Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Page 28

Rules for the Direction of the Mind: Descartes’s 12 Timeless Tenets of Critical Thinking

“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.”

Rules for the Direction of the Mind: Descartes’s 12 Timeless Tenets of Critical Thinking

In the late 1620s, about a decade before he coined Cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”) — the slogan that would establish him as the founding father of modern Western philosophy — the great French philosopher, scientist, and mathematician René Descartes (March 31, 1596–February 11, 1650) set about delineating the rules of critical thinking. His list, titled Rules for the Direction of the Mind and partway in time between the Buddha’s Charter of Free Inquiry and Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit, endures as a timeless tuning mechanism for the inner workings of reason.

Of the 36 rules Descartes planned to write, he only penned 21, the first twelve of which outlined the principles of the scientific method. (The latter nine were specific to mathematics and thus rather esoteric.) The list was never published in his lifetime — the first Dutch translation appeared 34 years after his death, and the first Latin one another seventeen years later — but it was later included in his Philosophical Writings (public library), where Descartes dedicates anywhere between a few paragraphs and a few pages to each.

Portrait of Descartes after Frans Hals, 1648
Portrait of Descartes after Frans Hals, 1648

His twelve-vertebrae backbone of critical thinking reads as follows:

  1. The aim of our studies must be the direction of our mind so that it may form solid and true judgments on whatever matters arise.
  2. We must occupy ourselves only with those objects that our intellectual powers appear competent to know certainly and indubitably.
  3. As regards any subject we propose to investigate, we must inquire not what other people have thought, or what we ourselves conjecture, but what we can clearly and manifestly perceive by intuition or deduce with certainty. For there is no other way of acquiring knowledge.
  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 labour.
  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 pursuing 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 trifling of men’s inventions though those ought to 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 for the purpose of having a distinct intuition of simple propositions; partly also in order to compare the propositions

Complement this particular portion of Descartes’s wholly indispensable Philosophical Writings with Galileo on critical thinking and Michael Faraday on countering our propensity for self-deception, then revisit Descartes on how you know you exist.


Susan Sontag on Selfies, Selfhood, and How the Camera Helps Us Navigate Complexity

“There is a dialectical exchange between simplicity and complexity, like the one between self-revelation and self-concealment.”

Susan Sontag on Selfies, Selfhood, and How the Camera Helps Us Navigate Complexity

“Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted,” Susan Sontag (January 16, 1933–December 28, 2004) wrote in her timeless 1977 treatise on photography, an inquiry of uncanny and swelling timeliness today. She had been tussling with and incubating these ideas — this growing concern with how the commodification of images is changing our relationship to ourselves and the world — for some years.

In one particularly poignant 1975 Boston Review interview, later included in the magnificent compendium Conversations with Susan Sontag (public library), she reflects on how the technology of photography has shaped one of the most abiding mysteries of the human experience — the puzzlement of what makes us and our childhood selves “the same person” despite a lifetime of change.

Portrait of Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar, 1975, from Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture

In a sobering reality check with history, Sontag observes:

The vast majority of people, those who could not afford to have a portrait painted, had no record of what they looked like as children. Today, we all have photographs in which we can see ourselves at age six, our faces already intimating what they were to become. We have similar information about our parents and grandparents. And there’s a great poignancy in these photographs; they make you realize that these people really were children once. To be able to see oneself and one’s parents as children is an experience unique to our time. The camera has brought people a new, and essentially pathetic, relation to themselves, to their physical appearance, to aging, to their own mortality. It is a kind of pathos which never existed before.

It’s a jarring notion to contemplate amid our present culture, where this pathos has reached a shrill crescendo in the selfie pandemic. Here we are, facing the camera in order to face ourselves, both instantaneously and perpetually, as we look to the world to affirm the reality of our very existence by validating these snapshots of selfhood. I’m reminded of Italo Calvino who, in contemplating photography and the art of presence also in the 1970s, observed: “The life that you live in order to photograph it is already, at the outset, a commemoration of itself.”

