by Gordon L. Ziniewicz

1. According to Hegel, with Rene Descartes (1596 - 1650), philosophy comes "home" to self-consciousness. While ancient philosophy was cosmocentric and humanistic (including social as well as individual concerns) and medieval philosophy was theocentric (centered on God and salvation), modern philosophy focused on the self -- the individual -- as the locus of knowledge and values. Yet, even as modern philosophy turned to individual reason, it retained a medieval suspicion that human nature, unaided and in its "natural state," was prone to moral failure and intellectual error. It is not unaided reason, but reason relying on artificial methods (such as those found in mathematics) and artificial devices or instruments (such as the microscope or the telescope), that is able to prompt a rebirth and development of the sciences unknown in previous ages. Aristotelian and medieval "sciences" were overthrown because human reason had recourse to instruments that made up for the deficiency of human thinking and the limitations of human perception. The eyes by themselves are weak and cannot see either the very small or the very distant. Microscopes and telescopes make up for this deficiency. The mind by itself is prone to all kinds of error, miscalculations, and prejudice. New methods of reasoning will direct the mind to certain and reliable conclusions.

Question: What happens to the aesthetic, if ordinary perception becomes suspect?
Question: What happens to human reason and perception, if one becomes too dependent on methods and instruments?
Question: In what way is the medieval mistrust of human nature (as corrupted by original sin) responsible for the development of artificial devices? To what extent is "redemption" for modern man found in technology?

2. Descartes' method, which he presents somewhat modestly in the -Discourse-, is in fact intended to be valid for all, to be universally followed. Use of the right method ensures clear thinking and avoidance of error. Descartes states the rules of his method in Part Two of the Discourse. They roughly correspond to rules employed in geometric reasoning.

3. Note on the title: The two key words are Discourse and Method. Discourse refers to expression of what has already been thought through in private, the saying of the fruits of meditation. It does not refer to speech with others (dialogue). The Discourse is "autobiographical." Keep in mind the Stoic compartmentalization of inner and outer, of thoughts and actions. For Descartes, the inner realm of the mind is absolutely free; the outer realm of the body is absolutely determined (a machine subject to external causes, a body that can be imprisoned by the Church). Descartes is inwardly radical and revolutionary and outwardly conservative and conforming. His written words are an outward mask; they both hide and reveal his thoughts. Speech is therefore inferior to thinking; public expression is inferior to private reflection. All that is outward or bodily is, in comparison to clear and distinct thinking, obscure and confused. Words participate in external obscurity and confusion. One must therefore keep in mind the contrast between the modern scholar working alone in his study and the ancient Socrates conversing with his fellows in the marketplace. One might question whether Descartes has more reason to be cautious than Socrates. One should also keep in mind how Descartes handles certain medieval (and ancient) concerns. One should bear in mind, for example, that the existence of God is proved on the indubitable evidence of self-existence, not on the basis of order in the external world.

4. The Discourse on Method was written in French, not in Latin (Latin was the official academic language) and was aimed beyond philosophers and theologians to the general public (who could not read Latin). Nevertheless, Descartes knew his work would be scrutinized by Church officials and theologians; so he wrote carefully. Descartes' writing was an attempt to initiate a scientific revolution without offending the Church. By addressing orthodox medieval concerns -- such as proofs for the existence of God and the immortality of the soul -- which theologians cared about more than natural science -- Descartes distracted Church authorities from the real thrust of his work: founding a new mechanical view of nature on the basis of mathematics. A mechanical view of nature -- which explains all bodily motion by external causes and forces -- was meant to replace the Aristotelian view of natural tendencies, inward forces, and "souls." For Descartes, animals are merely complicated machines without souls. Only humans have a "soul," which is identical with mind or reason (consciousness or the "thinking thing"). In a mechanical view of nature, there is no distinction between living and non-living, natural and artificial -- except that natural living creatures are, compared to clocks and other automata, more complicated. Natural bodies are machines created by God. Artificial bodies are machines created by man. Thus, Descartes both hides and reveals his true concerns (wears a "mask").

Question: What is gained and what is lost in a mechanical view of nature?

5. Descartes' "ideas" were indeed revolutionary. He wished to show that truth about physical bodies in motion was based on clear and distinct ideas arrived at in solitary self-consciousness -- in other words, that physics (which describes the motions of physical bodies) is based on mathematics (a purely mental construct not derived from observation of physical bodies). Mathematics explains physics; and mathematics is the pure "product" of reason. Moreover, mathematics is based on "ideas" that are innate to the human mind. Like Plato, Descartes believes that "ideas" (in particular, mathematical ideas) are the basis of physical reality. Unlike Plato, Descartes believes that these "ideas" are found in the human mind, are "innate" or "inborn." We have only to reason correctly (with the right method) to discover that this is so. The link between inner spiritual mind and outer material body is mathematics.

6. For Descartes, science is more important than morality or politics. It is not that his goal is "knowledge for its own sake." Descartes aims at truth in the sciences in order to improve technologies such as medicine. Descartes hopes to advance mathematics and therefore the physical sciences in order to prolong human lives and provide bodily comforts and conveniences. New mathematics (such as algebraic geometry, developed by Descartes and revolutionizing the science of ballistics) and new experiments would lead to new technologies to benefit all of mankind. Sociality, however, was not stressed by Descartes. Thus, we have a notion of the "practical" and the "productive" which is separate from the improvement of immediate (aesthetic) human relationships. Detachment from human commitments frees one to work unhampered for the "benefit of mankind." Attachment to particular individuals is an obstacle to research and development for the sake of individuals one has never met.

Question: How is "benefit of mankind" an ambiguous phrase? If technology contributes to bodily health, comfort, and convenience, does this mean that technology "improves" people? How might the pursuit of technology obscure and hide the neglect of mora and political improvement? Discuss.
7. Descartes repeats the Stoic dualism of inner and outer, mind and body, thoughts and actions. He differs from the Stoics in that their "dualism" of mind and body was aimed at moral uprightness. The Stoics intended to become morally fulfilled by a cosmopolitan concern for others that was not impeded by subjective emotions or entangling attachments. Descartes' Stoicism, however, uses Stoic detachment from external involvements as a means to intellectual or scientific improvement. The Greek and Roman Stoics saw mental detachment as a means of coping with stormy practical realities. Descartes sees the same detachment as providing a mind cleared of distractions, a disturbance-free laboratory for private meditation and reflection.
Question: Explain how Descartes' dualism and the dualism of the Stoics might have different moral and social consequences.
8. According to Descartes -- the inner realm of the mind or "soul" -- is a realm of absolute freedom. One has, in one's own mind, the absolute power to accept or reject any opinion. One can, with "methodic doubt," sweep away all past presuppositions and faulty notions. The "city of the mind" can be dismantled and rebuilt at will. In fact, one can and should tear down and rebuild the useless views inherited from times past. Ancient philosophy especially is full of errors and contradictions and ought to be rejected as false. In one's mind one can and should be radical, revolutionary, and strive for nothing less than absolute certainty. The Discourse, as well as Descartes' Meditations (written in Latin, by the way) are attempts to sweep away the old and doubtful views (using methodic doubt) and to replace them with new and certain ones. Descartes hopes to accomplish in a matter of a few years of private meditation what Plato regarded as a nearly endless task of negative and positive dialectic engaged in by friends conversing together. For Descartes, thinking is a relatively private matter. Descartes rarely learned from others, was impatient with conversation, and generally stood by his conclusions in written correspondence with other thinkers (such as his replies to Hobbes' objections to his views). Descartes was inwardly revolutionary: he pursued radical doubt of all previous opinions followed by a rebuilding of a new system of ideas (sciences) on a certain "metaphysical" foundation. One should destroy the old city of the mind and rebuild a new one.
Question: Explain how destruction of the "old city" of opinions and pre-suppositions might not be as easy as Descartes thought. Why do you suppose this is so?
9. On the other hand, the outer realm or the realm of the body is a realm of disorder and "determinism." Bodies are "moved" or determined by other bodies; they are forced. Our bodies, unlike our minds, are not completely under our control. Even action or speech with others participates in the imprecision and vulnerability of all external affairs. Mathematics is clear and distinct. Politics is not. One must be careful what one says. Inwardly, Descartes was revolutionary in his thoughts; outwardly, Descartes was conforming and accommodating in his speech and action. The human body, as all bodies, is subject to external forces outside of our control. Knowledge of medicine is important because it reduces the natural vulnerability of the body. Other technologies are also important because they increase control over nature -- both human and non-human. We have absolute control over our thoughts, but our bodies are machines subject to external causes. For example, if Descartes published his true beliefs about the movement of the heavens (including the belief that the earth revolves around the sun), his body could be imprisoned by the authorities for heresy (as Galileo was). The dualism of absolutely free mind or soul and relatively determined external body has important consequences for interpretations of non-human nature as well as for ethics and politics (since they participate in the obscurity and confusion of all externality). Once one divorces spiritual soul and material body -- making them into distinct realms governed by different rules -- it is very hard to reunite them. The fundamental problem of modern philosophy is precisely this dualism of mind and body, philosophy and natural science, bequeathed by Descartes.
Question: Is justice a "clear and distinct idea"? Why or why not?
Question: What is the relation between what we think and what we do? Does a dualism of mind and body imply that thoughts and actions have nothing to do with each other? Do we have the right to think whatever we wish, although we must act in ways that are socially approved? What would Socrates say?

10. Descartes' method has both negative and positive thrusts. The first thrust is methodic doubt, or the clearing away of old views and presuppositions that are doubtful. In this regard, Descartes clears away most of his previous education, with the exception of mathematics. One must not trust one's previous learning, one's teachers, even one's experience. The senses can deceive us; the schools repeat doubtful and contradictory opinions (Aristotelianism and medievalism). One must reject any notion as false which one's own mind has not conceived clearly and distinctly and evidently to be true. One's mind is an absolute authority. It has the ability and the responsibility to judge for itself, and it protects itself from possible error by the careful use of method (such as the method outlined by Descartes). External sources of knowledge are not to be trusted; only internal reason can be counted on. True philosophy must imitate mathematical method. Ancient and medieval views are haphazard and disorderly.

11. For Descartes, the basis of mathematics is metaphysics. Medieval metaphysics was concerned primarily with the existence of God, the immortality of the soul, and the creation of the world. For Descartes, what is absolute is self-consciousness. The basis of all reasoning, the foundation of science, is the mind's awareness of itself. Even the existence of God and the external world are less obvious. The existence of a world outside oneself -- including God, other people, and one's own body -- are proved on the basis of the obvious and continuous presence of the self to itself. All other objects come in and out of consciousness. What we think, the external objects we perceive, etc. are all temporary furniture in our consciousness -- like actors that come on and off stage. But our consciousness, the stage itself, is always present to us. It is most obvious. Even the thought that we might not have a body presupposes a consciousness where the thought can appear. In Part Four of the Discourse, describes the steps of his famous "meditations," including his famous "cogito, ergo sum" -- "I think, therefore I am."

12. Descartes might have equally said, "I doubt, therefore I am." Doubting is a kind of consciousness. Every doubt intensifies one's awareness of one's own consciousness, one's self-consciousness. Evidence is presence to a clearly perceiving mind. An object is known to exist to the extent that it can be made present. Even though particular objects of consciousness can be present or absent, consciousness itself is always present. If I turn my attention away from external matters, their existence is less obvious; but I cannot turn my attention away from attention itself. Consciousness is a light that is always on.

13. In this self-intuition or self-awareness, we find the criterion for all evidence, for all knowledge -- that which is clearly and distinctly perceived by an attentive mind.

14. Interestingly enough, Descartes proves the existence of God on the basis of self-awareness. It is better to know than to doubt. Doubt implies imperfection. But how can I call myself imperfect unless I have in my mind some idea of perfection, some standard by which I judge myself? Where did this idea come from? Not from ideas of external beings; the ideas of external beings are not superior to my idea of myself (I could be making them up). The idea of perfection, since it cannot be derived from my own nature, must have been put in my mind by God -- a being more perfect than myself. The idea of perfection is the idea of God.

Question: To the extent that our self-awareness is absolute and we have in our presence of consciousness to itself an example of perfect evidence, why could our idea of perfection not be derived from our perfect awareness of ourself -- even if we are perfectly aware of ourself as imperfect? If the self is primary and most obvious, what happens to Descartes' proof of the existence of God?
15. Knowing the soul (and its distinction from the body) and knowing God requires being able to meditate or think properly, in other words to be able to disengage oneself from practical concerns, to detach oneself. One must learn to think without images, to abstract, to detach from particular concrete things. Meditation is detached awareness. If we can elevate our mind above sensible things, we will find that our mind is "elevated" above sensible things, that the mind transcends the body. The more objective and detached we become, the more we realize we can be objective and detached -- i.e., meditation leads to the clear and distinct awareness of the soul's independence of the body. At the same time, this detachment leads to more fruitful conceptualization and generalization -- ideas that fuel science and technology. Involvement in bodily affairs, desires, and perception directly interferes with the mind's ability to think clearly and to produce worthwhile ideas. Thus, the standing back of the intellectual/scientific makes possible both the advances of the sciences and the divorce between mind and environment. Detachment is the basis of both technology and homelessness. The contemplation of Descartes -- which is not for its own sake, but for the sake of scientific progress -- is even more detached than the self-sufficient contemplation of the Aristotelian philosopher.
Question: In detached contemplation, does one really become aware of the distinction between soul and body, or does one merely "forget" his attachment to body and environment? Can the intellectual/scientific result in a kind of social "amnesia"?

