philosophy essay 22

ESSAY III: On paradoxes and the Cartesian mind

Write an essay of about 6 pages (double-spaced: about 1400 to 1500 words).

Your essay is due on Monday, June 11, 2018, 12:00 noon.

Your TA will instruct you on how to turn in your essay (in electronic or hard copy).

Reminder: Your Essay III is worth approximately 40% of your final course grade, and this essay is in lieu of a Final Exam (there is no separate Final Exam).

[Suggested word counts are approximate guides only.]

Your task is to write a coherent essay that displays understanding of key concepts from our course and how they apply to our reading of Descartes with an eye to the nature of mind and time.

A. Descartes’ “demon” and the “cogito”. [600 words]

In the First of his Meditations Descartes uses the hypothesis of a “malicious demon” to argue that our ordinary beliefs about the world around us are not certain. Thus, he writes, “I will suppose therefore that … some malicious demon … has employed all his energies in order to deceive me.” (p. 15)

What is the aim of Descartes’ meditations? What is his method of doubt? How does the “demon” hypothesis work in his method of doubt? Why does he write in the first person?

In the Second of his Meditations Descartes spells out his famous principle called the “cogito”: “I think, therefore I am” (in Latin: cogito ergo sum). According to Descartes, whenever I am thinking “I am”, I am certain that I exist.

Explain how the cogito is supposed to work. What is its particular aim in the Meditations? Why is the cogito formulated in the first person (“I think …”)?

B. The “cogito” as pragmatic paradox. [250 words]

Sorensen defines a pragmatic paradox and how it differs from a traditional paradox (such as the Liar Paradox: “I am now lying”). He then defines a pragmatic tautology. Briefly define a pragmatic paradox and a pragmatic tautology: see Sorensen, Chapter 12, pp. 162, 169.

On Sorensen ‘s analysis (pp. 168-171), comparing Descartes’ formulation with Augustine’s much-earlier formulation: the cogito presents a pragmatic tautology. Explain. Do you find this analysis correct, that is, that Descartes’ cogito forms a pragmatic tautology? If so, does Descartes’ cogito defeat the “demon”? How does Descartes’ cogito principle gain certainty?

Why is the cogito formulated in the first person (“I think …”)? If the pronoun “I” were replaced by the name “Descartes”, would the third-person principle “Descartes thinks, therefore he exists” still be a pragmatic tautology?

C. The “cogito” and time. [500 words]

Sorensen observes that Augustine, given his early formulation of the cogito, concludes that time is subjective (pp. 173-176). Consider how Descartes might respond to this Augustinian view of time.

What role if any does time play in Descartes’ cogito and so in his course of argument in the Meditations? If time is unreal, i.e., does not exist, would Descartes’ cogito defeat the demon? If time is merely subjective, i.e., a feature of one’s mind or consciousness, would Descartes’ cogito still defeat the demon?

This is an occasion for you to reflect on how philosophical evaluation of paradoxes may lead us to a perspective on our knowledge of the world in which we live.

Consider for a moment how common in today’s media are everyday views that (i) one’s mind is what’s happening in one’s brain and so (ii) a computer that mimics brain activity is thinking.

Note on sources:

The texts on which you are to draw are (as assigned for the course):

• René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy (edition: translated and edited by John Cottingham, Revised Edition, Cambridge University Press, 1996).

• Roy Sorensen, A Brief History of the Paradox (Oxford University Press, 2003).

— Do not use any other outside sources! Your essay is an exercise in your own thinking about ideas developed in the assigned texts.

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