Jottings Logo - John Fraser


Descartes’ Discourse on Method: a Look at Its Rhetoric (1959)


Over and above such intrinsic merits as it may still have, this article is a historical curiosity. I wrote it in Minneapolis in 1959 without benefit of any of the subsequent Continental luminaries, and it anticipates some of the things that would be said and done later. Which is to say, we were not all reading by candlelight in those days before Theory crossed the Atlantic to illuminate everything.

There was in fact a good deal of theory around by then (much of it pretty awful of course), and if as a reader of F.R. Leavis and other Scrutiny writers, I was able to write as I did here, it was because of that reading, not despite it, even though this is not what people think of as Leavisian writing.

Leavis’s extraordinary linguistic and theoretical sophistication has still, so far as I know, not had its due. It is still not a commonplace that Paul de Man, to judge from the internal evidence, almost certainly derived his post-New York Review of Books technique of the pounce, the intent unraveling of a single representative passage or phrase, from what Leavis had (“scandalously”) done in pieces like his polemical exchange with F.W.Bateson in Scrutiny in 1953.

I wrote this article specifically for the journal with the unpromising (but ironically intended) title that I was co-editing at Minnesota—GSE, The Graduate Student of English. I have occasionally regretted that it didn’t appear elsewhere and been more widely read (I think it could have been), but we were desperately short of contributors, and in fact it went in over a pseudonym in order to flesh out our roster.

I have gone through it breaking up paragraphs, adding Roman numerals, combing out some “rather’s,” “very’s, “significant’s,” and other marks of the nervous beginning writer, and in general doing what a good copy-editor would do anyway. But I have in no way altered my argument, either in general or in detail. What you see here is what I saw and said then, forty years ago, before the deluge.


Among the seminal works of philosophy there are a number (Plato’s dialogues being the most obvious example) that especially demand and repay the attentions of literary critics. Their rhetoric is potent, and by attending to it carefully one can isolate certain extra-philosophical assumptions and attitudes that have not only been very influential in the past but are often still influential today.

Descartes’ Discourse on the Method of rightly directing one’s Reason and of seeking Truth in the Sciences (1637) is such a work. It is comprehensible by the intelligent layman, for whom, in large part, it was originally intended. It is urbane, ironical, self-aware, brilliant. It has always been the most widely read of Descartes’ works. And in it one can discern the elements of at least three of the most important (and more or less mutually exclusive) attitudes that intellectuals have subsequently adopted towards themselves, their functions, and their environments.


Its rhetoric, as I said, is potent; and in this article I shall sketch out how that rhetoric can seduce the unwary reader (layman or philosopher) into reassembling those elements according to his own predispositions.

I will be chiefly concerned, that is to say, with identifying inadequate readings that other people can make of the Discourse, rather than with the nobler task of offering a reading of my own that would take into account as much of the work and of its genesis as possible. But wrong readings of a work are often more influential than right ones. And sometimes too, perhaps, identifying them can serve as a prelude to a fuller understanding of it.


To begin with, the Discourse is a remarkable specimen of that ever-attractive genre, the success story—remarkable both because the successes are predominantly intellectual ones and because they are so complete. It is the autobiographical account of a man who consistently made intellectual decisions of great weight and daring; who acted upon them; and who (by his own account, at any rate) was invariably justified by events.

Let me indicate some of the features of his career up to the age of forty-one (i.e., the time of the publication of the Discourse).


Becoming profoundly dissatisfied, as a young student at “one of the most celebrated schools in Europe,” with the traditional academic disciplines, he had employed the rest of his youth, in his own characteristic words,

in travel, in frequenting courts and armies, in mixing with people of various dispositions and ranks, in collecting a variety of experiences, in proving myself in the circumstances where fortune placed me, and in reflecting always on things as they came up, in a way that might enable me to derive some profit from them

It appeared to me that I could find much more truth in such reasonings as every man makes about the affairs that concern himself, and whose issue will very soon make him suffer if he has made a mistake, than in the reasonings of a man of letters in his study, about speculations that produce no effect and have no importance about them, the more remote they are from common sense, since he will have had to use the greater amount of ingenuity and skill in order to make them plausible.

And I always had an extreme desire to learn to distinguish truth from falsehood in order to have clear insight into my actions and proceed in this life with assurance.(1)

Then, after several years of intellectually emancipating peregrinations, “there came a day when I resolved to make my studies within myself, and use all my powers of mind to choose the paths I must follow.”


