Van Cleve on Gewirth

Gewirth answers the problem of the Cartesian Circle via the notion of psychological certainty. Cleaned up a bit, the best version of his view runs as follows. We first arrive at a clear and distinct perception that God exists and is no deceiver by inferring it from premises that are themselves clearly and distinctly perceived. We then define the epistemic notion of certainty in terms of there being no proposition that is a reason for doubting. Next, revising Gewirth a bit, we understand a reason for doubt so that X is a reason for doubt only if it is false that its negation is clearly and distinctly perceived. Then we note that the only reason for doubting clear and distinct perceptions is that God is a deceiver. From these premises it follows that all clear and distinct perceptions are certain in the epistemic sense.

Jim objects to this argument in the Cartesian context by noting that this epistemic sense of certainty is not Descartes’ notion of metaphysical certainty.
Descartes’ notion requires that metaphysical certainty be factive and the above notion isn’t. But notice that for those of us who don’t think epistemic certainty needs to be factive, this difficulty disappears. Given such a noncartesian position, what should we say about the Gewirth argument?

One thing to note is that the last premise is false, the premise that claims that the only reason for doubting C&D perceptions is that God is a deceiver. There are other reasons that entail that God is a deceiver, if we think about the skeptical hypotheses in question (and interpret the theistic hypothesis conditionally as the claim that if there is a God of the sort Descartes considers, he is a deceiver). We thus need a closure principle of a rather troubling sort, or we must hold that only those who go through the Cartesian therapy are capable of epistemic certainty.

Van Cleve objects to the argument in another way. He objects that the standard for grounds for doubt is too low. Instead, he claims, you have to be certain that, e.g., the Demon Hypothesis is false in order for it not to be a reason to doubt.

Two points here. I think Jim is right that the Gewirth standard for grounds for doubt is too high. But Jim’s seems to me too low. What is important is that a ground for doubt is an epistemic possibility for you. To get to Jim’s account, you have to understand the notion of epistemic possibility in terms of not being certain of its denial. Jim defines epistemic possibility in this way, but as Huemer’s earlier post on epistemic possibility reveals, such an account is mistaken.


Van Cleve on Gewirth — 11 Comments

  1. I thought that Van Cleve’s objection wasn’t just that metaphysical certainty not just be factive, but that there is a strong *guarantee* of truth for what is metaphysically certain. Using mere psychological certainty as the lower level of a “two-level solution” to the Circle does seem to me problematic. In my paper on the Circle (“Descartes, Epistemic Principles, Epistemic Circularity, and Scientia,” PPQ, 1992; available on-line at ), I try a two-level solution that doesn’t succumb to Van Cleve’s objection by setting the lower level of certainty too low. Sounds like it’s at least close to Gewirth as you’re imagining revising him. The solution is presented in the earlier sections of my paper, but the place where I explicitly respond to Van Cleve’s objections to other two-level solutions is in section F.

  2. Sorry: The first sentence above got mangled a bit. Try:

    I thought Van Cleve’s objections wasn’t just that metaphysical certainty should be factive, but that there must be a strong *guarantee* of truth for what is metaphysically certain.

  3. I don’t use the notion of ep. pos. (though I’m certainly not averse to doing so!). It may amount to roughly the same thing, though. The lower level of certainty on my “two-level solution” is that afforded by clear & distinct perception. Even if you C&DP that p, there can still be a kind of reason for doubt — an undermining reason — that’s consistent with everything you C&DdP. If so, you’re not at the higher level of certainty. But once you C&DP that ~r, then r no longer counts as a reason for doubt. So, yes, this does sound like addition.

  4. “We then define the epistemic notion of certainty in terms of there being no proposition that is a reason for doubting.”

    I’m not following this – p is epistemically certain iff there is no proposition that is a reason for doubting p – is that it?

    Should it be “no true proposition”? Or what?

    If epistemic certainty isn’t factive, then the argument we’re attributing to Descartes is a bit weaker than the one I thought he made (concerning clarity and distinctness). I thought the conclusion of that argument (beginning of Meditation Three) was: everything I clearly and distinctly perceive is true. Not: everything I clearly and distinctly perceieve is such that there is no (true) proposition that is a reason to doubt it (viz. the thing that I perceive).

    (I guess I’m also not sure how this is a “solution” to the problem of the Circle. Suppose I doubt that CD perception is reliable – perhaps there’s an evil demon messing with me. Descartes argument: “I CD perceive that God is no deceiver, etc. etc.” Isn’t the appeal to CD perception (or, better, the mere employment of CDP perception), in an argument for the legitimacy of CD perception, what supposedly makes this argument viciously circular? And which makes Van Cleve’s way out the only way out?)

  5. Allan, yes, you’re right that the argument ends up being too weak for Descartes. And yes, this is Gewirth’s interpretation of the argument. The idea of Gewirth’s interpretation is that you can’t do better than have beliefs that you couldn’t have a reason to doubt (and you get this if you set the bar high enough for what it is to have a reason to doubt!).

    What you say is basically what van Cleve says in the article in question. I bet you guys know each other!

  6. Allan: There is a kind of epistemic circularity in Descartes’s procedure, as I write in my paper. But it’s not clearly vicious: There’s no p and q and status J such that Descartes is committed to all of these:

    1. My belief that p can have status J only if my belief that q first has status J.
    2. My belief that q can have status J only if my belief that p first has status J.
    3. My belief that p and/or my belief that q is of status J.

