A Discourse on Method and Meditations

ISBN: 0879755261
ISBN 13: 9780879755263
By: René Descartes Robert M. Baird Stuart E. Rosenbaum

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Is knowledge possible? If so, what can we know and how do we come to know it? What degree of certainty does our knowledge enjoy? In these two powerful works, Descartes, the seventeenth-century philosopher considered to be the father of modern philosophy, outlines his philosophical method and then counters the skeptics of his time by insisting that certain knowledge can be had. He goes on to address the nature and extent of human knowledge, the distinction between mind and body, the existence of God, and the existence of external objects.

Reader's Thoughts

Paul Gibson

Descartes has some interesting words to say but I can't agree with his conclusions.I agree that God seems infinite but to define God negates infinity; definite can't be infinite. This is a contradiction that negates the value of God as infinite.Perhaps I misunderstand him but moments later he says something like this, "I should not have the idea if an infinite substance because I am a finite being, unless it were given to me by some substance that is infinite." I disagree. Like so many things in life, once I comprehend one thing, I will probably imagine the opposite. What I find curious is that he says something like this himself within the same page, "And I must not imagine that I imagine the infinite by way of a true idea but by negation of the finite . . . in the same way I gauge darkness by lightness . . . But how can I know of the idea of an infinite God when I am not infinite? . . . The idea has to be given to me by God."But not only can I imagine opposites, I can imagine a greater version of that opposite something. And if his reply were, "How can you know?" Then I can reply with the same question, so still there is no proof. But what I really mean to say is that if I can't imagine something greater than what God is, then I say he imagines too low because God is greater than his definition. A greater imagination of God that will equal God is indeed infinite and not definite.


Even as I experienced a "deeper" sense of the REALITY of God, and His gift to us (choice & thought), I thoroughly enjoyed this read, albeit an "occasional" struggle with its content.Descartes (day-cart)'s thought process (in seeking intellectual clarity), "doubt everything", existed on several levels._____EXCERPT: "I ought to reject as absolutely false all opinions in regard to which I could suppose the least ground for doubt, in order to ascertain whether after that there remained aught in my belief that was wholly indubitable. Accordingly, seeing that our senses sometimes deceive us, I was willing to suppose that there existed nothing really such as they presented to us"_____The first level is doubts about the senses and here he follows a long tradition which goes back to Saint Augustine and to Plato of casting doubt on the senses as an essentially unstable source of knowledge. The senses Descartes says sometimes deceive us. One famous example is the stick in water, which looks bent. Our sight tells us that me it's bent, when it's actually straight, OR IS IT...?Another example is the sun, which if you look up in the sky looks to your eye about the same size as the moon whereas actually it's immensely, vastly, almost unimaginably bigger. OR IS IT...?So he proposed, the senses don’t always reveal what’s correct, so, seek clarity, first, through doubt.This "process" proved problematic when the "dilemma" of "I" could not be rectified. If I doubt myself, if I am NOT REAL, from whence do my "thoughts" emanate...?This led to his statement " I think, therefore, I am"...!etc., etc., etc.His "views" on God, and His Sovereignty, are deeply compelling, and worth further exploration by the "heart" which seeks a GREATER understanding of the Majesty of Our Lord._____EXCERPT(s): "And because it is no less unacceptable that something more perfect should be a consequence of and dependent on something less perfect than that something should come from nothing, I could not derive this idea from myself. Thus, I concluded that the idea had been put in me by a nature which was truly more perfect than I was, even one which contained in itself all the perfections about which I could have some idea, that is to say, to explain myself in a single phrase, a nature which was God."..."that if there were some bodies in the world or even some intelligences or other natures which were not completely perfect, their being had to depend on God's power, in such a way as they could not subsist for a single moment without Him."..."thence, I went in search of other truths"._____Credited with being the "father" of modern thought, his "methods" were, are STILL, "fervent & effectual".I enjoyed "The Discourse on Method", and HIGHLY recommend it.

