Cogito ergo Stoat

I was reading Butterfield (not the palaeontologist) on Antient Science and he refered to Descartes, and so it occurred to me that perhaps I should just read it for myself. Discourse on the method of rightly conducting the reason, and seeking truth in the sciences I mean, by “Doubty” Descartes.

Like so many famous things (or at least, like the ones I’ve ever looked at) it contains a small core of interest, wrapped up in elegantly expressed ravings that would get you (correctly) dismissed as a wild-eyed wacko were you to post them to usenet nowadays. But he is Well Famous, so you can’t say that.

It is also short enough that you can read it for yourself. But why bother, since I have provided this handy pocket guide. Note that the text was, apparently, a sort of introduction to “Dioptrics” and “Meteorics”, which I haven’t read. Also there is apparently an appendix on Cartesian geometry, which I also haven’t seen. It was originally in French because, as he says And if I write in French, which is the language of my country, in preference to Latin, which is that of my preceptors, it is because I expect that those who make use of their unprejudiced natural reason will be better judges of my opinions than those who give heed to the writings of the ancients only. Or in other words he was going over the heads of the Wise.


Apart from some historical interest, folksy homilies, and elegant language, there is nothing of present value to the text beyond “I think, therefore I am”.

Part I: motivational preamble; stuff about his education and dissatisfaction

Good sense is, of all things among men, the most equally distributed; for every one thinks himself so abundantly provided with it, that those even who are the most difficult to satisfy in everything else, do not usually desire a larger measure of this quality than they already possess… For to be possessed of a vigorous mind is not enough; the prime requisite is rightly to apply it. The greatest minds, as they are capable of the highest excellences, are open likewise to the greatest aberrations.

That will prove to be eerily prophetic. Now read on.

Part II: I was then in Germany, attracted thither by the wars in that country

(sorry, that is irrelevant, but I couldn’t resist it). Analogies between townplanning, state-building, and state of knowledge. Desire that as for the opinions which up to that time I had embraced, I thought that I could not do better than resolve at once to sweep them wholly away, that I might afterwards be in a position to admit either others more correct, or even perhaps the same when they had undergone the scrutiny of reason. I firmly believed that in this way I should much better succeed in the conduct of my life, than if I built only upon old foundations, and leaned upon principles which, in my youth, I had taken upon trust. Note that The single design to strip one’s self of all past beliefs is one that ought not to be taken by every one, because the plebs will get it wrong.

And so to the programme:

1. The first was never to accept anything for true which I did not clearly know to be such; that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitancy and prejudice, and to comprise nothing more in my judgement than what was presented to my mind so clearly and distinctly as to exclude all ground of doubt.

2. The second, to divide each of the difficulties under examination into as many parts as possible, and as might be necessary for its adequate solution.

3. The third, to conduct my thoughts in such order that, by commencing with objects the simplest and easiest to know, I might ascend by little and little, and, as it were, step by step, to the knowledge of the more complex; assigning in thought a certain order even to those objects which in their own nature do not stand in a relation of antecedence and sequence.

4. And the last, in every case to make enumerations so complete, and reviews so general, that I might be assured that nothing was omitted.

Part III. Temporary code of morals, to live under whilst rebuilding


it is not enough, before commencing to rebuild the house in which we live, that it be pulled down, and materials and builders provided… but as it is likewise necessary that we be furnished with some other house in which we may live commodiously during the operations, so that I might not remain irresolute in my actions, while my reason compelled me to suspend my judgement, and that I might not be prevented from living thenceforward in the greatest possible felicity, I formed a provisory code of morals, composed of three or four maxims, with which I am desirous to make you acquainted.

Hmm: that is all very well, but this scaffolding was only necessary for him during the rebuilding: if I was to watch someone rebuilding their house, I wouldn’t need it. However, the point is, he is so pleased with this stuff that he can’t help telling us.

