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Skepticism plays a central role in 17th century philosophy; Descartes uses systematic skepticism as the starting point of his method, for example. Discuss the role of skepticism in the ideas of Descartes and Pascal. How does each figure employ skeptical thought to set up their methods and ideas? How does each comment on the limited character of the human ability to know? How does each address these limits through their methods? Be sure to focus your discussion of the texts you have read by each author.


Title: The Role of Skepticism in the Ideas of Descartes and Pascal

Skepticism played a central in the 17th century philosophy. For example Descartes used systematic skepticism as the starting point of his method. On the other hand, Pascal provided an analysis of differences between the intuitive and mathematical mind as his point of departure (Pascal, 1950). Skepticism played an important role in the ideas of both Descartes and Pascal. This is evident in the way they employed skeptical thought to comment on the limited character of the human ability to know. Using their respective methods, these philosophers address the limits of human knowledge in a manner that amounts to a significant contribution to skepticism.


Descartes uses systematic skepticism to explain his view that the human ability to know is limited. In Meditations, his principal task is to come up with a system that would ultimately bring him to the truth. Through systematic skepticism, Descartes sought to establish sound foundational beliefs on the basis of which all further intellectual inquiry would be built. He had to adopt a systematic approach because any element of doubt would cast a ray of doubt on the entire knowledge structure. He likens this approach to the practice of taking all apples out of a sack one after the other and then putting the sound ones back. This analogy demonstrates the important the importance of demolishing an existing structure with a view to establish a new one with a better foundation.

Descartes uses a two-fold approach to the search for truth. The first component entails using what he calls the Method of Doubt. The second component constitutes a constructive phase in which he seeks to rebuild a framework for knowledge that is founded on the truths that remain following the adoption of the Method of Doubt. In other words, the two-fold approach entails destruction and construction. In the destructive phase, skepticism played an important part, without which no construction would have taken place. It is through skepticism that Descartes established a foundation upon which to construct a new edifice of knowledge. Moreover, he created room for other philosophers to investigate his findings to determine whether the newly-constructed edifice of knowledge was built exclusively using the pillars of truth identified during the destruction process. This systematic approach also enabled Descartes to avoid accepting any scholastic maxims and assumptions that were not proven to constitute truth during destruction.

Skepticism also enables Descartes to distinguish between truth and belief. Through the Method of Doubt, he systematically removes all uncertain beliefs to ensure that only certain beliefs are accommodated in one’s philosophy. Again, this conception of skepticism could be applied across the board, thereby living up to the expectations of the systematic nature of his philosophical enquiry. The main advantage of this approach is that it facilitates the process checking numerous beliefs at the same time instead of adopting the laborious process of examining each one of them separately. He did this by grouping beliefs and doubting all the characteristics that they shared.

Pascal also uses skepticism in a remarkable way to express his ideas. The point of departure for his arguments entails the difference between the intuitive and mathematical mind. In Pensées, Pascal argues that using common sense standards, one can find an adequate basis for beliefs. He promoted skepticism forcefully in Pensées, particularly in the way he set out to explain the difference between intuitive and mathematical mind. However he denied that it is impossible for complete skepticism to exist, simply because nature prevents this from happening.

Regarding the intuitive mind, Pascal argues that the principles used are to be found in common day-to-day use, thus are there for everyone to see (Pascal, 1950). A person only needs to look for them effortlessly. However, since the principles are subtle and numerous, good eyesight is required. Like Descartes, Pascal argues that omitting one principle automatically leads to error; thus, one needs to have clear sight of all principles and an accurate mind at any given time to ensure that false deductions are not drawn from known principles. In contrast, mathematical mind entails the use of palpable principles but far removed from ordinary, day-to-day use. This characteristic makes it difficult for one to turn his mind in the direction of the mathematical approach.

Based on the skeptical approach, Pascal argues that for all mathematicians to have intuitive minds, they should have clear sight of ordinary, day-to-day principles; he also argues that all intuitive minds would become mathematical by simply turning their eyes to mathematical principles to which they are not used. The same approach enables Pascal to distinguish between variations in right understanding exhibited by different people. The difference, according to him, occurs simply because of variations in the order of things. For instance, some people, typically mathematicians, display acute judgment based on conclusions arising from a few premises. Others, typically the intuitive minds, draw conclusions well wherever many premises are provided.

In providing the rationale for opposing the idea of complete skepticism, Pascal provides numerous examples, all of which dwell on human sensory perceptions. He argues that as humans, we are deafened by too much sound, dazzled by too much light, and obscured by great length of discourse. The gist of the argument is that we are limited in every conceivable way. This in itself lends credence to the idea of skepticism. At the same time, however, the extent of this limitation extends even to the idea of skepticism itself.

Both Descartes and Pascal comment on the limited character of the human ability to know. To demonstrate that the human ability is limited, Descartes starts with the assumption that a powerful, malicious demon is in control of his perceptions, thereby making him dream that he is in the contemporary world as we know it. He supposes that the earth, the sky, and the sounds are all external things that are nothing more than illusions of these dreams. He presupposes that these illusions have laid snares for his credulity.  Of Course Descartes’ aim is not to convince mankind that this is indeed what he thinks; rather his objective is to emphasize the individuality and limitation of the first-person perspective. This limitation is derived from the realization that it is impossible for anyone to prove that this is not the case. This way, Descartes succeeded in demonstrating that the human ability to know is severely limited by the fact that it is primarily dependent on unverifiable first-person perspectives. The bottom line of his argument is that a conceivable possibility is always there to the effect that the things that are normally referred to as human abilities could be nothing more than mere illusions.


Based on the experiment on the malicious demon thought, Descartes argues that every belief that is founded on sensory perception must be doubted because one can never be sure that they are not based on hallucinations or illusions. This means that such beliefs cannot be accepted as true beliefs within the conception of foundational philosophy. Descartes even extends this argument to the world in which we live and even our own bodies. He points out that the only knowledge human beings have of their bodies has been acquired through sensory perceptions. Opponents of this view often claim that the idea of a malicious demon is a fantastic but unlike possibility simply because of the soundness of the human belief in the world of various external objects by virtue of being the most probable scenario.

Pascal also comments on the limited nature of human actions. Like Descartes, he is skeptical of the possibility of acquiring certain knowledge. He argues that it is impossible for humans to acquire not just certain knowledge but also to suffer from absolute ignorance. His position is that human beings sail in a vast sphere that is forever drifting in uncertainty from one end to the other (Pascal, 1950). The natural condition for us is one where the desire to reach the Infinite is unending but one that can never be achieved. The solution, according to Pascal is for human beings to give up the search for stability and certainty. To address these limits, Pascal uses the idea of soul and body. Based on this method, he accuses philosophers of speaking about material things using the spiritual dimension, and spiritual things using the material dimension.


Pascal, B. (1950). Pensees. Paris: Pantheon Books.

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