A Discourse on Method, René Descartes
A Discourse on Method
René Descartes
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Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One's Reason and of Seeking Truth in the Sciences is a philosophical and autobiographical treatise published by René Descartes in 1637. It is best known as the source of the famous quotation "Je pense, donc je suis" ("I think, therefore I am"). Discourse on the Method is one of the most influential works in the history of modern philosophy, and important to the development of natural sciences. In this work, Descartes tackles the problem of skepticism, which had previously been studied by other philosophers. While addressing some of his predecessors and contemporaries, Descartes modified their approach to account for a truth he found to be incontrovertible; he started his line of reasoning by doubting everything, so as to assess the world from a fresh perspective, clear of any preconceived notions.

Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason, and Seeking Truth in the Sciences

Rene Descartes

Prefatory Note by the Author

If this Discourse appear too long to be read at once, it may be dividedinto six Parts: and, in the first, will be found variousconsiderations touching the Sciences; in the second, the principalrules of the Method which the Author has discovered, in the third,certain of the rules of Morals which he has deduced from this Method;in the fourth, the reasonings by which he establishes the existence ofGod and of the Human Soul, which are the foundations of his Metaphysic;in the fifth, the order of the Physical questions which he hasinvestigated, and, in particular, the explication of the motion of theheart and of some other difficulties pertaining to Medicine, as alsothe difference between the soul of man and that of the brutes; and, inthe last, what the Author believes to be required in order to greateradvancement in the investigation of Nature than has yet been made, withthe reasons that have induced him to write.

Part I

Good sense is, of all things among men, the most equally distributed;for every one thinks himself so abundantly provided with it, that thoseeven who are the most difficult to satisfy in everything else, do notusually desire a larger measure of this quality than they alreadypossess. And in this it is not likely that all are mistaken theconviction is rather to be held as testifying that the power of judgingaright and of distinguishing truth from error, which is properly whatis called good sense or reason, is by nature equal in all men; andthat the diversity of our opinions, consequently, does not arise fromsome being endowed with a larger share of reason than others, butsolely from this, that we conduct our thoughts along different ways,and do not fix our attention on the same objects. For to be possessedof a vigorous mind is not enough; the prime requisite is rightly toapply it. The greatest minds, as they are capable of the highestexcellences, are open likewise to the greatest aberrations; and thosewho travel very slowly may yet make far greater progress, provided theykeep always to the straight road, than those who, while they run,forsake it.

For myself, I have never fancied my mind to be in any respect moreperfect than those of the generality; on the contrary, I have oftenwished that I were equal to some others in promptitude of thought, orin clearness and distinctness of imagination, or in fullness andreadiness of memory. And besides these, I know of no other qualitiesthat contribute to the perfection of the mind; for as to the reason orsense, inasmuch as it is that alone which constitutes us men, anddistinguishes us from the brutes, I am disposed to believe that it isto be found complete in each individual; and on this point to adopt thecommon opinion of philosophers, who say that the difference of greaterand less holds only among the accidents, and not among the forms ornatures of individuals of the same species.

I will not hesitate, however, to avow my belief that it has been mysingular good fortune to have very early in life fallen in withcertain tracks which have conducted me to considerations and maxims, ofwhich I have formed a method that gives me the means, as I think, ofgradually augmenting my knowledge, and of raising it by little andlittle to the highest point which the mediocrity of my talents and thebrief duration of my life will permit me to reach. For I have alreadyreaped from it such fruits that, although I have been accustomed tothink lowly enough of myself, and although when I look with the eye ofa philosopher at the varied courses and pursuits of mankind at large, Ifind scarcely one which does not appear in vain and useless, Inevertheless derive the highest satisfaction from the progress Iconceive myself to have already made in the search after truth, andcannot help entertaining such expectations of the future as to believethat if, among the occupations of men as men, there is any one reallyexcellent and important, it is that which I have chosen.

After all, it is possible I may be mistaken; and it is but a littlecopper and glass, perhaps, that I take for gold and diamonds. I knowhow very liable we are to delusion in what relates to ourselves, andalso how much the judgments of our friends are to be suspected whengiven in our favor. But I shall endeavor in this discourse to describethe paths I have followed, and to delineate my life as in a picture, inorder that each one may also be able to judge of them for himself, andthat in the general opinion entertained of them, as gathered fromcurrent report, I myself may have a new help towards instruction to beadded to those I have been in the habit of employing.

My present design, then, is not to teach the method which each ought tofollow for the right conduct of his reason, but solely to describe theway in which I have endeavored to conduct my own. They who setthemselves to give precepts must of course regard themselves aspossessed of greater skill than those to whom they prescribe; and ifthey err in the slightest particular, they subject themselves tocensure. But as this tract is put forth merely as a history, or, ifyou will, as a tale, in which, amid some examples worthy of imitation,there will be found, perhaps, as many more which it were advisable notto follow, I hope it will prove useful to some without being hurtful toany, and that my openness will find some favor with all.

