A Discourse on the Method (World’s Classics)

ISBN: 0192825143
ISBN 13: 9780192825148
By: René Descartes Ian Maclean

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About this book

Descartes' Discourse marks a watershed in European thought; in it, the author sets out in brief his radical new philosophy, which begins with a proof of the existence of the self (the famous "cogito ergo sum"). Next he deduces from it the existence and nature of God, and ends by offering a radical new account of the physical world and of human and animal nature. Written in everyday language and meant to be read by common people of the day, it swept away all previous philosophical traditions

Reader's Thoughts

Bookworm Amir

This works out to be a bit of a philosophy text, similar to Plato's allegory of the cave. Something which I have read since I had done Philosophy class. His work is divided into 6 parts, of which the content are the first 4 I'd say. He talks about how God and man's relationship is, how the idea of something perfect, shall you try looking for it in the most objective manner, is naturally embedded in our mind already. He also talks about the sciences and how it works out. And animals too, how humans and animals are similar yet different. Hint: the ability to speak and us having the rational soul. The last part talks about him not wanting to be considered as a philosopher nor us taking his views and transforming it into a philosophy. Overall, the best part that I took from this reading is that to find objective truth, you have to suspend and remove some of your beliefs so that you can find things in the most objective and unbiased manner, the way which Descartes had done in a few principles. For me, it would be very fun to start doing this, as I used to do that itself. Question everything and don't take anything you see as an inherent truth. A short read, I suggest you read this as it is considered as one of the classics. Read it once, let it expand your mind, and shelve it. :-)

