University of Pittsburgh, Fall Term 1997
Philosophy 0080: Introduction to Philosophical Problems
Tuesday/Thursday writing recitations
Ben Eggleston, recitation instructor

Paper Assignment no. 2

Write an essay of 3–5 pages on one of the following two topics. Your essay should make ample use of the relevant texts, not only representing authors’ views accurately, but also citing and interpreting specific passages where appropriate. It should also go into as much depth and detail as an essay of 3–5 pages can. Finally, your essay should conform to the instructions provided in “Guidelines for Writing a Philosophy Essay.” The rough draft of your essay will be due at the beginning of your recitation section on Thursday, October 9; and the final draft will be due at the beginning of your recitation section on Tuesday, October 21.

1. Descartes writes that “Surely great things are to be hoped for if I am lucky enough to find at least one thing that is certain and indubitable” (First Meditation). In order to find some point of absolute certainty on which he can then build a substantial body of knowledge, Descartes employs the method of radical doubt, in which everything is doubted so that nothing is taken for granted. This leads him to the conclusion (commonsensical to us today, but revolutionary in Descartes’s time) that what makes a person a person is the person’s mind—so that however permanently one might be associated with a particular body, one’s body is not really part of one’s identity. Critically examine the reasoning that Descartes uses to prove this point by writing a paper that answers the following questions in an organized and coherent way:

  1. How does Descartes employ the method of radical doubt? In other words, what are the two groups or categories into which Descartes sorts the beliefs that he wants to call into doubt, and what considerations does Descartes present to show that that the beliefs in these categories could be mistaken?
  2. What is the role of the idea of the “evil genius” in the method of radical doubt?
  3. Once everything Descartes used to believe is in doubt, what single point of absolute certainty does he discover first? And how does he argue for it?
  4. Then, how does Descartes argue that a person is identical with his or her mind, not his or her body? And is Descartes’s reasoning in support of this claim sound? (To answer these questions you may want to explain and to evaluate the principle of real distinction.)

2. A crucial passage in Descartes’s Meditations on First Philosophy is his story about the wax (Second Meditation). Indeed the point that Descartes is trying to prove in the passage about the wax is one of the main points of the book itself, and distinguishes Descartes as the sort of philosopher known as a rationalist. Argue for or against the point of the passage about the wax by answering the following questions in an organized and coherent way:

  1. What, briefly, does Descartes say in the story about the wax?
  2. What does Descartes think his story about the wax proves?
  3. What is the conception of scientific knowledge that leads Descartes to interpret his experience with the wax in this way, and how is this conception of scientific knowledge different from the conception of scientific knowledge that we have today? (A good answer to this question will include, but will not be limited to, (a) an explanation of the notion of an essential property and (b) an account of what experimentation or reasoning enables one to discover what a thing’s essential properties are.)
  4. What are the pros and cons of thinking about scientific knowledge in Descartes’s way? (To answer this question, consider and evaluate what Descartes’s conception of scientific knowledge leads him to think about the usefulness of the senses in learning things about wax. Do you agree with Descartes’s view of the usefulness (or uselessness) of the senses in such situations? Why or why not?)