The Folly of René Descartes’ Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy
In order to embark on his quest for truth, Descartes first devises his four rules which should serve as a solid foundation for all else that he comes to understand. Those rules are here evaluated in terms of what they fail to take into consideration. The rules are examined individually and consecutively, and are therefore also reiterated in order to be clear about them. Furthermore, the approach of using these rules is also analyzed to some degree. Ultimately, however, it is my conjecture that Descartes’ four rules are not as solid a foundation as he claims, but fail to consider key issues which are noted herein.
Descartes’ first rule deals with the notion of truth, and states it as follows.
The first [rule] was never to accept anything as true that I did not plainly know to be such; that is to say, carefully to avoid hasty judgment and prejudice; and to include nothing more in my judgments than what presented itself to my mind so clearly and so distinctly that I had no occasion to call it in doubt. (11)
In essence, we are to accept only what is true. This brings up the question of how one can even know truth. For Descartes, the certain truth is “I think, therefore I am,” which is his first principle. However, even if this is a certain truth, how can we know anything else to be true? More importantly, however, the first rule states that nothing should be accepted that can be called into doubt, or to accept only that which is indubitable. Yet how can anything be indubitable, save perhaps Descartes’ first principle, and even there some may be able to find flaws? It seems doubtful whether anything can be proven beyond any reasonable doubt.
Nevertheless, Descartes may practice a method of radically doubting the subjective information of our senses and experience, but it appears that what he holds as being objective is that which is quantifiable. For him, “the method that teaches one to follow the true order and to enumerate exactly all the circumstances of what one is seeking contains everything that gives certainty to the rules of arithmetic (12).”
Still, the notion of one’s existence as proven by thought is not something which can be measured and translated into a numerical quantity. In fact, most fundamental concepts and their corresponding emotions that make up human life, such as love, are neither indubitable nor quantifiable, though are still held as being true, sometimes more than anything else.
This leads me to find that the very first of Descartes’ rules is a shaky foundation at best. It asks for an acceptance of indubitable truth, and only that truth. But if this is to be indeed held as a standard, then nothing could actually be accepted with certainty.
The second [rule], to divide each of the difficulties I would examine into as many parts as possible and as was required in order better to resolve them. (11)