Ethical Ideas in Descartes’ Philosophy

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Descartes is not well known for his contributions to ethics. Some have charged that it is a weakness of his philosophy that it focuses exclusively on metaphysics and epistemology to the exclusion of moral and political philosophy. Such criticisms rest on a misunderstanding of the broader framework of Descartes’ philosophy. Evidence of Descartes’ concern for the practical import of philosophy can be traced to his earliest writings. In agreement of wisdom that is sufficient for happiness. The Third part of his Discourse on the Method presents what he calls a provisional morality, a morality to govern our behaviour while we are in the process of revising our beliefs and coming to certainty. In the tree of philosophy, in the Preface to the French translation of the Principles of Philosophy, morals are listed as one of the fruits of the tree, along with medicine and mechanics. It is also a theme in the letters he exchanged with the Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia in the mid-1640s, together with another concern the passions, what they are, and more importantly, how to control them. These themes are intertwined again in Descartes last major work, The Passions of the Soul (1649). Descartes did not write extensively on ethics, and this has led some to assume that the topic lacks a place within his philosophy. It is an attempt to outline Descartes’ ethical ideas mainly in Discourse on the Method.
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