Cartesian Certainty and Modernity’s Anxieties

Visual By Shivani Krishnakumar


Descartes’ philosophical thought holds an immanent likeness to the geometric proofs that begin

with self-evident axioms and deduce logical conclusions therefrom. He devises a new method,

or realizes the need for one, from the perceived failures of scholastic philosophy, tacitly

discarding the theory of substantial forms in favour of his mechanistic physics. The two grand

motives at work in his philosophical treatises are– religious and scientific. The religious motive is

to establish the existence of God on logical grounds, in lieu of theological, for convincing the

irreligious of moral life and secondly, to develop a system of unified sciences with metaphysical

roots having strong epistemological foundations, thus, giving way to the pursuit of certain

knowledge against the backdrop of growing incertitude for gospel truths coinciding with rising

skepticism and the scientific revolution.

Cartesian Method and Certain Knowledge

Lest his method of doubt lapse into skepticism, Descartes in Discourse on Method lays out four

principles for arriving at certain knowledge. He proceeds methodically, analysing each problem

and ordering his thought from the smaller to more complex ones, rejecting in the process every

belief which his reason could not assent to be self-evident. Premised on two essential beliefs,

that our senses can deceive and never trust those who have even deceived us once, and that

good sense or reason can guide us to separate truth from falsehood, Descartes reaches the

cogito and the famous ‘cogito ergo sum.' The veridical guarantee of his conclusion derives from the twin concept of clear and distinct perception. Therefore, as a general rule Descartes adopts, nothing not clearly or distinctly perceived can be true.

Substance, Mind-Body Dualism

During his meditations, Descartes realises that he could not doubt his existence despite having

any certainty of the external world, including his own body. He then concludes that both, the

body and the mind, are substances capable of existing independently of each other and the

other created things. But the mind can be better known than the body, given that it has

discovered more modes of perception than the latter; perceiving continuity in the form of height,

width, and depth. Descartes’ metaphysical position that mind and body can, by their virtue of

being substances, exist independently is monumental in reviving hopes for the soul surviving

death or an afterlife. But whether they indeed exist separately is less probed in his treatises.

God, Free Will and Determinism

The causal argument for proving God's existence, yet again proceeds from self-evident axiom, that is, the idea of a "supremely perfect being". He proves that this idea is an effect that reveals a formal reality of similar nature. God’s existence, can be understood, like geometrical theorems, devoid of impure sensations and imagination. If God is proven to be a perfect substance, the intent of deceiving would only detract from his perfection. This renders authority to all "reasonable" (clear and distinct) beliefs given that God cannot deceive us into believing false things.

Brian Collins argues that the cartesian theory of substance is applied non-univocally and

unequivocally to both God and humans and is conducive to a compatibilist interpretation of free

will and the Divine determination. Briefly, though individuals have the freedom to choose, it is

conditional; realised under specific conditions like the presence of mind (or reason), intellect,

will, and the corresponding volitions to affirm or deny something. Unlike God's, our wills cannot be indifferent. We are wired, or determined by grace, to pursue goodness or truth. Therefore, Descartes maintains that we do possess free wills but only so far we are the direct cause of our volition. However, the more one acknowledges the existence of God, the more they find themselves to be free.

Feminist Interpretation

Synoptic interpretations of the philosophical canon, as put forward by some feminist

philosophers, reveal undercurrents of cultural forces that shaped modern philosophical thought.

Biased towards the scientific method, trying to transcend their culture to situate philosophy

within a neutral framework, privileging objectivity and reason, has created a system of gendered

concepts. Susan Bordo in ‘Flight to Objectivity: Essays on Cartesianism and Culture’ argues

that the mechanistic re-visioning of nature, as opposed to the medieval century's organic

“mother nature”, masculinised much of modern thought. The longstanding association of reason

with the male and sentiment with the female gets emboldened by the mind-body dualism of

Descartes philosophy, attributing concepts of “purity” to reason and the “impure” to the body or

material things, best illustrated by the systematic censorship governing female bodies today

within mainstream media. It wards off the mind from “sympathizing” with nature and prescribes a course of cold analysis for understanding external things. Descartes’ philosophical project

succumbs to a similar bias that is vivid in his attempt at starting afresh and anew, thereby

purging the mind of all the sensuality and animality that the body acquires since birth. Bordo

breaks down the quest for certainty, foundational knowledge, and self-evident truths as a coping

mechanism to highly anxiety-inducing situations. The urge to create a strict binary, wherein one

paradigm masters the other, reflects the “cartesian anxiety,” mirroring modernity’s funerary

mood; the death of living and organic nature, a reaction to epistemological insecurity.

Works Referenced

Desacrtes, R.(2006). Discourse on Method (I.Maclean, Trans.).New York, Oxford

University Press.

Descartes R., Cottingham J., Williams B., 1996, Descartes: Meditations on First

Philosophy: With Selections from the Objections and Replies, Cambridge University


Bordo, Susan R., 1987. The Flight to Objectivity: Essays on Cartesianism and Culture,

Albany: State University of New York Press.

Kenny, Anthony, 2006, Volume three, A New History of Western Philosophy The Rise of

Modern Philosophy, Oxford University Press

Witt, Charlotte, and Lisa Shapiro, "Feminist History of Philosophy ", The Stanford

Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

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