Rowland Bismark

The Discourse on the Method is a fascinating book, both as a work of philosophy and as a historical document. Descartes lived and worked in a period that Thomas Kuhn would call a "paradigm shift": one way of thinking, one worldview, was slowly being replaced by another. Descartes's work, while part of the new paradigm, still has one leg in the old mode of thought.The old, waning worldview was scholastic Aristotelianism. The Aristotelian paradigm had a conception of the mind, of knowledge, and of science that may seem very alien to us today, but this conception held sway over Western thought for about two thousand years.According to the Aristotelian tradition, the mind proper—what is exclusively "inside the head"—is limited to reason and understanding. Sensory perception, imagination, will, and so on, make reference to things outside the mind and so are not purely mental. Rather, they are the link that connects us to the outside world. According to Aristotle, there is no distinction between what I perceive and what is "out there." Thus, sensory experience gives us direct and immediate knowledge of objects in the world.Science, in this worldview, is a matter of taking the immediate evidence of sensory experience and deducing certain conclusions from it. The sensory experience is indubitable, and the deductions are logical, so all scientific knowledge is based on absolute certainty.One of Descartes's most significant contributions to the scientific revolution is his conception of sensory experience, imagination, and will as being just as much subjective mental phenomena as reason and understanding. His systematic doubting questions how it is that we can be certain about what we perceive. Descartes draws a sharp distinction between what our senses report to us and what is "out there."This re-conception of the mind shakes the foundations of Aristotelian scholasticism. If sensory experience is no longer self-evident, then we can no longer deduce certain scientific truths from these observations. Essentially, Descartes makes us sharply aware of what goes into a scientific observation. It is not a purely neutral and objective act of seeing the world as it is; it is an interpretive act that must be undertaken with great care and circumspection.The scientific paradigm that we have today owes a great deal to Descartes. Today, we have taken Descartes's method one step further. Now, we conclude that we can never have absolute certainty in the sciences. All we can hope for are sound theories that are supported by careful observations.Descartes himself does not reach this conclusion. To a large extent, he is still set on finding certainty. His search for certainty, beginning with the famous line "I am thinking, therefore I exist," has largely defined the course of a great deal of philosophy since his time. We can debate whether Descartes is right in having found certainty in this claim, and we can debate what kind of knowledge this is, but it seems clear that it is not a kind of knowledge that is applicable to science as a whole. In finding this certainty, Descartes hopes to rebuild science in the Aristotelian method of deduction from certain first principles. In hindsight, this effort may seem a bit misguided.Though his philosophy of science may be a bit askew, the philosophical method Descartes uses in part four of the Discourse has proven extremely valuable. His method of skeptical doubt has raised important philosophical questions concerning how we can be certain of, or even know, anything at all. His re-conception of what the mind is has largely defined the shape of Western psychology and philosophy ever since. His assertion that he is essentially a thinking thing and that his mind is distinct from his body has also raised a number of important philosophical questions: what is my relationship with my mind? What is my relationship with my body? If they are distinct, what is the causal connection between the two? And so on. Effectively, Descartes frames the questions that have preoccupied what we now call "modern philosophy."The turning point in Descartes's intellectual development occurred on November 10, 1619. He had attended the coronation of Ferdinand II in Frankfurt, and was returning to serve in the army of Maximilian of Bavaria. Due to the onset of winter, he holed himself up for a day, alone in a stove-heated room. With nothing else to occupy him, he set about thinking.He first mused that accomplishments of single individuals are usually more perfect than group efforts. Cities and buildings are more beautiful when they are made according to a single plan than when they are patched together piecemeal. Similarly, laws are better when they come from a single mind than when they evolve gradually over time. Descartes cites God's law as an instance of this perfection. These musings suggest to him that a person is best served by following the guidance of his reason alone, and not letting his judgments be clouded by his appetites and by the opinions of others.While it would be impossible to resolve the imperfections of a state or a body of sciences by tearing it all down and starting again from scratch, Descartes suggests that such a method is not quite as unreasonable on the individual level. He decided to let go of all his former opinions at once, and re-build them anew according the exacting standards of his own reason.Descartes is very careful, first of all, to point out that this method is meant only on an individual level, and he strongly opposes those who would try to topple a public institution and rebuild it from the ground up. Second, he reminds us that he only wants to discuss his method with us; he is not telling us to imitate him. In particular, he notes that there are two types of people for whom this method would be unsuited: those who think they know more than they do and who lack the patience for such careful work, and those who are modest enough to think that they are more capable of finding out the truth if they follow a teacher. Descartes would count himself among this second group if he hadn't had such a number