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Cartesian Skepticism

Edited by Christopher Ranalli (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM))
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Summary

Cartesian skepticism is the problem of explaining how knowledge of (or justified belief about) the external world is possible given the challenge that we cannot know (or justifiably believe) the denials of skeptical hypotheses. The problem has its source in Rene Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, and in particular, the First Meditation. In general, a Cartesian skeptical hypothesis is a possibility which is incompatible with the truth of what we believe about the world (or incompatible with what we believe being knowledge), but which is indistinguishable from what we take to be our normal circumstances, where our beliefs are not systematically false (or systematically unknowable). For example, in the First Meditation, Descartes considers the hypothesis that there is a powerful evil demon who renders his beliefs about the world false, while making it seem to him just as if they are true. The challenge Descartes raises is: how can we know that the evil demon hypothesis is false, if such a scenario is indistinguishable from what we take to be our actual scenario? Skepticism about the external world, then, is the thesis that knowledge of (or justified belief) about the external world is impossible. And a proponent of this form of skepticism is a Cartesian skeptic if they appeal to skeptical hypotheses in order to show that we cannot know (or justifiably believe) anything about the external world. The Cartesian skeptical argument is often presented as follows: (1) if we know that a proposition about the external world P is true, then we know the denial of the skeptical hypothesis SH. But (2) we do not (or cannot) know the denial of SH. Therefore, (3) we do not (or cannot) know that P. We can organize the literature on Cartesian skepticism around two central areas of focus: (a) the nature and structure of Cartesian skeptical arguments, and (b) responses to the Cartesian skeptical argument. Epistemologists are divided on the nature of the Cartesian skeptical argument. Proponents of the closure-principle formulation of the Cartesian skeptical argument maintain that the argument depends on a suitable closure principle for knowledge or justification. Proponents of the underdetermination-principle formulation maintain that the argument depends on a suitable underdetermination principle. Responses to the Cartesian skeptical argument can be divided into those which maintain that premise (1) is defective and those which maintain that premise (2) is defective. Moorean's reject premise (2), and argue that since we can know that P (e.g., I have two hands), and we know that P implies that SH is false, we are in a position to know that SH is false. Externalist Moorean’s reject premise (2), and argue that we can know that P if our believing that P is the product of a reliable belief-forming process (reliabilism), or if our belief that P is safe (safety theories). We can thus make a knowledge-preserving deduction from P to the denial of SH. Knowledge-first varieties reject premise (2), and argue that our evidence for P in our actual case is different from our evidence in the case in which SH is true, because our evidence is what we know, and in the actual case, we know that P, whereas, in SH, we do not know that P. Internalist Moorean's reject premise (2), and argue that our perceptual experiences provide us with knowledge (or justification) to believe P, and so deduce ~SH. Dogmatist varieties argue that these perceptual experiences alone provide us with prima facie justification to believe P, even though the strength of this justification is the same in the actual case as it is in the case in which SH is true. Epistemological Disjunctivist’s argue that the strength of the epistemic justification is different in the actual case than the case in which SH is true, and that the strength of our justification in our actual case is factive and accessible to us. A priorist’s reject premise (2), and argue that we can know that SH is false, even though this is not grounded in empirical evidence or reasons. Entitlement varities ague that we have a default, non-evidential entitlement to reject SH. A priori argument varieties argue that there is an a priori argument for the conclusion that SH is false (e.g., from considerations about meaning or content). Explanationist’s reject premise (2), and argue that SH fails to explain our experiential evidence and beliefs better than what we take to be our actual scenario. Tracking theorist’s reject premise (1), and argue that our belief that P can track its truth even though our belief that SH is false fails to track its truth. Relevant alternatives theorist’s argue that SH is not a relevant epistemic alternative to P, so that even though our evidence is not sufficient for rejecting SH, it is sufficient for P. Contextualist’s argue that the truth-conditions of our knowledge-ascriptions are sensitive to context, allowing that, in ordinary contexts, ascriptions of “S knows that P” can be true even though, in skeptical contexts, ascriptions of “S knows that P” are false.

