Discourse on Method and Related Writings

ISBN: 0140446990
ISBN 13: 9780140446999
By: René Descartes Desmond M. Clarke

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About this book

‘It is not enough to have a good mind; it is more important to use it well’René Descartes was a central figure in the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. In his Discourse on Method he outlined the contrast between mathematics and experimental sciences, and the extent to which each one can achieve certainty. Drawing on his own work in geometry, optics, astronomy and physiology, Descartes developed the hypothetical method that characterizes modern science, and this soon came to replace the traditional techniques derived from Aristotle. Many of Descartes’ most radical ideas – such as the disparity between our perceptions and the realities that cause them – have been highly influential in the development of modern philosophy.This edition sets the Discourse on Method in the wider context of Descartes’ work, with the Rules for Guiding One’s Intelligence in Searching for the Truth (1628), extracts from The World (1633) and selected letters from 1636–9. A companion volume, Meditations and Other Metaphysical Writings, is also published in Penguin Classics.

Reader's Thoughts

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.

Abdulrahman Farouk

كتاب رائع في كل شيء، في تقديمه، وترجمته، وبالطبع في النّص القليل الكلمات كبير المعاني. لا أستطيع كتابة المزيد عنه.. لكنني بالتأكيد سأرشحه لكل من سألني يوماً عن "ماذا يقرأ"


Fascinating text with interesting theories, and not hard to read. Part four definitely the most relevant. Part one and two felt like introduction and five and six like conclusion. However, I had to keep reminding myself that it was published in 1637 to not get angry at the outrageous theories on God and animals. Also, Descartes sounds like a massive megalomaniac. The text serves as a good introduction to the work of Descartes, but I am not sure I will read much more of it. Although his ideas on reason and the Soul are very interesting, religion is a big part of his philosophies, and I have a hard time reading almost scientific language used to prove the existence of a Chistian God, no matter when it was written.

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.

Katie Ozorkiewicz

I found it a rather interesting thought experiment, to try and wipe away everything we know and re-build the foundation of our existence is a rather large undertaking, especially when most people of our time must also focus on the daily grind required to pay for mortgages/rent, food, clothes, etc. I had read this a couple of times before, but it makes more sense now that I'm a few years older. I'd recommend it to anyone, it's a quick read and it provokes different thoughts at different periods in one's life [as most good writing does].

