The Finitude of Descartes’ Evil Genius

Richard Kennington.  “The Finitude of Descartes’ Evil Genius,” On Modern Origins: Essays in Early Modern Philosophy, ed. P. Kraus and F. Hunt. Lexington Books. 2004.


At the present stage of Cartesian studies, inquiry into the nature of Cartesian doubt remains impeded by the familiar view that it is intended by Descartes to be “universal doubt.” The conclusive evidence that doubt is intended to be universal is customarily found in the omnipotence of the being who is the ultimate ratio dubitandi. In the well-known argument of Cartesian doubt in Meditations I-II, God, who may possibly be evil, is replaced by the supposition of an Evil Genius. Yet God and the Evil Genius are both omnipotent: this view is unanimously held, so far as we have been able to ascertain, by the distinguished Cartesian scholars of recent decades. No issue has been raised about the equivalence of the powers of God and the Evil Genius, and hence no distinction drawn concerning what is rendered dubitable by the one and the other. The equivalence thesis is found in the two recent English studies of L. J. Beck and Anthony Kenny; it is held by Gouhier, Alquie and Gueroult; it is that of leading German and American interpretations, including the most recent one by Harry G. Frankfurt.’ It is essential not only for the prevalent interpretations of the cogito and the doctrine of consciousness, but for the entire later course of the Meditations as well. On this view, it becomes inevitable to hold that Cartesian doubt seeks, as its general intention, to establish by universal doubt a presuppositionless first principle.

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