the particular sciences commonly called mathematics; but as I observed that, with all differences in their objects, they agreed in considering merely the various relations or proportions subsisting among these objects, I thought it best for my purpose to consider these relations in the most general form possible, without referring them to any objects in particular except such as would most facilitate the knowledge of them. Perceiving further, that in order to understand these relations I should sometimes have to consider them one by one, and sometimes only to bear them in mind or embrace them in the aggregate, I thought that, in order the better to consider them individually, I should view them as subsisting between straight lines, than which I could find no objects more simple, or capable of being more distinctly represented to my imagination and senses; and on the other hand that, in order to retain them in the memory or embrace an aggregate of many, I should express them by certain characters, the briefest possible.” Such is the basis of the algebraical or modern analytical geometry. The problem of the curves is solved by their reduction to a problem of straight lines; and the locus of any point is determined by its distance from two given straight lines—the axes of co-ordinates. Thus Descartes gave to modern geometry that abstract and general character in which consists its superiority to the geometry of the ancients. In another question connected with this, the problem of drawing tangents to any curve, Descartes was drawn into a controversy with Pierre (de) Fermat (1601-1663), Gilles Persone de Roberval (1602-1675), and Girard Desargues (1593-1661). Fermat and Descartes agreed in regarding the tangent to a curve as a secant of that curve with the two points of intersection coinciding, while Roberval regarded it as the direction of the composite movement by which the curve can be described. Both these methods, differing from that now employed, are interesting as preliminary steps towards the method of fluxions and the differential calculus. In pure algebra Descartes expounded and illustrated the general methods of solving equations up to those of the fourth degree (and believed that his method could go beyond), stated the law which connects the positive and negative roots of an equation with the changes of sign in the consecutive terms, and introduced the method of indeterminate coefficients for the solution of equations. These innovations have been attributed on inadequate evidence to other algebraists, e.g. William Oughtred (1575-1660) and Thomas Harriot (1560-1621).
The Geometry of Descartes, unlike the other parts of his essays, is not easy reading. It dashes at once into the middle of the subjects with the examination of a problem which had baffled the ancients, and seems as if it were tossed at the heads of the French geometers as a challenge. An edition of it appeared subsequently, with notes by his friend Florimond de Beaune (1601-1652), calculated to smooth the difficulties of the work. All along mathematics was regarded by Descartes rather as the envelope than the foundation of his method; and the “universal mathematical science” which he sought after was only the prelude of a universal science of all-embracing character.
The method of Descartes rests upon the proposition that all the objects of our knowledge fall into series, of which the members are more or less known by means of one another. In Descartes’ method. every such series or group there is a dominant element, simple and irresoluble, the standard on which the rest of the series depends, and hence, so far as that group or series is concerned, absolute. The other members of the group are relative and dependent, and only to be understood as in various degrees subordinate to the primitive conception. The characteristic by which we recognize the fundamental element in a series is its intuitive or self-evident character; it is given by “the evident conception of a healthy and attentive mind so clear and distinct that no doubt is left.” Having discovered this prime or absolute member of the group, we proceed to consider the degrees in which the other members enter into relation with it. Here deduction comes into play to show the dependence of one term upon the others; and, in the case of a long chain of intervening links, the problem for intelligence is so to enunciate every element, and so to repeat the connexion that we may finally grasp all the links of the chain in one. In this way we, as it were, bring the causal or primal term and its remotest dependent immediately together, and raise a derivative knowledge into one which is primary and intuitive. Such are the four points of Cartesian method:—(1) Truth requires a clear and distinct conception of its object, excluding all doubt; (2) the objects of knowledge naturally fall into series or groups; (3) in these groups investigation must begin with a simple and indecomposable element, and pass from it to the more complex and relative elements; (4) an exhaustive and immediate grasp of the relations and interconnexion of these elements is necessary for knowledge in the fullest sense of that word.
“There is no question,” he says in anticipation of Locke and Kant, “more important to solve than that of knowing what human knowledge is and how far it extends.” “This is a question which ought to be asked at least once in their lives by all who seriously wish to gain wisdom. The inquirer will find that the first thing to know is intellect, because on it depends the knowledge of all other things. Examining next what immediately follows the knowledge of pure intellect, he will pass in review all the other means of knowledge, and will find that they are two (or three), the imagination and the senses (and the memory). He will therefore devote all his care to examine and distinguish these three means of knowledge; and seeing that truth and error can, properly speaking, be only in the intellect, and that the two other modes of knowledge are only occasions, he will carefully avoid whatever can lead him astray.” This separation of intellect from sense, imagination and memory is the cardinal precept of the Cartesian logic; it marks off clear and distinct (i.e. adequate and vivid) from obscure, fragmentary and incoherent conceptions.
The Discourse of Method and the Meditations apply what the Rules for the Direction of the Mind had regarded in particular instances to our conceptions of the world as a whole. Fundamental principles of philosophy. They propose, that is, to find a simple and indecomposable point, or absolute element, which gives to the world and thought their order and systematization. The grandeur of this attempt is perhaps unequalled in the annals of philosophy. The three main steps in the argument are the veracity of our thought when that thought is true to itself, the inevitable uprising of thought from its fragmentary aspects in our habitual consciousness to the infinite and perfect existence which God is, and the ultimate reduction of the material universe to extension and local movement. There are the central dogmas of logic, metaphysics and physics, from which start the subsequent inquiries of Locke, Leibnitz and Newton. They are also the direct antitheses to the scepticism of Montaigne and Pascal, to the materialism of Gassendi and Hobbes, and to the superstitious anthropomorphism which defaced the reawakening sciences of nature. Descartes laid down the lines on which modern philosophy and science were to build. But himself no trained metaphysician, and unsusceptible to the lessons of history, he gives but fragments of a system which are held together, not by their intrinsic consistency, but by the vigour of his personal conviction transcending the weaknesses and collisions of his several arguments. “All my opinions,” he says, “are so conjoined, and depend so closely upon one another, that it would be impossible to appropriate one without knowing them all.” Yet every disciple of Cartesianism seems to disprove the dictum by his example.
The very moment when we begin to think, says Descartes, when we cease to be merely receptive, when we draw back and fix our attention on any point whatever of our belief,—that moment doubt begins. If we even stop for an instant to ask ourselves how a word ought to be spelled, the deeper we ponder that one word by itself the more hopeless grows the hesitation. The doubts thus awakened must not be stifled, but pressed systematically on to the point, if such a point there be, where doubt confutes itself. The doubt as to the details is natural; it
- Géométrie, book iii.
- Œuvres, xi. 224.
- Ib. xi. 212.
- Disc. de méthode, part. ii.
- Œuvres, xi. 243.
- Ib. vii. 381.