Other essays and articles in the Main Archives related to this topic include : Common Themes in Romanticism, The Enlightenment, and the RenaissanceThe Influence of the Renaissance on Modern American SocietyViolence, Fear, and Glory in The Prince by Machiavelli

Although this essay seeks to explore the themes and meaning behind the building metaphor in Discourse on Method by Descartes, it is necessary to understand the background of both Descartes and “Discourse on Method”. Before beginning a more specific analysis the main research questions and a hypothesis about the building metaphor, it is necessary to preface this by first detailing what Descartes was trying to relate overall in “Discourse on Method”. Aside from the important building metaphor that will be discussed shortly, this work more generally a summary that “contains the formal beginning of philosophy (and a new beginning in the histories of philosophy) in the sense that it inaugurates a process of intuition and deduction that has, at least in principle, the power to generate a system of universal knowledge" (Bruns 146). While the building metaphor is paramount in this system of “universal knowledge" the book itself describes the process of arriving at such a system.

Rene Descartes was a French philosopher associated with the Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth and centuries and is often cited as both the Father of Philosophy as well as the Father of Modern Mathematics. Descartes pursued a number of scholarly interests including metaphysics, general philosophy, science, and mathematics and produced a large body of works in all of these areas. In terms of mathematics, he is best remembered as the founder of analytic geometry which later led to calculus. His broad understandings of the natural world and sciences have influenced modern thought and are discussed at length in one of his first books, “Meditations on First Philosophyand detail his belief in the idea of methodological skepticism: the concept that any hypothesis can be called into question in order to gain a firmer understanding of the matter at hand. This was later developed into the famous axiom, “I think, therefore I am." This book also prefaced his beliefs on the very process of learning and thinking and is an important key to understanding Discourse on Method. Most importantly, this book discusses Descartes’ “central claim in the Meditations [that he] discovered thinking—specifically in the self-certifying performance of ego cogito, ego sum—a first principle of knowledge and an original foundation for knowing and living" (DeWarren 150). Aside from his pursuit of discovering the meaning and processes of knowledge and learning, Descartes had a wide variety of interests and developed several important new ways of thinking that added fuel to the Scientific Revolution. While it would be impossible to cover all or even part of his general philosophy, examining his use of the “building metaphor" detailed in Discourse on Method is one of the best ways to gain a cursory understanding of his philosophical views.

Discourse on Method from which the building metaphor is but a part of, begins with a more personal story about how he came to appreciate the value of education and the process by which he formed the basis for what he later discusses. As a figure in the Scientific Revolution, Descartes relates his disgust through this essay with his educational background since he, like many other academics of the day, was schooled by the clergy—in his case the Jesuits. What he found most distressing about this early educational experience was that there was no room for doubt or questioning where he saw the need for serious inquiry. This part of the essay by Descartes then describes how he then left school to travel about and learn as much as he could about the world and other cultures. This finally leads him to an epiphany which takes place one evening in the quiet of his bedroom. At this magical moment Descartes suddenly works up the nerve to call everything he’s ever taken for the truth into question and to start again from scratch with an open and questioning mind. Strangely, it was through this process that his mind moved beyond more ethereal matters of morality and religion into the realm of mathematics. This process produced Descartes’ concept for analytic geometry and allowed him to move past that into philosophy.

To summarize, after this point in his life, Descartes develops the maxim recalled above, “I think, therefore I am." Using this as his guiding principle he then discusses that knowledge itself is something that is more perception that something that has been learned. In other words, at times reason must be put aside and we must recognize that we know something because there is no way of doubting it. This leads him to declare that the mind and soul are two different things and they operate apart from his body. This even further allows him to make two arguments that prove God exists based solely on this viewpoint. It should be noted, however, that even though he, quite unlike his contemporary, Galileo, was still working somewhat within the traditions of the Church, even though he was founding several important ideas that would later work against its authority. He made certain that many of his works would not go too overtly against Church teachings and saved many of his more “salacious" texts and ideas for publication late in his life. It is clear, especially from a more modern viewpoint that several of his ideas, particularly as they appear in Discourse on Method, would have been considered inflammatory by the Church but this text was not published in time for him to be punished during the Inquisition as Galileo was. In essence, what Descartes was establishing was a way for people to learn to call into question the basis of their belief system and all that they had hitherto considered to be the ultimate truth. In his use of the building metaphor, Descartes is quietly urging on the goal of the Scientific Revolution—to make his contemporaries use their knowledge and ability to question rather than simply their learning based on traditions.

