THE METHOD OF DOUBT
Descartes is a remarkably good writer, and his dramatic progress in the first two Meditations seems natural and unpremediated. It is important to realize that Descartes is employing not just one but two methods (The methods of doubt and analysis) in his descent into the pit of skepticism and that his progress is thus very methodical. We will begin here by focusing on the Method of Doubt.
What is the Method of Doubt? Descartes says that he wishes to examine those things which he thinks to be true and set aside all those beliefs of which there might be some doubt. Examining all of one's beliefs, one by one, would be a very long, chancy and impractical process. So, Descartes needs a way to group beliefs together, which will allow him to call into question whole classes of beliefs by questioning their common character. He finds such a way to group beliefs by focusing on the faculty, such as the senses, the imagination or reason, from which beliefs are derived. He then deploys a series of more and more powerful skeptical hypotheses which call into question his claims to knowledge derived from these faculties. A method is a procedure for doing something which is repeated. Descartes method of doubt, then, is to deploy a skeptical hypothesis, see what can and what cannot be doubted on that hypothesis, and then if there is something which can be doubted, to deploy a still stronger skeptical hypothesis to see if that which could not be doubted on the earlier hypothesis can be called into question by a stronger skeptical hypothesis.
The following table represents the methodical progress which Descartes makes in the first two Meditations towards finding something which he cannot doubt, and thus knows for certain. The table demonstrates that Descartes is moving from one faculty to another, from the senses through the imagination to reason. Each of these faculties is the source of a whole vast set of propositions which one might claim to know. Each...