From my childhood, I have been familiar with letters; and as I wasgiven to believe that by their help a clear and certain knowledge ofall that is useful in life might be acquired, I was ardently desirousof instruction. But as soon as I had finished the entire course ofstudy, at the close of which it is customary to be admitted into theorder of the learned, I completely changed my opinion. For I foundmyself involved in so many doubts and errors, that I was convinced Ihad advanced no farther in all my attempts at learning, than thediscovery at every turn of my own ignorance. And yet I was studying inone of the most celebrated schools in Europe, in which I thought theremust be learned men, if such were anywhere to be found. I had beentaught all that others learned there; and not contented with thesciences actually taught us, I had, in addition, read all the booksthat had fallen into my hands, treating of such branches as areesteemed the most curious and rare. I knew the judgment which othershad formed of me; and I did not find that I was considered inferior tomy fellows, although there were among them some who were already markedout to fill the places of our instructors. And, in fine, our ageappeared to me as flourishing, and as fertile in powerful minds as anypreceding one. I was thus led to take the liberty of judging of allother men by myself, and of concluding that there was no science inexistence that was of such a nature as I had previously been given tobelieve.

I still continued, however, to hold in esteem the studies of theschools. I was aware that the languages taught in them are necessaryto the understanding of the writings of the ancients; that the grace offable stirs the mind; that the memorable deeds of history elevate it;and, if read with discretion, aid in forming the judgment; that theperusal of all excellent books is, as it were, to interview with thenoblest men of past ages, who have written them, and even a studiedinterview, in which are discovered to us only their choicest thoughts;that eloquence has incomparable force and beauty; that poesy has itsravishing graces and delights; that in the mathematics there are manyrefined discoveries eminently suited to gratify the inquisitive, aswell as further all the arts an lessen the labour of man; that numeroushighly useful precepts and exhortations to virtue are contained intreatises on morals; that theology points out the path to heaven; thatphilosophy affords the means of discoursing with an appearance of truthon all matters, and commands the admiration of the more simple; thatjurisprudence, medicine, and the other sciences, secure for theircultivators honors and riches; and, in fine, that it is useful tobestow some attention upon all, even upon those abounding the most insuperstition and error, that we may be in a position to determine theirreal value, and guard against being deceived.

But I believed that I had already given sufficient time to languages,and likewise to the reading of the writings of the ancients, to theirhistories and fables. For to hold converse with those of other agesand to travel, are almost the same thing. It is useful to knowsomething of the manners of different nations, that we may be enabledto form a more correct judgment regarding our own, and be preventedfrom thinking that everything contrary to our customs is ridiculous andirrational, a conclusion usually come to by those whose experience hasbeen limited to their own country. On the other hand, when too muchtime is occupied in traveling, we become strangers to our nativecountry; and the over curious in the customs of the past are generallyignorant of those of the present. Besides, fictitious narratives leadus to imagine the possibility of many events that are impossible; andeven the most faithful histories, if they do not wholly misrepresentmatters, or exaggerate their importance to render the account of themmore worthy of perusal, omit, at least, almost always the meanest andleast striking of the attendant circumstances; hence it happens thatthe remainder does not represent the truth, and that such as regulatetheir conduct by examples drawn from this source, are apt to fall intothe extravagances of the knight-errants of romance, and to entertainprojects that exceed their powers.

I esteemed eloquence highly, and was in raptures with poesy; but Ithought that both were gifts of nature rather than fruits of study.Those in whom the faculty of reason is predominant, and who mostskillfully dispose their thoughts with a view to render them clear andintelligible, are always the best able to persuade others of the truthof what they lay down, though they should speak only in the language ofLower Brittany, and be wholly ignorant of the rules of rhetoric; andthose whose minds are stored with the most agreeable fancies, and whocan give expression to them with the greatest embellishment andharmony, are still the best poets, though unacquainted with the art ofpoetry.

I was especially delighted with the mathematics, on account of thecertitude and evidence of their reasonings; but I had not as yet aprecise knowledge of their true use; and thinking that they butcontributed to the advancement of the mechanical arts, I was astonishedthat foundations, so strong and solid, should have had no loftiersuperstructure reared on them. On the other hand, I compared thedisquisitions of the ancient moralists to very towering and magnificentpalaces with no better foundation than sand and mud: they laud thevirtues very highly, and exhibit them as estimable far above anythingon earth; but they give us no adequate criterion of virtue, andfrequently that which they designate with so fine a name is but apathy,or pride, or despair, or parricide.

I revered our theology, and aspired as much as any one to reach heaven:but being given assuredly to understand that the way is not less opento the most ignorant than to the most learned, and that the revealedtruths which lead to heaven are above our comprehension, I did notpresume to subject them to the impotency of my reason; and I thoughtthat in order competently to undertake their examination, there wasneed of some special help from heaven, and of being more than man.

Of philosophy I will say nothing, except that when I saw that it hadbeen cultivated for many ages by the most distinguished men, and thatyet there is not a single matter within its sphere which is not stillin dispute, and nothing, therefore, which is above doubt, I did notpresume to anticipate that my success would be greater in it than thatof others; and further, when I considered the number of conflictingopinions touching a single matter that may be upheld by learned men,while there can be but one true, I reckoned as well-nigh false all thatwas only probable.

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