Discourse on the Method: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Audrey Farley

Audrey is a doctoral student in English at University of Maryland.

This lesson summarizes the main ideas in Rene Descartes' Discourse on the Method of Properly Conducting One's Reason and of Seeking the Truth in the Sciences. This lesson also analyzes the Cartesian themes that have most significantly influenced Western Philosophy to the present day.

Overview of the Text

Rene Descartes wrote 'Discourse on the Method of Properly Conducting One's Reason and of Seeking the Truth in the Sciences' in 1637. The purpose of the text is to consider different approaches to epistemology, which is the theory of knowledge. Descartes wonders how he, the philosopher, can know what he knows about the world. He also questions the authority of material evidence and intuition. Discourse on the Method has significantly influenced Western philosophy since its publication.

Summary of the Text

Discourse on the Method is divided into six parts, which the author outlines in the preface. In the first part, Descartes argues that the sciences are useful, but not sufficient, in providing epistemological methods or ways of knowing about the world. He explains that his traditional education in the sciences left him wanting for knowledge.

In the second part, Descartes offers methods that the author has discovered in his own meditations. For instance, he argues for the importance of skepticism as a way of approaching reality. He also argues that it is important to divide philosophical problems into as many parts as possible to fully account for every detail.

The third section describes the moral system that his method supports. Descartes proposes three moral laws: 1) to obey the laws of country; 2) to be firm and resolute in action; and 3) to endeavor to conquer oneself, rather than fortune.

In the fourth section, Descartes argues for the existence of God and the Human Soul. In this section, Descartes writes the famous line, 'I think, therefore I am,' which forms the basis for his dualist philosophy (separation of mind and body).

The fifth section examines human anatomy and distinguishes between the soul of man and those of brutes (animals).

The final section outlines the author's vision for philosophy, discussing the problems that will significantly shape the future of Western thought. Descartes predicts that thinkers like him will face a quandary: whether or not to publish radical ideas. He references the trial of Galileo for heresy (Galileo proposed that the universe was heliocentric), suggesting that he, himself, has been reluctant to publish his philosophical treatise for fear of public condemnation.

The main objective of Discourse on Method is to propose a new method of thought, which combines the objective truth of mathematics with the intuitive truths of the senses. Descartes doubts everything that his physical senses suggest about the world, claiming to trust only his mental reality (his capacity for thought).

Metaphysics

In Discourse on the Method, Descartes argues for the separation of mind and body in his famous declaration, 'I think, therefore I am.' This declaration is significant because it asserts the presence of an immaterial spirit or soul, but also because it distinguishes ontology (being) from epistemology (knowing).

The separation of ontology and epistemology has persisted in Western philosophy, with ontology always subordinated to epistemology. In other words, many philosophers have thought that the state of reality or the universe is subject to the ways in which humans can know that reality or universe. Only recently, with the rise of a movement known as object-oriented ontology, have philosophers begun to challenge the Cartesian tradition for trivializing objects and being.

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