Discourse on Method

ISBN: 0872204227
ISBN 13: 9780872204225
By: René Descartes Donald A. Cress

Check Price Now


Classic Classics Currently Reading Filosofía French Non Fiction Nonfiction Philosophy Science To Read

About this book

By far the most widely used translation in North American college classrooms, Donald A. Cress's translation from the French of the Adam and Tannery critical edition is prized for its accuracy, elegance, and economy. The translation featured in the Third Edition has been thoroughly revised from the 1979 First Edition and includes page references to the critical edition for ease of comparison.

Reader's Thoughts


It's a fairly short book, but it was a turning point in thought and action for science. Descartes famous book laid out his own personal journey into understanding and enlightenment. I don't think it's a stretch to say his influence has been incalculable. He broke this autobiography into six major parts, the first four are the more interesting and explains the whys and hows he forged his philosophy. The fifth part feels more rough than the previous four, what I found interesting was he struggled with how to define what is a human and what is only a simulacrum. Yeah, that's right, in 1637 Descartes was worried about a future where simulacra would be nigh indistinguishable to a real human. Descartes narrowed it down to having a soul or not, and that idea I've seen in so many Sci-Fi stories written in the past few decades.This book is the source of the quote "I think, therefore I am." Descartes wrote it in French, the original phrase is "Je pense, donc je suis." Later, in the Principia philosophiae does Descartes formulate the phrase into Latin, "Cogito ergo sum."There's quite a bit packed into this book, and he wrote to a presumably educated audience. For example, his reasoning as to why God exists depends in part on the reader being familiar with Aquinas.Bacon's Novum Organum had only been published in 1620, and Descartes was already blasting the so-called scientists by 1637, rightly identifying problems in process and motive.Highly recommended.


Hard for me to take seriously someone who talks about perfection like it's a trait--when really it's more of a relationship between traits, or an aesthetic response to them. A master of taking 500 words to say something obvious (like Proust); and the relentless latinate style grew tiresome quickly. Also full of ridiculous insincerities: on the one hand he's leaving notes to posterity, then saying nobody cares about a schmucky little goober like himself. And with the last sentence he seems to be trying to bum a living (or a retirement) off of me; the whole thing was just so...French. On the plus side: in places he achieves a jagged informality that's very intimate (especially for 1637); and the architecture of his sentences is at times impressive. Sounded more like 18th century (English anyway) than early 17th.

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.


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...

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].

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.

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!

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.


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.

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 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


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.


Though I cannot deny the heavy influence Descartes' method had on the development of the modern period science, that it - so to speak - paved the way for the science, I cannot overlook some of the rather grievous ramifications it had on all of our understanding of the world. One of them is the strengthening of the notion of privileged position of humans above all other beings (also explicitly explained in Part V). Also the unshakable faith in man's ability to discover truths about the world using just our mind (and the right method) and that these are the only real and reliable truths that we may discover. Or the whole notion of human psyche as a non-material entity outside and above the physical world. Or the belief that the world is quantifiable and that that's the right way how to learn anything about it. All of these are, in my opinion, very questionable and many thinkers have challenged them since then (i.e. the whole phenomenology school). Of course, I cannot blame Descartes for all these (and other) problematic traits of our understanding of the world and I indeed do not. It's a result of some three and a half hundred years of advancement and a lot of other thinkers influenced it, some of them maybe even more than him. So, apart from my personal objections, what was this book like?Well, it's hard to judge such historical work - should I judge it in the context of its period, or from a contemporary viewpoint? I will probably just name a few traits that hit me between the eyes. First, I couldn't stand Descartes' arrogance with which he presented his method as the only one that can be used to achieve reliable truths. Yes, he tried to sound humble, but it seemed to me rather as a pose than as a heartfelt humility. Also, it's kind of funny to read some of his deductions of 'truths' about God's existence or the works of the circulatory system. Maybe his method is not so foolproof. We may say that it's because he used it in the wrong way or started from wrong assumptions. But isn't even the contemporary science still very prone to such errors? On the other hand, his many-years-long struggle to refine his judgement and beliefs is remarkable (honestly, how many of us would be able to do it?). But it sometimes felt like reading some new-age guru: "Hey, look at me, I underwent a radical transformation of my thoughts and beliefs in the last several years. I purged myself from all learned or assumed truths and in the void of utter doubt, I discovered the profound truth of my existence: Cogito, ergo sum!". And he gained a large following indeed.Sorry for the sarcasm. These are just my personal thoughts and feelings about the book. I acknowledge its importance (and Descartes' in general) for modern thought. I'm just not too impressed by it.

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?

Share your thoughts

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *