Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Rules for the Direction of the Mind - Descartes

For some time, I've thought that Aristotle may have had the most orderly mind in Western history but now I'm wondering if Descartes surpassed him.  'Rules for the Direction of the Mind' was published posthumously, some 30 years after his death.  The rules seem to apply directly to his geometry, but they serve well for just about any organized train of thought.  I'll list just the first dozen rules themselves (and not the commentary on each rule):

1. The end of study should be to direct the mind towards the enunciation of sound and correct judgments on all matters that come before it.
2. Only those objects should engage our attention, to the sure and indubitable knowledge of which our mental powers seem to be adequate.
3. In the subjects we propose to investigate, our inquiries should be directed, not to what others have thought, nor to what we ourselves conjecture, but to what we can clearly and perspicuously behold and with certainty deduce; for knowledge is not won in any other way.
4. There is need of a method for finding out the truth.
5. Method consists entirely in the order and disposition of the objects towards which our mental vision must be directed if we would find out any truth. We shall comply with it exactly if we reduce involved and obscure propositions step by step to those that are simpler, and then starting with the intuitive apprehension of all those that are absolutely simple, attempt to ascend to the knowledge of all others by precisely similar steps.
6. In order to separate out what is quite simple from what is complex, and to arrange these matters methodically, we ought, in the case of every series in which we have deduced certain facts the one from the other, to notice which fact is simple, and to mark the interval, greater, less, or equal, which separates all the others from this.
7. If we wish our science to be complete, those matters which promote the end we have in view must one and all be scrutinized by a movement of thought which is continuous and nowhere interrupted; they must also be included in an enumeration which is both adequate and methodical.
8. If in the matters to be examined we come to a step in the series of which our understanding is not sufficiently well able to have an intuitive cognition, we must stop short there. We must make no attempt to examine what follows; thus we shall spare ourselves superfluous labor.
9. We ought to give the whole of our attention to the most insignificant and most easily mastered facts, and remain a long time in contemplation of them until we are accustomed to behold the truth clearly and distinctly.
10. In order that it may acquire sagacity the mind should be exercised in pursing just those inquiries of which the solution has already been found by others; and it ought to traverse in a systematic way even the most rifling of men's inventions though those ought toe be preferred in which order is explained or implied.
11. If, after we have recognized intuitively a number of simple truths, we wish to draw any inference from them, it is useful to run them over in a continuous and uninterrupted act of thought, to reflect upon their relations to one another, and to grasp together distinctly a number of these propositions so far as is possible at the same time. For this is a way of making our knowledge much more certain, and of greatly increasing the power of the mind.
12. Finally we ought to employ all the aids of understanding imagination, sense and memory, first of the purpose of having a distinct intuition of simple propositions; partly also in order to compare the propositions to be proved with those we know already, so that we may be able to recognize their truth; partly also in order to discover the truths, which should be compared with each other so that nothing may be left lacking on which human industry may exercise itself.

As you can see, this is an incredibly methodical method of understanding.  I wish I could say that I normally follow rules such as this, but I must admit that I try very hard to see the big picture above the details.  This may be a fault of mine.  If nothing else, the comparison between the two approaches deserves some thought in and of itself.

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