Friday, June 1, 2012

Discourse on Method - Rene Descartes

Rene Descartes (1596-1650) is inarguably one of the greatest philosophers of all time.  His short book "Discourse on Method" explains how he derived most of his philosophy out of his own experience, and he would later go on to develop his theories in longer works.  He is also one of the most important mathematicians of all time.  Who knows if the computer would even exist if Descartes had not combined the methods of algebra and geometry in the new field called analytic geometry?

"The importance of this achievement is difficult to overestimate, for it not only served as an example of the possibilities of the new scientific method and as a spur to men's enthusiasm, but also laid the foundation for the growth of mathematics in modern times.  From analytic geometry came the simultaneous discovery of the calculus by Leibniz and Newton, and on the calculus is based the whole superstructure of modern developments in mathematics and of its application to the understanding of nature."  (ix)

Descartes believed in God and the Church, but the author of this above quote, Laurence J. LaFleur, thinks he may have been being a little sarcastic about it.  Nevertheless, it does not particularly stand out--the devotion to the Church anyways.  His belief in God is, I think, quite justified by his reasoning.

What I love about Descartes (though this is the only book of his I've read) is how deep he can go.  He goes into my very soul, literally.  He hits at the deepest feelings you can: why where you born?  Why are we here?  How can you tell that you exist?

His writing style is quite humorous.  I have underlined almost the entire book because I feel as if almost every sentence is essential.  Each naturally builds upon the other, and in so slim a volume by such a master, you can expect to find pearls of brilliance in every word.

The first thing I love about it is his first sentence: "If this discourse seems too long to be read in one sitting, it may be divided into six parts."  He's already looking out for you!  And it's just like a law review article!
Except--no footnotes.  And the entire opening paragraph from the first part, "Some Thoughts on the Sciences" is worth quoting in full, as it is a good representation of the work as a whole:

"Good sense is mankind's most equitably divided endowment, for everyone thinks he is so abundantly provided with it that even those most difficult to please in other ways do not usually want more than they have of this.  As it is not likely that everyone is mistaken, this evidence shows that the ability to judge correctly, and to distinguish the true from the false--which is really meant by good sense or reason--is the same by nature in all men; and that differences of opinion are not due to differences in intelligence, but merely to the fact that we use different approaches and consider different things.  For it is not enough to have a good mind: one must use it well.  The greatest souls are capable of the greatest vices as well as the greatest virtues; and those who walk slowly can, if they follow the right path, go much farther than those who run rapidly in the wrong direction." (1-2)
I wrote "Great Summation Intro" in the margin for that.

The cause of his inspiration is quite provocative:

"I was then in Germany...There was no conversation to occupy me, and being untroubled by any cares or passions, I remained all day alone in a warm room.  There I had plenty of leisure to examine my ideas.  One of the first that occurred to me was that frequently there is less perfection in a work produced by several hands than in one produced by a single hand.  Thus we notice that buildings conceived and completed by a single architect are usually more beautiful and better planned than those remodeled by several persons using ancient walls that had originally been built for other purposes.  Similarly, those ancient towns which were originally nothing but hamlets, and in the course of time have become great cities, are ordinarily very badly arranged compared to one symmetrical metropolitan districts which a city planner has laid out on an open plain according to his own designs."  (7-8)

He describes his four step process as follows: (1) Only accept things as true that you are absolutely certain are true (i.e. that you are alive); (2) For everything that you cannot accept as true, in order to get closest to the truth, break it down into as many different parts you can think of; (3) Then, think about each of the different parts, starting with the easiest one to understand, and going onto the most difficult by the end; (4) Make enumerations so complete as to omit nothing.

Descartes talks about how he was 23 when he decided to form his philosophy, but he did not feel he had experienced enough of life to fully form it, so he devised certain rules to live by: (1) Obey laws and religion and follow more moderate and least excessive opinions of those in the community; (2) Be firm and resolute in one's decisions--and here he draws a nice metaphor--"I patterned my behavior on that of travelers, who, finding themselves lost in a forest, must not wander about, now turning this way, now that, and still less should remain in one place, but should go as straight as they can in the direction they first select and not change the direction except for the strongest of reasons.  By this method, even if the direction was chosen at random, they will presumably arrive at some destination, not perhaps where they would like to be, but at least where they will be better off than in the middle of the forest." (16)--(3) Conquer one's self rather than fortune, change one's desires rather than the established order and believe that nothing but one's thought are under one's control; (4) Make a review of the occupations in life and choose the best one--and here Descartes writes beautifully:

"Without intending to disparage other occupations, I thought I could do no better than to continue in the one I was engaged in, employing my life in improving my mind and increasing as far as I could my knowledge of the truth by by following the method I had outlined for myself.  I had experienced such periods of happiness after I had begun to use this method, that I could hope for no greater or more innocent joys in this life." (17)

About nine years later, he was ready.  And he says he wasn't ready until, quite funnily, that he would not have dared to write it down so soon, until "I had learned of a rumor that I had already completed my philosophy." (19)

He then goes on to discuss God and the Soul.

"I then examined closely what I was, and saw that I could imagine that I had no body and that there was no world nor any place that I occupied, but that I could not imagine for a moment that I did not exist." (21)

From this he derives that the body and soul are distinct.  He goes onto talk about things like how we may all be made of stars, but that the stars had to have been made by something even more perfect--which is God.  He sees that doubt, inconstancy, and sorrow--imperfect qualities--could not be part of God's nature.

He goes on to talk about the laws of nature, and comically says that what he was originally going to write was much more ambitious--putting everything into the discourse that he thought he knew--but decided that it was dangerous, so he decided to limit himself:

"Therefore, fearing that I would not be able to put into any discourse all that I intended, I undertook solely to describe at length what I thought on the subject of light, and took that occasion to add something concerning the sun and the fixed stars, since they are almost the only sources of light; of the sky, since it transmits it; of the planets, the comets, and the earth, since they reflect it; and in particular of all the objects on earth, since they are either colored or transparent or luminous; and finally of man, since he is the observer of it." (27)
I wrote "Not ambitious at all!" in the margin.

This is in Part Five, which is about Physics.  But it also goes into anatomy, and Descartes' description of the heart freaked me out while I was reading it, thinking about how of all of the processes he was describing were going on that very moment.  He sees man as a machine created by God, and therefore decides that no machine created by man can be as perfect as man.

He makes the rather incredible statement (which might be offensive to animal lovers) that a "monkey or a parrot which was one of the best of its species should not be equal in this matter of one of the most stupid children, or at least of a child of infirm find, if their soul were not of a wholly different nature than ours." (37)

But then he states that he knows the Soul is immortal--which is also somewhat incredible.

In Part Six he talks about how he doesn't want any of his writings published during his lifetime because he fears ridicule.  Comically, "for fear that the opposition and controversy which they might arouse, and the reputation which they might possibly bring me, would cause me to waste time which I plan to use in research." (42)

Then he says if his writings can be of any use to people that's great--but he knows they can't be as useful to anyone else but himself, for it is his mind alone that he can perfect.  He ends the discourse by stating that he has no interest in worldly advantages because "I shall always consider myself more obligated to those by whose favor I shall enjoy uninterrupted leisure than I would be to those who offered me the most honorable office on earth."  (50)

It is hard to review a book of philosophy, but this is a short one, and worth reading. It is very funny at times, and it is amazing to read intoxicated.

No comments: