Study Questions for Descartes’s

Discourse on Method, Parts I-III.


Discourse I

1. What overall literary form does Descartes give the work?

2. "I have been nourished on letters since my childhood." What does he mean by this? What are letters?

3. What is Descartes 's intellectual goal and what practical consequences will it have?

4. What is his opinion of eloquence (rhetoric) and poetry? Why? What of mathematics? Does he attach value to any subject dealing with human affairs (history, politics, ethics, law, etc.)?

5. Why does Descartes criticize philosophy?

6. Do you detect a gender bias in Descartes? Is there any pattern to his likes and dislikes? Is he justified?

7. “I deemed everything that was merely probable to be well-nigh false?” What could Descartes possibly mean here? If something is false, then how can it be probable?

8. What did Descartes do after finishing his schools? In general what do we learn about Descartes’s life from this essay?

9. What does Descartes say about foreign travel and its benefits? What did he learn about method from his travels and his conversations with other people? What was his response?


Part II

1. What system of knowledge does Descartes most revere? That is, what knowledge structure does he take as his own model? Why?

2. What is Descartes’s point about the architecture of cities and the systems of laws?

3. What are the four cardinal steps of Descartes 's method? Can you illustrate each one?

4. What role is there for creative imagination in Descartes 's method?

5. Does Descartes 's method look profound to you? Or is it obvious, even trivial?

6. What structure of the world is presupposed by Descartes 's method, assuming that we can indeed readily apply it to the world?

7. Descartes uses different analogies in this part of the Discourse to clarify his point. Can you identify them and reconstruct their structure? What is the point of these analogies (referring to the beauty of cities and the coherence of legal systems?)


Part III

1. What code of conduct does Descartes set for himself in this part of the work? What are the rules of the provisional moral code? What is the purpose of this moral code?

2. In his synopsis of the work, D apparently claims to derive his rules of action from his method, but is this so? What is going on here?

3. Does it seem plausible that D could derive value claims (e.g., about the good life and how to live it) by applying his method to the conception of the physical universe that he sketches in Part V? Explain. What sources of value would seem to be available to Descartes?

4. What is the purpose of this moral code?



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