DESCARTES: Discourse on the Method

Rene Descartes published the Discourse on the Method in 1637. The work is a philosophical and autobiographical treatise that propounds Descartes’ method for attaining truth.

The treatise comprises six parts. The first three parts are autobiographical, and explain how Descartes developed his method for attaining truth. Descartes’ life and early beliefs are similar to those of Socrates. Upon completing college, Descartes was disappointed to discover that he had not attained the certain knowledge that he had anticipated. He resolved to travel the world and converse with other men to determine whether he could attain any truth. Like Socrates, however, his travels and conversations did not satisfy his desire for knowledge. All were as ignorant of the truth as he was.

Descartes refused to be discouraged, and decided to develop a method by which he might acquire wisdom. His method comprises four rules: 1) do not accept anything as true unless definitively proved; 2) divide a problem into the greatest number of parts to render it easier to solve; 3) begin with the simplest subjects and then progress to ever more complex subjects; and 4) thoroughly review the divisions of subjects and progress made in the application of the method.

Just as one requires alternative living arrangements when one is demolishing and rebuilding a home, Descartes realizes that he requires a set of principles by which he can live while he discards his previously held opinions and builds the foundation and structure of certain truth. Accordingly Descartes decides to adhere to three provisional laws: 1) obey the laws and customs of one’s country; 2) be firm and resolute in one’s actions – i.e. when one has adopted an opinion, behave as if that opinion is certain until disproved; and 3) conquer one’s self rather than fortune, change one’s desires rather than the order of the world, and accustom one’s self to the belief that nothing is within one’s power except for one’s thoughts. This third maxim is the principal tenet of Stoic philosophy. Descartes beautifully praises the ancient Stoic philosophers, stating that some of the philosophers achieved “a happiness which their gods might have envied.”

In part 4, Descartes presents the fundamental truth that he discovered when he applied his method. After discarding the senses (for sense experience might be dream experience) and mathematics (for mistakes are made in mathematical demonstrations), Descartes arrives at an indubitable truth: “I think, therefore I exist (Cogito ergo sum).” He cannot doubt that he exists because doubting necessarily implies his existence. Furthermore, the “I” is the soul, not the body. Descartes demonstrates this by asserting that he can imagine the mind/soul without the body.

Descartes also provides proofs of God’s existence, but the proofs are weak and clearly not given with the same enthusiasm and confidence as Descartes’ “Cogito ergo sum” postulate. For example, he asserts that God exists because he has an idea of a perfect mind, greater than his own. He can only possess such an idea if such a perfect mind exists. This is similar to Plato’s Forms. According to Plato, we have knowledge of equality because we were acquainted with the notion in a divine realm, not because we perceived equality in the physical realm (perfect equality does not exist in the physical realm). In my opinion, both Descartes’ and Plato’s arguments fail. To use Plato’s equality argument as an example, if one compared two sticks that differed in size, and then two more that differed in a smaller amount, and then two more that differed in a smaller amount, one could extrapolate the notion of equality from the observation of ever less inequality.

Parts 5 and 6 are relatively uninteresting. In part 5, Descartes discusses the motion of the human heart. In part 6, Descartes states that he will not publish his discoveries about nature because he fears condemnation and punishment from the Catholic Church. The Church had recently confined Galileo to imprisonment within his house because of his heliocentric theory of the solar system, a theory that Descartes secretly held too. It was both comical and depressing to read Descartes’ attempt to defend against punishment by the Church for his ideas. He writes of how the universe might have formed without the intervention of God, but is quick to affirm his belief that the universe was created as reported in Genesis. His assertion that he believes in the Genesis account of creation is amusing because it is clear that he does not. On the other hand, it’s depressing because it demonstrates the severe limitations imposed by the Church on free-thinking. If the Church had not maliciously intervened in the works of scientists, then mankind probably would have already made much greater advancements in technology and human understanding.

