*Discourse on Method, by René Descartes, 1637
Discourse on Method
by René Descartes, 1637
Published in 1637, the Discours de la méthode (Discourse on the Method) stands at a crucial point of transition in the philosophical and scientific thinking of René Descartes (1596–1650). On the one hand it looks back at early works such as the Regulae ad directionem ingenii (wr. 1628, pub. 1701; Rules for the Direction of the Mind), and the aborted Le Monde (begun 162.9; The world), Descartes’ vision of the cosmos in response to Galileo’s Dialogo dove si discorre sopra il due massimi sistemi del mondo (1632; Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems). On the other, it anticipates the famous Meditationes de prima philosophia (1641; Meditations on First Philosophy) and the influential Les Passions de I’âme (1649; Passions of the Soul). Presented as an introduction or prologue to his works on optics, meteorology, and geometry, it is concerned with the problem of legitimizing natural philosophy after the condemnation of Galileo by the Church. Writing in French rather than the more conventional Latin, Descartes addresses himself ostensibly to the general reader in search of truth. At the same time, while he hopes that others will find some value in his intellectual journey, he emphasizes the highly personal nature of the quest. If the Meditations are patterned after the spiritual exercises of Loyola, the Discourse finds its prototype in St. Augustine’s Confessions (397–98 CE) and Montaigne’s Essais (1580, 1588). He characterizes the Discourse as an autobiographical “story” or “fable,” divided into six parts for easy contemplation. Implicitly portraying himself as a sort of Socrates in search of truth and wisdom through skepticism and doubt, he traces his intellectual journey from his early classical education through the breakdown of his certainty and subsequent spiritual and intellectual revelation, to the current state of his thinking. Descartes builds this fable around a series of architectural and travel metaphors, evoking images of foundations and construction, dark forests and roads.
The first two parts of the Discourse present his early philosophical doubts, culminating in the discovery of his “method,” while enjoying the solitude of the famous stove-heated room. Echoing the Regulae, he describes four rules for reforming his own ways of thinking: first, accept nothing that is not clear and distinct; second, divide difficult subjects into many small parts; third, start with the simplest problems; and fourth, be comprehensive. By means of the “method” Descartes rehearses his ontological arguments for the existence of God, and enunciates the famous “cogito ergo sum” (“I think therefore I am”), all of which he develops more fully, systematically, and in a different order in the Meditations. In the third part, he suggests a series of moral maxims, positing tolerance and restraint in the face of uncertainty, an ethical stance that looks back to both Socrates and Montaigne.
After explaining his system of morality in Part 3, and his metaphysics in Part 4, Descartes turns in Part 5 to a summary of the doctrines found in the suppressed Le Monde, and in L’Homme (wr. 1629–33, Pub. 1664; Treatise on Man). Of particular importance to Descartes was the theory of automata and the workings of the circulatory system, both developed more fully later in the Passions of the Soul. Playing on the theme of the fable, he describes his model of the cosmos and the mechanics of the human body in terms of an elaborate fantasy rather than an actuality, a speculative portrait of how the world would be if his assumptions on the nature of God were true. In this way, he can present his theories, suggest their reasonableness, yet not commit himself to their ultimate validity. He cuts off any lengthy scholastic disputation, shortcircuiting the traditional philosophical doctrines that he feels stand in the way of scientific discovery. Part 6 provides an introduction to the essays on meteorology and optics, indicating the present state of his scientific investigations. Having thus explained the method and his state of progress as a result of the method, a movement from the past to the present, Descartes offers a veiled invitation to any patron who would help him continue his search, a turn toward the future.
First published in Leiden by Elzevier, the Discourse had an initial run of 3000 copies. Having already circulated in proof to a number of noted figures, the book attracted a wide and immediate reaction, and Descartes spent the next two years responding to questions and objections. If the Discourse did not provide Descartes with the economic independence he desired, at least until the fateful patronage of Queen Christina of Sweden, it contributed to the composition of the Meditations and his subsequent philosophical works. Perhaps more importantly, however, by introducing the doctrine of the cogito, and the exploration of the limits of human knowledge, Descartes’ philosophical fable influenced all subsequent Western philosophy, from the various empirical schools that accept the role of consciousness in the constitution of reality even while rejecting the proofs of God and the theory of innate knowledge, to the phenomenologists and their followers among the existentialists and poststructuralists who purport to radicalize the Cartesian self. His most personal work, the Discourse stands as the starting point for all modern philosophy.
While Descartes was not the first to use the personal essay, he is one of the first to use it for the development of a full system. Erasmus’ Adagia (1500; The Adages) and Colloquia familiaria (1516; The Colloquies], More’s Utopia (1516), or even Montaigne’s Essais are more modest and random in their treatments; when Erasmus or More wished to explicate a topic systematically, they fell back on the conventions of the scholastic treatise. Informality, flexibility, and narrative qualities were well suited to Descartes’ philosophical and scientific purposes, allowing him to discuss a wide variety of matter with conciseness and clarity without having to address the given body of scholarship. In turn, the essay form allowed him to present his ideas without committing himself to them or having to engage in lengthy scholastic debate. The effect was to take philosophical and scientific discussion out of the university and bring it to the general public, marking the beginning of modern philosophy, and establishing the personal essay as a popular vehicle of discourse.
See also Philosophical Essay
Discours de la méthode pour bien conduire sa raison et chercher la vérité dans les sciences, 1637; edited by Étienne Gilson, 1925 (reprinted 1989), M. Robert Derathe, 1937, Gilbert Gadoffre, 1961, L.Meynard, 2 vols., 1966–68, Jean Costilhes, 1966, François Misrachi, 1977, and Simone Mazauric, 1983; as Discourse of a Method for the Well Guiding of Reason, and the Discovery of Truth in the Sciences, translated anonymously, 1649; as Discourse on Method, translated by John Veitch, 1870, Laurence J.Lafleur, 1950, Arthur Wollaston, 1960, F.E. Sutcliffe, 1968, Donald A.Cress, 1980, and George Heffernan, 1994
Beck, Leslie, The Metaphysics of Descartes, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965
Cottingham, John, Descartes, Oxford and New York: Blackwell, 1986
Cottingham, John, editor, The Cambridge Companion to Descartes, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Dicker, Georges, Descartes: An Analytical and Historical Introduction, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1993
Frankfurt, Harry G., Demons, Dreamers, and Madmen: The Defense of Reason in Descartes’s Meditations, New York: Garland, 1987 (original edition, 1970)
Garber, Daniel, Descartes’ Metaphysical Physics, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992
Gaukroger, Stephen, Descartes: An Intellectual Biography, Oxford: Clarendon Press, and New York: Oxford University Press, 1995
Gueroult, Martial, Descartes’ Philosophy Interpreted According to the Order of Reasons, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2 vols., 1984–85
Kenny, Anthony, Descartes: A Study of His Philosophy, New York: Random House, 1968
Schouls, Peter A., Descartes and the Enlightenment, Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 1989
Sorell, Tom, Descartes, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1987
Williams, Bernard, Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry, Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities Press, and Hassocks: Harvester, 1978
Wilson, Margaret, Descartes, London and Boston: Routlege and Kegan Paul, 1978
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