of teachers and embarked on so many travels as to realize that the opinions of even learned men vary greatly.Before abandoning his former opinions entirely, Descartes formulates four laws that will direct his inquiry: First, not to accept anything as true unless it is evident; this will prevent hasty conclusions. Second, to divide any given problem into the greatest possible number of parts to make for a simpler analysis. Third, to start with the simplest of objects and to slowly progress toward increasingly difficult objects of study. Fourth, to be circumspect and constantly review the progress made in order to be sure that nothing has been left out.An obvious starting place was in the mathematical sciences, where a great deal of progress and certain knowledge had been achieved by means of demonstration. Descartes found his work made considerably easier if, on the one hand, he considered every quantity as a line, and, on the other hand, developed a system of symbols that could express these quantities as concisely as possible. Taking the best elements of algebra and geometry, he had tremendous success in both these fields.Before applying this method to the other sciences, Descartes thought it well to find some philosophical foundations for his method.If we were to identify a starting point for modern philosophy, November 10, 1619 would be as good a date as any. We might pinpoint precisely the moment that Descartes resolved to cast all his former opinions into doubt. This process of methodological doubt is central to Descartes, and indeed to most of modern philosophy. The results Descartes achieves by employing this method of doubt are discussed in Part Four of theDiscourse, so we will comment on his method in greater detail there.It is important, of course, that Descartes does not simply scrap everything he knows, or else he would have no guidance in rebuilding his knowledge. The four rules he lays out are meant as guidelines, so that he will be able to rely on them, and not on unnoticed prejudices. Descartes had initially collected twenty-one rules entitled Rules for the Direction of Our Native Intelligence in 1628, but left the manuscript unpublished. The four rules we find here can be read as a major abbreviation of that effort. Essentially, they demand that an inquiry proceed slowly and carefully, starting with basic, simple, self-evident truths, building toward more complex and less evident propositions.Descartes assumes a certain kind of theory of knowledge that was pretty much unquestioned in his day. In modern philosophical language, we call this a foundationalist epistemology. It sees knowledge as built up from simple, self-evident propositions, to higher and more complex knowledge. The theory states that if we were to analyze any complex proposition, we could break it down into increasingly smaller, simpler pieces until we were left with simple, non-analyzable propositions. These basic propositions would be either self-evidently true or self-evidently false. If they were all true, then we would know that the original complex proposition was also true. Of course, there are different variations of foundationalist epistemology; for example, the epistemology will shift depending on how the analysis is supposed to take place or on what the basic propositions are supposed to look like. But the general idea can be applied to Descartes easily. Knowledge is built up like a skyscraper, with the higher, complex knowledge built on simple, sturdy foundations.This is just one of a number of theories of knowledge that are batted about these days. Another theory that will come into play later in the Discourse is a coherentist epistemology, one that states that knowledge is more like a circle than a skyscraper. According to this theory, there is no foundational knowledge that is more basic than other knowledge. All knowledge fits together in such a way that it is internally coherent, but there is no fundamental self-evident proposition that is itself beyond doubt and that justifies all the other propositions. A statement is true because it is consistent with everything else we know to be true, not because it can be analyzed into simple parts.The reason that a foundationalist epistemology seems natural to Descartes at this point is that this is the epistemology that philosophy had inherited from Aristotle. As we have noted already in other sections of this SparkNote, Aristotelian scientific method works according to a system of syllogism and demonstration, where complex truths are logically deduced from simpler ones. This method implies a theory of knowledge according to which complex truths are built upon simpler ones that serve as an unquestioned bedrock of knowledge.It is significant that Descartes should choose mathematics to study according to this method. Mathematics has had far more success than any other field (except logic) with deductive reasoning. Math is built upon simple, self-evident axioms that are then used, along with some rules of inference, to derive proofs of more complex propositions.Descartes is not only one of the greatest philosophers of the modern world, he is also one of its greatest mathematicians. His discussion of algebra and geometry alludes to his discovery of analytic geometry that brought those two fields together. Until Descartes, algebra and geometry were two totally separate fields of study. He invented the Cartesian co-ordinate system that every math student knows and loves. That's the co-ordinate system with the x-axis and the y-axis that allows you to plot lines and curves and whatever other shapes you please. Geometrical figures could be plotted onto the co-ordinate grid, and since every line and curve on the grid corresponds to an equation, geometrical figures can be expressed as equations. Geometrical figures become algebraic equations, and algebraic equations can be graphed as geometrical figures. This all seems pretty commonplace to us today, but if you try to imagine solving math problems without graphing anything you'll begin to understand the colossal contribution Descartes made to mathematics.

