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Descartes, Welbourne, and Indubitable Beliefs

Author(s): Robert Fahrnkopf

Source: Analysis, Vol. 41, No. 3 (Jun., 1981), pp. 138-140
Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of Analysis Committee
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3328071
Accessed: 02-12-2015 10:41 UTC

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ICHAEL WELBOURNE ('Cartesian Madness', ANALYSIS 40.1,

M January 1980) has proposed a novel interpretation of Descartes'
First Meditation.This Meditationis usually regarded as having the purely
negative function of systematically undermining all our beliefs, begin-
ning with those based on the senses, in order to clear the stage for the
introduction, in the SecondMeditation, of the cogito as the one belief
which, unlike all the others previously examined, is indubitable. Wel-
bourne, however, thinks that Descartes is anxious even in the First
Meditationto proclaim a number of indubitable beliefs; indeed, accord-
ing to Welbourne, such a proclamation is the 'crucial point' of Descartes'
discussion of madness.
This discussion is taken up when Descartes, after having suggested
that we ought not to trust the senses because they sometimes mislead us,
immediately counters this suggestion by giving examples of what I
shall call optimal perceptual beliefs, such as that I am seated here by the
fire, holding a piece of paper in my hands, and so on. After giving these
examples, he adds: 'And how could I deny that these hands and this body
are mine, unless I am to compare myself with certain lunatics . . . ?'
(Lafleur translation, p. 76). And since Descartes does not regard the
appeal to lunacy as a legitimate way to undermine these seemingly
impregnable beliefs-presumably because it would be self-defeating
for Descartes to offer to himself for rational appraisal as a basis for
doubt the possibility that he is irrational-these beliefs continue to be
Welbourne's surprising contention is that such beliefs remain un-
shaken throughout, and that Descartes regards these as examples of
'... beliefs about himself or his body (not yet distinguished) which resist
being called into question' (Welbourne, p. 48). But surely the whole
raison d'itre of the dreaming-strategy is to call into question, in a way
which casts no aspersions on one's sanity, such optimal perceptual
beliefs. Given that (a) Descartes does mean to challenge such beliefs as
that I am sitting by the fire, etc., (b) the belief concerning my hands and
body is cited in connection with these other optimal perceptual beliefs
and seems to be treated on a par with them, and (c) in the beginning of
the SecondMeditation, before the cogito has been introduced, Descartes
denies that he has as yet found something certain, we are entitled to
presume, in the absence of compelling evidence to the contrary, that the
belief that these hands and body are mine-which Welbourne sees as


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Descartes' pre-eminent example of an indubitable belief-is no better

off than the other beliefs undermined by the appeal to dreaming.
Welbourne's arguments for supposing that Descartes regards the
belief concerning his hands and body to be pre-eminently indubitable
are, first, that the denial that these hands and this body are mine is
incoherent and, secondly, that Descartes himself acknowledges as much
by admitting that he would have to be mad to doubt this. But Descartes
says or implies no such thing; he says merely that he would have to be
mad to allow the possibility that he might be mad to serve as a legitimate
ground for doubting that these hands and body are his. He does not
say that doubt of this belief on any basis whatsoever would be madness;
in particular, the dreaming-strategy does provide an acceptable basis for
But, in any case, why does Welbourne himself suppose that doubt
is incoherent here? If I understand him rightly-and the finer meta-
physical nuances of his position may well have escaped me- he is saying
that what makes this body mine is simply my consciousness of it as mine.
That is, in becoming apprised of the existence of this body, there is
nothing further I have to discover, and therefore nothing about which I
could conceivably be mistaken, in order to determine whether this body
is mine. Welbourne thinks he has textual evidence, in the Sixth Medita-
tion, that Descartes shares these same subtle concerns about body-
ownership. Welbourne cites in particular the passage about the pilot
and the ship, but I cannot see that this passage-the point of which is to
show that one's mind and body are more intimately related to one
another than the pilot is to his ship-shows that Descartes takes Wel-
bourne's position, or any particular position at all, on the question of
how body-ownership is determined.
The Sixth Meditation, in fact, provides the best evidence against
Welbourne's reading of Descartes. Near the beginning of that Medita-
tion, Descartes reviews the history of his uncritical accumulation of
beliefs based on the senses and his subsequent undermining of these
beliefs. Included in his list of such beliefs is the belief
... that this body, which by a certain particularprivilege I called mine,
belonged to me more properly and strictly than any other. For in fact I
could never be separatedfrom it, as I could be from other bodies (Lafleur,
p. 130).
(This passage, incidentally, confirms Welbourne's view that in the
First Meditation the belief in question is that this body is mine, rather
than that this body exists, as the translation of Anscombe and Geach
would have it. Welbourne supposes, wrongly, that I have tacitly fol-
lowed the latter translation in my earlier article ['Cartesian Insanity',
ANALYSIS 39.2, March 1979], but my purposes in that article are equally
well served by either translation, since the belief in question is in any

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case one that Descartes proceeds to doubt.) Two paragraphs later, after
having concluded his list of beliefs based on the senses, he continues:
'Later on, various experiences gradually destroyed all my faith in my
senses . . .' (Lafleur, p. 130), whereupon he rehearses the familiar con-
siderations, including the appeal to dreaming, already discussed in the
First Meditation.That this review of beliefs based on the senses which
were subsequently rendered doubtful specifically includes the belief
about body-ownership amounts to virtually conclusive evidence that
Welbourne has wrongly interpreted Descartes.
Still, if this belief is as obviously unassailable as Welbourne makes
it out to be, how could Descartes have thought otherwise, as he evi-
dently did? I suggest that insofar as we are willing to grant Descartes
his dreaming-strategy to undermine perceptual beliefs generally, there
is no additional difficulty involved in undermining the belief that this
body is mine. If I am dreaming that I am a 3 50 lb. sumo wrestler,
whereas the body I really possess, assuming I have one at all, is of a quite
different size and shape, then it is obvious that my belief that this body,
i.e., the body I seem to have in my dream, is mine is just false. Indeed,
though perhaps less obviously, even if my dream-body exactly resembled
my actual body, I would still be mistaken in supposing that the body to
which I direct my attention in my dream is mine, because the dream-
body does not actually exist.
Welbourne might still be right to maintain that, even of a dream-
body which I take to be mine, I do not do so on any basis in addition to
that which I have for believing that this body exists. But, of course, if I
am dreaming, then my basis for supposing that this body doesexist, and
is thus mine, is radically deficient. At best, then, what is indubitable is
the less ambitious belief that if I am not dreaming, then this body is
mine. But if Descartes might be faulted for not recognizing the indubi-
tability of this weaker claim, the proviso about dreaming nevertheless
ensures, at least from the standpoint of the First Meditation,that the con-
sequent of this hypothetical is itself not indubitable.


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