“I was aware that the Languages taught in them are necessary to the understanding of the writings of the ancients; that the grace of Fable stirs the mind; that the memorable deeds of History elevate it; and, if read with discretion, aid in forming the judgment; that the perusal of all excellent books is, as it were, to interview with the noblest men of past ages, who have written them, and even a studied interview, in which are discovered to us only their choicest thoughts; that Eloquence has incomparable force and beauty; that Poesy has its ravishing graces and delights; that in the Mathematics there are many refined discoveries eminently suited to gratify the inquisitive, as well as further all the arts and lessen the labour of man; that numerous highly useful precepts and exhortations to virtue are contained in treatises on Morals; that Theology points out the path to heaven; that philosophy affords the means of discoursing with an appearance of truth on all matters, and commands the admiration of the more simple; that Jurisprudence, Medicine, and the other Sciences, secure for their cultivators honours and riches; and in fine, that it is useful to bestow some attention upon all, even upon those abounding the most in superstition and error, that we may be in a position to determine their real value, and guard against being deceived.”

“But after I had been occupied several years in thus studying the book of the world, and in essaying to gather some experience, I at length resolved to make myself an object of study, and to employ all the powers of my mind in choosing the paths I ought to follow; an undertaking which was accompanied with greater success than it would have been had I never quitted my country or my books.”

“The single design to strip one’s self of all past beliefs is one that ought not to be taken by every one. The majority of men is composed of two classes, for neither of which would this be at all a befitting resolution: in the first place, of those who with more than a due confidence in their own powers, are precipitate in their judgments and want the patience requisite for orderly and circumspect thinking; whence it happens, that if men of this class once take the liberty to doubt of their accustomed opinions, and quit the beaten highway, they will never be able to thread the byway that would lead them by a shorter course, and will lose themselves and continue to wander for life; in the second place, of those who, possessed of sufficient sense or modesty to determine that there are others who excel them in the power of discriminating between truth and error, and by whom they may be instructed, ought rather to content themselves with the opinions of such than trust for more correct to their own reason. For my own part, I should doubtless have belonged to the latter class, had I received instruction from but one master, or had I never known the diversities of opinion that from time immemorial have prevailed among men of the greatest learning. But I had become aware, even so early as during my college life, that no opinion, however absurd and incredible, can be imagined, which has not been maintained by some one of the philosophers; and afterwards in the course of my travels I remarked that all those whose opinions are decidedly repugnant to ours are not in that account barbarians and savages, but on the contrary that many of these nations make an equally good, if not better, use of their reason than we do. I was thus led to infer that the ground of our opinions is far more custom and example than any certain knowledge.”

“My third maxim was to endeavor always to conquer myself rather than fortune, and change my desires rather than the order of the world, and in general, accustom myself to the persuasion that, except our own thoughts, there is nothing absolutely in our power; so that when we have done our best in things external to us, all wherein we fail of success is to be held, as regards us, absolutely impossible: and this single principle seemed to me sufficient to prevent me from desiring for the future anything which I could not obtain, and thus render me contented; for since our will naturally seeks those objects alone which the understanding represents as in some way possible of attainment, it is plain, that if we consider all external goods as equally beyond our power, we shall no more regret the absence of such goods as seem due to our birth, when deprived of them without any fault of ours, than our not possessing the kingdoms of China or Mexico, and thus making, so to speak, a virtue of necessity, we shall no more desire health in disease, or freedom in imprisonment, than we now do bodies incorruptible as diamonds, or the wings of birds to fly with. But I confess there is need of prolonged discipline and frequently repeated meditation to accustom the mind to view all objects in this light; and I believe that in this chiefly consisted the secret of the power of such philosophers as in former times were enabled to rise superior to the influence of fortune, and, amid suffering and poverty, enjoy a happiness which their gods might have envied. For, occupied incessantly with the consideration of the limits prescribed to their power by nature, they became so entirely convinced that nothing was at their disposal except their own thoughts, that this conviction was of itself sufficient to prevent their entertaining any desire of other objects; and over their thoughts they acquired a sway so absolute, that they had some ground on this account for esteeming themselves more rich and more powerful, more free and more happy, than other men who, whatever be the favors heaped on them by nature and fortune, if destitute of this philosophy, can never command the realization of all their desires.

