A Naive Reading of Descartes’ Discourse on Method

Rene Descartes, tr. Clarke,
Discourse on Method and Related Writings,
Penguin, 2003.

Descartes as monomaniac

Descartes’ brisk and bristly Discourse is not often read as literature, but it should be.  Descartes has a gift for malicious understatement: “Everyone thinks that they are well endowed with common sense, so that even those who are most difficult to please do not usually wish to have more than they already possess” (p. 5), or “Philosophy provides us ways of speaking plausibly about everything, and of making oneself admired by those who are less educated….” (p. 8).

Descartes wrote in the shadow of the Inquisition, which had only recently threatened Galileo, and the Discourse is thickly studded with professions of orthodoxy and humility –every bold statement can be matched by a humble one. But Descartes also wrote in Holland, the homeland of tolerance, and his evasions are so transparent and blatant that they almost amount to taunting. (Straussians do not really have to do much work to spot most of the places where the intended meaning might be different than the apparent meaning, since Descartes usually tells us clearly when he is making prudent concessions to orthodoxy.)

The basic “Cartesian” philosophical principles are well known: mind-body dualism, a kind of idealism, a version of the ontological proof of the existence of God, rationalism, and the analytic method of working from the part to the whole. And that’s all there in the Discourse, but in a such a sketchy form that it doesn’t seem like philosophy at all — mixed in with general reflections on scientific  procedure and a lot of autobiography showing us how he came to his conclusions.

The metaphysical, philosophical part is limited to the six pages of part four, and to me it seems to be — by far — the weakest, least interesting part of the book. Starting from supposed universal skepticism, in a single page (pp. 24-5), he question-begs his way from a proof that he himself exists, to a proof that God exists —  picking up somewhere the criterion that clear and distinct ideas must be true, digging up the ideas of substance and perfection from somewhere or another, so that if he has a clear idea of his own imperfection, some perfect being must exist somewhere, and he himself must be a “thinking substance”: cogito, ergo sum (pp. 25, 27). 1

Similiarly, Descarte’s claim that animals are simply material automatons without reason, whereas humans are dualist material-spiritual  beings, does not seem based on any serious  observation of animals, but seems also to be merely a concession to doctrine (pp. 34, 42, 41.)  Knowing that Descartes, as he clearly stated, was always looking over his shoulder at the Inquisition,  it makes sense to think that these sloppy passages are not his serious work, but just patchworks intended to keep their author out of trouble. Descartes’ metaphysical system thus should be thought of as his less important work, in contrast to his scientific and mathematical efforts , and perhaps even a relapse or infection of scholasticism.

Descartes throughout is contemptuous of doctrine  based on close readings of authoritative texts, and perhaps we should consider the following passage also to be a warning against the claim that there is such a things as “Cartesianism”: “At this point I want to plead here with future generations never to believe something if they are told it originated from me, when I have not published it myself….For it seems to me that people also go back down again – that is, they in some way make themselves less wise than if they had abstained from study – who, not content with knowing everything that is intelligibly explained in their author, wish to find in them, over and above that, the solution to other problems about which the author says nothing and about which they may never have thought” (p. 49). 2

The Discourse is autobiographical (“I am proposing this work merely as a history or, if you prefer, a fable,”, p. 7), and tells us that Descartes’ work was the product of an extended Wanderjahre. Well and thoroughly educated, Descartes resolved to do his studies outside learned society: “I resolved to completely give up the humanities and, resolving not to search for any other science apart from what could be found in myself or in the great book of the world, I spent the remainder of my youth traveling, visiting courts and armies, meeting people of different temperaments and rank, acquiring different experiences, testing myself in meetings that came my way by chance….It seemed to me  that I could find out much more truth in the reasoning that each person does about things that are important to them, and which have harmful consequences for them if they misjudge, than those made by a scholar in their study about speculative matters which have no consequences and whose only effect on them, perhaps, is that the further removed they are from common sense the more vain they will be about them, because they would have to use so much more ingenuity and skill in trying to make them plausible” (p. 10).

