• Daniel Ethan Finneran

On Descartes And His Discourse On The Method

July 2019


The labels by which we remember René Descartes, patron saint of France and paterfamilias to the wider thinking world, outnumber our fingers and tempt our toes. He was, among things nearly too many to name, a rationalist, a scientist, and a dualist. He was an eminent writer, as seems to be the inherent profession of every Frenchman born between his day and ours. He was a cosmologist, an epistemologist, and a controversialist of the most unexpected kind. Throughout his life and work, he shook awake a complacent continent that had grown idle by religious war and intellectual sleep.


He was a skeptic and a peripatetic—in both the Aristotelian and itinerant form. Neither France nor Sweden, the United Provinces nor the Swiss Alps could contain the tunnels and mountains of his deep-diving and far-reaching thought. He forever sought greener pastures and higher peaks, and confinements of ever-more solitary scopes, but France was always home and the world was always at his door. On most occasions, he responded. He was both soldier and philosopher—an auxiliary and a sage of the Platonic ideal. Yet his mind, so sharp, never could be returned to its scabbard. He overcame the frailty of his youth with a harsh diet of study, austerity, and the unnatural rigors of a military career. A Jesuit by education, an apostate by reputation, Descartes had become, at least in the minds of those inclined to be judgmental and doctrinaire, little better than an atheist of the most egregious kind. Perhaps it was for this reason, for the defense of his person and the salvation of his soul, that he made the presence of god so essential a part of his divinely submissive philosophy.


Geometry, optics, mathematics, and the mind—ultimately, these were the fields over which he held a dominant hand, on which he stamped his initials for all time to see. Cartesian, as an adjective and as you’ll well know, has something of an intimidating ring. It’s a word to which we’re first introduced during the tedious hours of our early flirtations with math.

Fruitless though these youthful assignations and assignments may eventually prove to be, Descartes persists in the pursuit of all that’s to come. Only after exhausting ourselves with coordinates, postulates, theorems, and planes do we arrive at the multi-colored man behind the drab numbers and the black-and-white graphs—the psychologist in doubt of everything with the exception of his own mind. De omnibus dubitandum shouted this nearly omniscient man. The words would be his galvanizing creed, his hortatory motto, and the reason for the rationality for which he’s celebrated today.


You see, no designation fits him ill. None is misappropriated to him. How could it be, when we view through the distance of time a man whose field of study was so encompassing and broad in its scope? The vastness of his breadth, the ease of his understanding, and the tactility of his grip made of him a Renaissance man in the age of Reformation. Though unlike an earlier Leonardo, there was no pope to whom he was obliged, no gay lovers by whom he was besotted, and no art works behind whose Mona Lisas he could be concealed. A philosophical mind seldom succeeds at the helm of a family; its needs are rather quotidian than fascinating, real than abstract. Polyamory, engineering, and painting, in the case of Leonardo, were wiser pursuits. For Descartes, one child who succumbed to the mortality of her youth was enough. He loved her fondly but transiently and was quick to let her go.


So far as redemption is required, Descartes is in need of none. Certainly, he needs it not from us. Nevertheless, we find in him no fault after feeling in his words the candor of his expression and the humility of his soul. Upon reading again his Discourse on the Method (which is, I’m happy to say, the mercifully truncated title for his most famous treatise. In its entirety, the work goes by the name, Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and of Seeking Truth in the Sciences—a name whose prolixity belies its terse and moving content), what strikes me most about his character and the way in which he approached his learning and life was his humility. He’s exceedingly grateful to the professors and teachers under whom he had the opportunity to learn. That said, readily, and with an earnestness that would become any one of us well today, he admits to the gaps in his knowledge and the lapses in his competence, however miniscule they may actually be. In us, they form a chasm—a stretch of darkness over which we roll a topsoil of learning and an artifice of taste. In him, they were but small holes, but he acknowledged their presence and the incompletion they brought.