On that day, “shut up alone in a stove-heated room” in Germany, where he was billeted, he engaged in such intense introspection and reflection that he succeeded in formulating not only the renowned “Method” (or principles) by means of which he was thenceforward to regulate his philosophical enquiries, but also the moral principles by which to organize his life in general.

And after nine more years of travel (years, too, of methodically analytical contemplation and of private mathematical investigations), he settled down in Holland to the thoroughgoing application of his Method to a formidably wide variety of major philosophical problems.

So well did his investigations proceed that by the time he came to publish some of his findings eight years later in three lengthy Essais (La Dioptrique, Les Météores, and La Géometrie) he was able to announce superbly in a key passage in the Discourse—which served as a preface to them—that he considered the Method

a means to a gradual increase of my knowledge that will raise it little by little to the highest point allowed by the mediocrity of my mind and the brief duration of my life.

For I have already reaped such fruits that although in my judgments of myself I try to lean towards diffidence rather than presumption; and although; when I regard with a philosophic eye the various activities and pursuits of men at large, there is hardly one but seems to me vain and useless; nevertheless I do not fail to feel extreme satisfaction at the progress I think I have already made in the search for truth; and I conceive such hope for the future that I venture to believe that, if there is any one among purely human occupations that has solid worth or importance, it is the one I have chosen.


These are impressive claims, and it is an impressive history, offering a dramatic image of the life of the mind, and containing never a hint, in its cool, elegant prose, of any hesitations or regrets.

And more than any other work I know of (more even than in that similarly artful book with which in a number of ways it has the most in common, Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography), the rhetoric powerfully encourages the tendency to identify oneself with very successful people and to assimilate the attitudes that appear to have made their success possible.

Two of Descartes’ rhetorical strategies are especially seductive here.


The first is this.

Although what Descartes has, by his own account, accomplished in his forty-one years is very extraordinary, the aspect of himself that he stresses the most explicitly, especially in the first section of the Discourse, is his relative ordinariness, his intellectual kinship with his reader.

Not only is he, it emerges, an experienced, urbane, commonsensical man-of-the-world, rather than a fanciful academic. (The paragraph in which he enumerates and ostensibly commends the disciplines that he studied in his youth is a gem of delicately ambiguous subversion). He also, with disarming humility, confesses that

for myself, I have never presumed to think my mind in any way more perfect than ordinary men’s; indeed, I have often wished that I had thoughts as quick, or an imagination as clear and distinct, or a memory as ample and as readily available, as some other people.

And he modestly disavows any pedagogical intent, since “Those who set themselves to give precepts must regard themselves as more skilful than those to whom they give them....”


More reassuringly still, in the famous opening sentence of the book he asserts, on philosophical grounds his reader’s intellectual equality not only with himself but with all other thinkers:

Good sense is the most fairly distributed thing in the world; for everyone thinks himself so well supplied with it, that even those who are hardest to satisfy in every other way do not usually desire more of it than they already have. In this matter it is not likely that everybody is mistaken [italics mine]; it rather goes to show that the power of judging well and distinguishing truth from falsehood, which is what we properly mean by good sense or reason, is naturally equal in all men....

Admittedly an alert reader might feel that there was a certain ironical sleight-of-hand here in the manipulation of the term “good sense,” and a convenient ambiguity in the italicized assertion, just as he might look twice at the phrasing of this modest gentilhomme’s subsequent protestation of his own intellectual ordinariness.

But most people are not averse from having their sense of their own worth enhanced, especially when it is done in prose so seemingly candid and confiding and person-to-person.


That in the creation of this “ordinary” persona the autobiographical approach (which Descartes had so brilliantly appropriated from Montaigne) plays an important part is obvious enough.

In the second—and, I am inclined to believe, the more important—of the two strategies that I alluded to above, its part is crucial.

By restricting his narrative to his own experiences, and refraining from making any unfavourable evaluations of them, and largely eschewing (especially where controversial philosophical notions are involved), unequivocal indications, particularly in the form of universal propositions, that such-and-such is what he believes now, Descartes soothingly avoids obliging the reader to come straightway to judgment on what is being presented to him.

In so doing he makes good formally his avowal near the beginning of the first section that “My design is not to teach here the method everybody ought to follow in order to direct his reason rightly, but only to show how I have tried to direct my own.”

The intellectual snob-appeal of such an approach is pretty strong.