16. In the Meditations, Descartes proves the existence of external bodies (res extensa or extended things) on the basis of God's existence. God, being perfect, could not be a deceiver. Therefore, I am not deceived in my belief that external bodies exist. The difference between divine reason and human reason is that God knows everything all at once, whereas human reason must perfect itself little by little. If humans lived long enough, they could arrive by degrees at the same knowledge possessed by God. Thus, Descartes first "intuits" his own self-consciousness, then proves the existence of God on the basis of self-consciousness, and finally proves the existence of physical bodies on the basis of God's perfection and reliability. One should note that Descartes does not prove the existence of other human minds. The existence of human souls within other human bodies is a genuine problem (one that Descartes does not address). The souls of others can not be experienced directly. Thus, the realm of inner mind includes simple innate ideas of self, God, axioms of mathematics, and compound "produced" ideas of external bodies, etc. The mind makes mathematics by compounding certain simple innate ideas.

Question: What are the ethical consequences of being unable to prove the existence of other "souls" or human minds?
17. One idea compounded of "innate ideas" or "axioms" is the idea of extension, which is none other than the idea of three-dimensional geometric figures in three-dimensional space -- solid geometry. Add movement to figures and one gets physics. Descartes used algebra and geometry to plot movements (such as the trajectory of a cannonball). Geometry anticipates in advance all possible physical configurations. One does not need to look (perceive with the eyes) in order to understand three-dimensional space. Geometry is a product of the mind that happens to correspond to and explain real physical bodies. All figures and shapes are imaginable, but ideal figures and shapes exist only in the mind (recall Plato's blueprints), never in reality. Physical laws are "purer" to the extent that they are idealized or detached from real conditions (such as motion in a vacuum or in a frictionless environment). Nature is a realm of extended things in motion, acting upon one another. Mechanical laws explain and govern the motion of bodies, but they are based on mathematical systems arrived at by the mind. The observation of real bodies in experiment helps to confirm hypotheses produced in private study, reasoning undistracted by external affairs. Mathematics is not derived from empirical observation. Clear and distinct ideas in the mind (not derived from experience) are the basis of theoretical and useful (applied) sciences. Descartes himself advocated empirical observation and conducted many anatomical experiments, but he maintained that the calculation of physical laws is the work of reason.
Question: How does this view compare to contemporary views of the relation between mathematics and physics, such as in the theory of relativity (based on a non-Euclidean geometry that "makes no sense" from a common-sense point of view)?
Question: What happens to non-human nature if it is understood in advance as "bodies in motion" in terms of general physical laws and concepts? What happens to the "aesthetic" or the perception of things in their unique particularity, rather than as examples of a general class?

18. Since absolute order is possible in the mind, but only relative order is possible in external affairs, Descartes does not advocate social reform. The status quo is preferable to social change. According to Descartes, "present institutions are practically always more tolerable than would be a change in them" (in Part Two of the Discourse). The external city, unlike the internal city of the mind, should not be torn down and rebuilt. Social change can lead to social upheaval (civil war); it will never lead to perfect order (which can exist only in the mind). Civil war is more to be feared than social injustice. Civil war makes research and development difficult. External affairs are determined by forces largely outside of our control. We have absolute control only over our thoughts. It is noteworthy that Descartes' non-political meditations were to bring about a technological revolution, the political consequences of which are staggering. Scientific progress, intentionally or unintentionally, changes the political order -- though perhaps in ways not intended by moral and social idealists.

Question: Explain how an attitude which neglects involvement in social issues may itself affect social outcomes.
Question: Are scientific progress and social progress the same? Explain.
Question: Explain how it is possible to be intellectually radical, but socially conservative.

19. Ethics and politics present certain problems. Descartes refers to ancient writings about customs as "palaces built on sand and mud." Mathematics can be applied to natural sciences which in turn can be applied to improve the well-being of the body (medicine, etc.). The human mind is intellectually improved through the cultivation of scientific reasoning as the human body is helped by technologies based on science. But can mathematics be applied to ethics and politics? Descartes followed a provisional code of morality until such time that he could rebuild ethics on a certain foundation. This he never did. Nor did he make significant effort in that direction. For Descartes, certitude is possible in mathematics and science, but unlikely in moral and political affairs. Morality is reduced to social custom. The search for absolute justice is postponed indefinitely. Technological progress overtakes social reform. The closest thing to moral theory presented by Descartes appears in his Passions of the Soul (which is really about the body) and in Part Three of the Discourse. Read Part Four of Descartes' Discourse to discover his provisional moral code.

