Descartes - Discourse on Method

20 April 2014

I decided it was time to get to Descartes. A must read before I continue further. I was not super excited to read Descartes, but I did find it more entertaining than expected, seeing a lot of connections to things a lot of us have heard. This is his Discourse on Method, and I’ll be reading Meditations next.


I enjoyed the sort of letter style Descartes wrote this in. It was like a letter he wrote to a friend, a brief account of his journey through his experiment and his conclusions.

I was expecting it to be quite dull, but I did find his thought process entertaining to read and picture in his place in history. He has an obsessive need for certainty and logic and rationality. If only I can think hard enough (maybe I’ll even lock myself in a room!) I will figure it out! It’s like a fusion of curiosity, mixed with the assumption that thought can operate just like mathematics, along with the hope (or maybe need) to uphold and prove the idea that God exists and is good and perfect and logical (just like math!). It painted a sort of boring (and I’d venture to say, perhaps even dangerous) picture of God. His logic in some of these places seemed also to be a bit goofy (e.g. I can think of the idea of “perfect” therefore there must be something perfect that created me, therefore God exists.. and is perfect!—phew!).

It seemed to be a precursor to a lot of goofy apologetical arguments still used today (Though Anselm who was before him enjoyed a similar style of argument to prove God’s perfect justice and link it with atonement). One point he makes is that one of the greatest things that leads man astray is the thought that God does not exist and that man is just another animal. This seems to be a driving force to prove God’s existence, the distinction between the mind/soul/rational/eternal-nature of man and his body, and man’s far superior nature to those stupid, silly, and soulless animals.

If I were 7 years younger, and lived 500 years ago maybe this would have blown my mind. His question and approach is a creative one, which I do enjoy. The idea of starting everything, and all of thought, from scratch is an interesting, and fun, and maybe even an important one. But (at least in the current moment) it is hard to get myself to a place where his questions have relevance. And he seems overly concerned with making certain his proofs that he leaps a bit too far ahead of himself to give certainty to all those skeptics out there.

Brief summary of Discourse on Method

Part One: Descartes looves math (“because of it’s certainty and self-evidence”). Theology teaches you how to get into Heaven, philosophy teaches you how to win admiration of the “less learned.” Philosophy, he says, is always subject to disagreement and is always uncertain. Science, he says, is even subject to shifting foundations. He wanted to distinguish between true and false, and eventually learned not to accept or believe too firmly in anything in order to free himself from errors. He says he resolved to use the powers of his mind to choose his own paths of understanding.

Part Two: Works composed from several people are often less perfect than those from one. Architecture by one architect is is usually better than one with several architects. Has anyone considered rebuilding the foundation of of a house or town in order to rebuild it more beautifully? This is what Descartes is trying to do with his thought: throw away everything and rebuild thought that is entirely his own. Before, though, he decides to plan a method to get to true knowledge, something with only a few simple principles:

  1. Accept nothing as true unless it was presented so clearly and so distinctly that I have no doubt about it.
  2. Divide each difficulty that I am examining into as many parts as possible in order to help solve it.
  3. Think orderly, and begin with the simplest and easiest things first, then gradually get to the more complex.
  4. Be so thorough and complete so as to omit nothing.

His thought is that, like his understanding of math, there cannot be anything so distant or hidden that one could not eventually discover it.

Part Three: Descartes decides here to come up with a few maxims / moral codes to help him get by while he tears down and rebuilds his thought-castle.

  1. Obey the laws and customs of my country and live according to the most moderate opinions and actions of the people.
  2. Be as firm and resolute in my actions as possible.
  3. Attempt to conquer myself rather than fortune and accustom myself to believe that nothing is entirely in my power except my thoughts, that this will lead me to more contentedness, happiness and freedom.

Part four: This is where Descartes gets into his conclusions, of which he prefaces by saying he’s not sure if he should say them since they are so abstract and unusual. He decides to reject everything he previously believed as proofs and to pretend that everything that had ever entered his mind was just a dream. It is here he discovers and concludes the thought: I think therefore I am. He goes on to say since he can imagine that his body does not exist, while still thinking, that the mind must be completely distinct from the body and that the essence of existence is in thinking, not in the material. This gives him some sort of ground for certainty, but he still has doubts. Here he quickly assumes that since he is not perfect, but he can think of something that is perfect, there must be a greater perfection more perfect than him, outside of himself. And since this thought was inside of him, it must have come from somewhere. Something less perfect must have been made by something more perfect, and the idea of perfect must have been given to him. Thus he has just proven the existence of God, and all the things that he saw as imperfect (doubt, inconstancy, sadness etc.) must not exist in this God. This he uses as a basis to say he does have some sturdy ground to rely on, and that if there is some confusion or anything in him, it is only because he is not perfect. Finally, he says that if we are ever confused, we should rely only on our reason, not our senses or imagination.

For reason does not dictate that what we see or imagine thus is true, but it does tell us that all our ideas and notions must have some basis in truth, for it would not be possible that God, who is all perfect and true, should have put them in us unless it were so.

Part five: Here he starts to link the idea of a perfect God with laws of nature. He imagines that if God were to create another world it must operate in the same exact way as ours. He then has a handful of pages that talk about anatomy and blood flow and concludes that the body is like a machine, far better than anything a man has ever created, and thus, something more admirable must have created us. He talks, then, about the distinction between man and animal, how man is far superior to animal, that man has a rational mind and a reasonable soul that animal does not have. He concludes by saying this about the soul:

it is of the greatest importance: for, after the error of those who deny the existence of God, which error I think I have sufficiently refuted above, there is nothing which leads feeble minds more readily astray from the straight path of virtue than to imagine that the soul of animals is of the same nature as our own, and that, consequently, we have nothing to fear or to hope for after this life, any more than have flies or ants; instead, when one knows how much they differ, one can understand much better the reasons which prove that our soul is of a nature entirely independent of the body, and that, consequently, it is not subject to die with it; then, since one cannot see other causes for its destruction, one is naturally led to judge from this that it is immortal.

Part six: Descartes concludes by proposing we move away from speculative philosophy to something more practical. That we can be certain of things and that only with experiment and reason can we make advancements. That we have not even begun to see the kinds of advancements in areas like medicine that could be made. There are simple principles and truths of nature that we can discover and wield and make public for the progress of each man. If anyone has any question or objection, send it to his publisher and he will be interested in replying.

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