If the reader should feel like assimilating any of the ideas or attitudes in the book, it would obviously not be because he had been beaten down in argument by an intellectual superstar. It would simply be because, as a man of common sense, he had perceived an obvious moral or two in a tale in which an ordinary man (curiously like himself, in fact) had succeeded by perfectly intelligible means in doing uncommonly well for himself.


And as a further consequence of Descartes’ general avoidance of coming explicitly to judgment, it is possible for the reader, thus incited, to extract from the Discourse one of at least three different sets of attitudes, three mutually exclusive images of the good life of the mind.

In the rest of these pages I shall sketch what those attitudes seem to me to be.


The most impressive of the three is the one which seems the closest to Descartes’ own; and it is very different from that of the persona that I spoke of earlier. For when one looks more closely at the self-revealed character of the narrator,(2) what one discovers is a man of startling independence of mind.

For one thing, he has succeeded in taking no idea upon trust, and instead has built up his entire system of ideas for himself, starting from first principles that he himself has established.

And so conscious is he of his own unique vision of reality that there is no-one else, living or dead, from whom he feels he can learn anything of importance to add to it.

Nor can he conceive of there being a nobler occupation than the pursuit of truth in his own fashion, so that he himself is justified in subordinating all else to it.

And surrounded by intellectual dullards and plagiarists as he feels himself to be, he believes (the allusion to himself is obvious) that

If there were in the world a man assuredly known to be able to make discoveries of the greatest possible importance and public utility, and whom on this account other men were trying in every way to help achieve his aims,... all they could do for him would be to contribute to the necessary costs of experiments, and, further, to ensure against his having his leisure taken away by anybody’s importunities.

In other words, we have here for the first time, and in a pure form, a compelling image of that figure whose intellectual glamour has only recently commenced to fade: the aloof, dedicated, “indispensable” scientific scholar (often too, alas, so intolerably arrogant and jealous) in whatever discipline.


Yet, paradoxically, one can see too how it was that far lesser men than Descartes could have assimilated from the Discourse—and without a nagging sense of falsification—an image of the intellectual life that is the antitheses of this life of intensely individual, intensely daring, and (in certain respects, at least) intensely honest mental strenuousness.

Read vigilantly, the book emphatically does not minister to self-complacency, of course.

In it Descartes raises, indirectly but forcefully, such great central questions as “What is it that I really know and believe? And how and why have I come to do so?” and stresses magnificently, in passages like the following, the importance of thoroughly earning one’s knowledge and beliefs:

For my own part, I am convinced that, if from my youth up I had been taught all the truths I have since sought to demonstrate, and had had no difficulty about learning them, I should perhaps never have known any more, or at least should never have got the practice and the skill I think I have in steadily finding new truths as I set myself to look for them.

Reading these and kindred “existential” passages, one can feel the appropriateness of there having been an anthology from Descartes’ works edited and introduced by J.-P. Sartre (Descartes, Paris, Les Classique de la Liberté, 1946).

Nevertheless, looking elsewhere in the Discourse, one discerns, too, that in at least two major respects the narrator is only very imperfectly committed, existentially, to life.


For one thing, in order to be able to pursue his investigations in that “tranquility which I prize above everything,” he refuses on principle to engage himself strenuously with any ethical, social, and religious (as distinct from metaphysical) issues.

And, for another, it is noteworthy how almost totally absent from his account of slow, cautious, steady long-range plannings is any sense of the always potential imminence of his own death and of the concomitant challenge, at every instant, of “How fully and rightly, as a human being, am I in fact living now?”

The Discourse, in other words (and the very equanimity of the tone is influential here) can powerfully help to lessen one’s sense of one’s own transitoriness and of the obligation to choose and act with as full a participation of one’s being as possible.


There are further ways, too, in which, despite Descartes’ justifiable sneer at people “who fancy they understand in a day all that somebody else has thought about for twenty years,” the book can serve to erode the concept of individual endeavour, individual greatness, and to encourage the wrong kind of self-denying faith in group labours.

A reader predisposed to take Descartes’ protestations of ordinariness at their face value would also be likely to welcome the suggestion that

It is not enough to have a sound mind; the main thing is to apply it well. The greatest souls are capable of the greatest vices, as well as the greatest virtues; and those who walk only very slowly may make much more progress, if they always follow the straight road, than those who run and go astray from it.

Such a reader would derive considerable satisfaction from the confident deftness with which Descartes deflates the concept of “heroic” greatness (by the strategy, among other things, of impugning the veracity of historians).