Key works

For the original presentation of Cartesian skepticism and the Cartesian skeptical argument, see Descartes 1996. For work on the nature of the Cartesian skeptical argument, see Unger 1975 , Nozick 1981, Stroud 1984, Williams 1991, and Pryor 2000. For work on closure-based and underdetermination-based formulations of the argument, see Yalçin 1992, Brueckner 1994, Cohen 1998, Vogel 2004, and Pritchard 2005. A classic response to Cartesian skepticism is Moore 1959. For Moorean responses from epistemic externalism, see Hill 1996, Sosa 1999, Greco 2000, and Pritchard 2005. For knowledge-first variants, see Williamson 2000. For dogmatist responses, see Pryor 2000, and Huemer 2000. For epistemological disjunctivist responses, see McDowell 2008 and Pritchard 2012. For explanationist responses, see Vogel 2005 and Vogel 1990. For entitlement responses, see Wright 2004. For a priori argument responses, see Kant 1998, Putnam 1981, and Davidson 1989. For truth-tracking responses, see Nozick 1981, and Zalabardo 2012. For relevant alternatives responses, see Dretske 1970 and Stine 1976. For contextualist responses, see Cohen 2000, Lewis 1996, and DeRose 1995.

Introductions For the historical context of Cartesian skepticism, see Bermúdez 2008 and Williams 2010. For introductions, see Stroud 1984 (Chapter 1), Luper 2011, Greco 2008, and Hazlett 2014. For collections, see DeRose & Warfield 1999. For recent work, see Pritchard 2002.
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  1. Han Thomas Adriaenssen (2011). An Early Critic of Locke: The Anti-Scepticism of Henry Lee. Locke Studies 11:17-47.
    Although Henry Lee is often recognized to be an important early critic of Locke's 'way of ideas', his Anti-Scepticism (1702) has hardly received the scholarly attention it deserves. This paper seeks to fill that lacuna. It argues that Lee's criticism of Locke's alleged representationalism was original, and that it was quite different from the more familiar kind of criticism that was launched against Locke's theory of ideas by such thinkers as John Sergeant and Thomas Reid. In addition, the paper offers (...)
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  2. Kristoffer Ahlstrom (2011). Dream Skepticism and the Conditionality Problem. Erkenntnis 75 (1):45-60.
    Recently, Ernest Sosa (2007) has proposed two novel solutions to the problem of dream skepticism. In the present paper, I argue that Sosa’s first solution falls prey to what I will refer to as the conditionality problem, i.e., the problem of only establishing a conditional—in this case, if x, then I am awake, x being a placeholder for a condition incompatible with dreaming—in a context where it also needs to be established that we can know that the antecedent holds, and (...)
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  3. Henry E. Allison (2005). Hume's Philosophical Insouciance: A Reading of Treatise 1.4. 7. Hume Studies 31 (2):317-346.
    This paper argues that Hume’s central concern in T 1.4.7 is to find a way to rely upon his cognitive faculties in spite of what he has learned about them in the preceding sections of part 4. The trouble is that having identified the understanding with "the general and more establish'd properties of the imagination" (T 1.4.7.6; SBN 267), Hume finds that these properties cannot function apart from other "seemingly trivial" ones, which calls into question the trustworthiness of his cognitive (...)
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  4. Claudio Almeida (2012). Epistemic Closure, Skepticism and Defeasibility. Synthese 188 (2):197-215.
    Those of us who have followed Fred Dretske's lead with regard to epistemic closure and its impact on skepticism have been half-wrong for the last four decades. But those who have opposed our Dretskean stance, contextualists in particular, have been just wrong. We have been half-right. Dretske rightly claimed that epistemic status is not closed under logical implication. Unlike the Dretskean cases, the new counterexamples to closure offered here render every form of contextualist pro-closure maneuvering useless. But there is a (...)
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  5. Jean-Robert Armogathe (2009). Part Five: Skepticism in Early Cartesianism. Early German Reactions to Huet's Censura. In Maia Neto, José Raimundo, Gianni Paganini & John Christian Laursen (eds.), Skepticism in the Modern Age: Building on the Work of Richard Popkin. Brill.
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  6. Sorin Bangu (2006). Underdetermination and the Argument From Indirect Confirmation. Ratio 19 (3):269–277.
    In this paper I criticize one of the most convincing recent attempts to resist the underdetermination thesis, Laudan’s argument from indirect confirmation. Laudan highlights and rejects a tacit assumption of the underdetermination theorist, namely that theories can be confirmed only by empirical evidence that follows from them. He shows that once we accept that theories can also be confirmed indirectly, by evidence not entailed by them, the skeptical conclusion does not follow. I agree that Laudan is right to reject this (...)
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  7. Dorit Bar-On (1990). Scepticism: The External World and Meaning. Philosophical Studies 60 (3):207 - 231.
    In this paper, I compare and contrast two kinds of scepticism, Cartesian scepticism about the external world and Quinean scepticism about meaning. I expose Quine's metaphysical claim that there are no facts of the matter about meaning as a sceptical response to a sceptical problem regarding the possibility of our knowledge of meanings. I argue that this sceptical response is overkill; for the sceptical problem about our knowledge of meanings may receive a treatment similar to the naturalistic treatment Quine himself (...)
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  8. James Beebe (2010). Constraints on Sceptical Hypotheses. Philosophical Quarterly 60 (240):449 - 470.
    I examine the conditions which hypotheses must satisfy if they are to be used to raise significant sceptical challenges. I argue that sceptical hypotheses do not have to be logically, metaphysically or epistemically possible: they need only to depict scenarios subjectively indistinguishable from the actual world and to show how subjects can believe what they do while not having knowledge. I also argue that sceptical challenges can be raised against a priori beliefs, even if those beliefs are necessarily true. I (...)
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  9. Giulia Belgioioso (2009). The Hyperbolic Way to the Truth From Balzac to Descartes : "Toute Hyperbole Tend Là, de Nous Amener À la Vérité Par l'Excès de la Vérité, C'est-À-Dire Par la Mensonge". In Maia Neto, José Raimundo, Gianni Paganini & John Christian Laursen (eds.), Skepticism in the Modern Age: Building on the Work of Richard Popkin. Brill.
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  10. Jose Benardete (1982). Sceptical Essays. Review of Metaphysics 36 (2):463-464.
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  11. José Luis Bermúdez (2008). Cartesian Skepticism: Arguments and Antecedents. In John Greco (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Skepticism. Oxford University Press.
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  12. José Luis Bermúdez (2000). The Originality of Cartesian Skepticism: Did It Have Ancient or Mediaeval Antecedents? History of Philosophy Quarterly 17 (4):333 - 360.
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  13. José Luis Bermúdez (1998). Levels of Scepticism in the First Meditation. British Journal for the History of Philosophy 6 (2):237-245.
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  14. José Luis Bermúdez (1997). Scepticism and Science in Descartes. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 57 (4):743-772.
    Recent work on Descartes has drastically revised the traditional conception of Descartes as a paradigmatic rationalist and foundationalist. The traditional picture, familar from histories of philosophy and introductory lectures, is of a solitary meditator dedicated to the pursuit of certainty in a unified science via a rigourous process of logical deduction from indubitable first principles. But the Descartes that has emerged from recent studies strikes a more subtle balance between metaphysics, physics, epistemology and the philosophy of science. There is much (...)
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  15. José Luis Bermúdez (1995). Skepticism and Subjectivity. International Philosophical Quarterly 35 (2):141-158.
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  16. Alexander Bird (2001). Scepticism and Contrast Classes. Analysis 61 (2):97–107.
    1. Contextualism seeks to acknowledge the power of sceptical arguments while permitting to be true at least some of the assertions of knowledge and justification we commonly make. It seems to me now just as if I am in an office in Edinburgh. According to the sceptic the claim that I am in fact in an office in Edinburgh is unjustified, since there is no reason I can give for this belief that is not also consistent with (or undermined by) (...)
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  17. Carolyn Black (1999). Naturalistic Responses to Skepticism. Grazer Philosophische Studien 57:67-79.
    One of the many philosophical responses to scepticism is naturalism. It is explored how and to what extent it is successful in discussing these questions as they pertain external world scepticism. One interesting feature of naturalism is that it shares with scepticism the view that we lack proof and knowledge of an external world. The naturalist, however, unlike many sceptics and their more traditional disputants, doesn't think it matters. The first part of the paper contains a description of the naturalistic (...)
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  18. Constance Blackwell (2009). Part Four: Sources of Cartesian Doubt. Aristotle's Perplexity Becomes Descartes's Doubt : Metaphysics 3, 1 and Methodical Doubt in Benito Pereira and René Descartes. [REVIEW] In Maia Neto, José Raimundo, Gianni Paganini & John Christian Laursen (eds.), Skepticism in the Modern Age: Building on the Work of Richard Popkin. Brill.
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  19. Richard J. Blackwell (1962). The History of Scepticism From Erasmus to Descartes. Modern Schoolman 39 (4):391-393.
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  20. Michael Blome-Tillmann (2006). A Closer Look at Closure Scepticism. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 106 (3):381–390.
    The most prominent arguments for scepticism in modern epistemology employ closure principles of some kind. To begin my discussion of such arguments, consider Simple Knowledge Closure (SKC): (SKC) (Kxt[p] ∧ (p → q)) → Kxt[q].1 Assuming its truth for the time being, the sceptic can use (SKC) to reason from the two assumptions that, firstly, we don’t know ¬sh and that, secondly, op entails ¬sh to the conclusion that we don’t know op, where ‘op’ and ‘sh’ are shorthand for ‘ordinary (...)
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  21. C. De Boer (1931). Sceptical Notes on the Sense-Datum. Journal of Philosophy 28 (19):505 - 519.
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  22. James Bogen & Morton Beckner (1979). An Empirical Refutation of Cartesian Scepticism. Mind 88 (351):351-369.
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  23. O. K. Bouwsma (1945). Des Cartes' Skepticism of the Senses. Mind 54 (216):313-322.
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  24. Harry M. Bracken (2004). Scepticism in the Enlightenment. International Studies in Philosophy 36 (1):252-254.
  25. Janet Broughton (1984). Skepticism and the Cartesian Circle. Canadian Journal of Philosophy 14 (4):593 - 615.
    I argue that descartes thinks he can be metaphysically certain about each premise in the argument for god's existence, Even before he draws the argument's final conclusion that all his distinct ideas are metaphysically certain. The certainty of the personal premises is secured in the second meditation. The certainty of the causal premises, I argue, Arises from their central role in generating reasons for doubt of the kind that interest descartes.
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  26. A. L. Brueckner (2000). Klein on Closure and Skepticism. Philosophical Studies 98 (2):139-151.
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  27. Anthony Brueckner (2008). Reply to Coffman on Closure and Skepticism. Synthese 162 (2):167–171.
    E. J. Coffman defends Peter Klein’s work on epistemic closure against various objections that I raised in an earlier paper. In this paper, I respond to Coffman.
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  28. Anthony Brueckner (2005). Cartesian Skepticism, Content Externalism, and Self-Knowledge. Veritas 50 (4):53-64.
    Há um argumento cético clássico derivado das Meditações sobre a filosofia primeira. Este artigo oferece uma formulação contemporânea padrão do argumento, pretendendo mostrar que ninguém sabe qualquer coisa sobre o mundo extramental. A obra de Hilary Putnam na filosofia da linguagem e da mente parece fornecer uma resposta a uma versão atualizada do argumento cético cartesiano. Em sua maior parte, este artigo é dedicado a uma análise e crítica das meditações anti-céticas de Putnam. PALAVRAS-CHAVE – Descartes. Putnam. Ceticismo. Cérebros em (...)
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  29. Anthony Brueckner (2005). Fallibilism, Underdetermination, and Skepticism. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 71 (2):384–391.
    Fallibilism about knowledge and justification is a widely held view in epistemology. In this paper, I will try to arrive at a proper formulation of fallibilism. Fallibilists often hold that Cartesian skepticism is a view that deserves to be taken seriously and dealt with somehow. I argue that it turns out that a canonical form of skeptical argument depends upon the denial of fallibilism. I conclude by considering a response on behalf of the skeptic.
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  30. Anthony Brueckner (1994). Review: Skepticism and Foundationalism. [REVIEW] Noûs 28 (4):533 - 547.
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  31. Anthony Brueckner (1992). Problems with the Wright Route to Skepticism. Mind 101 (402):309-317.