Timothy Matias

Rene’ Descartes’ “Discourse on the Method” is one of the most difficult books for me to review, in that it is half inspiring to me, and half disappointing; what starts out as a brilliant doubting methodology, eliminating whatever can be doubted until there is nothing left than can be by any conjecture or hypothesis be reasonably doubted- arrive at a basic, fundamental truth, providing a firm rational foundation from other truths can be derived. Unfortunately, once Descartes discovers this truth, (“I think, therefore I am”), he abandons his doubting methodology almost entirely, the remainder of the book being devoted to religion, morality, the intellectual superiority of men, Aristotelian thought, a lengthy explanation of his understanding of the human heart, and finally, a defense of his views and his reasons for promulgating them. The latter sections, when accounted together with the general apologetic tone of this work, suggests that a more fitting title would have been “Discourse on and Defense of the Method”, with the latter being the most disappointing aspect of his work.The first half of the book, divided into the first three sections, is comprised of Descartes’ intellectual background and the origins of his method, as well as the range of his education and experiences abroad. In these sections, he stresses the importance of a search for truth being elegant, providing several analogies for this, including: the aesthetic superiority of newer buildings built by one architect, over older buildings which have been maintained, remodeled, and “improved” by many different architects progressively less familiar with the original architect’s purpose;how while it more convenient to take the long winding path of a mountain, which is smooth and well-traveled, the most certain path to “truth” must necessarily be straight, though it is comparably untraveled, rocky, and passing through arduous heights and perilous precipitices; the importance of one who is lost in the forest, to stay to one side of a forest, as it is better to come out of the forest on the wrong end, than to perpetually wander in indecision, never coming out of the forest. Accordingly, he endeavors to, once he discovers the method by which to derive truths immune to doubt (dubbed by modern philosophy as the “doubting methodology”), be resolved in its application to the improvement of himself, and the acquisition of new knowledge. This may also explain his authoritative (though paradoxically humble) approach in the deriving of “truths” from his foundational axiom that his ability to think therefore he exists. (I’ll explain some of the negative impacts this had on the accuracy of his works, later on in the review).To doubt all that could be doubted, he first created a hypothetical conjecture by which everything that he knew would become uncertain, which is known today as the “dreaming conjecture”: If the waking world was really just a dream, then everything he saw could be a deception, much in the same way everything we see while dreaming is not happening in reality. It is here that he establishes that even if he were dreaming, and was thus compelled to doubt the truth of everything he saw, felt, imagined, or thought in reality, he still could not deny the fact that his doubts constituted thought, and as there needed to be a doubter to doubt something, his thoughts thereby confirmed his existence. This is the most brilliant part of “Discourse on the Method”, but unfortunately this is also where the brilliance ends.After determining that his thoughts confirm his existence (which would make him, at that point, effectively a solipsist, since the only knowledge he held with certainty was the existence of his own mind), Descartes confidently draws upon much of the knowledge that he had previously already doubted, including such axioms as the existence of perfection, the verification of ideas by virtue of being clearly known (basically, the perceived reliability of intuition), the notion that perfection and imperfection cannot coexist, the certainty that something cannot come from nothing, nor a lesser perfection come from a greater perfection. Building on these assumptions, which Descartes supposedly derived from his certainty of existence, he “proves” the absolute existence of God, that the attributes Descartes believed him to possess, were doubtlessly possessed by God, and the ones which Descartes was certain were contrary to God, he did not possess. This dramatic shift from rigid skepticism to a religiously and philosophically biased authoritarianism, greatly undermines the validity of Descarte’s “Discourse on the Method”.The ludicrousness of his “logic” can be plainly summarized as follows:1. To find the truth, we must doubt everything that can be doubted, until we find a truth so pure that it is immune to skepticism.2. To doubt everything that can be doubted, the notion that reality might well be a dream, is introduced. Everything we know could thus be a figment of our imagination, the deception created by mental delusion.3. We confirm that even if we doubt all else, the fact we can doubt confirms that we can think, which further confirms that there is a thinker, proving that even for a complete cynic, existence is undeniable, and furthermore, is confirmed by attempts to doubt it.(So far so good, but Descartes’ adherence to reason ends here)4. Everything I clearly know to be true is true indeed5. I know that perfection must exist, because how could the thought have been impressed upon me unless there were a greater perfection beyond myself6. This imperfection could not have come from nothing (that would be absurd), and neither could I be more perfect from that whence I came (which would be more absurd)7. Since I must have necessarily come from this greater perfection, my existence (which I have confirmed already) must have come from God8. Thus God existsDescartes then proceeds to determine whether God has deceived his senses to make reality different from what it is, and determines that:1. Since God is perfect, he cannot contain anything that is imperfect2. Thus anything imperfect, including deception, cannot come from GodAccordingly, Descartes can confidently and reliably determine what is real, and what is not, and what is good, and what is bad, by measuring them against God- that is, what Descartes deemed to be imperfect, comes from chaos, and what is perfect, must necessarily have its origin on God.To agree with Descartes’ conclusions, I would argue that one must completely disregard the very method the first half of this discourse is about, and assume all of his axioms as somehow, his plethora of axioms are supported by his confirmation that thought proves existence. If anyone can connect the dots for me on this, I would love to hear their thoughts, but so far as I can tell, Descartes inadvertently let his religious beliefs, and (later on, which I’ll get to) his philosophical background, interfere with objectivity of thought, these biases preventing him from accurately applying the central axiom upon which his entire doubting methodology was founded. This kind of backwards thinking, the primary weakness of not only Descartes’ thought, but of the rationalism movement as a whole, took the rest of his “Discourse on the Method” on an intellectual tangent, producing what is rationally a vastly inferior second half as a sequel to the first.After proving God’s existence, that