1. The first was to obey the laws and customs of my country, adhering firmly to the faith in which, by the grace of God, I had been educated from my childhood and regulating my conduct in every other matter according to the most moderate opinions, and the farthest removed from extremes, which should happen to be adopted in practice with general consent of the most judicious of those among whom I might be living.

2. My second maxim was to be as firm and resolute in my actions as I was able, and not to adhere less steadfastly to the most doubtful opinions, when once adopted, than if they had been highly certain; imitating in this the example of travelers who, when they have lost their way in a forest, ought not to wander from side to side, far less remain in one place, but proceed constantly towards the same side in as straight a line as possible… for in this way, if they do not exactly reach the point they desire, they will come at least in the end to some place that will probably be preferable to the middle of a forest.

3. My third maxim was to endeavor always to conquer myself rather than fortune, and change my desires rather than the order of the world

4. In fine, to conclude this code of morals, I thought of reviewing the different occupations of men in this life, with the view of making choice of the best… it was my conviction that I could not do better than continue in that in which I was engaged, viz., in devoting my whole life to the culture of my reason

Having thus provided myself with these maxims, and having placed them in reserve along with the truths of faith, which have ever occupied the first place in my belief (oops, he has just let the cat out of the bag. Quick, pretend you never read that bit), I came to the conclusion that I might with freedom set about ridding myself of what remained of my opinions.

This took 9 years.

He isn’t a schoolman, interested in doubt merely for the sake of debate: Not that in this I imitated the sceptics who doubt only that they may doubt, and seek nothing beyond uncertainty itself; for, on the contrary, my design was singly to find ground of assurance, and cast aside the loose earth and sand, that I might reach the rock or the clay. Which will become clear soon enough, because doubt is very rapidly cast aside.

And the examples of many men of the highest genius, who had, in former times, engaged in this inquiry, but, as appeared to me, without success, led me to imagine it to be a work of so much difficulty, that I would not perhaps have ventured on it so soon had I not heard it currently rumored that I had already completed the inquiry.

Part IV: Cogito ergo stoat

I observed that, whilst I thus wished to think that all was false, it was absolutely necessary that I, who thus thought, should be somewhat; and as I observed that this truth, I think, therefore I am (COGITO ERGO SUM), was so certain and of such evidence that no ground of doubt, however extravagant, could be alleged by the sceptics capable of shaking it, I concluded that I might, without scruple, accept it as the first principle of the philosophy of which I was in search.

That is all very well, and indeed very famous (as well as being quibbleable, if you’re inclined to, which I’m not). But almost immediately after he goes off the rails with

I concluded that I might take, as a general rule, the principle, that all the things which we very clearly and distinctly conceive are true, only observing, however, that there is some difficulty in rightly determining the objects which we distinctly conceive.

Which seems to be a version of the ontological error, and not even original. But I can conceive of a 50-foot tall stoat – I am thinking of it now, you will have to trust me that I am doing so “very clearly and distinctly” – and yet the animal has not come to beat down my house, and I am not at all surprised. And so in the next para he goes from his doubt – doubt is imperfect – recognises the existence of things more perfect I clearly recognized that I must hold this notion from some nature which in reality was more perfect… since I knew some perfections which I did not possess, I was not the only being in existence… but, on the contrary, that there was of necessity some other more perfect Being upon whom I was dependent… infinite, eternal, immutable, omniscient, all-powerful, and, in fine, have possessed all the perfections which I could recognize in God. There you go: in one mighty leap God is conjured up, apparently possessing whatever properties Doubty wants Him to have.

There is then a curious circle: the “general rule” noted above is then explicitly stated to be certain only because God is or exists and because he is a Perfect Being, and because all that we possess is derived from him: whence it follows that our ideas or notions, which to the extent of their clearness and distinctness are real, and proceed from God, must to that extent be true. So this is all broken, even just on his terms: the “general rule” is only true because God exists and is perfect, but he has used the rule to prove the existence of God’s existence and perfection.

