52B/52W, Week 5: Discours de la Méthode



Discours de la méthode - René Descartes

The low end of higher education is frustrating because you are told plenty of very interesting things which were thought up by very interesting people, but usually totally out of their original context, thrown at you to understand and memorize; exam fodder basically. In my CEGEP philosophy classes, one of the authors used as such was Descartes. Rich and concise from the hundreds of years of criticism, analysis and interpretation, the ideas of the “father of modernity” were presented to us as revolutionary in their context, and beautifully crafted quotes were compared to the bleak general ambiance of pre-enlightenment Europe. How we marvelled: this guy’s a genius!

A genius, that he was. Some say that no one man has given more to science than Descartes, and while I am in no position to proclaim this true, I am certainly inclined to believe it. Pertinent in today’s philosophy however, that is a whole other thing. My reading of Discours de la méthode was a disappointment in this respect, because I felt that I was tricked by the artifices of CEGEP into believing that this read would change my life.

This book was intended as an introduction to more technical works, and as such, it is a much more of a methodological guide than a philosophical work. The greatest philosophers, to me, are the ones who had a unitary and internally coherent vision of the mechanics of existence, from ontology to the preferred government, with a conception of freedom and ethics to match. Descartes himself states that a system with only one author is always more coherent, yet he exposes his ideas on ontology as a prelude to his method without filling in the rest of the blanks. Epistemologically, his appeal for pure reason is interesting and absolutely pertinent; in the larger context of philosophy though, it is hardly consistent enough to be satisfying. The format of this books shows how little there is to be understood from Descartes directly: the edition I have read is a bit under 50% actual transcriptions of the original work, and the rest is contextualization and analysis of it by various authors, citing more heirs of Descartes than the man himself. It’s the extrapolation of Descartes by others that makes him interesting. As a consequence, I really cannot recommend this book to anyone who has previously had Descartes explained elsewhere.

Don’t give yourself the trouble of decoding old french and suffering through  a 350 year old description of the functioning of the human heart; you can get a much better idea of what Descartes is about, much quicker and more pleasurably,  elsewhere.

Lesson learned: not everything is meant to be read. Sometimes, quotes and class notes ARE good enough.