Truth in the Sciences

Choose one (1) of the three (3) reading selections from the list of topic choices below. The focus is on brief but important primary source material written by major authors. Read the selections as identified with each topic below. Write a four to five (4-5) paragraph essay (250 words minimum) which analyzes the “surprise ending” of the reading selection. Topic ChoicesReading selection from Descartes’ Discourse on the Method (Part IV). Descartes begins with a proof of one basic conclusion and ends with a proof of something much grander. Remember to focus on the surprise and point of realization, not the details of the philosophical argument. Read Part IV of the Discourse on the Method located at http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/descartes1637.pdf (then scroll down to Part 4, pp. 14-18). This is only four or five (4 or 5) pages of the larger work.
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Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting one’s Reason and Seeking
Truth in the Sciences
René Descartes
Copyright © Jonathan Bennett 2017. All rights reserved
[Brackets] enclose editorial explanations. Small ·dots· enclose material that has been added, but can be read as
though it were part of the original text. Occasional •bullets, and also indenting of passages that are not quotations,
are meant as aids to grasping the structure of a sentence or a thought. Every four-point ellipsis . . . . indicates the
omission of a brief passage that seems to present more difficulty than it is worth. Given this work’s full title, you
can see that it is wrong to call it, for short, ‘Discourse on Method’ with no ‘the’.
First launched: June 2005
Last amended: November 2007
Contents
Part 1
1
Part 2
5
Part 3
11
Part 4
14
Part 5
18
Part 6
24
Discourse on the Method
René Descartes
Part 1
If this discourse seems too long to be read at a sitting you may divide it into six parts. In 1 you will find various considerations
regarding the sciences; in 2 the main rules of the method that the author has sought; in 3 some of the moral rules he has
derived from this method; in 4 the arguments by which he proves the existence of God and the human soul, on which his
metaphysics is based; in 5 the order of the questions in physics that he has investigated, particularly the explanation of the
movement of the heart and of some other problems in the medical sphere, and also the difference between our soul and that of
the lower animals; and in 6 the things he believes are needed if we are to go further than he has in the investigation of nature,
and his reasons for writing this discourse.
Part 1
As for me, I have never presumed my mind to be in any
way better than the minds of people in general. Indeed, I have
often ·had a sense of being less well endowed than others·:
I have wished to be as •quick-witted as some others, or to
match their •sharpness and clarity of imagination, or to have
a •memory that is as capacious (or as promptly serviceable)
as theirs is. And •these ·three· are the only qualities I
know of that serve to perfect the mind, ·making one mind
more perfect than another·. As for •reason or •·good· sense,
I’m inclined to believe that it exists whole and complete
in each of us, because it is the only thing that makes us
men and distinguishes us from the lower animals. In this I
am following the common opinion of the philosophers, who
say that a quality that admits of differences in degree can’t
be one that marks the difference between one species and
another—it can only be an ‘accident’, a relatively trivial and
superficial property, of anything that has it
¯
•Good sense is the best shared-out thing in the world; for
everyone thinks he has such a good supply of it that he
doesn’t want more, even if he is extremely hard to please
about other things. Since it’s not likely that everyone is
mistaken about this, it is evidence that
the •power of judging well and of telling the true from
the false—which is what we properly call •‘good sense’
or •‘reason’—is naturally equal in all men;
thus it is also evidence that
our opinions differ not because some of us are more
reasonable than others, but solely because we take
our thoughts along different paths and don’t attend
to the same things.
For it isn’t enough to have a good mind; what matters most
is using it well. ·Sheer quality of intellect doesn’t make the
difference between good and bad·: the greatest souls are
capable of the greatest vices as well as the greatest virtues.
·Nor is nimbleness of intellect the key to making discoveries·:
those who go very slowly but always on the right path can
make much greater progress than those who sprint and go
astray.