Question: How does Stoic "steadfastness" turn to "timidity" in Descartes' rendition of Stoic "acceptance"?
Question: Why do you suppose Descartes did not apply the same rigorous standard to moral principles that he did to science?
20. Avoiding extremes in action and speech makes it possible to pursue studies without hindrance. In addition, it helps to be free from entangling social commitments (Descartes never married). In order to think clearly, one must avoid obtrusive friendships and civil disturbance. The best situation -- wherein one can have solitude, be "left alone" -- is in the city where everyone is too busy and self-preoccupied to be concerned about others. Descartes writes in Part Three of the Discourse: "There, among crowds of busy people, more concerned with their own affairs than interested in the affairs of others, I was able to enjoy all the benefits of life to be found in the populated city while having the solitude of one living in a remote desert." Anonymity makes meditation and research possible. The most fruitful discoveries will be made by those who (whether individually or in groups -- research teams) are left alone to do their work. Abstract ideas that make technologies possible -- technologies that benefit the general public (but not aimed at particular individuals) -- are worked out in private. Detachment (both as generalization and social withdrawal) is the basis of fruitful and productive technologies -- technologies that provide health and artificial conveniences. One's private work helps people one never meets. Attachment to particular others -- which is the basis of ethical practice -- is seen as an obstacle to the proliferation of "practical" products, which benefit individuals individually (but not by direct personal contact -- the "aesthetic"). Commitment to technology loosens commitment to individuals. There is suspicion of social reformers. Reason should be directed to science and technology, not toward ethics and politics. Science is absolute; morality is relative. There is certainty in science; there is no certainty in morality (there are no absolute blueprints of justice, etc.).
Question: How does this explain contemporary problems of deciding between career and relationship? Why do employers sometimes prefer to hire unmarried "workaholics," etc.?
Question: In what sense are advances in science and technology bought at the expense of moral and social improvements? Or is technological improvement identical with moral and social improvement? Is the best society one which is most technologically advanced?

Questions for Discussion:

1. Do you agree with Hegel? Or does coming "home" to self-consciousness make us less "at home" in the world? Is self-consciousness in effect a kind of homelessness? Discuss how attention to the self changes attitude toward other people and non-human nature.

2. Compare the dualism of Descartes with the dualism of the Stoics. In what important ways are they the same? In what important ways are they different?

3. Discuss Descartes' four "moral maxims."

4. Why is the self-centeredness and self-preoccupation of others an advantage, according to Descartes?

5. Discuss how detachment from others is intended to benefit mankind. Discuss the problem of technological development versus social reform in the light of Descartes.

6. Descartes' methodic doubt aims at certitude. Describe how the possibility of certitude in mathematics seems to disparage morality and politics.

7. What is the importance of "method"? Explain how the deficiency of human nature was presupposed in the Middle Ages.

8. Why did Descartes write the Discourse on Method?

9. Contrast Descartes' and Aristotle's views of plants and animals. What attitudes toward non-human nature are reflected in these views?

10. What is the relation between mathematics and physics, for Descartes? What is the relation between ideas and the mind?

11. Describe the difference between the "city of the mind" and the "city of the body" for Descartes.

12. Why is radical social reform undesirable and impossible, according to Descartes?

13. Discuss what Descartes "proves," from most obvious to least obvious. What priorities are reflected in this "proof"? What problems arise with regard to attitude toward non-human nature, other persons, the self, and God?

14. Where does the idea of perfection come from?

15. Is the "idea of extension" found in external objects? Explain. What is the meaning of this idea?

16. Explain how mathematical systems, arrived at without empirical observation, may in fact help to explain empirical phenomena.

17. Describe the advantages of anonymity.

18. Describe the "moral consequences" of anonymity.

19. Compare Descartes and Aristotle with regard to attachment and detachment, scientific contemplation and practical action, independence and dependence, human nature and non-human nature.

20. Compare the relation between private and public in Plato and Descartes.

21. Explain how the withdrawal of the self from relationship with others contributes at the same time to technological enrichment and social impoverishment. Explain how technological breakthroughs are based on abstract concepts gotten by "backing away" from particulars in order to see the "big picture." Explain how this "backing away" can result in both self-centeredness and dedication to impersonal goals -- such as the "betterment of mankind." In other words, explain how radical detachment is the basis of technological advance as well as moral and social alienation.

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Copyright © 1996 Gordon L. Ziniewicz
This page last updated 10/14/12

Please note: These philosophical commentaries, though still in process, are the intellectual property of Gordon L. Ziniewicz. They may be downloaded and freely distributed in electronic form only, provided no alterations are made to the original text. One print copy may be made for personal use, but further reproduction and distribution of printed copies are prohibited without the permission of the author.