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Christopher Rusyniak

Professor Brown

Perspectives: PL09008

February 9, 2008

I will say nothing of philosophy other than this: once I saw that it had been
cultivated for several centuries by the most excellent minds which had ever lived,
and that, nonetheless, there was still nothing in it which was not disputed and
which was thus not still in doubt, I did not have sufficient presumption to hope to
fare better there than the others. Considering how many different opinions,
maintained by learned people, philosophy could have about the same matter,
without there ever being more than one which could be true, I reckoned as
virtually false all those which were merely probable.

This excerpt from Descartes Discourse on Method is most interesting as it is generally a

disclaimer for his works and that which he deems “the most valued occupation,” and in fact the

person which he is when writing this discourse. When reading Descartes one cannot help but

notice the many contradictions that Descartes knowingly creates in order to reconcile himself

with the his education and his environment. On philosophy, however, that he has no problem

with distancing himself from empiricism.

One of the bedrock principles of empiricism is learning through experience. Descartes

somewhat ridicules this. In the very beginning of Part I he states that experience, especially from

our youth, can be and is misleading. A suggestion may only be deemed true if it is indubitably so

and currently impossible to disprove, everything else must be dismissed as false. His work is the

culmination of his efforts to create a method in order that one can determine whether ideas are

true and then build upon those. The bedrock of this method is not experience, but rather careful


He explicitly does this in his third maxim that he creates after his hope to erase his

experiences. This maxim dictates that one, or rather he, must not seek to change the world, but
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rather to change his own desires, this is easier and faster and lets him change that which he has

most control of, himself. This is the converse of what someone like Hobbes or Bacon might

speak. For Example :

For the end which this science of mine proposes is the invention not of arguments
but of arts; not of things in accordance with principles, but of principles
themselves; not of probable reasons, but of designations and directions for works.
And as the intention is different, so, accordingly, is the effect; the effect of the one
being to overcome an opponent in argument, of the other to command nature in
action. (Bacon)

The aim of his work is to find truth and the process of finding truth is the most noble and

happiest of all.

On certain axioms, however, Descartes does agree wholeheartedly with the empiricists.

Notably, both schools of thought emphasize that all knowledge must come from within your

person. For that reason none of Descartes’ work is arranged as a lecture, but rather a biography

and demonstration of how to implement his example method. He elaborates on the idea that one

person’s idea is better than that of a compilation of many. Confusion arises, and all the ideas

with various fathers have various respective supporting axioms which probably are not

compatible ‘cross-platform,’ and therefore provide unfounded conclusions.

The rationalist method of reasoning is not particularly innovative or new. It does, though,

make recommendations for use during reasoning. Descartes presents us with four major laws.

The first generally prescribes that things are doubtful until carefully proven certain. For that

reason he loves mathematics, especially geometry as there is no room for speculation as in

philosophy. Later he states that one must divide larger problems into more simple parts. Its is

easiest to misinterpret results of complicated experiments if you do not properly understand the

principals that are at the foundation of that problem. This he claims is the flaw in Aristotelian

reason. The syllogism is effective for argument and persuasion, but often you are pushing for
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and end, such as power, not a more perfect knowledge. If one portion of the deduction is flawed

the entire conclusion and all the conclusions based on that conclusion are flawed and this may go

undetected, and you yourself may believe the utilitarian falsity that you fabricated only for the

purpose of winning an argument.

His third recommendation decrees that one must then in order of difficulty approach these

problems. The fourth vaguely proposes that the thinker be extremely careful in his analysis as if

this problem is prematurely regarded as certainly solved and it is not than the problem that is

more complex cannot hope to be true. If anything this is what would be his code of ethics, its

aim is to make sure that your reason is not polluted with falsity.

At the commencement of his discourse Descartes claims that everyone is endowed with

equal reason, just as all human beings are equal. The sense that the product of some people’s

reason are better than others is only a function of how careful the thinker is to filter out all

knowledge that was not made certain within his person. This certitude is central to the rationalist

method. One of the famous axioms that Descartes was able to prove was “I am thinking,

therefore I exist.” This is clear because if one tries to doubt that the mere action of doubting

must mean you exist. It is similar to claiming that every point doesn’t have a counterpoint.

Descartes emphasizes, just as Bacon did that the senses are not a reliable medium of accepting

certain truths. Several ages before Aristotle would assume everything he perceived was true.

Thus, because our senses deceive us sometimes, I was willing to assume that there
was nothing which existed the way our senses present it to us. And because there
are men who make mistakes in reasoning, even concerning the most simple
matters of geometry, and who create para-logisms, and because I judged that I
was subject to error just as much as anyone else, I rejected as false all the
reasons which I had taken earlier as proofs. Finally, considering that all the same
thoughts which we have when awake can also come to us when we are asleep,
without there being truth in any of them at the time, I determined to pretend that
everything which had ever entered my mind was no more true than the illusions of
my dreams. (Descartes)
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Aristotle didn’t seem to be as obsessed about certitude nearly as much, he was more so

pushing virtue as a model of living. “There are three kinds of disposition, then, two of them

vices, involving excess and deficiency respectively, and one a virtue, viz. the mean, and all are in

a sense opposed to all; for the extreme states are contrary both to the intermediate state and to

each other, and the intermediate to the extremes; as the equal is greater relatively to the less, less

relatively to the greater, so the middle states are excessive relatively to the deficiencies, deficient

relatively to the excesses, both in passions and in actions” (Aristotle 48)

The model rationalist’s ethical maxims are ones of which the end is to propagate certain

research. For example the first is to respect, live by, and uphold the rules of your home country.

This is merely so that others don’t extradite him from society and so that he may continue to live

and think in peace. His second is in the interest of making progress, at first to at least make a

decision, as a decision is better than no decision. As his thinking becomes more complex, I’m

sure he abandoned this maxim in order to be certain that all his axioms are true. The third seems

to be an ideological maxim remaining from his Jesuit education in the academy. That is to

conquer yourself rather than the rest of the world. The final one merely establishes his

occupation, one of thinking as the most noble. Aristotle would approve. In the same way he

states that an ultimate source of pleasure would be learning or understanding for the sake of

understanding, and for no other selfish goal. This brings one closer to his ultimate good,

happiness, which everyone should strive for.

The mind is the only thing that can be pleased to create lasting happiness in the words of

Aristotle. Aristotle and Descartes both illustrate the body and soul (mind in Descartes) as two

separate entities. Aristotle would portray the body and a necessary obstacle of appetite capable of

perception. Descartes is visibly dedicated to the relation and interaction between the body and
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the mind. Especially interesting to him was the way mind is able to perceive, he must have

decided that if he was able to discover the vehicle by which this was done he would be able to

differentiate between truth and illusion of truth.

Essentially Descartes could be seen as a mean of the ancients and the empiricists in the

sense that he borrows ideas from both schools of thought and then attaches his infatuation with

certitude. His ethics he takes from the ancients, his distrust of the academy is identical, yet

maybe a less zealous version of Bacon, he and Hobbes share the same views on speech being

that which makes us human. This compilation makes for a very effective and usable Discourse

on Method.