In fine, to conclude this code of morals, I thought of reviewing the different occupations of men in this life, with the view of making choice of the best. And, without wishing to offer any remarks on the employments of others, I may state that it was my conviction that I could not do better than continue in that in which I was engaged, viz., in devoting my whole life to the culture of my reason, and in making the greatest progress I was able in the knowledge of truth, on the principles of the method which I had prescribed to myself. This method, from the time I had begun to apply it, had been to me the source of satisfaction so intense as to lead me to believe that more perfect or more innocent could not be enjoyed in this life”

“Whilst I thus wished to think that all was false, it was absolutely necessary that I, who thus thought, should be somewhat; and as I observed that this truth, I think, therefore I am (Cogito ergo sum), was so certain and of such evidence, that no ground of doubt, however extravagant, could be alleged by the Sceptics capable of shaking it, I concluded that I might, without scruple, accept it as the first principle of the Philosophy of which I was in search.”

“I attentively examined what I was, and as I observed that I could suppose that I had no body, and that there was no world nor any place in which I might be; I thence concluded that I was a substance whose whole essence or nature consists only in thinking, and which, that it may exist, has need of no place, nor is dependent on any material thing; so that “I,” that is to say, the mind by which I am what I am, is wholly distinct from the body, and is even more easily known than the latter, and is such, that although the latter were not, it would still continue to be all that it is.”

“Supposing a triangle to be given, I distinctly perceived that its three angles were necessarily equal to two right angles, but I did not on that account perceive anything which could assure me that any triangle existed.”

“How do we know that the thoughts which occur in dreaming are false rather than those other which we experience when awake, since the former are often not less vivid and distinct than the latter?”

“I conceive myself the more bound to husband the time that remains, the greater my expectation of being able to employ it aright, and I should doubtless have much to rob me of it, were I to publish the principles of my Physics: for although they are almost all so evident that to assent to them no more is needed than simply to understand them, and although there is not one of them of which I do not expect to be able to give demonstration, yet, as it is impossible that they can be in accordance with all the diverse opinions of others, I foresee that I should frequently be turned aside from my grand design, on occasion of the opposition which they would be sure to awaken.”

5 thoughts on “DESCARTES: Discourse on the Method”

  1. I delighted in reading this kind and favorable post on Descartes. He is so often condemned for introducing hyper-rationality into the western world. This negativity, I think, stems from focusing on the Cogito–his answer–without looking carefully at his question or the historical context within which he was writing. You rightly, in my opinion, underscore the power of the Inquisition during his lifetime. Descartes was born in 1596, and Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in Rome in 1600, certainly within living memory. Then, as you point out, Galileo was fencing with the Church from the publication of his Letters on Solar Spots in 1613 until his condemnation in 1633. I think, therefore, that Descartes was attempting a truly radical move, in grounding truth in the mind, rather than in Scripture. In so doing, he opened the door to the Enlightenment, and perhaps pulled the teeth of the Inquisition. No small feat.
    Again, thank you for this essay, and for the joy of reading all your posts.

  2. I enjoyed the part giving the reasoning why Descartes was limited in his writings by the need to appease the Church. Even without such a body defining what or what could not be stated openly, anyone who takes thought beyond what is known will always have to contend with the opinion of society, and eventually will be limited what can be achieved in one’s lifetime not just by the time available for thought in one’s life but the time and effort required to appease the critics.

    Thank you for a great post!

    1. That’s an interesting point you make about the progress of mankind being hindered by prevailing opinions. I suppose that it is our nature to resist change – perhaps because we fear it.

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