Daniella Insalaco

Even though I am not a fan of Descartes, I did enjoy the edition that I read (courtesy of The Focus Philosophical Library) because it contained a thorough introduction, great footnotes as well as an interpretive essay at the end. This is one of the reasons why I am giving it two stars rather than one. I really disagree with Descartes on a number of levels and frankly I don't want to get into all of that on here because then I would have to divulge my personal beliefs and I don't feel comfortable doing that on a public forum. All I really want to say is that his views on animals really angered and frustrated me.

David S. T.

At first I wasn't going to read this one, but when I started to read Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes referred to this several times, so I decided to quickly read it. Instead of doing the smart thing and getting a better translation, I found and read a public domain one. In hind sight after reading the superior Hackett version translated by Cress, it would have been better to just wait for that one (or pay the small price). As for the Discourse, it's pretty interesting, Descartes decides to throw way everything he's learned and approach everything as geometric proofs where he builds on top of what he can completely infer. At first he rejects all senses and perceptions because they could be an illusion, the only thing he knows is, “I think therefore I am” (or if you read the Cottingham version, 'I am thinking therefore I exist'). From this he bases everything. He later goes to present his own modified version of the ontological argument, basically he thinks of something more perfect than himself, since he knows there is something more perfect then this, then eventually the most perfect thing is God. I'm sure many theists will agree with him that perhaps God is the only other thing they know is true, but I'm not sure how the thought of a most perfect being is more apparent than everything he experiences around him. I realize that his could be in illusion, but the thought of a most perfect being is more concrete? If someone doesn't perceive of this most perfect being instead assumes that everything is partially flawed does god cease to exist?

Dave B.

Descartes is enjoyable as a rationalist philosopher. I throughly embrace his ideals of self reflection and learning. My only problem is an issue that is core to most rationalist argument up to the 19th century. All analysis and argumentation relies on the existance of God. So every argument ends with the essential statement "Argument A is so because God wants it so". This is not to imply I don't have faith in God. I just believe that a rational logical argumentation must center around observable fact not assumed faith. This opinion doesn't translate to the idea that Descartes is not worth the time reading. He is listed as one of the greatest minds of western society for a reason. To read his works is to understand core ideas held by the western mind.


Fascinating book. Even though this book is old now you can still follow Descartes remarkable clarity of thought. Descartes was truly a great thinker in that he aimed in getting the maximum amount of clarity in his work that he could. This book can be slightly confusing at times due to the views of those times and the different sentence structuring but it is generally quite intelligible what Descartes is trying to say. Descartes breaks down the human experience to its very basics, and in doing so he improves our own thinking patterns as we realise what we can truly assert to be true and what we cannot.I recommend this book for any person who wants a glimpse of how to think lucidly and clearly with deliberate decision. However, I do not recommend this book for someone who is afraid of doubt, as this book will have you doubting literally everything and everyone! Lol.5/5

Mel Vincent

Rene Descartes is not only a pure optimist and a wide thinker but he too is very eloquent, charismatic, simple and very brilliant in how he fuses his ideas and arguments to that of different sciences such as anatomy and to an extent, psychology itself.While reading this it is as if you are not reading a highly charged philosophy book but instead it makes you think that it is in fact a travel novel, which is amazing. Rene Descartes articulately draws his own opinions on the environs, perceptions, thoughts, epiphanies and the arguments that go about him while changing scenes, places and meeting other people as well.It talks how the soul, whether that of a human or of a creature is distinct from either one and that the soul is not a part of the body and is therefore not subjected to the mortalities of the flesh, hence the immortality of the soul. He then states that dreams and conscious thoughts are not as distinct as previously thought the only this is that these are partly of truths for one could not have arrived at that thought if that did not exist in the first place and lastly, he talks about and proves the existence of God which is phenomenal and how he connects it with the other arguments of this book.And lastly, the thing that I love about this book is that it gives off a calming effect while you read it and I've come to realize and empathize that Rene Descartes is truly humble and I admire a great person who keeps his feet on the ground even if the world constantly tells hims of his genius and greatness.

Ergün Nar

The interesting thing is that I already found myself in his method. If the world is grey for you and searching for a light, want to disrupt the fog of your life, then read this book, it will help you technically in so many ways.


Cogito Ergo Sum......more correctly, " Je pense donc je suis" ... I think, therefore, I am.Anyways, Descartes, ladies and gentlemen... I've been trying to read some more basic philosophy, and this one is one of my favorites. I like Descartes' method (yes, pun intended) in discovering and discerning truth. Seems to align with my worldview-- question everything, but build on what you know and can reason.Anyway, the reading was quite thick. It was interesting to read in the last section how he delayed publication because of the religious and social pressure of the rennaissance.I really admire descartes. A true rennaissance man (again, pun very much intended) -- a thinker, mathematician, physicist, dabbling in medicine and anything else that interested him.

