Argument Analysis Assignment for PHIL 303

Contact: Dr. Jan Garrett

Last revised date: January 15, 2008

Note: You ought to have thoroughly immersed yourself in the study of Descartes before attempting this project. Of course that means you should begin reading Descartes and working through the relevant study questions as early as you possibly can.

For students who have not yet had a logic course, see The Informal Option.

Familiarize yourself with the following web page concerning argument analysis.

Argument Analysis: The Basic Method (2006 Version)

Other pages that might be of some help:

How to Read Philosophy
     (Overlaps with the preceding but contains some advice that should be helpful)

Sample Analysis: The essence of the wax can be grasped by reason alone.

Due: Friday, February 8, class time, if you choose Option (1).
Due: Wednesday, February 13, class time, if you choose Option (2).

Length: 2-4 pages, double-spaced. Use paragraphs, with indentation on the first line, as appropriate.

Choose your passage to analyze from the following:

(1) Descartes on what is more or less knowable. See Knowability.

(2) Descartes on the source of human error. See Error.

(1) Descartes on What Is More and What is Less Knowable. See Meditation II, esp. 30.2.23-32.1.28 and 33.2.15-34.1.9. (The third number refers to the line number within the column, starting from the top.)

Don't spend much time analyzing the middle section about the wax and how it is known-- I have already analyzed it in my sample argument analysis. (You may incorporate conclusions from that section as premises in your argument reconstruction if you find doing so useful).

There are two main parts of this argument, one that leads to a conclusion about what I (the reasoner) know myself to be; the other leads to a conclusion that I am much less sure about a certain class of other things. This makes possible a conclusion for this Meditation that one thing and its nature are better known than other things. (I am being deliberately vague here and expect you to supply greater precision based on your study of the text.)

Controlling the reasoning is the rule that I may admit into my conclusions only what I know without doubt, and that I know without doubt only those ideas that pass the test of supposing the existence of the very powerful Evil Demon.

Concepts that are important in this argument are thinking, imagination, sensing, mind, body, and essence or nature.

(2) Descartes on the Source of Human Error. See Meditation IV, 42.1 bottom - 43.1 bottom.
We must distinguish carefully between the understanding (also called the intellect) and the will.

Understanding, or the intellect, is also called the faculty of knowing. For Descartes, the intellect enables one to perceive ideas, especially to perceive some ideas clearly and distinctly. When it perceives ideas most clearly and distinctly, the individual can assent to those ideas without fear of error. Descartes also holds that the intellect is limited in human beings. (How would he prove this?)

Alongside the intellect, the human mind or soul contains the will. It is described in this section. (See also the Cartesian Glossay under "Lectures, High-Priority".) Among other things, Descartes regards will as the capacity to withhold judgment about, or to affirm or deny, an idea. He says the human will, in itself, is infinite in its range. (This seems to mean that the will can assent to any idea the mind has that does not involve an outright contradiction.)

Descartes distinguishes different uses of the will, low-grade freedom (our assent to ideas that are unclear) and high-grade freedom (our assent to ideas that are extremely clear. Both of these are exercises of our freedom. Although the distinction between them is important, the main interest in this argument is the role of low-grade freedom.

The general structure of Descartes' argument in this section has to do with the role of intellect and will in the origin of error. Descartes wants to pinpoint the cause of human error, and he considers four possibilities: that God is the cause, that the limited human intellect, taken by itself, is the cause; that the human will, taken by itself, is the cause; that the cause is the (faulty) use we make of the will (when?).

In a previous argument, Descartes has reached the conclusion that God is not a deceiver. This conclusion operates as a premise in the argument under consideration.

Consult the corresponding webpage from the following list:
PA1. Preliminary Analysis of Descartes on Knowability

PA2. Preliminary Analysis of Descartes on the Source of Error

Perform an Argument Analysis following the Basic Method
1. Locate the steps (key statements) involved in the reasoning of the passage to the best of your ability.
I have already done much of the preliminary work in PA1 and PA2. If you wish you may use the statements I have isolated on those web pages as the basis for your work. If you use my work on these pages as a basis for your own, you may add additional steps or substitute a statement of your own wording for one of mine if you can justify doing so on the basis of the text itself.

I have somewhat randomized the order of the statements on the PA pages. Do not assume that the final conclusion is the last or the first of the statements.

2. Discuss how the steps are meant to be logically related, that is, which statements are meant as premises to directly support another statement (conclusion). How do the smaller logical movements (the sub-arguments of the larger argument) hang together in the over-all argument of the passage.

3. A technique that is physical as well as mental:

You could print out the corresponding PA web page and cut it up so that each slip of paper contains one statement, then physically move the statements around until you can arrange them in a logical order, perhaps starting with ultimate premises, then going on to the intermediate steps they support, then to further intermediate steps if any, and finally the final conclusion. Once you get the steps in a satisfactory logical arrangement, you can write up the analysis, reporting how statements are related to each other as premises to conclusion and how they (all or most of them) converge upon (allegedly prove) the author's or speaker's main point.

I anticipate that physically separating the steps will help you to contemplate various possible arrangements in your attempt to discover the probable logical order of the passage.

Do not assume that the logical order is identical to the physical order of the sentences either in my list or in the original text. An exact correspondence between logical order and physical order is rare outside of academic study, however useful such a correspondence can be for checking the validity or strength or soundness of an argument.

Two additional considerations: Be fair to the position under study. Your analysis should show whatever strengths it has. (Doing this is known as following the Principle of Charity.) Of course, you should also be careful not to attribute to it logical virtues that it entirely lacks.

The Informal Option

I strongly urge philosophy majors, especially those who are thinking of graduate school or law school, to attempt the argument analysis techniques outlined above. But if you are a philosophy minor and have not yet had Elementary Logic, I will permit you to use the informal option, of which there are two phases.

First, use this set of Questions Concerning Elements of Thought, leaving out the last two questions, to analyze either of the two assigned passages. Instead of "information," look for basic insights or ultimate premises, i.e., premises not supported by other premises. (Sometimes Descartes calls these clear and distinct ideas; that is, they cannot be proven in an argument but are so self-evident that they do not need to be.).

Replace "I" with "Descartes," of course. The question "How did I reach this conclusion?" should be adapted to "How did Descartes reach this conclusion?" and you should try to show, as carefully as possible the steps he took, beginning from basic insights or premises not logically supported by any other premises and moving step by step toward the final conclusion.

Finally, having analyzed the passage using the questions, present the analysis in an essay that, when completed, effectively answers the relevant questions. Check your work against these standards (or at least the most relevant ones), which I will use to evaluate your work.

Anyone using the Informal Option may feel free to draw upon any insights you can gain from the instructions given to students using the more formal approaches and any of the web pages associated with this assignment.