By Ben J.N. Harrison
René Descartes’ 1637 Discourse on Method begins with the assertion that ‘good sense is the most evenly shared thing in the world’. He goes on to say that the reason for human disagreement is not because some have better reason than others, but simply because each conducts their thoughts along different paths. The question that thus arises is on which path should one conduct their thoughts? Descartes elaborated, stating that mere possession of a good mind is not enough, and that each must find the right method to use their mind, in order to eventually reach truth. Here, Descartes’ method emerges. In the following paper, it will be explained what precisely the Cartesian method entails in a lucid and unequivocal manner.
Descartes’ method consists of but four rules. The first is perhaps what Descartes is most famous for; doubt. Cartesian doubt is what produced the famous saying Cogito ergo sum – translating into ‘I think therefore I am’ – a metaphysical principle Descartes wrote intended to serve as an affirmation of one’s existence. But beyond this one clever, albeit overused and constantly misunderstood principle, what exactly does Cartesian doubt entail? Well simply put, Cartesian doubt, and the first rule of the Cartesian method, is not accepting anything as true unless it is indubitably true. Truth in this case, must be unequivocal; no doubt can linger about the object in question. In other words, everything perceived distinctly and clearly is true. Clearness, in this case, means not just a feeling of an object’s truth, but an ability to give some sort of account of an object’s truth. Moreover, distinctness in this case, means the ability to distinguish the object from other ideas or concepts analogous to the object. Descartes muses in later chapters of the Discourse on how human senses can deceive, and that we must be absolutely certain of everything we believe to be true. Descartes himself was profoundly fascinated by the ability mathematics had to be so certain.
Rule two of the Cartesian method is best summed up by one word; analysis. Descartes believed that to truly work problems through, we must divide each problem into parts and work on each individual part independently. Before moving on to the next part of a problem, we must have a clear and sure understanding of that which came before.
The third rule of Descartes’ method is conducting thoughts in the simplest possible way. By this, Descartes meant that when confronted with problems, we must solve them in somewhat of an order, starting with the simplest parts first, before climbing up and eventually understanding the complex whole.
Finally in the Cartesian method is the recording of everything. When working through problems, Descartes thought it was imperative to keep track of everything done by documentation of some sort. To Descartes, this mattered immensely because if one wanted to go back and figure out what happened when, one can readily do so. Moreover, this is important in the case that one makes an error or folly, so that one can go back and locate it to solve it.
The synthesis of these four parts is essentially Descartes’ method. It is perhaps the most important thing to understand about Descartes, as he used this method to conduct his thoughts in all his works. I hope I have made it as unequivocal as possible. Often when one reads philosophy, one can stumble across nebulosity and equivocation. My goal here, then, was to eliminate any confusion whatever about the Cartesian method.
Descartes, René. Translated by Sutcliffe, F.E. Discourse on Method and the Meditations. England, Penguin Books, 1984.
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