Ahmed Azimov

لابد لنا من الوقوف هنا لننظر متأملين الى احدى مكتسبات الانسانيه هنا مرحلة انعطاف هامه في تاريخ الهوموسابيانز والعلوم الانسانيه المكتسبه تماما حالها كحال منازعة كوبرينيكوس لافكار بطليموس القائله بمركزية الارض والتي روّج لها جاليلو لاحقا، وماديّة نيوتن، وتطوّر داروين، ونسبية اينشتين، وووو - رضي الله عنهم أجمعين -يوم أن صُودر الكثير من العظمة المزعومة للانسان البدائي الذي كان يرى نفسه وكوكبه مركزا للأجرام السماويه حيث يدورون خضوعا له بينما هو يبقى ثابتا !! حتى بدى لنا أننا مجرد أجرام صغيره حقيره لاحقاالكوجيتو الديكارتي المشهور " أنا أفكر إذن إنا موجود " حيث أنك جوهرٌ كلّ ماهيته أو طبيعته ليس إلا أن يفكر بالإضافة الى عرض موجز لتجربة الانسان الروحية والحديث عن مذهبه الشكي الذي كانت له أصداء أفلاطونيه سابقا، وكذا آمن به الشيخ الأكبر محيي الدين، حتى صاغه ديكارت بإحكام، فانطلق منه طه حسين أدبيا في مصنف " الشعر الجاهلي " - على سبيل المثال عربيا -

Erik Graff

Despite the title, this editions contains more than the Discourse, the other selections being given in the description appended. I read this volume to supplement the Descartes readings for a course entitled "History of Classical Modern Philosophy" taken at Loyola University Chicago during the first semester of 1980/81.

Shannon Thompson

In Discourse on Method, Rene Descartes discusses the philosophical and psychological aspects of being human, and I think that’s why this writing is easily accessible and relatable throughout the ages. Since there is a discussion on our nature, Descartes allows readers from his day and modern day to relate to one another and how they try to psychologically make sense of their life meaning. Descartes writes, “what we thus see or imagine is in reality existent; but it plainly tells us that all our ideas or notions contain in some truth” (Discourse on Method, 19.) While discussing whether or not this writing is an opportunity or a challenge, I think Descartes reveals how human nature is obviously both—life is a challenging opportunity. I think he best describes us as individuals when Descartes wrote, “it is not my design to teach the method that everyone must follow in order to use his reason properly, but only to show the way in which I have tried to use my own” (2). I liked this quote because, to me, it is both positive and negative, both challenging and an opportunity. It ultimately describes the modern world and how we must figure out our rights, our wants, and how to achieve everything within the equation of being a human in society and also an individual.

Maan Kawas

A good and important book by the great French philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes, which can be considered a landmark and an influential achievement in the history of modern philosophy! The book takes the form of an autobiographical treatise in which Descartes describes a method he found which helped him guide his reason in his quest for truth and research. Descartes states that he was after truth, and that he sought certainty, as most of the things and beliefs he found were subject to skepticism. In the book he introduces the four rules for conducting his reason, as well as the moral rules he adhered to during his journey of intellectual development. In this treatise Descartes tackles various issues, starting with the acknowledgement of the ‘thinking self’, from which he deduces his existence: “I think, therefore, I am” (Je pense, donc je suis), which he suggests later on to be distinct from the extended boy; thus establishing his dualist theory of mind and body. Then he proceeds to prove the existence of God the perfect and the laws of God, and talks after that about physiology (the blood, the heart and circulation systems) and makes comparisons between animals and men, stating the humans differ from animals. I loved Descartes’ use of an autobiography to describe his method, which also shows some effect of his Jesuit’s education. A key achievement the treatise achieved is to demolish the Aristotelian’s philosophy he learnt in schooling from the Jesuits. It is great to read this book which demonstrates the impact of the intellectual zeitgeist on this great Philosopher.

Rohan Ramakrishna

Cogito Ergo Sum. The book that heralded the modern age. Descartes' explanation of his scientific method kick-started the "Age of Reason" and was responsible for the break between science and philosophy. As a direct result of his method, science came to be an organized international peer-reviewed enterprise as we know it today.