But I don’t hesitate to report my opinion ·that in one
respect I am above the common run of people·. Ever since
my youth I have been lucky enough to find myself on certain
paths that led me to thoughts and maxims from which I
developed a method ; and this method, it seems to me,
1
Discourse on the Method
René Descartes
enables me to increase my knowledge gradually, raising it a
little at a time to the highest point allowed by the averageness
of my mind and the brevity of my life. ·There are two reasons,
one •personal and the other •general, why I might expect that
my method won’t amount to much·. •In making judgments
about myself I always try to lean towards diffidence and away
from arrogance; and •when I cast a philosophical eye on the
various activities and undertakings of mankind, I regard
almost all of them as pointless and useless. And yet, ·despite
these two facts·, I have already achieved such results from
this method that I’m extremely satisfied with how far I think I
have already gone in the search for truth, and am so hopeful
about the future that if any purely human occupation has
solid worth and importance I venture to think it is the one
I have chosen. [Here ‘purely human occupation’ = ‘occupation that
Part 1
only as a history—or if you prefer, a fable—in which you may
find certain examples that are worth imitating; and if along
with those you also find various others that you would be
right not to follow, ·that doesn’t mean that I’m at fault·. So I
hope that what I’m offering will be useful for some without
being harmful to anyone, and that everyone will give me
credit for my openness.
From my childhood they fed me books, and because
people convinced me that these could give me clear and
certain knowledge of everything useful in life, I was extremely
eager to learn them. But no sooner had I completed the whole
course of study that normally takes one straight into the
ranks of the ‘learned’ than I completely changed my mind
·about what this education could do for me·. For I found
myself tangled in so many doubts and errors that I came to
think that my attempts to become educated had done me
no good except to give me a steadily widening view of my
ignorance! ·Could I infer anything quite general from this
failure on myself in particular? I couldn’t legitimately do so
if •the college I attended was no good, or if •I was slack in my
studies, or if •I wasn’t intelligent enough, or if •I happened to
be living at a time when the life of the intellect was generally
at a low ebb. But none of these seemed to me to be so·.
•I was in one of the most famous colleges in Europe:
‘If there are learned men anywhere in the world,’ I
thought, ‘there must be some here.’ •I had learned
there everything that the others were learning; indeed,
not being satisfied with the sciences [here = ‘theoretically
organised topics of study’] that they taught us, I had
whipped through every book I could get my hands
on concerning the sciences that are considered most
abstruse and extraordinary. Along with that, •I knew
how others judged me, and I didn’t see them regarding
me as ·intellectually· inferior to my fellow students,
doesn’t bring in revealed religion’.]
Still, I may be wrong: perhaps what I take to be gold and
diamonds is merely copper and glass! I know how prone we
are to err in matters that concern us, and also how cautious
we should be in accepting the favourable judgments of our
friends. But ·these thoughts won’t lead me to be secretive
about my method. On the contrary·, I don’t mind revealing
in this discourse what paths I have followed, laying bare my
life as though in a picture, so that •everyone can make his
own judgment on it, and •when I learn what people think of
it I’ll be able to add that as a new source of instruction to
the ones I’m accustomed to using.
So I don’t aim here to teach the method that everyone
must follow if he is to direct •his reason correctly, but only
to display how I have tried to direct •my own. People who go
in for laying down rules for others must think they are more
skillful than the others; and they are at fault if they make
the slightest mistake. But ·I’m not one of those, and am not
exposed to blame as they are·. I am presenting this work
2
Discourse on the Method
René Descartes
even though ·some at least of the students were
regarded by their teachers as very able·: several of
them had already been picked as future replacements
for our teachers. And finally, •the present age seemed
to me to be as flourishing, and as rich in good minds,
as any before it.
This ·quartet of facts· encouraged me to take my own situation as a basis for judging how things stood for other people
·and other times·, and to think there was no knowledge in
the world such as I had previously been led to hope for.
