Intellectual Authority | Descartes Discourse Part One (2 of 3)


Hello, I’m Dr. Anadale from Mount St. Mary’s
University in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Today’s text is Descartes’ Discourse on Method, Part 1. In the first paragraph, Descartes concludes
that, since people’s reasoning powers are naturally equal, differences of opinion must
result from different methods used to govern the mind. In the second through fifth paragraphs of
this part, Descartes introduces himself, and his method, to the reader. In paragraph two, he notes that he has never
regarded himself as smarter than other people, and that his is an ordinary mind. In paragraph three, he acknowledges his good
fortune in having a solid education, which has allowed him to form a method of increasing his knowledge to the highest level his ordinary mind allows. He professes modesty, hoping that, among the
vanity and uselessness of human occupations, his work in crafting this method might not be wasted. In paragraph four, he acknowledges that he
might be mistaken about everything, and reality might be completely other than he believes. But he will present his method, he says, letting
each reader judge for himself whether it is any good. In paragraph five, Descartes wraps up this
introduction, saying his purpose is *not* to teach anyone how to use their minds, but merely
to show how he uses his own mind. He will not be a teacher, because he does
not think himself superior to anyone else. But he will tell a history, or a fable, which
the reader may imitate if he finds it helpful. In this way, he concludes, “I hope that
the essay will be useful to some, while harmful to none, and that my openness
will be to everyone’s liking.” A few comments on this introduction: Descartes
adopts a persona here, presenting himself as a humble, common sense type of person, one with no special learning and no intellectual authority. Rather like Socrates, he begins his teaching
by claiming he has no authority to teach. Instead, he simply will tell people what works for him, and let them make up their minds about whether to follow a similar method. There is a good bit of false modesty in this opening,
I think, but also certain assumptions about the nature of philosophy
and about intellectual authority. I suggest you pause over these paragraphs
for a few minutes, and try to list some of the assumptions Descartes is inviting his
readers to adopt, here at the beginning of the Discourse. That’s all for now. Thanks for watching today; goodbye.