Descartes Publishes His

Descartes’s Discourse on Method articulated his rational-mathematical philosophical system, one that would influence philosophers and scientists—and thought in general—through the seventeenth century and beyond.

Summary of Event

With the publication of the Discours de la méthode (1637; Discourse on Method, 1649), philosophy Philosophy;France was reoriented toward the practical and the deductive. René Descartes’s quasi-autobiographical essay both described one person’s progress in teaching himself the sciences and attempted to establish a new universal philosophy based upon the most essential foundations. In this way, the Discourse on Method was a conscious separation from those aspects of the medieval traditional reliance on authority—especially Aristotelianism—that had survived into the Renaissance as well as an explication of a scientific method that was opposite to the inductive process of formulating hypotheses from the observation of evidence as espoused by the Renaissance thinker Francis Bacon. [kw]Descartes Publishes His Discourse on Method (1637)
[kw]Discourse on Method, Descartes Publishes His (1637)
[kw]Publishes His Discourse on Method, Descartes (1637)
Philosophy;1637: Descartes Publishes His Discourse on Method[1240]
Cultural and intellectual history;1637: Descartes Publishes His Discourse on Method[1240]
Science and technology;1637: Descartes Publishes His Discourse on Method[1240]
Literature;1637: Descartes Publishes His Discourse on Method[1240]
Netherlands;1637: Descartes Publishes His Discourse on Method[1240]
Discourse on Method (Descartes)
Descartes, René

Descartes was born into a family of the lower French nobility and raised by his maternal grandmother. He was educated in a Jesuit college between the ages of ten and fourteen and took a law degree from the University of Poitiers in November of 1616. His travels took him to the Netherlands, where he served as a volunteer soldier and experienced a famous vision on November 10, 1619, in which he dreamed of a universal science of nature to which the key was mathematics.

In the 1620’, Descartes continued to travel and to write scientific treatises. He settled in the Netherlands in 1628 for full-time and intense research, meditation, and writing. Three examples of the method of Descartes came out of this period of study: the Optics, Meteorology, and Geometry. The Discourse on Method was written to be the preface to those essays. A mechanical explanation of biology and the universe was also prepared during this time, but Descartes abandoned plans for publication when Galileo was condemned by the Inquisition. The metaphysical aspects of this work in natural philosophy reappeared in the Discourse on Method, which was published anonymously along with the three essays in mid-1637 in the hope of finding an open-minded lay audience.

Although the material making up the Discourse on Method was written at different times, the outlines of the philosophical system are relatively clear and readily grasped. To Descartes, the sovereign good was scientific knowledge, and the sovereign tool was reason. Unlike many of his predecessors, he explicitly distinguished between reason and faith. His means for increasing knowledge then utilized all the advantages of logical, algebraic, and geometrical procedures—Euclidean geometry was Descartes’s favorite discipline, and mathematics the model for all other knowledge. First, Descartes set aside all learning in order to start at an absolute beginning. The most basic fact he could know, Descartes realized, was his own existence, the often-quoted “I think, therefore I am” (Cogito, ergo sum), and, since his mind could conceive infinity even though it was itself finite, he then deduced the existence of an infinite and perfect God who created Descartes’s idea of infinity.

Another deduction was that there was a distinction or dualism between the mind and the body. Similarly, Descartes explained, the natural philosopher must always start with a firm central theory and proceed from there into the explication of more detailed phenomena, as a chain of truths was formed. The method depended upon preservation of the proper order or sequence and was tied together by observational evidence.

This approach can be concentrated into the following four rules, as Descartes himself did in the second part of the Discourse on Method:

The philosopher must never accept anything as true without evidence of its truth.

Each philosophical or scientific problem should be divided into as many parts as possible to make the attack on the problem easier and more effective.

The process is carried out in an orderly manner, beginning with the simplest steps and progressing to the most complicated.

The philosopher should be careful and thorough, so that nothing is left out of the chain of reasoning.

When the final draft of the Discourse on Method was written in the winter of 1635-1636, Descartes divided the essay into six parts. In the first section, Descartes gave some of his reflections upon the sciences. This and the beginning of the second part are the most explicitly autobiographical sections of the work. The second part also contains the rules for Descartes’s method, while part three shifts to considerations of moral rules. There is another change of topics in part 4, where Descartes placed the foundations of his metaphysics, such as his proofs for the existence of God and the human soul. The fifth section includes summaries of Descartes’s mechanical biology and mechanical physics. Finally, in part 6, Descartes introduced Meteorology and Optics in order to explain why the Discourse on Method was a necessary preface to those works. In other words, this section dealt with his ideas about theory construction.

