A book on ethics and philosophy of values

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2/ Comparison of the axiological epoché with the Cartesian epoché


Descartes, as we know, proposes a hyperbolic doubt, to determine whether there is any absolutely certain proposition. This doubt, described throughout the two first Meditations, is defined as radical by Descartes; and it seems generally admitted that this is the case, even if some have raised the possibility of a vicious circle, between the fact that the existence of God is based upon the cogito, and the fact that the truth of the cogito is itself finally based upon God, in Descartes’ work.

I would like to raise this question again: is the doubt of Descartes really radical and hyperbolic? Is there something that he admits secretly and unconsciously as a postulate, at the very heart of his doubt?

It is precisely what appears to me; a thorough reading may reveal an axiological theory (as to what has a value and what has not) in Descartes' Meditations. This axiological theory, which we are going to study in detail, Descartes does not dismiss it at the heart of his doubt, but, on the contrary, he keeps it secretly and, moreover, uses it, not in order to formulate the cogito itself, but to “get out” of it, viz. to make the next step of the proof of the existence of God, from which he infers the truth of the world.

The axiological theory of Descartes is, I think, composed of two parts. First, he tries to prove that God is the supreme value, by using three arguments. When this is done, he aims at proving the existence of God, from this result, in other words: he tries to infer the existence of God from his value.
It is this double movement that I am going to expose and question.


First, we have to remark that Descartes makes no use of the concept of “value”, but employs the concept of “perfection” instead, in order to formulate his axiological conception. Thus Descartes never speaks of the infinite value of God, but only of his highest perfection: God, on the other hand, I take to be actually infinite, so that nothing can be added to his perfection 1.
It is to be noticed that in Descartes’ work, this term applies not only to God but also to other things, provided that they have what we call for our part a value: since our ideas can’t get their forms or their being except from external objects or from ourselves, they can’t represent any reality or perfection that isn’t either in those objects or in ourselves 2. For instance, freedom has not a value, but a perfection: in our case indifference is a defect rather than a perfection of freedom 3.
In brief, God is, according to Descartes, the supreme value: That substance which we understand to be supremely perfect and in which we conceive absolutely nothing involving defect or limitation of its perfection, is called God 4.

Why does he hold this view? Because of three distinct ideas, each of which we will presently discuss.

First of all, he contends that the traditional meaning of the idea of God is that of one perfect being. We have called “God” the notion of a perfect being, therefore he is perfect: I based the proof of the existence of God on the idea that I find in myself of a supremely perfect being, which is the ordinary notion we have of God 5.
The underlying principle is that God is perfect, so he is the supreme value. This argument is based on two premises: on the one hand, perfection has a value, and even has the greatest value: to be perfect is to have the highest value…
And on the other hand, we are entitled to employ the concept of perfection (in place of that of value) to raise and solve the problem of values: value and perfection are interchangeable synonyms.

But these two premises are not so obvious.

Indeed, we can imagine (as we learn from our axiological epoché) an axiological position which maintains that what has a value is imperfection. For example, that a simple draft may be more interesting than a completed painting, and even that it is its non-completion which makes it valuable (is not the Venus de Milo considered as a masterpiece partly because of its two lost arms?). In like manner, for some people, the part is more beautiful than the whole, and some prefer hypotheses to systems, charm to beauty, attempt to success, and even defeat to victory. The nihilist is precisely the one who denies that perfection has any value.

In fact, the concept of perfection is probably not the most adequate to raise the axiological problem. To understand this, we must wonder what we really mean when we say that this or that thing is perfect.
At a first glance, we have the impression that we attribute thereby to it the greatest value. That is why Lavelle says: perfection is the extreme peak of value 6.

1. Metaphysical Meditations, III
2. Letter to Vattier, 22.02.1638
3. Letter to Mersenne, 21.04.1641
4. Replies to 2nd objections, Def VIII
5. Letter to Mersenne, 07.1641
6. Treatise on values, tome I