And yet Sontag, a staunch opponent of artificial polarities, cautions against reducing photography to simplistic binaries. Instead, she points to it as our coping mechanism, however imperfect, for dealing with the complexity of the outside world and of our interior lives. Echoing Hannah Arendt on being vs. appearing and our impulse for self-revelation, Sontag notes:

The problem with photography is that … it’s too imperious a way of seeing. Its balance between being “present” and being “absent” is facile, when generalized as an attitude — which it is now in our culture. But I’m not against simplicity, as such. There is a dialectical exchange between simplicity and complexity, like the one between self-revelation and self-concealment. The first truth is that every situation is extremely complicated and that anything one thinks about thereby becomes more complicated. The main mistake people make when thinking about something, whether an historical event or one in their private lives, is that they don’t see just how complicated it is. The second truth is that one cannot live out all the complexities one perceives, and that to be able to act intelligently, decently, efficiently, and compassionately demands a great deal of simplification. So there are times when one has to forget — repress, transcend — a complex perception that one has.

For a deeper dive into these complexities, revisit Sontag’s extended meditation on visual culture, then complement the magnificently insightful Conversations with Susan Sontag with her enduring wisdom on love, art, silence, personal growth, beauty vs. interestingness, and what it means to be a decent human being.


Freedom in Congo Square: An Illustrated Ode to Finding Dignity Amid Oppression and the Soul-Preserving Function of Joy

A lyrical celebration of an oasis of hope and human dignity in the midst of inhumane injustice.

Freedom in Congo Square: An Illustrated Ode to Finding Dignity Amid Oppression and the Soul-Preserving Function of Joy

“Everything can be taken from a man,” Viktor Frankl wrote, “but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.” This hard-earned wisdom on the human search for meaning, gleaned from Frankl’s physical and spiritual survival in a Nazi concentration camp, reverberates throughout history — even amid the most oppressive of circumstances, people have found ways to claim their humanity in glimmers of this most indelible liberty.

During the 18th century, when Louisiana was first a French colony and then a Spanish one, local rite in New Orleans granted African slaves Sundays off. They would congregate in parks and squares and backyards to sing and dance, taking respite from the trying labor that filled every single hour between sunrise and sunset six days of the week. In 1817, a new law designated Congo Square — an open space now part of New Orleans’s Louis Armstrong Park — as the only place allowed for these festivities. Every Sunday, hundreds of slaves and free blacks gathered there, fusing their varied traditions of music and dance. Local whites and tourists joined in. A variety of traditional instruments from all over Africa — drums, marimbas, tambourines, banzas, and many more — played alongside violins and guitars. This unusual fusion became essential DNA for the birth of jazz.

In Freedom in Congo Square (public library), poet Carole Boston Weatherford and artist R. Gregory Christie tell the story of this oasis of hope in the dark, narrated with rhythmic musicality and illustrated with beguiling vibrancy evocative of African folk art.

Thursdays, there were clothes to clean,
floors to scrub, and babes to wean.

Spirituals rose from the despair,
Three more days to Congo Square.

Unlike so many of our revisionist retellings of history, which sugar-coat the irremediable bitterness of injustice in the service of illusory redemption, this marvelous book takes care not to romanticize oppression. Page after page, Monday through Saturday, the tyrannical toil of slavery unfolds. But that’s precisely what renders Sunday’s contrasting oasis of freedom not an artificially sweetened fiction but a reality demonstrating the essential, soul-preserving function of jubilation even in the grimmest of circumstances.

Some of the grimmest realities of slavery are conveyed only obliquely, as little doors set ajar only for the most inquisitive of readers and the most conscientiously courageous of parents, to be entered only when the time is ripe for comprehending the inexcusable — why, for instance, is the little boy embracing his dark-skinned mother so significantly lighter-skinned?

Complement Freedom in Congo Square with Langston Hughes’s little-known children’s primer on jazz, then revisit James Baldwin and Margaret Mead’s extraordinary conversation about the abiding aftermath of slavery.


View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I get a small percentage of its price. That helps support Brain Pickings by offsetting a fraction of what it takes to maintain the site, and is very much appreciated