The three essays published with the Discourse on Method were influential scientific treatises in their own right, as well as illustrations of the Cartesian method. The Optics
Optics (Descartes) was largely practical, containing instructions for the construction of optical instruments. Descartes also included his theory that light was an impulsive force transmitted instantaneously along a straight line, as well as the sine-law of refraction. Meteorology
Meteorology (Descartes) was the most like a textbook of the three works, with explanations of various weather phenomena in addition to some features of Descartes’s physics, which was based upon a full, material universe. In Geometry
Geometry (Descartes) , Descartes defined algebraic operations for geometry; that is, he combined algebra and geometry into analytic geometry.

There are some problems with Descartes’s ideas. For example, his own practice of science often did not follow his method. His philosophy also loses rigor when it is based on assumptions outside mathematics, although Descartes corrected some of the difficulty with an independent argument in the section of Discourse on Method dealing with metaphysics. Descartes’s contemporaries criticized the circularity of the method, and Descartes responded to the comments of critics such as Pierre Gassendi and Antoine Arnauld in later publications and occasionally in correspondence, even though he was not one who reacted particularly positively to criticism. Finally, the autobiographical nature of Discourse on Method is problematic and deceiving. Descartes is not a reliable source for the precise details concerning the development of his ideas.


The scientific method of Descartes, along with aspects of his ideas about nature, including an optimistic belief in progress and an argument for a constant amount of motion in the universe, influenced both other natural philosophers and Descartes’s own later works. His Meditationes de prima philosophia (1641; Meditations on First Philosophy
Meditations on First Philosophy (Descartes) , 1680) and Principia philosophiae (1644; Principles of Philosophy
Principles of Philosophy (Descartes) , 1983) extended his writings on metaphysics and science. When reactions to his ideas became increasingly virulent, Descartes traveled to France in 1644, but he returned to the Netherlands later that year. He accepted an invitation to the court of Queen Christina of Sweden in 1649, where he died of pneumonia the following February.

René Descartes.

(Library of Congress)

The rationalism, skepticism, and scientific method of Descartes can be found in many of his successors, as his name quickly became attached to anyone who attempted to follow his rules for a universal philosophy. For example, individuals such as Robert Hooke Hooke, Robert and Jan Swammerdam Swammerdam, Jan carried out Descartes’s program of the mechanization of physiology, much of which was described in the Discourse on Method. Meanwhile, numerous philosophers tried to clarify Descartes’s metaphysics in the second half of the seventeenth century, while John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume led a British revision of certain Cartesian theories. Later, the philosophes of the French Enlightenment sought to present themselves as heirs of Descartes and his rejection of tradition. In general, the problem of attaining a wholly objective understanding of any subject matter proved to have universal human appeal.

Further Reading

  • Bordo, Susan, ed. Feminist Interpretations of René Descartes. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999. A four-part collection exploring Descartes’s philosophy and its impact on feminist and gender theory, epistemology, ideas on women, passion, wonder, embodiment, and more. Includes a select bibliography on Descartes, Cartesianism, and gender, and an index.
  • Cottingham, John, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Descartes. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. One in a series of references for students and nonspecialists that contains essays on Descartes by leading experts in the field.
  • Cottingham, John. A Descartes Dictionary. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell Reference, 1993. Primarily describes what Descartes meant by his use of certain terms. Should be used as an aid in elucidating Descartes’s writings.
  • Cottingham, John, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch, trans. The Philosophical Writings of Descartes. 2 vols. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984-1985. Comprehensive and readable, this is the standard, modern English translation of Descartes’s writings.
  • Davies, Richard. Descartes: Belief, Skepticism, and Virtue. Studies in Seventeenth Century Philosophy 3. New York: Routledge, 2001. Analyzes Descartes’s thoughts on credulity, skepticism, and the search for reason and eternal truth.
  • Garber, Daniel. Descartes Embodied: Reading Cartesian Philosophy Through Cartesian Science. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Garber links Descartes’s ideas about science to his overall philosophy. Chapter 2 is titled “Descartes and Method in 1637.”
  • Gaukroger, Stephen. Descartes: An Intellectual Biography. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1995. A noted scholar illuminates Descartes’s intellectual pursuits and explains their rationale. Written in reasonably clear language.
  • Schouls, Peter A. Descartes and the Enlightenment. Kingston, Ontario, Canada: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1989. Schouls, a professor of philosophy, treats Descartes as a progenitor of the Enlightenment by highlighting the concepts of freedom, mastery, and progress in his works.
  • Srathern, Paul. Descartes in Ninety Minutes. Chicago: Ivan Dee, 1996. A quick but helpful introductory overview of Descartes’s thought.

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i><br />

Christina; Pierre de Fermat; Pierre Gassendi; William Harvey; Thomas Hobbes; Robert Hooke; Christiaan Huygens; Johannes Kepler; Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz; Sir Isaac Newton; Blaise Pascal; John Ray; Jan Swammerdam. Discourse on Method (Descartes)
Descartes, René