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  32. Anthony Brueckner (1985). ``Skepticism and Epistemic Closure&Quot. Philosophical Topics 13:89--117.
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  33. Anthony L. Brueckner (1994). Knowledge of Content and Knowledge of the World. Philosophical Review 103 (2):327-343.
    In "Externalism, Self-Knowledge and Skepticism,"' Kevin Falvey and Joseph Owens argue that externalism with respect to mental content does not engender skepticism about knowledge of content. They go on to argue that even when externalism is freed from epistemological difficulties, the thesis cannot be used against Cartesian skepticism about knowledge of the external world. I would like to raise some questions about these claims.
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  34. Anthony L. Brueckner (1985). Transmission for Knowledge Not Established. Philosophical Quarterly 35 (139):193-195.
    In "Nozick on Scepticism", Graeme Forbes attempts to establish a Transmission Principle for knowledge which has been challenged by a number of anti-sceptical philosophers (such as Nozick). This principle (or something like it) seems to be required by Cartesian sceptical arguments, so if it could be refuted, this would apparently rid us of such scepticism. I do not believe that Nozick or anyone else has refuted the principle, yet I will argue that Forbes has certainly failed to establish it.
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  35. Reid Buchanan (2002). Natural Doubts: Williams's Diagnosis of Scepticism. Synthese 131 (1):57 - 80.
    Michael Williams believes that scepticism about the externalworld seems compelling only because the considerations that underpin it are thoughtto be ``mere platitudes'''' about e.g., the nature and source of human knowledge, and hence,that if it shown through a ``theoretical diagnosis'''' that it does not rest upon suchplatitudes, but contentious theoretical considerations that we are no means bound toaccept, we can simply dismiss the absurd sceptical conclusion. Williams argues thatscepticism does presuppose two extremely contentious doctrines, however, he admits thatif (...)
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  36. John Burkey (1990). Descartes, Skepticism, and Husserl's Hermeneutic Practice. Husserl Studies 7 (1):1-27.
    In the preceding pages, Husserl's objections to the content of Descartes'Meditations on First Philosophy have been reconstructed over the line ofargument in that work. The tone of his interpretation moved from ambivalence to outfight rejection. Husserl's ambivalence manifested itself intwo of the three meditations to which he pays significant attention. We sawthe much heralded methodological strategy of the First Meditation, uponclose examination, is not endorsed by Husserl, that he finds reason toprotest (...)
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  37. Luigi Caranti (2006). Kant's Criticism of Descartes in the “Reflexionen Zum Idealismus” (1788–1793). Kant-Studien 97 (3):318-342.
    Kant devotes to the problem of Cartesian skepticism a constant attention throughout his philosophical career. His first attempt to refute the skeptic goes back to the 1755 Nova Delucidatio, while other arguments, both in the pre-critical and in the critical period, follow one another in a rather erratic effort to remove the “scandal” of philosophy, that is, our inability to prove the existence of the external world beyond doubt. This on-going struggle against the skeptic does not end with the 1787 (...)
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  38. Toni Vogel Carey (2002). Taming the Skeptical Dragon. Philosophy Now 35:7-9.
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  39. Wolfgang Carl (1997). Apperception and Spontaneity. International Journal of Philosophical Studies 5 (2):147 – 163.
    The interest contemporary philosophy takes in Kant's notion of apperception is restricted to his criticism of the Cartesian Ego and to his refutation of scepticism, but there is a profound lack of concern for the notion itself and for the act of spontaneity in particular which is connected with the use of the word T. Starting from a comparison of Wittgenstein's account of this use with Kant's considerations it is argued that the latter aims at a theory of formal conditions (...)
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  40. J. Adam Carter (2011). Radical Skepticism, Closure, and Robust Knowledge. Journal of Philosophical Research 36:115-133.
    The Neo-Moorean response to the radical skeptical challenge boldly maintains that we can know we’re not the victims of radical skeptical hypotheses; accordingly, our everyday knowledge that would otherwise be threatened by our inability to rule out such hypotheses stands unthreatened. Given the leverage such an approach has against the skeptic from the very start, the Neo-Moorean line is an especially popular one; as we shall see, though, it faces several commonly overlooked problems. An initial problem is that this particular (...)
