14
RENÉ DESCARTES

There was once a young man who was troubled because he discovered that many of the things he believed, many of which he had been taught by his elders and in school, were false or, at least, were unsupported by the evidence. Despite having the best education available, he found it filled with error. For some years he resolved that were he to obtain leisure time, he would use it not for entertainment or professional purposes but in order to rework his entire system of knowledge. He writes:

I had been nourished on the humanities since childhood, and since I was given to believe that by
their means a clear and certain knowledge could be obtained of all that is useful in life, I was ex-
tremely eager to learn them. But as soon as I had finished my course of study at the end of which
one is normally admitted among the ranks of the learned, I completely altered my view on the
matter. For I found myself embarrassed by so many doubts and errors, that it seemed to me that
the only profit I had had from my efforts to acquire knowledge was the progressive discovery of
my own ignorance. And yet I was in one of the most prestigious schools in Europe, and if knowl-
edge existed anywhere, it must be in the scholars there. I had learned everything that the others
were learning there, and, not content with the studies in which we were instructed, I had even pe-
rused all the books that came into my hands, treating of subjects considered advanced and eso-
teric. At the same time I knew that others regarded me with respect, even though some of these
were as brilliant as any age has produced.
Having studied with the best, and learned from them, I was confident that I should seek knowl-
edge in myself, or at least in the great book of the world. I employed the rest of my youth in
travel, in seeing courts and armies, in conversation with men of diverse temperaments and con-
ditions, in collecting varied experiences, in testing myself in the various predicaments in which I
was placed by fortune. In all circumstances I sought to bring my mind to bear on the things that
came before it so that I might derive some profit from my experience. I had a passion to learn to
distinguish truth from falsehood in order to have clear insight into my actions and how to live my
life.
So for nine years I did nothing but roam hither and thither, trying to be a spectator rather than
an actor in all the comedies which the world displays. I considered the manners and customs of
other men, and found nothing to give me settled convictions. I noticed in people's beliefs and cus-
toms as much diversity as I had earlier noticed in the views of philosophers. So much was this
so, that I learned not to believe too firmly anything that I had been convinced of only by exam-
ple and custom. I thus gradually freed myself from many errors that may obscure the light of na-
ture in us and make us less capable of hearing reason. But after spending these years in the study
of the book of the world and in trying to gain experience, the day came when I resolved to make
my studies within myself, and use all of the powers of my mind to choose the path that I must
follow.1

1 René Descartes, Discourse on Method in The Philosophical Works of Descartes vol. I, trans. Eliz-
abeth Haldane and G. R. T. Ross (Dover Publications, 1911).

-495-

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Classics of Philosophy
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Preface ix
  • Time Line xi
  • Part One - The Ancient Period 1
  • 1: The Pre-Socratics 3
  • 2: Plato 20
  • 3: Aristotle 240
  • 4: Epicurus 357
  • 5: Epictetus 363
  • 6: Sextus Empiricus 374
  • 7: Plotinus 391
  • Part Two - The Medieval Period 405
  • 8: Augustine 407
  • 9: Boethius 447
  • 10: Avicenna 455
  • 11: Anselm and Gaunilo 458
  • 12: Thomas Aquinas 462
  • 13: William of Ockham 486
  • Part Three - The Modern Period 493
  • 14: René Descartes 495
  • 15: Thomas Hobbes 525
  • 16: Blaise Pascal 566
  • 17: Baruch Spinoza 570
  • 18: Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz 618
  • 19: John Locke 652
  • 20: George Berkeley 690
  • 21: William Paley 723
  • 22: David Hume 726
  • 23: Immanuel Kant 819
  • 24: Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel 914
  • 25: Søren Kierkegaard 922
  • 26: Mary Wollstonecraft 935
  • 27: John Stuart Mill 942
  • 28: Friedrich Nietzsche 1030
  • Part Four - The Contemporary Period 1059
  • 29: W. K. Clifford 1061
  • 30: Charles Sanders Peirce 1066
  • 31: William James 1076
  • 32: Bertrand Russell 1100
  • 33: G. E. Moore 1142
  • 34: Ludwig Wittgenstein 1150
  • 35: Edmund Husserl 1168
  • 36: Martin Heidegger 1185
  • 37: Jean-Paul Sartre 1207
  • 38: A. J. Ayer 1225
  • 39: Thomas Nagel 1234
  • 40: Philippa Foot 1242
  • 41: Nelson Goodman 1249
  • 42: John Rawls 1254
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