Derek Davis

Descartes did much to lift philosophy and, especially mathematics, from the rigid yet scattershot approach of the middle ages. The "Discourse" is a sort of how-to guide to critical thinking, while the "Meditations" put the stress on what he has discovered through use of the method.In a nutshell, the method is to remove all prejudices of inquiry from your mind, as much as is humanly possible, so that you start with a clean mental slate upon which you enter the most fundamental, unquestionable truths; you then build up from there through the the exclusive use of internal reason (he lay in bed cogitating for hours each morning). The truth most fundamental, he decided, was "I think, therefore I am."His attempt to free himself from the preconceptions of history and historical philosophy (especially the ridiculous accretion of flapdoodle built around Aristotle, philosophy's windbag non pareil) were unique for their time, revolutionary. But they were not entirely successful. Like anyone, at any time, he was captive to much of the underlying but unstated idea-structure of his age. His supposedly clear, incontrovertible apprehension of God is almost medieval, not far removed from Anselm and Aquinas. On the other hand, his insistence on the need for experiment to establish scientific truth is decidedly modern.As for the man himself, his continual outpourings of modesty and humility provoke behind-the-hand snickers. Hey, Rene, we know you think you're a genius. And you were.


Rene Descartes was my very first introduction to philosophy and now I am glad he was. For centuries philosophy was dominated by the big three (Socrates, Plato & and Aristotle) until along came this French rationalist and philosophy as we knew it was never the same again. With the precision of a surgeon he began carving his own brand of philosophy which paved the way for other philosophers such as Leibniz, Spinoza, Pascal, Kant and many others.Descartes is easy to read and therefore easy to get hooked on. He makes you feel that you to can think like a philosopher. He makes quick work with fundamental questions such as how do I know that I exist at all and how do I know that God exists. The ultimate rationalist, he laid the groundwork on how one should go about thinking and he was absolutely right about knowledge comes exclusively from the mind and its ability to reason; I hope I don't offend the empiricists. There are times where I find myself not sure of anything and find solace in the pages of Meditations. As Einstein loved Spinoza, I love Descartes.I have convinced myself that there is nothing in the world — no sky, no earth, no minds, no bodies. Doesn’t it follow that I don’t exist? No, surely I must exist if it’s me who is convinced of something. But there is a deceiver, supremely powerful and cunning whose aim is to see that I am always deceived. But surely I exist, if I am deceived. Let him deceive me all he can, he will never make it the case that I am nothing while I think that I am something. Thus having fully weighed every consideration, I must finally conclude that the statement “I am, I exist” must be true whenever I state it or mentally consider it. - René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy (Meditation II: On the Nature of the Human Mind, Which Is Better Known Than the Body)"Je pense, donc je suis"


The Cartesian subject gets a bad wrap these days, but I'm down with "cogito, ergo sum" with a couple of (admittedly pretty major) modifications from psychoanalysis and poststructuralism.First, when I'm assuring myself of my own ego-existence by thinking, "I am thinking, therefore I am," that's all well and good. But sometimes I might slip and think something like, "I am winking, therefore I am" becuase I'm distracted by the memory of a cute girl that winked at me today--in other words, the smooth functioning of the internal monologue that assures "me" that "I" exist is constantly being interrupted by the unconscious. That's why we need to add insights from psychoanlysis to Descarte's subject.Second, the "I am" bit needs to undergo a critique of the metaphysics of presence based upon Derrida's discussions of signification and being. The auto-affecting interior monologue happens in language, and language works by difference and reference to a whole system that must have a ghostly presence-yet-abscence to function. So when I say "I am," I'm also referring to a whole system of signification which is not "present" in the way we usually mean. So, the being indicated by the "I am" of the Cartesian subject should be modified by poststructuralist critique so that we understand it as a kind of being that is not simply unified, proximate, and present-to-itself. That being is necessarily characterized by difference, dispersion, and deferral in time.On another note, the God proofs--a restatement of Anselm's ontological argument along with Descarte's own version--are intriguing but still don't cut it for me. Ultimately, I don't think reason can pull that off--I think it's revelation or nothing (in my view as an athiest-leaning agnostic the answer is, "nothing," but that's up for debate).