And, over against the suspect figure of the brilliant-but-unsound—and conveniently unnamed—“greatest souls,” the reader could take pleasure in the image of the more successful (because more practical, more systematical) plain man who has prudently resolved

To conquer myself rather than fortune; to change my desires rather than the order of the world; and in general to form the habit of thinking that only our thoughts are completely within our own power; so that, after we have done our best, everything in the field of external things that we do not succeed in getting is an absoloute impossibility so far as we are concerned.


He could also, this reader, fasten sympathetically upon Descartes’ statement (in the course of a somewhat convoluted account of his reasonings while trying to decide whether or not to publish “what small discoveries I had made”) that at one point he had envisioned a happy state of affairs in which

The best minds would be led to contribute to further progress, each one according to his bent and ability, in the necessary experiments, and would communicate to the public whatever they learned, so that one man might begin where another left off; and thus, in the combined lifetimes and labours of many, much more progress would be made by all together than any one could make by himself.


Thus I suggest that the second main pattern of intellectual conduct that the Discourse not only could but did powerfully encourage (witness Thomas Sprat on the Royal Society) was that of all the so often contemptibly small-minded believers in “method” and “teamwork” who have been with us ever since—and not just in the sciences either.


And finally, and even more paradoxically, while Discourse on Method is one of the first great examples of the much-touted French rationality and clarté, and while, according to Descartes himself, moderation and temperance are the necessary outcome of these, at the same time the book is capable of serving no less, I believe, as the nourisher of the most violent kinds of political action and, ultimately, of the moral violence of a figure like D.A.F. de Sade.


To be sure, Descartes himself was successful, by his own account, in effecting a striking, and socially respectable, disjunction between his philosophical radicalism and his attitude towards State and Church.

Impeccably conservative, for instance, is his declaration that “It is quite certain that the constitution of the true religion, whose ordinances were made by God alone, must be incomparably better ordered than any others.”

So, too, are his defence of the social status quo (whose faults he considers, “are almost always more tolerable than any change would be”) and his assertion that “I could in no way approve of those turbulent and restless characters who, although not summoned by birth or fortune to the control of public affairs, are yet constantly effecting some new reform—in their own heads.

So, likewise, is his elaboration of the thesis that “the mere resolution to get rid of all opinions one has so far admitted to belief is in itself not an example for everyone to follow; the world is mostly made up of two types of mind to which it is wholly unsuitable.”

Yet logically, there is no point at which either his own or his reader’s rejection of received values need halt. And in certain respects the Discourse can powerfully reinforce a predisposition to carry such a rejection about as far as it can go.


The actual, as distinct from the simulated, narrator of the book is a formidably arrogant figure in a number of respects.

And implicit in his story is a distinction between, on the one hand, the Ubermensch who, like the narrator himself, is willing to accept the responsibility of creating consciously his own reality; and, on the other, the commonalty who simply take over unreflectingly the various realities (Descartes comes close to relativism in his discussion of differing social systems and mores) that are handed to them by the communities into which they are born.

Descartes himself may be content, as he announces, to conform to the customs of the society in which he lives. But it is clear that the sole reason why he does so is that it is convenient.


In the following key passage (apropos of the moral principles that he laid down for himself at the time when he was formulating his Method) he is explicit about how total is the liberty that in reality he claims for himself.

I placed in the class of extremes [to be avoided] all promises by which one renounces some of one’s freedom.

Not that I disapprove of the laws allowing people to make vows or contracts that oblige them to be faithful to some good end (or even, for the securing of commerce, to some indifferent end), as a remedy against the inconstancy of weak characters [italics mine].

Observing, however, that there was nothing in the world that remained always in the same condition, and that my own special aim was to perfect my judgments more and more, not to let them deteriorate [my italics again], I should have thought I was grossly sinning against good sense if, on account of approving of something at the moment, I were to bind myself to regard it as good later on, when it might have ceased to be so, or when I might have ceased to regard it as such.


Most readers, it seems likely, would be pleased to think that they too were engaged in the steady perfecting of their judgments.

I suggest that those of them who particularly disliked the thought of being classed among the “weak characters” would find their disposition towards self-assertion encouraged still further by the following even more remarkable passage in which Descartes attempts to bridge the gap that he himself has created between intellection and the total psychical life of a man:

My second [moral] maxim was to be as firm and resolute in action as I could, and to follow out my most doubtful opinions, when once I had settled upon them, no less steadily than if they had been thoroughly assured.... [It] often happens in life that action brooks no delay; and it is a sure truth that, when we cannot discern the most correct opinion, we must follow the most probable.