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  41. F. F. Centore (1981). Hume, Reid and Scepticism. Philosophical Studies 28:212-220.
  42. Roderick M. Chisholm (1973). Empirical Knowledge; Readings From Contemporary Sources. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.,Prentice-Hall.
    Nelson, L. The impossibility of the "Theory of knowledge."--Moore, G. E. Four forms of skepticism.--Lehrer, K. Skepticism & conceptual change.--Quine, W. V. Epistemology naturalized.--Rozeboom, W. W. Why I know so much more than you do.--Price, H. H. Belief and evidence.--Lewis, C. I. The bases of empirical knowledge.--Malcolm, N. The verification argument.--Firth, R. The anatomy of certainty.--Chisholm, R. M. On the nature of empirical evidence.--Meinong, A. Toward an epistemological assessment of memory.--Brandt, R. The epistemological status of memory beliefs.--Malcolm, N. A definition (...)
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  43. Brad Chynoweth (2010). Descartes' Resolution of the Dreaming Doubt. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 91 (2):153-179.
    After resolving the dreaming doubt at the end of the Sixth Meditation, Descartes concedes to Hobbes that one could apply the criterion for waking experience in a dream and thus be deceived, but he no longer considers this possibility to have skeptical force. I argue that this is a legitimate response by Descartes since 1) the dreaming doubt in the Sixth Meditation is no longer a global skeptical hypothesis as it is in the First, and 2) the level of certainty (...)
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  44. Avner Cohen (1984). Descartes, Consciousness and Depersonalization: Viewing the History of Philosophy From a Strausian Perspective. Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 9 (1):7-28.
    This paper develops particular Strausian-like themes on the formation and structure of the Cartesian problematic. Particularly, my interest is to link the Cartesian ‘invention’ of consciousness (or ‘the mental’) in the philosophy of mind with the issues of representation and ‘the problem of the external world’ in epistemology. The Cartesian novelty becomes clear by comparing Cartesian scepticism with Greek classical scepticism. I end with some speculative clinical (i.e., psychiatric) suggestions on possible roots of the Cartesian invention. Keywords: Consciousness, Externalization, Dualism, (...)
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  45. David Cole, The Return of the Evil Genius.
    Descartes refuted skepticism in 1641. George Berkeley refuted skepticism in 1710. O.K. Bouwsma refuted skepticism in 1949. Hilary Putnam refuted skepticism in 1981. The locus classicus for the form of skepticism refuted is Descartes' Meditations -- which also goes on to set out a famous realist refutation of skepticism. Indeed, Descartes is the principal inventor of the philosophic enterprise of skepticism refutation so central to Modern philosophy and its epistemic preoccupations. What the cited successors of Descartes and many others have (...)
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  46. Earl Conee (2004). Externalism, Internalism, and Skepticism. Philosophical Issues 14 (1):78–90.
  47. John Cottingham (2011). Sceptical Detachment or Loving Submission to the Good? Reason, Faith, and the Passions in Descartes. Faith and Philosophy 28 (1):44-53.
    The paper begins by challenging a received view of Descartes as preoccupied with scepticism and setting out entirely on his own to build up everything from scratch. In reality, his procedure in the Meditations presupposes trust in the mind’s reliable powers of rational intuition. God, the source of those powers, is never fully eclipsed by the darkness of doubt. The second section establishes some common links between the approach taken by Descartes in the Meditations and the ‘faith seeking understanding’ tradition. (...)
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  48. Edward Craig (1985). The Significance of Philosophical Scepticism By Barry Stroud Oxford University Press, 1984, Xiv + 277 Pp., £ 15.00, £6.95 Paper. [REVIEW] Philosophy 60 (234):548-.
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  49. Joe Cruz, Knowing One's Mind.
    In one of the more compelling introductions to philosophy, Bertrand Russell begins with this question: “Is there any knowledge in the world that is so certain that no reasonable man could doubt it?” (Presumably he means to include women.) “So certain that no reasonable man could doubt it.” And it’s a good question to begin an introduction to philosophy with, because so often, philosophy is in the mode of skepticism, so often it’s in the mode of offering a critical assessment (...)
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  50. E. M. Curley (1978). Descartes Against the Skeptics. Harvard University Press.
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