A Discourse on Method Summary

René Descartes

A Discourse on Method

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A Discourse on Method Summary

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The French philosopher René Descartes published A Discourse on Method (Discours de la méthode) in 1637. He was heavily influenced by stoic philosophers, such as Socrates. Descartes was a very unique thinker at the time: he relied on rational arguments rather than appeals to God, and chose to write in French rather than the more respected Latin.

In A Discourse on Method, Descartes outlines how one can be critical in one’spersonal life and thus reach several truths. This viewpoint was fundamental for the wide-spread acceptance of the scientific method. Descartes’ fiercely independent thinking also influenced numerous revolutions, including The French Revolution, whose leaders relied on Descartes’ assertion that people should rely on their senses and personal experience for guidance on how to live, rather than authority and tradition.

The work’s complete title is Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and of Seeking Truth in the Sciences. It has six parts: the first three are autobiographical and describe Descartes’search for truth. The final three parts outline his rationalist attitude toward seeking the truth.

Descartes begins his work with the declaration that every human being is capable of using reason. People appear to have different opinions, or are far away from truth, because they have used their faculty for reason in faulty ways.

Descartes writes that he will share a method of truth-discovery that he found was very helpful as a young man, and which he has used ever since to increase his own well-being and understanding of the world.

After attending one of the best schools in France, Descartes matriculated at The University of Poitiers. He found the lectures on God and the noble life to be unsatisfying. All he graduated with was more doubts about the world and noticeable errors in his own thinking. While he enjoyed formal education, Descartes came to believe that a more satisfying truth was available through quiet introspection: morality, theology, and philosophy were best understood not through school, but quiet contemplation with one’s self.

He began to travel the world and actively sought out a wide range of insightful people. Still, he was unsatisfied and uneasy about life.

One day in 1619, during a terrible winter storm, he spent an entire day inside a stove-heated room mediating about life. In this silence and warmth, he questioned the fundamental tenets of his daily philosophy. His goal was to whittle life down to a few essential guiding principles.

One of the principles that started to clarify in his mind was that people tend to do their best work alone, rather than in groups. He cites a city planner, a lawmaker, and God as three examples. Each of these examples tends to do better work when they can execute their reasoning without interference from others.

Descartes, possibly fearful of clerical or state retribution, highlights that these thoughts only apply to individuals. They shouldn’t be applied to major societal institutions such as the church or state.

Another principle is that a doubting human being, in the very act of skepticism, proves its existence. The only thing humans can control is their own thoughts. This work is responsible for the famous quote, “I think, therefore I am.” Descartes writes that he can never be sure if he’s near a fire in a rocking chair or simply dreaming of one. But the fact that he’s thinking about that paradox at all proves that he’s alive.

Descartes writes that during this quiet, winter day, he also started to consider analytical geometry. Descartes uses his mathematical proofs in part four, “Proof of God and the Soul.” He suggests that a triangle naturally has three angles that add up to 180 degrees; this harmony could not exist without God. He argues that the existence of God is reached through reason, not blind faith.

Descartes’ own strategy for an examined life includes four parts: don’t accept anything as true until met with unimpeachable proof (Rule of Certainty); atomize a problem into many problems to easily understand it (Rule of Analysis); begin with very simple subjects before advancing to more esoteric knowledge (Rule of Synthesis); know the division of subjects and the progress made in understanding each one so that no possibility is left out (Rule of the List).

Until he has reached a definite truth, Descartes determines to obey the law of the country he found himself in, to be resolute in his opinions, to change when he couldn’t change the world. This approach is described in the third part, “Morals and Maxims accepted while conducting the Method.”

In the fourth part, “Proof of God and the Soul,” Descartes writes that there are three tenets that cannot be doubted: that people don’t exist, that they can’t exist, and that there is no God.

Descartes believed that there is a mind without the body; this laid the groundwork for “Cartesian duality,” the philosophical belief that a human’s material body is separate from our psychic life. Though the material and the spiritual interact, they are separate, and the soul continues to exist even after the body dies.

Plato says we have knowledge of equality because we sensed it in a spiritual trip to a higher realm. Similarly, Descartes thinks that if the mind of a higher God can be conceived of, then it must exist somewhere in the universe; this is called the ontological proof of God. Because we can think of a superior, perfect being, there must be one. An imperfect being, such as Descartes himself, couldn’t think of a perfect being without some inspiration from that higher being. In fact, all perfection in the world comes from God.