"i think, therefore i am." interesting to read, impossible to accept (or rather, I refuse), especially for those of us who have experienced our minds as our own worst enemies. because it dwells on the past and tries to anticipate the future, thinking robs us of BEING in the present; i can only "think" about the past and the future, but I cant BE anywhere other than the present, and being in the present requires no thought at all. I cannot rewind and live in the past (which i cannot change) and i cannot fast-forward and live in the future (which i cannot predict). I can only live, can only be, in the present, and I can only be in the present when I am fully conscious of the right here and now and NOT thinking about the past or the future. Therefore, i am NOT when I am THINKING(in the past or in the future), but I AM when I am NOT thinking (in, and fully conscious of, the present moment). when I think I am in the past or future, and I CANT be alive in either realm, and, thus, I cant feel alive when I'm thinking. and so, descartes, i come to this conclusion: "i think, therefore I am NOT," I am not present, not here, not now, and not even really alive. and i confess that I desperately wish to break free of my thinking mind and finally start feeling alive!


'I think therefore I am' Probably the most quoted philosophical reference around today. But people generally don't know what it means!Descartes is reputed as the Father of Modern Philosophy, the bringer of new ways of thinking, of revising our beliefs. Though a blatant sexist, speciesist and bigot he was a man of his time. His philosophy however was not.Imagine an evil genius, he has your brain in a jar somewhere and is manipulating it to make you believe all that you perceive around you. You can see, smell, feel, taste, hear and believe all of them. Descartes said that all of these senses could well be the creation of that evil genius and we have no reason to believe that the world around us it real. All that Descartes could safely assume was real was his mind. For if the mind was not real, how could the genius deceive you? Thought is the essence of man, it's reality.Descartes believed in something known commonly as Two Substance Dualism, and more academically as Cartesian Dualism. This states that humans have a material and a mental substance, each being separate. When the body dies the mind will survive as it is not dependant on the body, though the body needs the mind to make it human. At the time this was ground breaking, and it didn't contradict Christian orthodoxy (of whom Descartes was a pious believer). All of this is nowadays taken for granted, this knowledge of so pivotal a change in the book of history is equally relevant today.Though not my favourite philosophy (preferring works of Mill and Sartre) it is none the less core stuff and should appear on every self respecting philosophers shelves.

Edward Smith

Descartes philosophy is a cornerstone of Modern thought, however that doesn't necessarily mean his writing is accessible. I find him to be rather boring and tedious at times, even for a philosopher. Part of it is the result of his success, after all reading Locke with him explaining his political theory is tedious since it has become the consensus on which American society was built upon, and Adam Smith is incredibly tedious in The Wealth of Nations despite it being the origins of Capitalism. After all, nobody alive today needs 3 pages to explain how division of labor works anymore nor be convinced of its advantages. Part of it also has to do with Descartes' nuancing and self-censoring to avoid attracting the ire of the Catholic Church, which had just dealt a smackdown on Galileo Galilei who said things rather similar to his own words. Of course, Descartes ended up on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum anyway.My biggest problem with Descartes is the sense of instability his philosophy has. He seems to open the door for skepticism rather widely, and then rather unconvincingly claims to have refuted the likes of Montaigne who pushed skepticism to its limits of doubting everything. I think his failure to do so is why Modern Thought has become so dominated by materialism, and skepticism has largely returned with postmodernism severely attacking the ability to claim knowledge.


I cannot comment on this book. I am, upon honest reflection, inadequate to say anything.