    Van Cleve’s way out involves claiming that individual c&dp’s are never in any way doubted. It seems to me that this can’t be Descartes’s way out, given the strong statements in the Meditations, like that “there is not one of my former beliefs about which a doubt may not properly be raised,” etc. So, on my two-level reading, these individual c&dp’s start out only at the lower level (that of c&dp), and attain the higher level (“scientia”) when Descartes reaches the result that what he c&dp’s is true. How valuable this exercise is turns largely on the value of the type of epistemically circular argument in question. I have some discussion of this in the paper.

    But the difference isn’t that I ascribe to Descartes an epistemically circular argument while JVC doesn’t: The epistemically circular argument by which Descartes uses particular c&dp’s to attain the general result that what he c&dp’s is true on my reading is the same (epistemically circular) argument that JVC ascribes to him: This is part of JVC’s treatment that I follow. (I’m using “epistemically circular” to describe arguments for the reliability of a faculty (or way of forming beliefs) that takes as its premises beliefs that result from that very faculty.)

  7. I definitely side with Van Cleve in thinking that there’s no good reason to deny that someone’s belief that CD perception is reliable might enjoy epistemic benefits from being based on beliefs had by CD perception. That kind of circularity is OK, sure.

    Keith, stop at any time you’re sick of explaining your paper to someone who hasn’t read it (but I’ll take free internet lessons over real work anyday, so), but let me see if I can’t fit Descartes into your (1) — (3).

    Call “basket status” the status that a belief has when the proposition believed has passed Descartes’ procedure of doubt and been deemed ‘not rotten’ and therefore acceptable to go ‘back in the basket’ (as in the metaphor in the Seventh Replies). (So I won’t assume whether this status is epistemic justification, or knowledge, or certain knowledge, or whatever.)

    From the 3rd and 4th paragraph of the Third Meditation I think we can conclude:

    1. My beliefs based on CD perception can have basket status only if my belief that God is no deceiver first has basket status.

    Descartes first expresses doubt about the reliability of CD perception — “Yet I previously accepted as wholly certain and evident many things which I afterwards realized were doubtful” — and eventually concludes that there remains a “slight” and “metaphysical” doubt about whether CD perception is reliable, which remains only because “I do not yet even know for sure whether there is a God at all.”

    But Descartes thinks that his belief that God is no deceiver is based on a bunch of cogito-esque beliefs like “I have an idea of perfection” and such. “God exists” gets into the basket only in virtue of these prior propositions getting into the basket. So Descartes is committed to:

    2. My belief that God is no deceiver can have basket status only if my beliefs based on CD perception (in general) first have basket status.

    And obviously to:

    3. My beliefs based on CD perception and my belief that God is no deceiver all have basket status.

    Or, more exactly, how about these for p, q, and J:

    J = basket status
    p = I have an idea of perfection
    q = God is no deceiver

    In favor of (1), I present Meditation Three, p. 3 — 4 (as above); the “metaphysical doubt” remains. And in favor of (2), I present Descartes’ eventual solution to that metaphysical doubt — the arguments for God’s existence in Meditations Three and Five.

  8. Allan: Letting p and q be what you specify, then when J is the very-high-but-not-completely-beyond-doubt status afforded by c&dp (the lower level on my two-level solution), then Descartes, as I read him, denies (1): You need no proof of God to to attain that level of certainty for particular c&dp’s.

    Where J is scientia or perfect knowledge (the higher level), then Descartes, as I read him, can deny both (1) and (2): You don’t need scientia of p before you can have scientia of q, or vice versa; rather, when you come to c&dp the general truth that what you c&dp is true, then all of your lower level certainty is converted simultaneously to the higher level of certainty.

    That answers the question wrt the two levels of certainty I work with. As to your “basket status,” I think your description of that status presupposes that only one level of certainty is in play. Most of what you write — esp. about that which isn’t at basket status being rotten & to be thrown out — makes me think it should be identified with my lower level. But in that case, remember that what makes basket status isn’t necessarily all the way up where Descartes wants to be, and is not completely beyond doubt. (The metaphysical reason for doubt still applies.)

    So long as we are working with only one level of certainty, we will be stuck in this dilemma (from my paper):

    As long as we are thinking only in terms of one level of certainty, we are faced with a dilemma: Either Descartes’s clear and distinct intuitions (clear and distinct perceptions not based on argument but immediately intuited) are already at that level from the outset, or they are not. There’s a single initial test that a belief either passes or fails. Descartes either retains the belief, putting it among his stock of certainties from which he can attempt to prove other things, or he throws it out unless and until it can be proven on the basis of those beliefs that do pass the initial test. If Descartes’s clear and distinct intuitions initially fail the test, they then must be thrown out, and will be unavailable for use as premises from which to prove anything. But if they pass, then they are already at the desired level from the outset and they obviously don’t need a proof of God’s existence to attain that status.

    A two-level reading avoids this dilemma by opening up a middle ground of initial epistemic appraisal. Descartes’s clear and distinct intuitions initially fail to attain the higher level of scientia. But they’re not thereby thrown out. They are rather taken to be at the already very high lower level, and that is enough, on my two-level reading, to make them available for use as premises in Descartes’s proof of the general principle that his clear and distinct perceptions are true.

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