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Rene Descartes: Analysis Of His Discourse

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Descartes’s opening statement in the first part of his discourse claims that common sense; or rather good sense of reasoning is equal amongst all. The idea that every individual has an equal amount of “good sense” (Descartes, 4) means that they should have the ability to decide whether something is true or false and the ability to “judge correctly” (Descartes, 4). Good sense gives us the ability to develop our sense of reason and through this “we direct our thoughts along different paths, and consider different things” (Descartes, 4). Our equal capacity for reasoning does not necessarily mean we will view things in the same capacity as others rather our reason allows us to explore different viewpoints in pursuit of truth and good judgment. Descartes believed that it was “not enough to have a good mind” if it were not used properly, in pursuit of true knowledge. Humans are rational beings, and that is what distinguishes us from animals. Descartes says though he has wished for qualities that he lacked; there is no quality other than good sense that can help perfect the mind. He humbles himself in saying that his mind is no better than most men since good sense is equal among all men. The differences in its “degree exists only among accidents” (Descartes, 6) as in our life experience require different degrees of good sense. Descartes understanding of the world is developed through his own considerations, maxims and developed methods in which he uses his good sense to understand his experiences. He uses his good sense and experiences to cautiously judge himself and though he presents the text as a “painting, in order that each may judge of it” (Descartes, 5) he allows for public opinion as he presents his methods and maxims in hopes that it will be a learning experience for him to develop his thinking and judgment. We are all brought up on the notion that truth is within the books we are taught with and rarely are we encouraged to question what we are taught and what is printed in books. It was only after he had completed his basic level of education that he became “so encumbered with doubts and errors”(Descartes, 6) realizing he was in fact more ignorant than he realized. The young minds he was surrounded by, who were judging him and learning alongside him encouraged him to pursue his own self-judgments. His teachings, he states, were essential in understanding myths, ancient texts and historical entities, which allow us to develop our judgments. The works we are taught in our upbringing are “like a good conversation with the greatest gentleman of past ages, – in which they make the best of their thoughts known to us”(Descartes, 6) and through this Descartes was able to formulate his own judgments by reading about another’s. Understanding other individuals’ judgments allows us to “judge our own more soundly” (Descartes, 7) so that we understand different perspectives of things that we may otherwise believe to be wrong. Observing different ways of life, as Descartes spent years doing, allowed him to understand that there are different mores amongst people but they still have the capacity for reason though it may differ. Those who have not observed different ways of life may believe that different mores are ridiculous because it is not what they have been accustomed to. There needs to be a balance in understanding the practices of the past and the present so that one may not be so focused on one as to become ignorant of the other (Descartes, 7) in order to ensure knowledge is developing. Those who have developed their reasoning and in turn their judgments, are persuasive enough with their words to make others agreeable to their accounts.

Descartes was fascinated with mathematics because of its certainty, of its ability to be completely true. Though mathematics is firm in its foundations, he is in awe that “we had built nothing more noble above them”(Descartes, 8) and instead our morals, “built on nothing but sand and mud” are held to such a high regard though they are less concrete. Ancient pagan writings that Descartes studied praised virtues and made them out to be held to a high regard though they did not have any concrete form. Descartes submits to theology and philosophy. Similar to most men, he wants to attain heaven but the way to heaven is no different for an ignorant man and a wise man and that the truths to achieve heaven are beyond human understanding and he does not claim to be able to use his good sense to get him there. Similarly in philosophy, some of the wisest minds have presented many discoveries and yet they can all be refuted and doubted so he does not claim he is better apt to present new ideas. He rejects previously plausible philosophical concepts because their foundation is infirm so that he can now judge them for himself. He does not try to understand concepts that are above his scope of knowledge through false pretenses and the works of those “who profess to know more than they do know”(Descartes, 9). With his desire for truth, he abandoned study under teachers and letters presented to him and began to search for his own knowledge. He looked within himself to discover his truths through travel, by understanding how others reason and live. He used his life experiences and interactions with people to develop truths as he “might discover much more truth in each mans reasoning about affairs that are important to him” (Descartes, 9) in which poor judgments will affect him more profoundly, rather than try to uncover truth in a man who stays in his study reading letters. He places value on life experiences as they are able to give us a more definitive truth through human interaction rather than through writings, which may not be practiced and never leave the pages of a book. Knowledge-based solely on letters is vain and may lack common sense because it is not necessarily put into practice. This type of knowledge-based solely on letters requires even more persuasion and intelligence to ensure the learning’s are credible that is why Descartes places emphasis on real experiences and understanding another’s ability to reason. His travels allowed him to observe that there are many different ways of life, which may seem unbelievable to some but are actually commonly accepted by others. With this revelation he states that he lost belief in things that were taught to him by “example and custom”(Descartes, 10), and instead begins to peruse his own mind for new teachings by choosing different methods of reasoning.