During the following nine years I did nothing other than wander around the world, trying to be a spectator rather than an actor in the dramas that unfold there” (p. 22).3

The Discourse was not intended as a free-standing work, but was the theoretical and methodological preface to 500 dense pages on optics, astronomy, and geometry which almost no one reads any more, since their results have been incorporated into the modern sciences Descartes helped found. The most interesting parts of the book are the description of a systematic analytic, atomistic scientific method, which doesn’t seem terribly exciting unless you remind it yourself that it was new and frightening when it first appeared. His six rules of investigative procedure (p. 16) are the most celebrated, but scattered through the book are other important points, including a definition of independent variables (p. 46), a job description for lab techs (p. 51), a proposal for criticism and peer review (p. 52), and a number of interesting  comments on the social vs. the individual aspects of scientific activity — which is best done under one man’s command but is always too large for one individual to complete (pp. 46, 52). Descartes had initially done his research almost in secret, and had resisted writing anything down or trying to communicate his ideas. He initially decided to write in order to find collaborators, when he found that the task he had undertaken was too large for one man (p. 46.)

But once he had begun to do this, he realized that publication has an additional advantage: “But in the mean time, I have had other reasons that made me change my mind and believe that I should continue to write everything that I judged to be in some way significant as I discovered the truth about it, and that I should take as much care as if I planned to publish such writings. The reason is to have more time to study them properly, as one undoubtedly always examines more closely what one believe should be seen by many others than what one does only for oneself, and because it has often happened that things which seemed true to me, when I first thought about them, seemed false to me when I wished to write them down. (p. 46)

According to the canned history Descartes was a rationalist, but his description of his wandering years sounds empiricist, and he also writes a pragmatist passage: “In place of the speculative philosophy taught in the schools, it is possible to find a practical philosophy …. and thereby make ourselves, as it were, the lords and masters of nature. This is desirable not only for the discovery of an infinite number of devices that would enable us to enjoy, without any effort, the fruits of the earth and all the good we find there, but also, especially, for the preservation of health….” (p. 44)  And there is even a page of “progressive education”: “Besides, the habit they will acquire by searching initially for easy things [i.e., Descartes’ early results, which Descartes proposes that his students work out for themselves] and moving gradually to more difficult ones will be more useful to them than all my instructions. Just as, for my own part, I am convinced that I had been taught from my youth all the truths the demonstrations of which I have been searching for since then, and if I had learned them without effort, I might not have got to know any others….” (p. 50)

The Descartes that my naïve reading has found is almost completely different than the Descartes I read about in history of philosophy, but it’s all there in the text. Have I found “the real Descartes”, to replace the erroneous Descartes they tell us about?  I doubt it, since I’ve deliberately left a lot out (just as the received version does). What I’ve done is pay special attention to the “unphilosophical” parts which comprise the bulk of the Discourse.

As is usually the case with founders, Descartes was much more diverse and also more practical than his followers portrayed him to be. He developed a unique mix of extreme prudence and extreme boldness.  His method really involved rejecting most of the cultural and intellectual world of his day, but he always piously affirmed a contentless orthodoxy.  He was primarily a great scientist, and he had a lot to say about the methods and organization of scientific research and the relation of scientific knowledge to the conventional beliefs of everyday life.

