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Cartesian Rationalism

Understanding Descartes


Zbigniew Drozdowicz

Descartes gave the human intellect the central role in rationalism, his system therefore is a variant of intellectual rationalism. Other forms of rationalism had emerged in scholastic philosophy and the ancient philosophies of Plato and Aristotle. While Descartes had reservations with respect to all of them, he still adopted some of their elements: not even such a self-directed and critical philosopher as Descartes could have proceeded on the difficult journey towards truth without any baggage of tradition whatsoever. Those who treated this baggage as a useless burden and have attempted to pursue truth without carrying it, have only discovered things which had long been known.
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II. Cartesian method and methodology


The distinction between the Cartesian method and methodology is an important one for understanding the ways and means this philosopher employs in order to advance on the path of knowledge. However, it is impossible to set clear boundaries demarcating one from the other. This is not only because Descartes employed different sets of concepts, but also due to the fact that he himself did not set these boundaries clearly. It is also possible that he was actually assuming that such boundaries are relative, i.e. what would be considered “method” in one cognitive situation would fall under “methodology” under other circumstances, and vice versa.

What I assume here is that method has a more general character than methodology. Therefore, directions coming from the former would be referred to as principles, while those coming from the latter would be called rules. In general, method comprises principles of cognition, morality, as well as confessional and many other kinds of principles; on the other hand, methodology consists of rules which are suggested and employed within any such problem areas. Another assumption I make is that we are in the realm of method when the discussion concerns actions needed to prepare us intellectually to enter any such areas of thought or practical conduct (or when we are looking for reasons which can make our thinking and conduct more rational). We are dealing with methodology, however, when we are already actively engaged in one of these areas and strive – in a rationally...

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