Friday, April 25, 2014

The Quest for Certainty

I've been reading Steven Nadler's book on Descartes, The Philosopher, the Priest, and the Painter, and came across this interesting anecdote (which Nadler couldn't confirm as entirely historical):

"When one of Descartes's friends noticed his reticence and asked him why he did not join the others in praising the lecturer, he replied that while he appreciated Chandoux's attack on Scholastic philosophy, he was not pleased by his willingness to settle for mere probability in the question for knowledge.  He added that when it was a matter of people easygoing enough to be satisfied with probabilities, as was the case with the illustrious company before which he had the honor to speak, it was not difficult to pass off the false for the true, and in turn to make the true pass for the false in favor of appearances.  To prove this on the spot, he asked for someone in the assembled group to take the trouble to propose whatever truth he wanted, one among those that appear to be the most incontestable.  Someone did so, and then, with a dozen arguments each more probable than the other, [Descartes] finally came to prove to the company that the proposition was false.  He then proposed a falsehood of the sort that is ordinarily taken to be most evidently false, and by means of another dozen probable arguments, he brought his hearers to the point of taking this falsehood for a plausible truth.  The assembly was surprised by the force and extent of the genius that M. Descartes exhibited in his reasoning, but was even more astonished to be so clearly convinced of how easily their minds could be duped by probability" (pp. 92-93).

This reminded me a of a recent post by the Maverick Philosopher:

A Meditation on Certainty on Husserl's Birthday
Edmund Husserl was born on this date in 1859.
In his magisterial Augustine of Hippo, Peter Brown writes of Augustine, "He wanted complete certainty on ultimate questions." (1st ed., p. 88) If you don't thrill to that line, you are no philosopher. Compare Edmund Husserl: "Ohne Gewissheit kann ich eben nicht leben." "I just can't live without certainty." Yet he managed to live for years after penning that line into his diary, and presumably without certainty.

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