Book Review: A Discourse on the Method by René Descartes

“For it is not enough to possess a good mind; the most important thing is to apply it correctly.” -Descartes, Discourse, 5.

Are you tired of your senses deceiving you and undermining your certainty? Does knowing the fact that even the best philosophers and mathematicians make tremendous blunders leave you less than confident in your own judgments? If you’re looking for a solid foundation on which to build the house of human knowledge, then hold on to your pineal glands because René Descartes has the method for you! In this paper I will review the earliest treatment of Descartes’ rationalist method of inquiry, his A Discourse on the Method[1]. I will then finish up with a brief personal reflection.

The impetus for Descartes’ rationalist philosophy was the search for a sure bedrock foundation for human knowledge: certainty. In A Discourse on The Method, he sets out to discuss his method for arriving at this alluring yet elusive certainty. Descartes is careful to label his endeavor a “discourse” rather than a treatise, probably to avoid appearing triumphalist to the Jesuits whom he was hoping to win over. He is merely speaking autobiographically about how he came to the point of certainty, he is not prescribing the only method for such an endeavor- or so he would have us believe for the sake of plausible deniability. While this might be a clever ploy by Descartes, his intellectual biography actually serves as a fruitful medium by which to take the reader on a logical progression.

The Discourse is organized into six parts by which Descartes is able to discuss his desire for certainty and his disappointment with the shaky foundations he has inherited; an explication of his method; several considerations for ethics and ethical theory; the method applied to epistemology and ontology; the method applied to the sciences, and finally, a reflection on the method and answers to potential objections- and all this in just fifty eight pages! Throughout the work, Descartes maintains his mode of intellectual autobiography which draws the reader into his thought process, thereby challenging the reader to consider their own philosophical foundations.

As a Rationalist, Descartes’ method of arriving at incorrigible knowledge disparages rival criteria until reason prevails as king- but not reason simpliciter, as other Rationalists might argue- rather, Descartes builds his whole system on a single rational proposition. After all, if our senses can deceive us- even if only on occasion- then they certainly can’t provide us with certainty. If even the best of human reasoners can be wrong in their reasonings, then appeals to human authority can’t provide certainty either. Worse still, since we can be deceived by our own dreams which present themselves as reality when we’re in them, it would appear that even our own reason, simpliciter, leaves us on shaky foundations at best. The apparent impotency of empiricism, authority, and naïve common sense concerning certainty led Descartes to doubt everything that he could doubt until he found “that which presented itself to [his] mind so clearly and distinctly, that [he] would have no occasion to doubt it.”[2]

In Part Four Descartes finally reveals the bedrock that he has been drilling towards, his indubitable truth, his foundation of certainty: cogito ergo sum. Popularly translated “I think, therefore I am”, Ian Maclean argues in an explanatory note that a better gloss is the performative: “I am thinking, therefore I exist.”[3] But why does Descartes think this dictum can suffice as thee indubitable first principle for his philosophy? Well, because when subjected to all the skeptical doubts, counterexamples, and attacks which laid waste to all the other first principles, cogito ergo sum prevails unfazed. The cogito is even shown to be the very foundation for the skeptical doubts themselves, for to doubt is to think, and if I am thinking then I exist, so I can never truly doubt that I exist.

Thus Descartes believed that he had found certainty and from this principle he concluded that he was “a substance whose whole essence or nature resides only in thinking”[4]. This “I” he deduced was the immaterial soul which existed apart from the material body and can survive the death of said body. From this conclusion it was a short jaunt for Descartes to employ his own Ontological Argument for God’s existence: “of necessity there must be some other, more perfect being upon whom I depended and from whom I had acquired all that I possessed.”[5]

As I reflect on the Discourse, I find that when it comes to Descartes, I’ve been moved from antagonistic to slightly affectionate. Mind you, I am not a full blown Cartesian, but I came into this reading hand in hand with Pascal, who is attributed with saying “I cannot forgive Descartes: in his whole philosophy he would like to do without God; but he could not help allowing him a flick of the fingers to set the world in motion; after that he had no more use for God.”[6] But after reading the Discourse I find that Descartes’ project mirrored that of Augustine in the Soliloquies, who sought to know God and the soul, nothing more, nothing whatsoever.[7]

However, Descartes’ cogito ergo sum, the foundation for his project, has been charged as fallacious throughout the years, which threatens his endeavor to know God and the soul, and his goal of finding certainty. But it seems that most attacks don’t take into account the transcendental nature of Descartes’ dictum. Descartes isn’t seeking to prove his existence in a straightforward direct argument, rather, his cogito is an indirect argument, a transcendental argument which argues that his existence is the precondition of his thinking, therefore if he’s able to think at all, he must exist, thus he cannot doubt that he exists. I think Descartes’ dictum works as a transcendental proof for the existence of the self – and perhaps even a transcendental proof for the existence of God (!): “However much the best minds choose to investigate this matter, I do not believe that they will be able to furnish any argument which is sufficient to remove this doubt, unless they presuppose the existence of God.” (33). But credit for the cogito should probably go to Augustine, who, debating the Academicians, defeated their full blown skepticism by saying “si fallor sum[9], that is “If I’m in error, I exist.”[10]

Although I’ve softened to Descartes through reading his Discourse, there still seems to be a bit of truth to Pascal’s charge. Though Descartes makes reference to his religion, his subjective turn to the cogito makes no reference to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or the biblical doctrine of man. Though his method is much more interesting than the straw-man version one hears in popular discourse, his lack of biblical warrant ultimately weakens his argument from a Christian perspective.

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[1] René Descartes, A Discourse on the Method of Correctly Conducting One’s Reason Seeking Truth in the Sciences, Translated by Ian Maclean. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

[2] Ibid., 17.

[3] Ibid., 73.

[4] Ibid., 29.

[5] Ibid., 30.

[6] Blaise Pascal, Penseés. (London: Penguin Group, 1966) 330.

[7] Augustine, Soliloquies. (Hyde Park: New City Press, 2,000) 25.

[9] Augustine, Against the Academicians and The Teacher, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1995) 163.

[10] Ibid.

 

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