Descartes, paragraph 1: Thinking like a philosopher

The first paragraph of Descartes’ Meditations says this:

SEVERAL years have now elapsed since I first became aware that I had accepted, even from my youth, many false opinions for true, and that consequently what I afterward based on such principles was highly doubtful; and from that time I was convinced of the necessity of undertaking once in my life to rid myself of all the opinions I had adopted, and of commencing anew the work of building from the foundation, if I desired to establish a firm and abiding superstructure in the sciences. But as this enterprise appeared to me to be one of great magnitude, I waited until I had attained an age so mature as to leave me no hope that at any stage of life more advanced I should be better able to execute my design. On this account, I have delayed so long that I should henceforth consider I was doing wrong were I still to consume in deliberation any of the time that now remains for action. To-day, then, since I have opportunely freed my mind from all cares [and am happily disturbed by no passions], and since I am in the secure possession of leisure in a peaceable retirement, I will at length apply myself earnestly and freely to the general overthrow of all my former opinions.


Since Descartes starts out by discussing the motivation for his meditations, I thought I would start out the PHL 102 semester by thinking a little bit about the habits of mind that make a good philosopher.

Question assumptions

First, there is the willingness to question one’s assumptions. Most people, most of the time, don’t question their most basic beliefs. Doing philosophy means being willing to look carefully at the presuppositions behind all our everyday opinions.

“I … became aware that I had accepted, even from my youth, many false opinions for true … I was convinced of the necessity of undertaking once in my life to rid myself of all the opinions I had adopted”

Some people talk as though whenever something is their opinion they don’t have to have a reason for it. That depends on what kind of opinion we are talking about. If my opinion is something like “I like chocolate ice cream better than vanilla”, then I don’t need much of a reason. If my opinion is “We will find life on other planets” or “Capital punishment is morally wrong” or “There is a God” then it makes a lot of sense to ask me to give some reasons.

Everyone has assumptions. We can’t think without them. Sometimes people who are trained to be objective about things – scientists and journalists and so on – think of themselves as making no assumptions, as being absolutely neutral. Philosophers know this is never true. No one is completely neutral.

At the same time, the assumptions we have matter. Everyone starts by assuming something, but that doesn’t mean that all belief systems are equally good. Some assumptions don’t make sense and/or don’t lead anywhere useful.

A good philosopher is intellectually humble. He is ready to change his mind whenever there is reason to. Some philosophers (and some philosophy students) become really arrogant in their philosophical understanding. That drives me crazy. I think philosophers should be the least arrogant people around, the most willing to listen.

Expect hard work

Second, philosophers know that getting to the truth about our most basic assumptions will be hard work. It’ll be tough both mentally and emotionally. It will take a deliberate decision to sift through everything.

It may take maturity. Sometimes young men or women, as brilliant as they may be, simply haven’t had enough life experience to develop the wisdom that guides their sifting.

Working through one’s assumptions may require being systematic and methodical. It may require writing things down. One of the hardest things to do in philosophy is to say what you mean clearly, so that other people can understand it.

There’s an interesting blog post about the value of philosophy here. Check it out.

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