Rather amusingly, the next paragraph contains

recurring to the examination of the idea of a Perfect Being, I found that the existence of the Being was comprised in the idea in the same way that the equality of its three angles to two right angles is comprised in the idea of a triangle

which is arguably true, if not perhaps in quite the way he intended.

Part V: I have a theory

Wherein our hero puts forward many things, but not their proofs, because

I would here willingly have proceeded to exhibit the whole chain of truths which I deduced from these primary but as with a view to this it would have been necessary now to treat of many questions in dispute among the earned, with whom I do not wish to be embroiled, I believe that it will be better for me to refrain from this exposition, and only mention in general what these truths are, that the more judicious may be able to determine whether a more special account of them would conduce to the public advantage

and other vague allusions to hindrances (at least some of which turn out to be The Pope; see Part VI). There is then pages of blather, much of which would (to be frank) be considered the ravings of some weirdo were they posted to the internet today. Certainly, some of the things that he deduces with utter certainty are wrong, for example

And, making a digression at this stage on the subject of light, I expounded at considerable length what the nature of that light must be which is found in the sun and the stars, and how thence in an instant of time it traverses the immense spaces of the heavens

but thankfully he does at least spare us the expounding on the nature of light. When he gets on to Man he becomes even more credulous, and essentially just repeats what the Church has told him. There is a pile of stuff on the circulation of the blood, which mentions the theory of William Harvey – though not by name, only as “a physician of England” – although oddly be believes the motive power for the circulation not to be the muscle power of the heart but the heat, which sort of drives a kind of steam-powered putt-putt engine.

Part VI: Pope springs eternal

(Hey, I used that before and the result was not happy). Three years have elapsed, because the Pope has put the squeeze on:

I was beginning to revise it, with the view to put it into the hands of a printer, when I learned that persons to whom I greatly defer, and whose authority over my actions is hardly less influential than is my own reason over my thoughts, had condemned a certain doctrine in physics, published a short time previously by another individual to which I will not say that I adhered, but only that, previously to their censure I had observed in it nothing which I could imagine to be prejudicial either to religion or to the state, and nothing therefore which would have prevented me from giving expression to it in writing, if reason had persuaded me of its truth; and this led me to fear lest among my own doctrines likewise some one might be found in which I had departed from the truth

Or at least so one must suppose. The thing was published in 1637; Galileo was done for heresy in 1633 and Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems condemned, so that about fits. He then explains that he felt no great urge to publish, until he realised that some of this stuff could be for the greater good. Quite what that might be I’m not sure; but he is. He goes on at interminable length about why he won’t publish during his lifetime and then does.

You’ll have noticed that he has managed to deduce a vast panoply of results from Pure Reason untrammeled by any form of observation. He begins to realise this, weakly (but never gives explicit primacy to observation, and never really seems to realise that without them you are lost), and notes that with respect to experiments, that they become always more necessary the more one is advanced in knowledge; for, at the commencement, it is better to make use only of what is spontaneously presented to our senses.


* A previous mention of Doubty

6 thoughts on “Cogito ergo Stoat”

  1. It always seemed to me that Descartes failed in his project of doubt at the crucial step, he never managed to strip the ‘ideal’ I. ‘Thought therefore existence’ seems fair enough, but wouldn’t have allowed him to rebuild a God-ful world with any justification. More than just a quibble?

    Husserl did it better.


  2. Descartes is sitting at a bar. He’s had a couple and the bartender asks:

    Hey, Rene, would you like another round?

    Descartes says “I think not”, and promptly disappears!

    [Ah, thank you -W]


  3. As a contribution to understanding the history of human thought, and the historical development of science, this post is about equivalent to “If humans evolved from monkeys, how come there are still monkeys around?” as a contribution to evolutionary theory.

    [Agreed. But since it isn’t about that, but is instead about the present day value of the text, your comment is self-referential 🙂 -W]


  4. Jokes are jokes. More seriously, I emerge as myself if and only if I think critically. Otherwise I am just a part of an anonymous crowd (or cloud).


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