To my mind, Descartes’ idealism, universal skepticism, and trust in clear and distinct inborn ideas lead to a delusional metaphysic, but as the grounds for operating principles for scientific research, they offer an escape both from Church doctrine and from from the kind of inconclusive humanistic or alchemical mumbling around in erudite complexities characteristic of the scholastics, the Robert Burton of Anatomy of a Melancholy, the alchemist Paracelsus, and even Montaigne. It allowed him, on the one hand,  to detach himself from the welter of immediate impressions (“the senses”) and on the other to zero in on simple (“clear and distinct”) mathematical controlling factors not immediately evident to observers of seemingly-complex phenomena. 5


UPDATE: Dennis Des Chene of Washington University (St. Louis) has posted a very nice (albeit critical) response to this piece. He believes that I lept to a few conclusions here and there, and of course he’s right. Here at Idiocentrism, skillfully leaping to conclusions is the basic paradigm. While I still think that the metaphysical pages in the Discourse are pretty flimsy and that Descartes’ professions of orthodoxy are pretty fishy, it’s unlikely that Descartes was actually an atheist.  I’ve been told that in Lucien Febvre’s  Rabelais and the Problem of Unbelief it is shown that religious belief during that period was in such confusion that almost everyone accused almost everyone else of being an atheist — without anyone ever actually advocating atheism. (I can’t stand the way that Febvre writes, but I did skim the book).

This pushes me to my back-up position. St. Augustine himself ridicules the childish idea that God is an old man with a white beard up in Heaven, and calls God a “spiritual substance”. However, the God of the Old Testament, and the God of most believers as well, seems more like the childish version of God (and a pretty harsh version, in the case of the God of Abraham). Augustine’s definition allows you to call practically anything “God” — but do these abstract Gods have anything to do with the God people worship?


1 There is, in fact an alternative view of the cogito: to Buddhists, with their no-substance anatman view, it’s a natural mistake of every cogito to conclude ergo sum, but it’s a mistake which can be corrected. (In Buddhism, the Gods are the prime victims of this error, from which they can never escape – whereas men can).

For Descartes, truth apparently proves God so that God can later prove truth (p. 28) — later he speaks of “seeds of truth” planted in our heart by God which rescue us from universal skepticism (p. 45; also p. 35). He also pushes his dubious mental “clear and distinct idea” test  for truth to the limit when he finds significance in the fact that we can imagine existing without a body (p. 28) – to me it does not really seem reasonable to think that our mind’s subjective power to imagine something or not, or to clearly think it, should be even a weak probabilistic evidence for truth,  especially for someone using universal skepticism as a starting point.

 2 This point seems relevant to most of contemporary “Continental” type scholarship.

 3 Twice in this autobiographical sketch Descartes mentions the “stove-heated room” where, perhaps afflicted with a kind of cabin fever,  he formulated his basic research program one idle winter during his military service (pp. 11, 22). Forty years after first reading the Discourse all I remembered was that stove, together with a vague but accurate feeling that I had entirely missed the point of the book.

Oddly enough, in his discussion of the circulation of the blood, while Descartes describes the mechanical operations of the heart correctly (pp. 34-5), he also compares the heart to a stove which “heats up” the blood. He intuited that metabolism is a form of combustion and produces heat, but had no idea what combustion was.  He thought that heat was a kind of matter (“phlogiston”, though I don’t know if Descartes used that word)  rather than a state of matter, and did not know how critical air was in the process.(Pp. 33, 35, 38, 39.)  As powerful as Descartes’ work was, some of his arrogance and that of some of his physicist successors looks pretty silly when you realize that none of them had any idea whatsoever how metabolism works, or what oxidation is, or what the source of the sun’s heat is.

 4 I actually have an enormous admiration for Montaigne, who is practically my patron saint, but his urbane skepticism was no good  in situations where precise knowledge was actually possible. 

5 Descartes’ presentation of his ideas as hypotheses — to be worked out abstractly and independently of observed reality and only later to be checked against reality to see whether reality seems “as if” it had developed as the hypothesis supposes (pp. 31-32) —  sounds a lot like like “model-building”.  But it may have originated as just another way to keep the Inquisition quiet.

Descartes’ dualism, also presumably intended as a way of maintaining  orthodoxy, also may have had the effect of bracketing out the  study of phenomena to which his determinist method was not well adapted, at the cost of perpetrating a metaphysical problem on future centuries. (p. 41, where language and freedom come to define the human soul.)

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