problem? He does so in a rather obtuse manner, appealing to the Cartesian principles of the facts concerning mental states, and a priori truths. Before discussing his actual solution, it is important to acknowledge that he commits himself to solving the problem from within the confines of an internalist perspective. Internalism claims “that epistemological issues arise and must be dealt with from within the individual person’s first-person cognitive perspective, appealing only to things that are accessible from that standpoint.”11 Working from this internalist framework, he asserts that we do not have immediate knowledge of the external world. This is in keeping with Cartesian principles. What we have instead is an awareness of some sort of idea.12 He therefore rejects any view that allows for direct knowledge of the external world. He argues rather for representative realism, which he describes as “the view. . . that our immediately experienced sense-data, together with the further beliefs that we arrive at on the basis of them, constitute a representation or depiction of an independent realm of material objects–a representation that we are in general. . . justified in believing to be true.”13 This view seems untenable on its face, doubly so when subjected to the Cartesian


12Ibid. 119. He acknowledges that this may be a number of different things (e.g. sense-datum or ‘the content of a state of sensing of being appeared to’), but he does not make any commitments to one or another because he doesn’t feel it is necessary for his system, however he works within the framework of perceptual subjectivism. 13Ibid.,



standard of indubitability. It seems very unsure of itself, weakly stating that we are in general justified for believing these representations. In general seems like it is the exact kind of uncertainty that Descartes was trying to evade! Perhaps his argument for representative realism will remove this initial sense of defeat. His defense follows two main points: (f)irst, that. . . some explanation is needed for the complicated and intricate order that we find in our involuntarily experienced sense-data. . . and, second, that the best explanation. . . the one most likely to be correct, is that those experiences are caused by and, with certain qualifications, systematically reflect the character of a world of genuinely independent material objects, which we accordingly have good reasons for believing to exist.14 Clearly he needs to explain how the explanation that the character of a world of genuinely independent material objects can be the cause of my experiences within the contexts of internalism.15 He argues that this is the case because “the realm of immediate sensory experience, of sense-date (or adverbial contents), is both too orderly not to demand an explanation and not orderly enough for that explanation to be that the sense-data have an intrinsic order of their own.”16 What he argues is that first of all our sense-data seems to occur to us in repeatable sequences, which seem to indicate that there is an order outside our minds, and secondly that sometimes these sense-data are interfered with in some way, and so there is variation from without.
14Ibid. 15This problem does not arise for the Moderate Realist, because he maintains that our knowledge of the external world comes by way of sensation, and that we know the world directly, as opposed to knowing our idea of the world. 16Ibid.,



An Evaluation of Representative Realism Does the account of the Representative Realist remove the extreme skepticism that Bonjour so badly wants to avoid? On the face of it, it seems that what Bonjour is arguing for is correct. Yes, reality does seem to impose itself upon us so that the best explanation of how we come to believe in an external world is that there really is an external world out there. In the morning I don’t conjure up a loud buzzing noise, rather the buzzing alarm clock imposes itself upon my senses so that I wake up. It seems perfectly reasonable that “the best explanation. . . is that those experiences are caused by. . . a world of genuinely independent material objects.”17 But is this option available to the Cartesian, particularly the Cartesian who adopts the internalist perspective? The answer is an emphatic ‘no’. The way that Bonjour argues for this assertion does not survive the method of doubt to which he has committed himself. The crux of the issue is that Bonjour argues in light of the way these mental states appear to him. But that does not provide any sort of certitude to say that these mental states appear in a particular way to me. In trying to say that these sensations are actually just my own mental states, he tries to reframe the Cartesian project. Bonjour tries to make the claim that it is ‘rationally cogent’ to infer from these mental states the existence of a real, external world. But this was what the whole Cartesian project was about in the first place! Descartes noted that some of his beliefs were actually false. Bonjour has simply avoided using the word ‘belief’ in his solution. Instead he calls them ‘mental states’. These mental states were exactly what Descartes had in mind when he called into question the




beliefs he had arrived at by way of sensation. Rather than solve the problem, Bonjour tries to avoid it entirely through semantic sleight of hand. Unfortunately for Bonjour, Descartes’ evil genius looms in the background ready to strike. Descartes imagined that his beliefs were somehow manipulated by an evil genius who was out to deceive him at every corner. The relative order and disorder that Bonjour uses to argue for the existence of the external world may well be explained by the existence of Descartes’ evil genius. It gets worse. Not only does Bonjour fail to solve the problem within the general framework of a Cartesian epistemology, but his explanation fails to meet even his own internalist criteria! In order for his inference from these acknowledged mental states to the external world to be rational, he must appeal to some sort of a priori justification. What would this a priori justification be in his explanation? The argument is that the best explanation for the mental states is that a corresponding external world exists. What about this argument is a priori? It appears as though Bonjour arbitrarily decides at this point what the best explanation for these mental states is. There is no reasoning taking place; he merely makes an inference with no legitimate reason other than his desire to avert radical skepticism. His conception fails both on the Cartesian and internalist principles that he has adopted. Conclusion The conclusion of this essay is that Bonjour has been unsuccessful in his attempt to avoid extreme skepticism. He has been unable to do so on the basis of the very principles he has adopted. His argument against Descartes’ solution is correct, but it also applies to his very own view. The problem that Bonjour has in establishing knowledge of the external world is not


because he is a poor philosopher, nor is it because he is ignorant of the problems of his own position. The reason that Bonjour, and Descartes, cannot establish the existence of the external world without violating their own principles is because their starting point demands it. Failing to establish a sound metaphysics, they have reduced man to a mere mind. This has proven to be a fatal step, indeed a step from which there is no recovery. The situation is best summarized by Etienne Gilson: “every one is free to decide whether he shall begin to philosophize as a pure mind; if he should elect to do so the difficulty will be not how to get into the mind, but how to get out of it.”18 Bonjour makes a valiant attempt to rescue the Cartesian epistemology from extreme skepticism, but in the end he fails.

! 156-57.


Gilson, The Unity of Philosophical Experience (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1999),

BIBLIOGRAPHY BonJour, Laurence. Epistemology: Classic Problems and Contemporary Responses. 2nd ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2010. Descartes, René Meditations and Other Metaphysical Writings. Translated by Desmond M. Clarke. London: Penguin Classics, 1999. Gilson, Etienne. The Unity of Philosophical Experience. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1999. Wilhelmsen, Frederick D. Man's Knowledge of Reality: an Introduction to Thomistic Epistemology. N.p.: Literary Licensing, 2011.


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