To the French philosopher René Descartes, the act of doubting seemed clearly to mark the proper starting point for all philosophical inquiries. The methodology that flows from this approach, many of Descartes’s successors have insisted, laid the foundations of modern philosophy. The beginning of Discourse on Method is a systematic tearing down of learning and education; understanding does not rest, Descartes implies, on received information.
Although usually identified simply as the Discourse on Method, the full title Descartes gave to his brief, five-part essay more accurately reveals the nature of his subject. The full title is Discours de la méthode pour bien conduire sa raison & chercher la vérité dans les sciences (Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason and Seeking for Truth in the Sciences). The Discourse on Method appeared along with three other essays that augment Descartes’s fundamental propositions with details. They were all incorporated in his Philosophical Essays. Descartes believed that all people possess good sense and the unique ability to reason, so the Discourse on Method was written in French in an era when Latin was the language of Europe’s academic, intellectual, and religious elites. It was Descartes’s intention to reach a relatively large audience.
Descartes completed this essay well before 1637. When he was twenty-three, in fact, he recorded a series of dreams that inspired him to establish a new philosophical and scientific system. Moreover, his basic ideas and methodology were shared among his friends and correspondents for years before the book was published. Several things had dissuaded him from publishing. He was aware, first of all, of Galileo Galilei’s condemnation by the Catholic Church for having defended the theory of Nicolaus Copernicus (published in 1512) that Earth and the other planets revolved about the Sun. Rigorously trained by Jesuits at La Flèche College and a sincere Catholic, Descartes accordingly suppressed his own cosmological ideas until he had gotten them to conform to those of his church. He also deeply valued time for meditation, thought, and reflection: time, that is, for leisure. Consequently, to publish his views was to invite the time-consuming bothers caused by approving adherents and by angry critics alike. Furthermore, since to his own satisfaction he had largely resolved many of the intellectual problems he examined, he lacked incentive to publish. The urgings of friends, a sense of social obligation, and some vanity persuaded him, at the then-advanced age of forty-one, finally to publish.
In the Discourse on Method Descartes approached the ancient philosophical questions of What is true? and What is certain? He employed a novel method. He styled his exposition modestly. He was not interested, he wrote, in pedantically laying down precepts for others to follow. They, after all, would respond to the dictates of their own reason. He was concerned also about the possibility of being in error, so much so that he offered his “Tract . . . merely as a history, or . . . as a tale” that might yield examples worthy of emulation. Read in this light, the Discourse on Method recounts the steps of his intellectual adventure, the progress made en route, and the conclusions drawn when he reached his destination.
To launch himself anew Descartes describes how, figuratively, he divested himself of intellectual baggage and of prejudices acquired from his worldly experience. As one born of a seminoble class, for instance, he had engaged in the diversions of aristocrats, had served with the armies of Maurice of Nassau and Johann Tzerclaes, Count Tilly, during his early twenties, and had spent several years in Paris studying science, prior to embarking upon two decades of solitude and immersion in his work in Holland, later in Sweden. The experiences and the conventional authorities that once had nourished his mind had ceased to sustain him. The insights and methods of languages, history, theology, morals, ethics, eloquence, poetry, jurisprudence, medicine, and scholastic philosophy—in each of which he was well versed—he discarded as too obscure and too imprecise to afford him a pathway to truth and certainty.
What Descartes sought to...
(The entire section is 1779 words.)