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Descartes signed up for the war in his early years in order to experience different aspects of life. During this period of his life he had a lot of down time to develop his thought. One of the radical ideas that he considered during this time was that a building as he illustrates, is more beautiful when developed by one master rather than one that is developed by a few. He believed that architects that singularly developed a building created something more profound than those that used walls that were previously there for other purposes to construct a redefined building. He directs this thought onto cities too, that begin as towns and later blossom into larger cities. He does not believe that the planning for these cities is correct; rather he would have one architect or one engineer to lay out the plans for the whole city. He would attribute the inconsistencies in the city to “chance, rather than the wills of some rational men” (Descartes, 11). As a rational man could not allow these inconsistencies, like a crooked street to appear in a city if they were given the opportunity to develop the city on their own rather than with multiple masters. He applies this concept to religion as well stating “precepts made by God alone, must be incomparably better ruled than all others” (Descartes, 12). God gave him the ability to reason and until you are able to challenge the customary view, you adopt it because it was what was revealed in the book of God. The church fathers have given knowledge and Descartes accepts that knowledge until he is able to challenge it himself. The reason some may never challenge customary views is because they find no reason to, it is what is revealed to them and that is what they accept. Descartes however, challenges these notions. In respect to laws, he mentions if a state was flourishing it was because one man created laws that “all tended to the same end” (Descartes, 12). These ideas tie into his desire to question his previous education because it is based on the opinions of many people. These opinions that are crafted by many individuals have no certain proof and therefore may not be true. The way to truth is through mans ability to utilize good sense in different life experiences using rational criterion. The difficulty arises in the fact that as children we were governed and persuaded by adults who had diverse opinions and may not have agreed with one another and it is because of this that we do not always receive the best counsel. Therefore, similar to his analogy about building a new building from scratch, an individuals judgments can not be as pure and true in the later stages of life after they have already been taught by teachers as it could be if we “had the complete use of our reason from the day of our birth, and if we had been guided by it alone” (Descartes, 12). This revelation led him to want to reject all his previous teachings, and to use his reason to build up his own judgments to either replace what he was taught, or accept his teachings by arriving to the same conclusions using his own judgment. In this way he believes he can successfully develop his reasoning and judgment to conduct his life properly. The challenge in this idea is that it is sometimes more difficult to pave a new way of thinking when the old way of thinking suffices and has been adopted by many, though it may not be the most certain way of knowing, its acceptance among majority makes it easier to pursue. This is also why Descartes had difficulty in believing those of a high status who are “always suggesting ideas for some new reform” (Descartes, 13) when they have not developed their own good sense in the way that Descartes believes would be most successful. He reiterates then that his method of abandoning previous teachings to redevelop accepted notions may be too bold of a task for many and he is not directly “advising anyone to imitate it” (Descartes, 14). There are two kinds of minds that Descartes presents with regard for their capacity of reason and judgment. The first being composed of individuals who give themselves unwarranted credit and are haste in their judgments without proper consideration and if they were to abandon their previous notions, they would spiral in their attempt to properly direct their minds. The second mind belongs to those who know they are not capable of truly distinguishing between what is true and false and accept customs and teachings instead of pursuing the truth themselves. Descartes enters the concept of questioning previously taught notions slowly, and not to reject everything all at once without having a plan in place to use his reason to discover truth or if not guided by reason to reject a notion. Descartes then presents his method, in order to give us direction to science. It is composed of four steps. The first step is to not accept anything that is not wholly true, to avoid haste and bias when making a judgment. It means we should only accept something if it is completely certain that there is no reason to create doubt. The second step is to divide a problem so that its basic components create ease in its solution. This is also how he pursued his mathematics. By designating a certain truth in basic components of straight lines to be manipulated into answering more complicated problems that include curved lines and shapes for example. He used the concept of ratios to understand different subjects by mirroring concepts. The basic components act as reference points to assist in solving problems at a larger scale. This segues into the third step in which it is crucial to understand the smaller scale concepts and objects in order to build upon them to understand something that is more complex. The last step is to make assertions that are so thorough and complete that a judgment may not be further questioned.