Διόνυσος Ψευδάνωρ

One of the very finest products of the history of philosophy, René Descartes' Discourse on the Method is, in this Focus Philosophical Library edition, translated by the late Richard Kennington. Of special importance in this edition is Kennington's very good interpretive essay, "Descartes' Discourse on Method," which is only elsewhere found in a posthumous collection of his essays, On Modern Origins: Essays in Early Modern Philosophy . My understanding is that this was originally a lecture delivered at the University of Chicago in 1980. Regarding Kennington's ultimate conclusion, however, I can only go part way, at least provisionally, or before greater study. The question he ends on is this: has the "bond between philosophy or science and society been shown to be reasonable?" No, he concludes, for that bond rests on two elements which are, in fact, irreducible. The elements are two themes, the theme of utility and the theme of certainty. Since utility, or science for the sake of power, or for the possession and mastery of nature, is something the certainty of which, as Kennington says, "we are free" to philosophize about independently, we can reject Descartes' project. I agree to a point. Yes, we lack a "categorical obligation" to the modern project. But does that mean that the Cartesian project is unreasonable? I'm disinclined to think so because I doubt that Descartes was unaware of Kennington's discovery. Kennington's essay, despite his many indications of Descartes' dissimulative style of writing and his implicit demand that we modify the theological-political situation that he faced, is silent about that situation when I think it matters most, when we aim to draw the final conclusions about what "we are free" to do regarding his project today. His interpretation seems to suggest that we are free to reject the modern project because of the unreasonableness of Descartes' position, but, it seems to me, that Descartes' position wasn't simply unreasonable because it successfully brought about the needed change in the theological-political situation. Christianity was, after all, dealt a very serious blow. Modern science's appropriation of human charity from the jurisdiction of Christianity reduced Christianity's influence. Without any further explicit indication of the need that Descartes faced and the deliberate benefits to humanity that he brought about, I can only partly endorse Kennington's essay. However, I will note this: Kennington comes from a tradition whose members are careful writers who know how to read very careful writers, and it's not impossible that his silence on Descartes' full motives is telling; so, I will remain open to the possibility that he has a more "charitable" albeit obscure interpretation in mind. If I find grounds for that during future study of this essay, I will append them to this review.Appendage: My original hesitation above about Kennington's interpretive essay resulted from all but the very end of Kennington's final, thirty-first, paragraph. Taking a closer look at the very end revealed to me further grounds for hesitation. Now I'm less inclined to hope for his greater, if somewhat concealed, charity of interpretation. The very ending is this: "Here, in Descartes, science does not know the ultimate, the particles; it does not know the whole. As scientific knowledge, it does not comprehend the human. If reinterpreted within these limits, its knowledge may well be an immense benefaction. But since it knows neither the whole nor the human part, we are free to philosophize independently of Cartesian and modern science." This is more in keeping with the tradition that Kennington comes from. On the other hand, it also seems too easy. Since "knowing the whole" is so probably out of reach, any project that cannot aspire to attain it can simply be dispensed with. The demand for knowledge of the whole is such a high demand that it can serve as an effective skeptical argument for almost anything. But that's too easy, especially as Kennington leaves it, without further elaboration. It still seems to me that Descartes knew these same limitations, and if so, then a better critique would lie in explaining how the Cartesian project, as conceived by Descartes, including its known limitations, is no longer necessary for the times. For that, though, it seems to me that we can turn to Nietzsche. A clarification: my basic, at present, disagreement is this: Kennington's argument about the limitations of Cartesian science are based on limitations that I believe Descartes was aware of. In that case, Kennington's argument against Descartes goes no further than Descartes. The limitations that Kennington reveals are limitations fully revealable at any time, even in Descartes' time. The most important limitations, then, are not with Descartes, but with history, i.e., there are even better limitations on which one could disagree with Cartesian science. Something like that, at least for now.

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