In excess of all his erudition, as if he were trying to conceal from posterity all of the mathematic and philosophical achievement for which he’s rightly celebrated today, one feels with the turning of every page of the Discourse on the Method the overwhelming modesty of his tone. His many achievements (he had, by the time of the treatise’s writing, already accomplished much) equaled his understatement. Perhaps the standard of comparison of the comportment of his and our own day is not a useful one; a selfie-society such as ours hasn’t a filter for the quiet or the humble life. But that, more than anything else for which he’s known, was the Cartesian way. We moderns are as ambitious as we are ostentatious; every gain, no matter its value, is an immediate reason for display. Indeed, the reception of a dish at a restaurant, in whose preparation we had no role but of whose consumption we offer no delay, is a matter of great photographic import. Descartes would’ve smiled upon such empty solipsism.


Yet solipsism, and a quite radical species of it, for that matter, was the beast in whose belly his thinking was consumed. Indeed, it was this thinking self—though, probably more accurately, this doubting self—that was deemed to be true before anything else. Of this and of literally nothing else he was absolutely certain. Descartes, as if tasked with finding bedrock with a chisel in one hand and a mirror in the other, reduced epistemology to this extraordinary first principle. It was an idea from which one’s ego could confidently leap before flying on to new deductions and syllogisms in every which way. Certitude was slowly to be accreted after the entrenchment of the mind on this surprisingly firm ground.


Cogito ergo sum—this trinity of truth hardly needs translation, but to put it into English, it means “I think, therefore I am”. Even the student most illiterate in that tongue of the Latins would be able to stand among his betters and speak this line as if he were a veritable Cicero preaching to the senate. Perhaps the most famous line in all of the Western world, if not merely the halls of philosophy, it was the most solipsistic sentiment ever to be expressed. It was terse, but it was a turning point. It marked the elevation of reason, the diminution of sensual experience. Rekindling the ancient battle for eminence between the solid matter and the subtle mind, Descartes aligned himself with the latter and bolstered it with its best argument yet.


The devotion to empiricism was a path to disaster, or so thought this greatest of all the minds in France. Locke, a slightly younger contemporary to the world-renowned Descartes, was sure to be misled with all his tabula rasa nonsense. Surely, our knowledge precedes our awareness of it. So too was Hume, though not yet alive, destined to be mistaken if he or his predecessor were to regard as true everything with which their hands came into contact. Spencer and Hobbes would fall into the same trap. The eyes, the ears, the nose, the tastes—all were susceptible to deception and fraud. Likely, they’d already succumbed. The existence of the mind was the only reality upon which a thinking man might repose. Nothing else could be so certain.


That said, many a thinking man (even those to whom the title was perhaps too leniently applied) was prepared to push back on this notion—this grand casuistry on a Cartesian scale. Voltaire, soon to be the precocious star of the Paris salons and of the Enlightenment around the bend, reviewed Descartes particularly harshly. In his Letters on the English (an encomium of the Brits, by and large, with the disturbing exception of William Shakespeare. In regard to the tragic style forged by that inimitable Bard, Voltaire had no affection, being cut of a more classical cloth), Voltaire acknowledges Descartes’ brilliance, but derides his conclusions. He made explicitly clear his preference for the Newtonian to the Cartesian approach. The former he held in the highest esteem; the latter, in something just above contempt.


The sage of gravity may have been his scientific better, but Descartes remained very much a man grounded to the earth. Of course, in his own time, many of his theories (when errant) weren’t yet disproved; they remained in an open and heady market, a competition between the scientists of Britain and those of France. Only the passage of time and the confirmations of many colleagues would make definitive that which we believe has always been the case. But even in defeat, so far as his experience could be called a loss, Descartes was humble.

He was a modest man, regardless of the acquisitiveness of his reach. And it’s for that reason, above all the multitudinous others, that I find myself compelled to remark upon him right now. As St. Augustine said, humility is the foundation of the soul and the soul, the Cartesian self of whose essence we’ve been convinced, is all that’s known to exist.

0 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Success, ‘tis said, yet more success begets– On the prosperous rains ever more profits. So reads the adage of the Gospel’s Jew: The iron law, the Effect of Matthew. “To him who has much, more will be