After discussing the foundations of his beliefs on a number of academic enterprises in the first section of Discourse on Method, Descartes begins constructing the building metaphor by stating, “there is seldom so much perfection in works composed of many separate parts, upon which different hands had been employed, as in those completed by a single master" (6). By stating this, he is implying that having education from a number of sources is not the true path to truth and rational thought and he compares such a system of education and thinking as a building which is constructed on old foundations and not serving the purposes it was initially made for. He broadens his metaphor even further by moving outside of one building to an entire city, stating, “ancient cities which, from being at first only villages, have become, in course of time, large towns, are usually but ill laid out compared with the regularity constructed towns which a professional architect has freely planned on an open plain" (7). To Descartes, there is no sense in having too many influences on a work, be it of an academic, spiritual, or physical construction, if it is not designed and thought out by one person with one cogent idea. Even though he has been to “the best school in Europe" there were far too many influences shaping his understanding and therefore, in order to progress and build a solid construction of his own, he (and the reader) must tear down these shoddy constructs and begin anew on a new foundation, with new materials, and with a firm plan.

As the building metaphor progresses, Descartes states that he continued in his studies he began to understand that, the ground of our opinions is far more custom and example than any certain knowledge" (9) and in this case, given the metaphor that has been built, the “ground" he speaks of is literally the very land, the base on which we are to build the foundations and later, the structure of thought and opinion. In some senses, it almost seems that he is suggesting that the e very ground itself is tainted and even with the most skilled “architect" on must dig through this ground, leveling it out in order to create a perfect building surface. He also realizes that even the foundations that were left on this ground were corrupt and must be deconstructed before one could build a method. Descartes states, “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" (9). It is only through the systematic deconstruction of all the old constructs of existence and learning that one will be able to learn the truth.

Another important element of the building metaphor that is only briefly mentioned is that this is not a process of building that will happen overnight. Descartes stresses how, “it is likewise necessary that we be furnished with some other house in which we may live commodiously during the operations" (14). He understands that there is a great deal of work that must be given not only to rebuilding but the deconstruction effort and insists that this “other house" must be a place where morality exists. If there is nothing else for Descartes, there is morality and although in itself it is not a strong material to erect a building with, it is where some of the strength for the task lies. With morality, the reader can gain the “ground" upon which to stand and can come to clearly see the functioning of the universe as a machine or a construct. To further emphasize this point, for Descartes, all things in the natural world can be reduced to a series of logical elements, they are all machines, all are part of large natural mechanisms and even his discussion about animals, plants, and the natural world has an element of mechanical. His description of the heart is filled with the idea of construction, of a series of parts working together to form the whole and create something functional and perfect. In sum, for Descartes, the building metaphor extends beyond education and rationality and is the basis for a particular way of understanding everything.

Through his use of the building metaphor and also by his developments in mathematics, science, and general philosophy, Descartes is the quintessential man of the Scientific Revolution. Although the confining beliefs of the Church are present in his works (as well as what might be considered his holding back for fear of repercussions) they still are invaluable—even in our postmodern society. “Like Wittgenstein, Descartes enjoys a tribute that modern philosophers rarely offer their predecessors. He is still taken seriously enough to be attacked…in histories of philosophy, he marks the beginning of modernity and seriousness" (Grafton 37). This “seriousness" can mean the fact that he is someone to take seriously that came from an age where the Church had a great deal of power, especially in terms of how it was able to guide the entire belief system of people throughout a number of centuries. Many of the works produced during this time of Church control have been mostly disregarded and left only as academic relics from a less enlightened time. The worksof Descartes represent a clear break with this tradition and as a result, Descartes still has a place in the modern classroom and life in general. Through the building metaphor it is possible to see not only a microcosm of Descartes’ beliefs, but a system for understanding our world today that is still fresh.

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Works Cited

Bruns, Gerald L. “A Literary Guide to Discourse on Method" Boundary 2 8.2 (1980), 141-164.

De Warren, Nicolas. “How Thinking Must also Be: Authored Skepticism and the Authorization of Knowledge in Descartes.” Romance Quarterly 50.2 (2003), 149-160

Descartes. Discourse on Method Ed. Donald Cress. New York. Hackett Publishing Co. 1997.

Grafton, Anthony. “Descartes the dreamer.” Wilson Quarterly 20.4 (1996), 36-46.