The third part of the discourse opens up with the building analogy that Descartes mentions in his second part. In tearing down the old house and rebuilding it he says that you must be trained in the art of rebuilding the house properly. In the time that the house is being built, you must find somewhere to stay where you can be comfortable. This is an analogy for his methods, as you are breaking apart previous notions, there are some that you must comfortably accept from customs until you are able to question them using proper reasoning. In the time that he spent “rebuilding ones lodging” (Descartes, 20) as in rebuilding his state of mind he developed several maxims. The first of the maxims is to “obey the laws and customs of my country” (Descartes, 20). Preserving belief in God because God gave him the grace to be able to develop his reasoning and direct his life according to his own judgment. Until he was able to subject all his opinions to examination, he would follow the opinions of the most sensible individuals that surrounded him. Though he could have found more sensible people in different countries and ethnicities but he believed it was more practical to “regulate himself according to those with whom I would have to live” (Descartes, 20) and observing the way they act rather than the way they talk because what is said is not always true, it is more accurate to observe mannerisms to understand an individual. Sometimes an individual does not even know their true opinion that is why it is not always accurate to take their word. He followed the most moderate opinions so that he would not stray too far from his pursuit of the truth, he did not want to accept extreme truths because they may give up liberty of thought. Descartes is not strict in his thought either; if something he once believed to be true ceases to be true, he no longer accepts it as such and no longer praises it. Instead he pursues a different truth. The second maxim he presents is “to be as firm and resolute in my action as I could be”(Descartes, 21) and to follow a certain direction in pursuit of knowledge. He explains this by using the analogy of someone lost in a forest, rather than wandering around and changing direction, the person who is lost must move forward in one direction. This applies to the way Descartes approaches an action or a thought process, he pursues it in one direction unless his reason directed him otherwise. This illustrates that until we are able to come to the truest conclusions we can accept ones that are the most probable. The third maxim he presents focuses on the self, and the importance he places on his own desires rather than the world and its fortunes. By focusing on the self, he also understands and states that we should become “accustomed to the belief that nothing is entirely within our power except our thoughts”(Descartes, 22) and as such we must focus on developing the mind and in turn, reason, since we have control over it. Descartes found contentment in this maxim because he did not desire anything he could not acquire, as a strong will allows us to only desire things in which we are capable of attaining. This is a maxim that many philosophers practiced as they were only focused on things within their reach and their own thoughts, they did not desire things outside this realm and rather felt content in what they already had and the capacities of their mind. With these maxims he dedicated his life to fostering his reason and the pursuit of truth, because there was no other occupation of man that appealed to him. He found happiness in his pursuit of knowledge and his methods of obtaining it, cultivating his mind is what brought him peace. There is virtue that results from these maxims that pursue a true judgment as “judging well is sufficient for doing well” (Descartes, 24) insofar as if we are judging in the most thorough way then it must also follow that we are also “doing the best that we can” (Descartes, 24). Ethics also arise from Descartes method as based on reason, which is the highest point in his new building. Ethics emerge through this method of science, as we are able to question the ethics we believe to be true using our own reasoning. If there comes a time where one does not know, as Descartes does, they should rely on customary ethics until they are able to question it for themselves. Thus Roman Catholicism is adopted by default for some. Ethics that are revealed have a human component; using reasoning we are able to separate this component from what is divine. As he continued his travels he acted as a spectator amongst interactions and in this way he was able to develop his reasoning and judgment. His approach imitates the skeptics insofar as he questioned what was previously taught to him and tries to find truth in it. Whereas other skeptics such as the Pyrrhonians, suspend judgment because they do not believe something can be known to be certainly true. Skeptics do not question concepts further because of epoche; there being no reason to challenge customary views. Rather they follow appearances contending that what they can basically derive from a situation is to be true for that situation. For example, if an individual were ill, they would consider the symptoms and prescribe something that targets the symptoms they would not try to uncover the truth and derive the cause of the illness because it does not matter to them. Descartes in turn, would rather use reasoning and pure judgment to arrive at certain truths using his methods and maxims to find reasoning. The reasoning he strives for has intolerant edge because of its thoroughness whereas the Pyrrhonians are more tolerant in this regard because they are aware that they do not know something completely. He does not doubt truths for the sake of doubting them rather he wants to arrive at these truths by utilizing his own reason and judgment. Though he wanted to make his own observations to assert his beliefs, he used the foundations of the “buildings” he tore down to allow him to further establish his truths. This intermediate stage of thinking, where he is deciding what he wants to pursue in its whole truth by breaking down previous notions does not emphasize enlightment rather these maxims are the steps to becoming enlightened.

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