Lacey Louwagie

It was sheer stubbornness that pushed me to finish Descartes' fourth, fifth, and sixth meditations, after which point my mind had turned a little mushy and I didn't even try to slow down and comprehend what I was reading. But I'd added the book to my Goodreads list, so I must finish it!This is not easy stuff, and I would have never attempted it outside of some sort of formal education context to guide me through it (I read it for my Coursera class, "Know Thyself"). I read the Meditations before watching the lectures so that the lecture could tell me what the heck they meant.Reading these meditations is sort of like being in algebra class, which is fitting, since Descartes was also a mathematician. But you know how in algebra (or any math class), everything you learn depends on you understanding what you learned before it? So you may have a mind capable of comprehending what you learned the first six weeks in class, but that has great difficulty building upon that for what comes later. That's how I felt reading these Meditations. I was able to follow Descartes' reasoning through the first three Meditations as long as I paid close enough attention; but the last three depended too much on the first three, and while I understood those well enough to grasp them on their own, I just didn't have enough time to understand them at the level that would have been necessary to sufficiently build on them.Still, some interesting reflections on the nature of self and the existence of God, and you gotta admire Descartes for taking on the tasks of proving that both he and God exist!


I've been rereading this while rereading LOTR, and I cannot help hearing Descartes as Morgoth, Sauron, Saruman, or any number of other characters who look at reality as something to be conquered and bent to one's will.


Written after I read this as a junior in college:René Descartes spent much of his life in travel, studying the great works of philosophers and scientists. After the majority of his formal learning was completed, Descartes began writing prolifically. The Discourse on Method, written in Holland, and finished in 1637, was written not long after his previous works of, Rules for the Direction of the Mind (1629), and Treatise on the World (1633) were completed. In accompaniment to Discourse on Method, were three essays entitled Dioptric, Meteors, and Geometry. Although his philosophy was accepted by some, the majority of Holland found his works controversial and radical. This work is a great representation of the thought that was evolving during this time period. The era of enlightenment was emerging, and the new approach was positivistic in scope–to verify everything with absolute fact. Descartes’ Discourse on Methods is a representative work of the important link between metaphysical thought and objective scientific discovery. Descartes believed that only things sensed can be defined as real, even more particular, only things that can be reasoned are legitimate. According to Descartes, even God is legitimized only to the degree that Descartes himself can sense and reason. The only way to know if something exists, argued Descartes, is that it can be measured. This is very significant because the emerging philosophy of all great minds of the time period, is that of scientific verification–of understanding the world through measuring, sensing, gathering, analyzing, and concluding. Through his study and thought, Descartes discovers that great advances may be made in the world as man discovers how to explain, and eventually control the things he can change; the physical things around him.As with any other man who emerges with “enlightened” philosophy–new knowledge to the public, his work is not accepted by the majority at first. This method however, becomes the approach that many succeeding scientific minds adopt. As these scientists later implement these principles, they discover many scientific advances that greatly benefit society.It was very interesting to read how Descartes went about finding truth in his own life. Although his singular use of reasoning led him to many important truths, it also resulted in a few false assumptions. His false interpretation about the mechanisms of the beating heart show us that even a man who’s life and thoughts were devoted to the power of reason, cannot always make an accurate deductive interpretation of all the facts that surround him. Science in all its forms requires constant testing and refining. Descartes also admits that his knowledge came not from divine bestowal, as he believed it had come to many of the other philosophers and scientists. His knowledge, he claimed, came from the reading of many great books, his education, and his travels abroad. And yet with all of his knowledge and reasoning powers, he humbly admits that the more he learned, the more he found he didn’t know. This principle can be applied to all who don’t believe they have bestowed with intellectual treasures from God. Persistence and hunger for truth can lift any man to greatness.


