The Discourse on Method is relatively short. It runs to under 30 pages in the Great Books edition, and an online version, can be printed on about 40 pages. It is easier to read than the Novum Organum, and it is more personal, and more self-referential.
Descartes divides the work into six short chapters. The first is general comments about the sciences, the second is the rules of his method, the third is certain rules of morality, the fourth contains his proof of the existence of God and the soul, the fifth is primarily about the circulation of the blood, and the sixth “what the Author believes to be required in order to greater advancement in the investigation of Nature than has yet been made.”
Descartes gives three moral maxims that he says he endeavored to follow “The first was to obey the laws and customs of my country, adhering firmly to the faith in which, by the grace of God, I had been educated from my childhood and regulating my conduct in every other matter according to the most moderate opinions, and the farthest removed from extremes, which should happen to be adopted in practice with general consent of the most judicious of those among whom I might be living.… “My second maxim was to be as firm and resolute in my actions as I was able, and not to adhere less steadfastly to the most doubtful opinions…. “My third maxim was to endeavor always to conquer myself rather than fortune, and change my desires rather than the order of the world….” In Part IV Descartes realizes that while he has decided to doubt everything that there is something that doubts. This leads to his famous formulation cogito ergo sum. Once he has realized that the fact of his thinking establishes his own existence he does not proceed to analyze the process and break things down as Sartre does in Being and Nothingness. (I’ve only read portions of BaN. Most of it is incomprehensible. It’s probably a joke by a French intellectual to see if the Anglo world will swallow it.) Descartes, instead, arrives at the idea that because he can imagine thinking without imagining that he has a body that the process of thinking is separable from the body. So here we have the beginning of the mind-body problem. I probably knew more about it when I wrote my master’s thesis. “In the next place, from reflecting on the circumstance that I doubted, and that consequently my being was not wholly perfect (for I clearly saw that it was a greater perfection to know than to doubt), I was led to inquire whence I had learned to think of something more perfect than myself; and I clearly recognized that I must hold this notion from some nature which in reality was more perfect. As for the thoughts of many other objects external to me, as of the sky, the earth, light, heat, and a thousand more, I was less at a loss to know whence these came; for since I remarked in them nothing which seemed to render them superior to myself, I could believe that, if these were true, they were dependencies on my own nature, in so far as it possessed a certain perfection, and, if they were false, that I held them from nothing, that is to say, that they were in me because of a certain imperfection of my nature. But this could not be the case with-the idea of a nature more perfect than myself; for to receive it from nothing was a thing manifestly impossible; and, because it is not less repugnant that the more perfect should be an effect of, and dependence on the less perfect, than that something should proceed from nothing, it was equally impossible that I could hold it from myself: accordingly, it but remained that it had been placed in me by a nature which was in reality more perfect than mine, and which even possessed within itself all the perfections of which I could form any idea; that is to say, in a single word, which was God.” When Descartes says that it is greater perfection to know than to doubt, is he reflecting Anselm’s belief that something that exists is greater than that which does not? He seems to be saying that because he can imagine something greater than himself the something must exist. So he is offering a variation of Anselm’s ontological argument. The problem with the ontological argument, if I recall correctly the little of Kant that I’ve read, is that it is an elaborate form of question begging and assumes the reality of what it is trying to prove. (For the interested reader my own position is more in line with Kierkegaard’s in The Concluding Unscientific Postscript.) Part V deals with the circulation of the blood, and part VI focuses on experiments. This is the last reading for the sophomore year. I’m going to take a break for a while, and do some pleasure reading. Next up is a military novel by John Ringo, The Last Centurion.