But I never lost my respect for the curriculum of the college. I knew that •the languages learned there are necessary
if one wants to grasp the works of the ancients; that the
charm of •fables awakens the mind; that the memorable
deeds encountered in •histories uplift the mind and—if read
with discretion—help to shape one’s judgment; that reading
•good books is like having a conversation with the most distinguished men of past ages, namely their authors—indeed,
a carefully prepared conversation in which they reveal to us
only the best of their thoughts; that •oratory has incomparable powers and beauties; that •poetry has quite ravishing
delicacy and sweetness; that •mathematics contains some
very subtle devices that serve not only to satisfy those who
are intrigued by mathematical problems but also to help
with all practical and mechanical endeavours and to lessen
men’s labours; that writings on •morals contain many very
useful teachings and exhortations to virtue; that •theology
teaches us the way to heaven; that •philosophy gives us
the means of speaking plausibly about any subject and of
being admired by the less learned; that •law, medicine, and
other sciences bring honours and riches to those who study
them; and, finally, that it is good to have studied •all these
subjects—even those full of superstition and falsehood—in
order to know their true value and guard against being
Part 1
deceived by them.
But I thought I had already spent long enough on languages and on reading the works of the ancients, both their
•histories and their •fables. For conversing with people of
past centuries is rather like travelling. ·The latter is all
right in its way·: it is good to know something of various
peoples’ ways of life, so that we may judge our own more
soundly and not think—as those who have seen nothing of
the world often do—that every departure from our way of
life is ridiculous and irrational. But if you spend too much
time travelling you will end up being a stranger in your own
country; and someone who is too absorbed in studying the
practices of past ages usually remains quite ignorant about
those of the present century. ·And such studies, whether
or not carried to excess, have their own inherent dangers·.
•Fables make us imagine many events as possible when they
are not. And even the most accurate •histories, if they don’t
alter or exaggerate things’ importance so as to provide a
better ‘read’, are likely to falsify things in a different way:
such histories omit most of the meaner and the less striking
factors in a situation, so that what they do include appears
in a false light, ·looking grander than it really was·. And a
result of that is that those who regulate their conduct by
examples drawn from these works are liable to fall into the
excesses of the knights-errant in our tales of chivalry, and
make plans that they haven’t the power to carry out.
I valued oratory and loved poetry; but I thought that
each of these was a mental gift rather than something
to be achieved through study. People with the strongest
reasoning and the most skill at ordering their thoughts so
as to make them clear and intelligible are always the most
persuasive, even if they speak only a provincial dialect and
have never learned rhetoric. And those who have the most
pleasing fancies and know how to express them with the
3
Discourse on the Method
René Descartes
Part 1
to false. ·In short, taking the two points in reverse order: I
had no confidence in •any of philosophy’s ‘results’ or •in my
ability to improve that situation·.
As for the other sciences, in so far as they take their
principles from philosophy I thought that nothing solid
could have been built on such shaky foundations; and I
wasn’t induced to learn them by the honour or the riches
they offered. For I had no feeling, thank God, that my
circumstances obliged me to make science my profession
so as to ease my financial condition; and although I didn’t
make a parade of scorning glory, like a Cynic, I wasn’t going
to count on glory that I couldn’t hope to get except through
false pretences. Finally, as for the false sciences, ·I saw no
need to learn more about them in intellectual self-defence·:
I thought I already knew their worth well enough not to be
open to deception by the promises of an alchemist or the
predictions of an astrologer, the tricks of a magician, or the
frauds and boasts of those who profess to know more than
they do.
That is why, as soon as I was old enough to emerge from
the control of my teachers, I entirely abandoned scholarship.
Resolving to seek no knowledge except what I could find in
myself or read in the great book of the world, I spent the rest
of my youth •travelling, •visiting courts and armies, •mixing
with people of different temperaments and ranks, •gathering
various experiences, •testing myself in the situations that
luck put me into, and always •reflecting on whatever came
my way so as to profit from it. For it seemed to me that I
could find much more truth in the •reasonings that people
make about matters that concern their interests than in •a
scholar’s closeted reasonings about theoretical matters. In
the •former case, if a person judges wrongly he will soon be
punished for this by the upshot; whereas in the •latter case
there are no practical consequences, and there is nothing
most embellishment and sweetness would be the best poets
even if they knew nothing of poetry as a discipline.