Discourse on Method is sort of boring. Meditations on First Philosophy is more interesting yet more fallacious (those two qualities go together more often than they don't).DISCOURSE ON METHOD:There's too much to say about Descartes for a GR review. I'll just say that (1) Descartes caused me a great deal of anxiety and skepticism as a teenager; (2) I don't completely agree or disagree with him on the soul; (3) he gets the straw man treatment from every pop sci writer and I find that infuriating; (4) I am just as uneasy about the ontological argument as I am about dualism; and (5) the same pop sci people think that Descartes' views are those of Christianity, but Descartes was put on the Index, and perhaps with good reason.The stereotype about Descartes being some naive dualist is erroneous--it is not wholly dualist to place the soul in the pituitary gland (which is material). About this text: way too much info about the circulatory system; and an obvious intellectual humility which I admire. --------MEDITATIONS:Descartes is, like so many of the most "important" of thinkers, both more right than he is given credit for and more wrong than he is assumed to be for his importance. While his example was very inspiring to me as a Freshman kid taking his first philosophy course, parts of this are so wrong as to embarrass me for Descartes centuries later. Encountering Descartes for the first time was exciting--I went through the whole process he did, from total naive realism to total skepticism to total solipsism back to cautious, not-naive realism. Exciting as it was, it's quite the emotional rollercoaster to wonder what your "I" is when you're a teenager who has taken a few weeks of a single philosophy class.Since those anxious days I have mainly heard Descartes' name come up as a caricature in popular science. The straw man is that Descartes thought of man as a "ghost in a machine." Here is what Descartes actually says:"Nature likewise teaches me by these sensations of pain, hunger, thirst, etc., that I am not only lodged in my body as a pilot in a vessel, but that I am besides so intimately conjoined, and as it were intermixed with it, that my mind and body compose a certain unity. For if this were not the case, I should not feel pain when my body is hurt, seeing I am merely a thinking thing, but should perceive the wound by the understanding alone, just as a pilot perceives by sight when any part of his vessel is damaged; and when my body has need of food or drink, I should have a clear knowledge of this, and not be made aware of it by the confused sensations of hunger and thirst: for, in truth, all these sensations of hunger, thirst, pain, etc., are nothing more than certain confused modes of thinking, arising from the union and apparent fusion of mind and body...the mind does not immediately receive the impression from all the parts of the body, but only from the brain, or perhaps even from one small part of it, viz., that in which the common sense (senses communis) is said to be, which as often as it is affected in the same way gives rise to the same perception in the mind, although meanwhile the other parts of the body may be diversely disposed, as is proved by innumerable experiments, which it is unnecessary here to enumerate"Read Meditation VI. He talks about nerves, too. Descartes believed in neurology. He thought that the soul could be physically located in the pituitary gland, I believe. HE WAS NOT A NAIVE DUALIST. Dualists are never as naive as they are said to be, and the biggest reason I have to doubt monism is the dishonesty with which its apologists present the alternatives. These pop sci lies poisoned my mind (which may or may not be located in my pituitary gland) with the assumption that everyone had been a naive dualist until poor Phineas Gage shocked the world. Upon actually reading books, I discovered that this was not the case; and that Aquinas, for example, talked quite a bit about the brain.Perhaps I'm angrier at my own stupidity than at the dishonest treatment of Descartes by both the naive who haven't read him and comment on his "importance" and the naive who haven't read him and turn him into a straw man.There is a lot to say about the actual text here. Very briefly, I'll just say what has been said since Hume--that the clear and distinct principle is hardly clear or distinct; that the ontological argument (as it is here constructed) is unsound; that the trademark argument (as it is here constructed) is unsound; but that Descartes' religious thirst for truth on the one hand and his complete filial trust in God on the other inspires me to imitate him.


Let us suppose, then, that we are dreaming, and that all these particulars--namely, the opening of the eyes, the motion of the head, the forth- putting of the hands--are merely illusions; and even that we really possess neither an entire body nor hands such as we see. Nevertheless it must be admitted at least that the objects which appear to us in sleep are, as it were, painted representations which could not have been formed unless in the likeness of realities; and, therefore, that those general objects, at all events, namely, eyes, a head, hands, and an entire body, are not simply imaginary, but really existent. For, in truth, painters themselves, even when they study to represent sirens and satyrs by forms the most fantastic and extraordinary, cannot bestow upon them natures absolutely new, but can only make a certain medley of the members of different animals; or if they chance to imagine something so novel that nothing at all similar has ever been seen before, and such as is, therefore, purely fictitious and absolutely false, it is at least certain that the colors of which this is composed are real. And on the same principle, although these general objects, viz. [a body], eyes, a head, hands, and the like, be imaginary, we are nevertheless absolutely necessitated to admit the reality at least of some other objects still more simple and universal than these, of which, just as of certain real colors, all those images of things, whether true and real, or false and fantastic, that are found in our consciousness (cogitatio),are formed.

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