reality is what it appears to be, and (apparently, though such a proof is not even mentioned!) confirming the existence of the human soul, Descartes demonstrates how his knowledge of God both confirms and clarifies his knowledge of geometry and the sciences, what he perceives with the senses, and a plethora of other “truths” which he said remained yet unpublished, so as to prevent controversy from interfering with his work. He further ventured that, even if other realities were to be created by God, that all of them would be just as true, and follow the same laws of natures, since they all have their origin in God. It’s clear at this point that Descartes had abandoned his method entirely in favor of religious dogma and metaphysical presumptions that he artificially made to conform to his “method”, despite any actual reasoning or evidence to support such an association.Here “the method” is removed from discourse entirely, as the humble Descartes boasts at length about his new-found “knowledge” and the results of his experiments (most of which are already disproven through modern scientific discoveries, and little more than an application of the “science” of Aristotle, Descartes’ primary philosophical influence, and the basis for most of the second half of this discourse). He describes his discoveries of the interactions of the four elements which, in Descarte’s time, were believed to compose everything: earth, fire, air, water) and the fifth element aether, which is implied in his analyses of light and the soul.The tangent continues even farther from the method with his exposition of animal organs, how they are similar to human organs, but that whereas humans also have vegetative and sensitive souls, they also possess that which no brute (animal/non-human, and quite possibly including Africans, whom Descartes implied in the beginning of the treatise are brutes) could possess- the rational soul, which enables humans to reason, and to communicate intelligibly through language, and adapt themselves to understand and be understood, and which even the most intellectually mediocre of humans can surpass the most intelligent of animals in proficiency. Of course, modern empirical science would have disproved Descarte’s claims in this regard too. If only to further demonstrate his own ignorance, he continued on to note that no machine, whether organic or mechanical, could replicate human intelligence convincingly, which of course is handily debunked by the ever-innovative modern scientific field of artificial intelligence.Descartes has thus made a great many assumptions, a far leap from doubting everything besides his ability to think, and by virtue of that, his own existence. Contrary to the original intent, Descartes has made his way to the edge of the forest, or to draw upon Plato’s allegory, to the mouth of the cave, only to dive back inside in search of deeper “truth” than he could find in the mere assurance of his own existence. And contrary to his maxim of striving for elegance, even at the cost of intellectual hardship and existential peril, he abandoned his “Occam’s Razor” and created theories building upon a myriad of assumptions, abandoning the necessity of undoubtable axioms, in favor of religion, intuition, Aristotelian thought, and personal bias. So much for objectivity!After this point, he gives a long winding explanation of the interworkings of the heart and the flow of blood, through the lens of the aforementioned 5-element medieval conception of nature and biology. Basically, his explanations are sound, but insufficiently vague to establish his credibility as a master of anatomy, and unacceptably tainted by simplistic and distorted understandings of chemistry and elemental structure. He then skims over how he theorizes the senses manifest perception, how our body induces the sleeping and waking states, etc. With each page of Descartes’ “discourse”, the once humble Descartes transforms himself into a deluded, authoritative know-it-all, and this treatise became more difficult to read with every paragraph, as the originally meaningful discourse discards the central focus in favor of fashioning itself a medieval textbook, only stretched over every single topic of the sciences, and without much relation between them. “In fine”, [the term used in the English translation to mean 'in summary'], the second half of this treatise successfully warps it into a collection of tangential philosophical speculations misrepresented as demonstrated facts.The final section has little to be said about, except that it is half-apologetic, and half self-promotion. This sort of thing is ordinarily found in the preface or the introduction to a work, or some other sort of author’s note, but Descartes ended up placing it at the end of the book, for God knows what reason. He explains how he didn’t want to release the treatises (mainly, the other ones, which are continually aluded to in this one), but felt compelled to so as to not be thought ill of for refraining from doing so. He explains how even though he wishes to have his work undisturbed, and his repose uninterrupted, that he felt the need to release the work first to preserve his reputation (which had grown despite his efforts to the contrary), and second to ensure that a greater understanding and application of his work could be achieved than if it were published post-mortem. He then goes on to promote the importance of his work being studied and analyzed properly, and of people replying to the discourse via his publisher so as to improve it. All of these things, while perhaps essential for an author to convey to his readership, are hardly the kind of thing to be devoted a section to, but at this point I’ve already given up on finding any logic to Descartes’ “Discourse on the Method”, which disappeared soon after the third section of this treatise was completed.Regardless of my misgivings regarding the logic of this discourse, and the due-noted unfaithfulness to the axioms and maxims his work was founded on, Descarte’s authoritative approach to “truth”, and the scientific and mathematical discoveries he derived from it, have indeed benefited mankind, so ultimately, his purpose in writing this work, and the concerning treatises, was fulfilled. On one hand, I consider him the Aristotle of the 17th century, creating a philosophical movement that would impede the progress of the fields of philosophy and science for decades, even centuries. On the other hand, his somewhat extremist, biased, authoritative approach to philosophy and the sciences led him to conceive of knowledge far beyond the scope of the sciences of the time. Both perspectives are reminiscent of Sigmund Freud, the physicist-philosopher who imagined a whole system of psychoanalysis and built the foundations of modern psychology, but is now widely criticized for the many speculative ideas he promoted as fact (now mostly disproven by modern psychology and psychiatry), particularly regarding human motivation and sexuality, and child development. In the same way, Descartes’ ideas, while many (or most, I might venture) were factually wrong, and often the opposite of the truth, helped create a scientific and philosophical revolution, contributing greatly to the present knowledge of these respective fields. In light of these contributions, it’s no wonder he is widely considered the founder of modern philosophy, despite his rational shortcomings.