And even if we can observe no more likelihood in one than another, we must settle upon some opinion, and consider it afterwards in practice not as doubtful but as perfectly true and certain; for our ground for settling upon it really is of this sort.

This maxim could henceforth set me free from all the regrets and remorse that usually trouble the consciousness of those weak and stumbling characters who let themselves set out on some course of action as a good one and then in their inconstancy decide afterwards that it is bad.

Emphases mine.


So much for moral violence. As for political violence, the structure of the promptings towards this seems to me neater still.

First, as I have pointed out, we have the nurturing in the reader of the gratifying sense that he himself can be the equal, and quite likely the superior, of those unsystematical “greatest souls,” the heroic political and military leaders of the past—and, by implication, of the present too.

Next, we have Descartes’ pervasive emphasis on the greater efficiency of a systematical man who is planning from scratch, not merely in philosophical and scientific but also in social and political transactions.

I am thinking particularly of the passage in which, with characteristic neo-classical arrogance, he asserts the superiority of the city that is planned by one man to one that has grown up gradually, and the superiority, likewise, of a system of government planned by one man to those of “peoples that were once half-savage and grew civilized only by degrees, and therefore made their laws only in so far as they were forced to by the inconvenience of crimes and despots....”

And, finally, we have the kind of unwitting but nonetheless effective encouraging of extremism that I drew attention to in the preceding section.


In other words, the Discourse insidiously sanctions the type of person who considers that he too belongs to Descartes’ intellectual elite (“free from all the regrets and remorse that usually trouble the conscience of ... weak and stumbling characters”); who prides himself on being intellectually entitled to power; and who is confident that all social changes that he can succeed in bringing about will inevitably be for the better, since they will be the products of “reason” and “method.”

Thus it is not entirely fanciful to be conscious of the presence, as on an undeveloped negative, of some of the grimmer lineaments of the French Revolution, and of all subsequent revolutions patterned on it, in this urbane and astonishing little book of philosophical autobiography.


To ravel out all the complexities and extra-philosophical significances of the Discourse would, I imagine, require a study a good many times the length of the present one.

Among other things that might figure in it would be: a detailed analysis of Descartes’ indebtedness to Montaigne; a thoroughgoing investigation of his own influence both on contemporaries and near-contemporaries, and on such later figures as Rousseau and Sade; a clarification of how many of the attitudes and ideals in the Discourse are in fact inconsistent with each other, and of the causes of such inconsistencies; and a consideration of how far the manifest inadequacies of Descartes’ conception of the good life—his attitudes towards history and art are relevant here—were responsible for the inadequacies in his technical philosophical findings.

Yet, sketchy as the present discussion has been, it may at least have recalled one important fact where the studying and teaching of “literature” are concerned—namely that, in a very real sense, one has simply not “read” a good many non-literary works unless one has approached them with due literary-critical vigilance.

If the current “literary”/“non-literary” paper curtain can continue to be broken down, it might transpire that literary men do, after all, have a few things of consequence to teach their confreres in other disciplines—and not only about literature but also about the latter’s own specialties.

Perhaps, too, by inhibiting some of the more noxious kinds of unconscious assimilation of extra-philosophical, or extra-psychological, or extra-sociological attitudes, they might succeed eventually in rendering their own existence, as individuals in a spiritually corrupting society, a little more endurable.


1. The translation that I have used is by E. Anscombe and P.T.Geach, and is the best that I have come across. It is to be found in their Descartes: Philosophical Writings, London, Nelson, 1954. However, certain minor elisions occur in it. The reader who desires the complete text might do best to consult N.K. Smith’s Descartes’ Philosophical Writings, New York, Modern Library, 1958. The standard Haldane and Ross translation is not merely unnecessarily free; in a number of places it is just dead wrong.

2. I put things thus because, although for the sake of convenience I have been using Descartes’ name most of the time, it would be a mistake to equate the narrator with Descartes. To get at the latter, as manifested in this work, one would have to take into consideration such matters as: the shock to him of Galileo’s condemnation by the Inquisition in 1633; his desire to “sell” his own system to the Jesuits; his glossing over of the strenuousness and difficulty of his intellectual labours; and the far better advantage to which he appears in that much more honest, profound, and exciting work Meditations in First Philosophy, of which, in a number of respects, the Discourse is a vulgarization.



Return to top