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The Core Curriculum

Historical Context for Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy by Descartes

The Discourse on Method

  Discourse on a Method, Title Page of First Edition, 1637. (Wikimedia Commons) Discourse on a Method, Title Page of First Edition, 1637. (Wikimedia Commons) The Discourse on Method is one of the greatest intellectual autobiographies ever written.  Composed in the midst of the Thirty Years War, one of the most destructive conflicts in European history, the Discourse testifies to a desire to retreat from external chaos and establish lasting foundations for order.  As religious controversy continued to divide Christendom from within, with both Catholics and Protestants claiming privileged access to divine truth and the right to kill to defend it, Descartes adopted as his motto Bene vixit, bene qui latuit (“a life well hidden is a life well lived”).  He determined to advance “masked,” presenting his life in the form of a “fable.” As Descartes narrates his disenchantment with the confused diversity of traditional learning and human opinion, even rejecting the testimony of his own senses, he maps out a minimal, modern space of the self, certain initially only of its own existence.  

The Discourse is also a key text of the Scientific Revolution. The Discourse was originally the preface to three scientific “essays” on geometry, optics and meteorology: as the final parts make clear, Descartes intends it as the manifesto for a new scientific undertaking destined to make us “masters and possessors of nature.”  He shares this ambition with his contemporaries.  Like Bacon (1561-1626), Descartes saw the need for a new approach to knowledge, a method to organize the many new discoveries being made through technological advances and voyages of exploration.  Like Galileo (1564-1642), Descartes advocated a form mathematical and geometric reductionism: by explaining complex physical systems in terms of simple, universal principles, the moderns hope to surpass even the wildest dreams of the ambitious ancients in creating a science capable of improving nature.  In this respect, the heroic project of scientific conquest doubles the consolidation of absolute royal power occurring in Europe at the same time: in both cases, an individual can lay claim to mastery of the entire world.  

The Meditations on First Philosophy

In contrast to the Discourse on Method, the Meditations were originally published in Latin, the standard scholarly language for serious philosophical works.  Descartes expands the meditative episode of the Discourse into a six-day skeptical retreat, adapting the widespread and popular genre of spiritual exercises to further develop his theory of knowledge and the mind.  Once again, this inner journey allows him to remake the world: probing much deeper than previously, he sets out to establish foundations for reason, sense perception and belief in a divinely ordered world.  In this difficult but immensely rewarding text, Descartes develops his most famous arguments about the nature of the mind and the body, the challenge of proving the existence of the external world, and some novel proofs for the existence of God.  After a searching exploration of some of the greatest questions posed by all of western philosophy, Descartes and his reader – like God himself – are granted rest on the seventh day.

Following the example of both Montaigne and Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order and author of the Spiritual Exercises, Descartes devotes himself to an exploration of the workings of his own mind and a disciplined self-examination.  This inward turn and the resolution to establish both peace and certainty within the space of one’s own mind, recalls ancient Stoic practices even as it addresses contemporary religious concerns.  In response to Protestantism, the Catholic Counter-Reformation placed new emphasis on developing a personal relationship with God and cultivating mystic experiences.  Meditations and spiritual exercises were designed to deepen convictions: believers could train themselves to “see God in all things,” as Loyola recommended.

Descartes was viewed as a revolutionary by many of his contemporaries for his vocal criticism of scholastic philosophy and the daring simplicity of his new method.  At first he attracted just as much, if not more, attention for his scientific theories as his philosophical writings, the works for which he is best known today.

The Catholic church viewed him as a dangerous influence, putting his works on the Index of prohibited books (Index librorum prohibitorum) in 1663 and he was widely seen as encouraging atheistic materialism – an interpretation that made him a hero to some later radical Enlightenment figures. In the eighteenth century, Descartes was increasingly seen as a dogmatic, excessively systematic metaphysician, in contrast to Newton, Boyle, and Locke, the new heroes of empirical science. After being banned from French universities for years, he had become a figure of the establishment and hence a target for criticism and ridicule.

Written by Daniel Leonard, Department of French and Romance Philology, Columbia University


Works Consulted: 

John Cottingham, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Descartes (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1992).

Daniel Garber, Descartes’ Metaphysical Physics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

Stephen Gaukroger, Descartes: An Intellectual Biography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995).

Stephen Gaukroger, John Schuster and John Sutton, eds., Descartes’ Natural Philosophy (London: Routledge, 2000).

A. O. Rorty, ed., Essays on Descartes’ Meditations (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).