It is a commonplace of the history of philosophy that Descartes initiated the modern era by placing the critique of knowledge at the forefront of philosophical inquiry. That is, he accorded the questions ‘How can I know?’ and ‘How can I be certain?’ priority over questions about the nature of reality. However, if the interpretation presented in this book is correct, this view is at least partly misleading: Cartesian doubt is very much in the service of certain fundamentally metaphysical convictions about God, self and nature. This is not to deny that the ‘doubt’ is historically significant—even momentous. For example, to the extent that the metaphysical views in question are ‘new’ ones, and to the extent that they run counter to commonsense assumptions, the thrust of the doubt is truly revolutionary, and hence in a certain sense ‘real.’ Also, since the views in question involve a severe circumscription of the powers of sense, and a less damning but still significant circumscription of reason, the ‘doubt’ of the Meditations does have some genuine epistemological implications. The error would be to suppose that epistemological issues take precedence, in Descartes’s philosophy, over a general metaphysical vision of reality, and commitments to a special conception of what the world is like and how it works.
The purpose of this series (The Arguments of he Philosophers) is to provide a contemporary assessment and history of the entire course of philosophical thought. Each book constitutes a detailed, critical introduction to the work of a philosopher of major influence and significance.