I especially enjoyed mathematics, because of the certainty
and evidentness of its reasonings. But I hadn’t yet seen
what its real use is: I thought it was of service only in the
mechanical arts, and was surprised that on such firm and
solid foundations nothing had been built that was more
exalted ·than the likes of engineering, road-building, and
so on·. I contrasted this situation (·minor structures on
a magnificently firm foundation·) with the moral writings
of the ancient pagans, which I likened to very proud and
magnificent palaces built only on sand and mud (·wonderful
structures on shaky foundations·). They praise the virtues,
making them appear more admirable than anything else in
the world; but they don’t adequately explain how to tell when
something is a virtue, and often what they call by this fine
name ‘virtue’ is merely an instance of callousness, or vanity,
or despair—or parricide!
I revered our theology, and thought I had as much right
to reach heaven as anyone. But having learned as a certain
fact that the way to heaven is as open to the most ignorant as
to the most learned, and that the revealed truths that guide
us there are above our intellect, I wouldn’t have ventured to
submit them to my weak reasonings. To examine them and
succeed in this, I thought, I would need to get special help
from heaven and to be more than a mere man.
All I want to say about philosophy are these two things.
•Philosophy has been pursued for many centuries by the best
minds, and yet everything in it is still disputed and hence
doubtful; and I wasn’t so arrogant as to hope to achieve
more in philosophy than others had done. •Considering how
many different opinions learned men may maintain on a
single question—where at most one can be true—I regarded
everything that was merely probable as being near enough
4
Discourse on the Method
René Descartes
at stake for the scholar except perhaps that the further his
conclusions are from common sense the prouder he will be
of them because he will have had to use so much more skill
and ingenuity in trying to make them plausible! All through
this I had an intense desire to learn to distinguish the true
from the false, in order to understand my own actions and
to proceed with confidence in this life.
It is true that so long as I merely considered the ways of
life of other men I found little basis for confidence, observing
in them almost as much variation as I had found previously
in the opinions of philosophers. The greatest benefit I
extracted from these observations was their showing me
many things which, although seeming wild and ridiculous
Part 2
to us, are nevertheless commonly accepted and approved
in other great nations; which taught me not to believe too
firmly anything I had been convinced of only by example and
custom. This would gradually free me from many errors that
may obscure our natural light and make us less capable of
heeding reason. But after I had spent some years pursuing
these studies •in the book of the world, and trying to gain
some experience, I made a decision one day to undertake
studies •within myself too and to use all the powers of my
mind in choosing the paths I should follow. This has worked
better for me, I think, than if I had never left my country or
my books.
Part 2
I was in Germany at the time, having been called by the wars
that are still going on there. I was returning to the army
from the Emperor’s coronation when the onset of winter held
me in one place ·until the weather should clear·. Finding
no conversation to help me pass the time, and fortunately
having no cares or passions to trouble me, I stayed all day
shut up alone in a heated room where I was completely
free to talk with myself about my own thoughts. One of
the first thoughts to come to me was this: there is usually
less perfection in •works composed of several parts and
produced by various different craftsmen than there is in
•the works of one man. Thus we see that a building started
and completed by a single architect will usually be finer
and better organized than one that several people have tried
to patch up by adapting old walls that had been built for
other purposes. Again, these old cities ·of Europe· that
have gradually grown from mere villages into large towns
are usually less well laid out than the orderly towns that
planners lay out as they wish on level ground; so much less
that from •the way the buildings are arranged in the old
cities—a tall one here, a small one there—and •the way they
make the streets crooked and irregular, you would think they
had been placed where they are by chance rather than by
the will of thinking men. (This isn’t to deny that if you look
at the buildings in the old cities individually you will often
find that at least as much skill has gone into the making of
5
Discourse on the Method
René Descartes
them as into those of the planned towns.) And when you
consider that ·this is how things stand in old cities although·
there have always been officials whose job is to oversee
private buildings so as to ensure that they add beauty to
public places, you’ll grasp that it’s hard to achieve something
perfect by working only on what others have produced. So it
seemed to me that peoples who have grown gradually from
a half-savage to a civilized state, and have made their laws
only when pushed to do so by the troubles that crimes and
quarrels have caused, won’t have as good a civil order as do
those who from the beginning of their society have observed
the basic laws laid down by some wise law-gi …
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