The Modes of Descartes’ First Meditation

  • Richard DaviesEmail author
Part of the International Archives of the History of Ideas Archives internationales d'histoire des idées book series (ARCH, volume 221)


The essay comments Descartes’ Meditations I. Starting from the suggestion that the “material” modes of the Pyrrhonists can be distinguished from the “formal” modes of the Academics, the text is read as a sequence of reasons for doubting whole sets of beliefs. These operations are “formal” insofar as Descartes’ meditator recognises that he cannot enumerate one by one the members of these sets. First, he recalls how many beliefs he formed in infancy were erroneous, and identifies one source of error in their coming on the authority of others. He then notices that, even in favourable conditions, he could form false beliefs, for instance if he were suffering from persistent delusions. Favourable conditions cannot be delimited unless one knows one is not so suffering. Yet, sane people have dreams that resemble the delusions of the insane. On one reading of what a dream is, the beliefs threatened by the dreaming hypothesis include all those concerning the past. The final two phases of Meditations I, the deceiving God hypothesis and the evil demon hypothesis, raise the spectre of “transcendental scepticism”, outstripping Pyrrhonist and Academic scepticisms, but they resemble “formal” modes because they supply reasons for doubting about entire sets of beliefs. While the deceiving God hypothesis is rejected on the basis of what is argued in Meditations III (that there is a veracious God), the same does not hold of the demon. But, even if the demon does exist, Descartes can intuit his own existence and thus overthrow transcendental scepticism.


Certainty Contrariety of the senses Deceiving God Dreaming Empiricism Evil demon Formal modes Hyperbolical doubt Jesuits Madness Material modes Reason for doubt Simple notions 


  1. Baillet, Adrien. 1690. Vie de Mons. Des Cartes, 2 vols. Paris: Hortemels.Google Scholar
  2. Beck, Leslie J. 1965. The metaphysics of Descartes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Cottingham, John. 1993. A Descartes dictionary. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.Google Scholar
  4. Curley, Edwin M. 1980. Descartes against the skeptics. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.Google Scholar
  5. Descartes, René. 1964–1976. Œuvres de Descartes, ed. C. Adam, and P. Tannery, 12 vols. (1897–1913) corrected and added to by J. Beaude and P. Costabel (et al.). Paris: Vrin.Google Scholar
  6. Dicker, Georges. 1993. Descartes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  7. Filevich, E., et al. 2015. Metacognitive mechanisms underlying lucid dreaming. The Journal of Neuroscience 35(3): 1082–1088.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Flage, D.E., and C.E. Bonnen. 1999. Descartes and method. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  9. Frankfurt, Harry G. 1970. Demons, dreamers and madmen. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.Google Scholar
  10. Guéroult, Martial. 1968. Descartes selon l’ordre des raisons, 2 vols. Paris: Aubier-Montaigne.Google Scholar
  11. Hobbes, Thomas. 1991. Leviathan, ed. R. Tuck. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  12. Kant, Immanuel. 1787. Kritik der reinen Vernunft. Riga: J.F. Hartnock.Google Scholar
  13. Kemp Smith, Norman. 1952. New studies in the philosophy of Descartes. London: Macmillan.Google Scholar
  14. Kenny, Anthony J.P. 1968. Descartes: A study of his philosophy. New York: Random House.Google Scholar
  15. Larmore, Charles. 2014. The first meditation: Skeptical doubt and certainty. In Cambridge companion to Descartes, ed. D. Cunning, 48–67. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  16. Lennon, T.M., and M.W. Hickson. 2014. The skepticism of the first meditation. In Descartes’ meditations: A critical guide, ed. K. Detlefsen, 9–24. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  17. Naaman-Zauderer, Noa. 2010. Descartes’ deontological turn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Nozick, Robert. 1981. Philosophical explanations. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  19. Occhionero, Miranda. 2009. Il sogno. Rome: Carocci.Google Scholar
  20. Popkin, Richard. 1979. History of scepticism, expanded and revised. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  21. Putnam, Hilary. 1977. Realism and reason. Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 50: 483–498.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Putnam, Hilary. 1981. Reason, truth and history. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Rée, Jonathan. 1987. Philosophical tales. London: Methuen.Google Scholar
  24. Schopenhauer, Arthur. 1972. Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung. In Sämtliche Werke, ed. A. Hübscher. Wiesbaden: F.A. Brockhaus.Google Scholar
  25. Secada, Jorge. 2000. Cartesian metaphysics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Striker, Gisela. 1996. On the differences between the Pyrrhonists and the Academics. In Essays on hellenistic epistemology and ethics, 135–149. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Striker, Gisela. 2001. Scepticism as a kind of philosophy. Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie 86: 113–129.Google Scholar
  28. Striker, Gisela. 2010. Academics versus Pyrrhonists reconsidered. In Ancient scepticism, ed. Richard Bett. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  29. Unger, Peter K. 1975. Ignorance. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  30. Williams, Bernard. 1978. Descartes. The project of pure enquiry. Harmondsworth: Penguin.Google Scholar
  31. Williams, Michael. 2010. Descartes’ transformation of the sceptical tradition. In Ancient scepticism, ed. Richard Bett, 268–313. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Università degli studi di BergamoBergamoItaly

Personalised recommendations