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Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry (review)

Kenneth C. Clatterbaugh

Journal of the History of Philosophy, Volume 18, Number 3, July 1980, pp.
351-352 (Review)

Published by Johns Hopkins University Press

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1353/hph.2008.0228

For additional information about this article


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revealing them was not theology, nor the philosophy that was the handmaid of theology, but
rhetoric, the greatest instrument devised for the use of active, but neither contemplative nor
redeemable, men. If it could present no more than opposed aspects of a reality and morality never
to be reconciled, that was all that an unredeemed universe might contain. The limits of Ma-
chiaveUi's rhetorical vision are therefore no accident. He was a sort of atheist Dante--the Asino
was meant to be the satyr-play that followed the Commedia--but he did not aim at philosophy,
whether ancient, Christian, or post-Christian (the word "modern" should be stricken from the
Zeppi is not strong at handling the problem of relating The Prince to The Discourses. He will
not see that the Prince is vulnerable to fortuna in part because he has interfered with stabilizing
custom; and he will not see that the republic is concerned with social virtues rather than customs,
because he succumbs in the end to the need to deny that the virtue of the republic stabilizes its
civic relations. Machiavelli's paradox that the tensions between the classes have a stabilizing
effect is not adequately dealt with, and Zeppi resorts--in the teeth of the evidence--to asserting
that the plebeians of Machiavellian Rome are plastic and inert. They have swords in their hands.
These weaknesses cause each of his two sections to end less strongly than it might have done.
Studi su Machiavelli pensatore is published by Cesviet, an acronym denoting a Center for the
Study of Vietnam and the Third World. Much good may it do them. The Ayatollah might read
Machiavelli's chapter on ecclesiastical principalities.
J. G. A. Pococ~
Johns Hopkins University

Bernard Williams. Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities
Press, 1978. Pp. 320.

Professor Williams's book is not an easy book; the argumentation is complex, and there are
frequent digressions. The focus of the book is Descartes's epistemology and the assumptions and
distinctions Descartes needs in order to make his theory of knowledge possible. In fact, the
strength of Williams's book lies in his perception of what Descartes must implicitly assume to
argue as he does.
In the first chapter Williams undertakes a description of Descartes's project, especially in the
Meditations. The project. Pure Enquiry, "is the undertaking of someone setting aside all externali-
ties or contingent limitations on the pursuit of t r u t h . . . " (p. 66). Thus, Williams wants sharply to
distinguish his interpretation of Descartes from interpretations like Frankfurt's, which do not see
Descartes as seeking truth so much as refuting skepticism (p. 199). More explicitly, Descartes's
project is to find a way of producing beliefs that maximizes the "truth-ratio" of these beliefs (p.
55). Williams argues that if one truly believes something, and if that belief has the property of
being "produced in a way such that beliefs produced in that way are generally true," then one has
knowledge (p. 45). Williams's task, given that he has correctly described Descartes's project, is
to characterize further this property which beliefs must have if we are to maximize their truth-
The property Descartes seeks is certainty (or indubitability), an ambiguous and complex notion
to which Williams devotes a substantial part of his analysis. Descartes's concept of certainty
involves, but is not exhausted by, distinct concepts such as incorrigibility (a belief P is incorrig-
ible if, and only if, if A believes P, P is true), being evident (a belief P is evident if, and only if,
if P is true, then A believes P), and irresistibility (a belief P is irresistible if, and only if, if A
thinks of P, then A believes P) (p. 86). In order to arrive at indubitable beliefs Descartes must
have some acceptance rules such as: Accept as on-going beliefs just those propositions which are
at any time clearly and distinctly perceived to be true (p. 203). Clarity and distinctness are under-

stood in terms of Williams's analysis of certainty. By using such acceptance rules one can know
(I) that one exists and is a thinker, (2) the eternal truths, and (3) the idea of God.
In tracing how Descartes arrives at these bits of knowledge Williams discusses many of the
traditional problems of the Meditations, for example, the cogito, the existence of God, and the
charge of circular reasoning. Regarding the cogito, Williams argues that, while it is not a syllogis-
tic inference, it is a logical argument involving epistemologically irresistible propositions (p. 90).
Although Descartes ultimately fails in his argument for God's existence, Williams feels that he
comes off rather well compared to current advocates of the Ontological Argument. Thus, Wil-
liams concludes: "Descartes at least offered his argument to readers who shared with him a world
of which the existence of God was a formative and virtually unquestioned feature; moreover he
thought that the premisses of the argument were exceedingly straightforward. Modern advocates
have neither excuse." Williams's interpretation attempts to avoid the charge that Descartes is
guilty of circular reasoning in the Meditations; his solution is:

The point will then be that clear and distinct perceptions need no further justification, and the 'general rule' is
accepted by Descartes as correctly claiming their truth: so if we do know that at any time we clearly and
distinctly perceived that P, then we can know that P. But often we only think we know, through memory, that
we clearly and distinctly perceived something, and to validate that memory, God is needed. This will elim~-
nale at least the circle that was first objected to . . . since we shall not have God validating the intuitions
which proved his existence.

In addition to his discussion of the standard topics Williams makes a serious effort to explore
Descartes's views about the physical world and the nature of science. He asks, What is the
relation between a priori reasoning and experimental a posteriori reasoning in Cartesian science?
He also investigates the relationship between Descartes's metaphysics and his science. Thus, in
his final three chapters Williams deals with an aspect of Descartes's philosophy which is too often
neglected once inadequacies in his theory of knowledge are exposed. Williams struggles with such
problems as Descartes's very difficult causal likeness principle, namely, that there must be at least
as much reality in the total and efficient cause as in its effect, and how Descartes's concept of
God is involved in his proofs of the laws of physics.
To some extent Williams's focus on epistemological problems in the preceding chapters, and
his impatience with metaphysical notions such as eminent, formal, and objective existence, inter-
fere in the last three chapters with his account of the Cartesian physical world (p. 140). For
example, he does not explain very clearly the concept of cause which is so crucial in Descartes's
proof for the existence of God and in his physics. And he does not note the severe problems that
arise from Descartes's ambiguous use of "motion," that is, that motion is sometimes the transfer-
ence of a body from one neighborhood to another and sometimes the force which produces the
Williams's book is a solid contribution to Descartes scholarship, and it is worth the effort it
takes lo read it. One is aided greatly in understanding his interpretation by three appendices which
discuss epistemological concepts, knowledge, and dreaming.
University of Washington

George Pitcher. Berkeley. The Arguments of Philosophers. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul,
1977. Pp. xi + 277. $16.50.

This is a closely written, workmanlike study of Berkeley's philosophy. Pitcher is a skllful

anatomist of Berkeley's arguments and thought, but this does not always make for engaging