Descartes and Scientific Method: Four Precepts

One wonders why modern research is still confounded by opinion, ambiguity, and deference to experts. French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) fought against such spurious investigative approaches. He rejected the notion that everything could be determined by pure logical analysis, without recourse to observation or experiment. Instead, he resolved to eliminate ambiguity, uncertainty and reliance on authority from his own methodology, as he says in his 1637 Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason and Seeking for Truth in the Sciences:

"Instead of the great number of precepts of which Logic is composed, I believed that I should find the four which I shall state quite sufficient, provided that I adhered to a firm and constant resolve never on any single occasion to fail in their observance.

1. Doubt everything.
"The first of these was to accept nothing as true which I did not clearly recognize to be so: that is to say, carefully to avoid haste and prejudice in judgments, and to accept in them nothing more than what was presented to my mind so clearly and distinctly that I could have no occasion to doubt it.

2. Break every problem into smaller parts.
"The second was to divide up each of the difficulties which I examined into as many parts as possible, and as seemed requisite in order that it might be resolved in the best manner possible.

3. Solve the simplest problems first.
"The third was to carry on my reflections in due order, commencing with objects that were the most simple and easy to understand, in order to rise little by little, or by degrees, to knowledge of the most complex, assuming an order, even if a fictitious one, among those which do not follow a natural sequence relatively to one another.

4. Be thorough.
"The last was in all cases to make enumerations so complete and reviews so general that I should be certain of having omitted nothing."

Descartes codifies the methods by which useful investigations can proceed. Galileo's 1638 exposition of his own investigations provide a practical application and extension of such methods (RMT 6:4 256).

Thomas K. Rehfeldt

Descartes and scientific method. Rehfeldt TK. … 1993, 7:2 p.291


Descartes and scientific method. Rehfeldt TK. … Rasch Measurement Transactions, 1993, 1993, 7:2 p.291



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