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 -

Puji Lestari

Discourse On Method merupakan karyanya yang paling terkenal, ditulis dalam bahasa Perancis dan di dalamnya berisi tiga esai. Buku ini menceritakan tentang penemuan-penemuannya yang diperoleh melalui metode ciptaannya sendiri, misalnya mengenai optik, meteorologi, dan geometri. Pola pikir Descartes ini cukup unik. Ia meneliti pendapat-pendapat yang keliru, padahal sudah dipercaya oleh khalayak. Filosofinya dimulai dari keraguan, ia meragukan apa saja, bahkan yang dikatakan oleh gurunya sekalipun. Menurutnya, untuk mencari kebenaran sejati haruslah dimulai dengan langkah yang polos dan jernih, yaitu meragukan segalanya. Bagi saya, bagian paling menarik dari buku ini adalah bagaimana Descartes mendapatkan keyakinan tentang adanya Tuhan (ia sebut Allah). Berawal dari keraguan akan ketidaksempurnaan dirinya, Descartes mencari tau bagaimana dia bisa berpikir lebih sempurna daripada dirinya. Dan secara gamblang dia menyimpulkan bahwa ada sesuatu yang secara kodrat memang lebih sempurna karena mustahil apabila sesuatu yang lebih sempurna itu berasal dari ketiadaan. “…, yakni bahwa gagasan tentang sesuatu yang lebih sempurna itu diletakkan dalam diri saya oleh kodrat lain yang benar-benar lebih sempurna daripada saya, dan yang memiliki segala kesempurnaan yang beberapa di antaranya dapat saya pahami, atau dengan satu kata: Allah.”Descartes percaya adanya Tuhan, ia menganggap dirinya seorang Katolik patuh, namun gereja Katolik justru tidak menyukai pandangan-pandangannya. Gereja Katolik menyatakan bahwa karya-karya Descartes terlarang untuk dibaca. Menurut artikel yang ditulis oleh Michael H. Hart (1978), ada lima ide Descartes yang berpengaruh penting terhadap jalan pikiran Eropa yaitu: pandangan mekanisnya mengenai alam semesta, sikapnya yang positif terhadap penjajagan ilmiah, tekanan yang diletakkannya pada penggunaan matematika dalam ilmu pengetahuan, pembelaannya terhadap dasar awal sikap skeptis, dan penitikberatan perhatian terhadap epistemologi. Ah, bahasa filsafat memang selalu susah saya pahami. Tapi saya semakin tertarik dan tertarik dengan pemikiran Descartes manakala membaca bagian pemikirannya tentang Tuhan dengan berlandaskan pada apa yang nampak pada dunia dan sekitarnya, juga keberadaan dirinya. Bukankah ini senada dengan urusan kita dalam mengenal Allah? “Iqra!” Bacalah!Setiap muslim diwajibkan ma’rifatullah, mengenal Allah dengan cara “membaca” ayat-ayat qauliyah dan kauniyah-Nya. Descartes aja bisa membaca ayat kauniyah-Nya, bagaimana dengan kita?

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?

Safdar Sikandar

This brief book is divided into six parts. In the third part , Descartes tells us why he thinks that 'i think hence i am'.I believe I am only a little dumber than Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber, and I may have to read this book again!

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.

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.


I have to admit that I was very biased when I've started to read this. I was somehow relating it to Kant's Criticism of the Pure Reason, which was a traumatizing reading experience. Instead I found myself in front of a reasonable man with reasonable ideas. Even if I've read it in old French, which did not ease things. That is if we discard the proof of God's existence - but that relates to my inner beliefs, such as 'God cannot be demonstrated'. This aside, I enjoyed this writting, even if I was annoyed from time to time by the whining tendency. I particularly liked the last part, which I read as 'anyhow nobody will understand what I'm talking about, so why should I waste my time on you? Besides, I dont't want to give you the opportunity to put words in my mouth'. I guess it could have been pure fear of church though...


Ever since a student of mine turned out to be right that the famous 'cogito ergo sum' was originally rendered in French, I have been meaning to get my language skills up to the task of reading this work as Descartes wrote it. I made my through and found it profitable, but I will say that the latter half involved some skimming and some letting-it-wash-over-me. There is a big chunk on his theory of circulation of blood - not exactly fascinating for the 21st century man. And the last part appears to be a lengthy explanation of why he chose not to publish a lot of his physics -- I confess I was doing a lot of the wash-over at this point. I think I'll have to learn some more French and come back to it, because I think there were some good points in there, too. I did pick up why he wrote it in French: he wanted people to come at his views using 'pure reason' and not with prejudices for only 'old books' (written in Latin).


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

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