I rooted out of my mind all those errors that had formerly crept in . . . — René Descartes, Discourse on the Method
I know this much is true. — Spandau Ballet, “True”
There are famous concepts in Western philosophy, but it is hard to find any better known than René Descartes’ seemingly indubitable pronouncement that “I think, therefore I am.” Actually, despite the fact that Descartes wrote in French rather than the standard academic language of Latin, the cogito ergo sum argument was neither original nor epistemologically infallible.
St. Augustine had made a so-called “cogito-like” argument in City of God (XI: 26) in the fifth century, in which we read that “If I doubt, I am” — essentially Descartes’ position. Nietzsche would question the validity of jumping from the indubitability of existence to the necessity of appending an “I” to that existence. Husserl would echo this in the Cartesian Meditations, in which cogitationes — meaning simply that “thoughts exist” — were posited as a perfectly epistemologically viable unpacking of Descartes’ maxim. But there is something monumental about Descartes’ dictum.
René Descartes, often called the father of modernism, published the famous Meditations in 1639, but prepared a type of primer for his greatest insight two years previously, the full title of which could be a mission statement for the Enlightenment: A Discourse of a Method for the Good Guidance of Reason and the Discovery of Truth in the Sciences. The Meditations would prove the more famous work over time, but Descartes himself in the Discourse warns the reader in advance that the later work will be somewhat metaphysical, and “perhaps will not be relished by all men.” This is accurate, despite some of the wonderful imagery of that later work, including the brilliant section on doubt, dreaming, and madness.
There are also many famous first lines to works of literature. Think of Pride and Prejudice, The American Constitution, Beyond Good and Evil, 1984, Moby Dick, A Tale of Two Cities. Select your favorite. But the opening of Descartes’ Discourse on the Method is worth rereading for its light humor, nestling between the sarcastic and the sardonic:
Good sense is, of all things among men, the most equally distributed; for everyone thinks himself so abundantly provided with it, that those even who are the most difficult to satisfy in everything else, do not usually require a larger measure of this quality than they already possess.
If you are new to philosophy, the Discourse is a perfect introduction to Descartes, and Descartes is a perfect introduction to philosophy. The authorial voice is mild and reasoned, the autobiographical context delightful, and the central concept of the famous cogito argument present and correct:
I resolved to feign that all those things that had ever entered into my mind were no more true than the illusions of my dreams. But presently I observed that while I might think that all was false, it must necessarily follow that I who thought it must necessarily be something. And perceiving that this truth, that I think therefore I am, was so firm and certain, that all the most extravagant suppositions of the Skeptics was not able to shake it, I judged that I might receive it without scruple for the first principle of philosophy I sought.
But while the cogito remains the center of gravity of the Western philosophical tradition, Descartes’ rebuilding of indubitable knowledge of an external world, as well as a metaphysical one, is far more fragile. In the Discourse — and this may be supplication to the Church — the cogito argument is followed by a proof of God’s existence (the so-called “ontological proof”) utilizing a totally spurious role for geometry. Essentially, Descartes writes that as geometry gives him the notion of perfectibility and ultimate extension of bodies, such a body or being must exist (the Jesuits who taught Descartes were doubtless on his mind) and this being must be God. This is feeble — what Plato termed “bastard reasoning” — but, as noted, may be an insurance policy. “I think, therefore I am” is a lot more comforting than “I think, therefore I am going to be burned at the stake.” In Descartes’ era, cancel culture was called The Inquisition.
Note that Descartes is not thematizing truth itself, but the methodology required to attain the truth. That 7 x 9 = 63 and that the Burj Khalifa in Dubai is the world’s tallest building are both true, but it is plain that they are different types of truth: the first necessary, the second contingent. Descartes chose not empiricism but mathematics as his ultimate arbiter of the truth, and is careful to explain that his attraction to the subject was refined as “I did not observe their true use, and thought they served only the mechanical arts.” Quite apart from foreshadowing the later schism between pure and applied mathematics, Descartes has abstracted mathematics from the world of the senses, and this is the methodological model he will use.
Even for a non-mathematician such as myself, there is a disjunction between mathematics and the real world which Plato’s Pythagoreanism perhaps left underexamined. Mathematics is essential if you require a good civil engineer, statistics, or a store receipt, but is not always as faithful a companion where time is concerned.
We recall the paradoxes of Zeno, Achilles racing with his tortoise friend and losing due to the nature of time when viewed as an analogue to space, and the arrow which can never reach its target because it has to travel half the distance, and half that distance before that, and so on. Now, as noted, I am a lousy mathematician, but just as Kant uses the image of a drawn line to approximate time as a progressus in the Critique of Pure Reason, we have to be aware that Descartes is making great demands on reality when he posits its epistemological aspect as behaving mathematically rather than just using mathematics as a calibratory tool — and Descartes was, in his time, a leading mathematician. My amateur stab at the problem would be to suggest that the analogue of space to describe time leads to the false notion of a “point in time,” which seems to me to be the problem with Zeno’s paradoxes. Time is not divisible except via a spatial metaphor. In and of itself, time has no “points.”
Descartes is making not a fundamental error, but an epistemological decision which will go on to have huge consequences. Truth is not homogeneous; it has different functional categories. And so the mathematical model is one among many models, depending on the outcome you elect.
And so, at the end of the introductory essay (there are six such short chapters in the Discourse), Descartes makes two decisions crucial to his program:
I learned to believe nothing too firmly, of what had been only persuaded me by example or custom, and so little by little I freed myself from many errors, which might eclipse our natural light, and render us less able to comprehend reason. But after I had employed some years in studying the book of the world, and endeavoring to get experience, I took one day a resolution to study also within myself . . .
Metaphors of light and vision are common in Descartes’ work. He experimented with both, and could be said to have invented the camera obscura at the same time as shedding light (as it were) on the structure of the eyeball during an experiment in which he cut a small aperture in the wall of a dark room and inserted a sheep’s eye into it, observing a reversed image of the outside world on the wall opposite. Now, Descartes wished to take the lantern inside his own mind.
Two centuries after the French philosopher, Coleridge would famously write of the “suspension of disbelief.” Descartes believed he must suspend belief, at least in his own mind seen as a ratiocinative apparatus. Descartes’ work would influence La Mettrie’s early eighteenth-century tract L’Homme Machine, a sort of Enlightenment precursor to human cybernetics and the current fad of transhumanism, and Descartes very much saw the human body as essentially mechanical (he thought animals were soulless automata). He did divide existence into res cogitans and res extensa, it’s true — thinking being and extended being — but the former always feeds off the latter in metaphorical terms, and this analogue continues at least to Freud.
Descartes proposed suspending scientific principles unless they have the indubitability of the mathematical. As noted, this is an epistemological choice among other variables, but it leads to one of the most famous expressions and conceptual exercises in Western philosophy. The four principles of Cartesian method, put simply, are evident truth (the famous “clear and distinct” Cartesian idea), division of problems as necessary for analysis, ordering of analysis and concepts from the less complex to the more so, and constant analysis and revision of the method itself, a sort of metaphysical auditing. If this sounds like a blueprint for the scientific method, that’s because it is, which is why Descartes is as important to the sciences as he is to epistemology.
Descartes is thorough and attentive to his reader, as though he suspected that his books would become as central to Western philosophy as they have. The Discourse’s third section again sets out a program, with four maxims to guide Descartes on his journey into the nature of truth and its grounds. The first is a pledge to country and religion, and this is almost certainly Descartes being expedient. The Inquisition were at large, as noted, and Descartes delayed the publication of his last published work, The World, because he was well aware of what the ecclesiastical authorities had done to Galileo. Add to this his fealty to constancy and resolution in his thoughts and actions, the commitment to choosing his influences well, and concentration as groundwork itself.
This sense of being a psychological argonaut is what sets Descartes’ simple yet multifaceted book apart in the history of philosophy, but the Discourse is also an important document in the history of science. Descartes wrote a great deal on mechanics, optics, cosmology, engineering, and the sciences in general. He also provides a sharp-eyed psychological portrait of the seventeenth century’s intellectual state.
Descartes shows that the surety of mathematics provides at the very least the framework of a methodology. Reality, however, also requires empirical and psychological wisdom — once-bitten-twice-shy nous, the smarts, the ability to know what you do and don’t take seriously. This is the element of the Discourse that makes it a pleasing work of literature as well as a seminal work of philosophy, as Descartes makes it clear that mathematics did not fall at his feet but was rather selected from a panorama of human experience. He was a well-travelled man.
The Discourse’s final two sections are as thoroughly enjoyable as the first four, although once Descartes has provided himself with the twin indubitables of the self and God, he moves through the reconstruction of belief in the external world like someone playing themselves out at solitaire. As noted, the next stop for those new to Descartes would be the Meditations, the knotty metaphysical arguments there having had their ground prepared by the Discourse, which is both charming and thoughtful, as well as being a founding document of the Western philosophical tradition.
None of this very sketchy criticism is intended to belittle Descartes, a brilliant writer, a calm and brave man who gifted the West one of its great philosophical insights: that skepticism is a surer path to the truth than unquestioning acceptance of tradition. Descartes writes that he has utilized maxims learned as a child which have led to a method based on an inclination to mistrust rather than to presume. This is simple skepticism, except in Descartes’ case he extends it to its limit point, which is to doubt one’s own existence.
Descartes is not, he writes, trying to propose a method to be followed uniformly and blindly by everyone, and this seems at first to open the door to the sort of ruinous relativism we see today. But this is simple Socratic humility, a modesty which we certainly don’t see in evidence in our own rather wretched century.
My favorite tale about Descartes is that he believed that the memory was a sheet of paper, and memories were the writing thereon. It’s a fascinating metaphor, but it wasn’t a metaphor. He really believed that. (You would enjoy his writings on the pineal gland as the seat of memory, the teardrop-shaped organ being covered in tiny pictures which stock our memory. On recalling something, the gland would whirl round until the desired image was in place, like a strange jukebox.) He hated people telling him extraneous facts because he thought it would fill a little more of the page, space he might need for important information. Memory was thus a vulnerable palimpsest.
If you haven’t read Descartes, please take a short afternoon to read The Discourse on the Method. It should certainly be one of the first volumes in any fledgling library of Western philosophy.
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