As Edward Fullbrook highlights in his recent book Narrative Fixation in Economics, the Cartesian view of human reality has deeply shaped the way Neoclassical Economics theorizes about the economic and social existence (2016, p. 45). Indeed, while emphasizing the relevance of the pure thought of a disembedded human subject, Neoclassical Economics has reinforced the relevance of the Cartesian method of inquiry that moved the so called scientific (true) knowledge out of the general flux of experience.
In the second part of the Discourse of Method, Descartes presented some principles that should be followed in order to acquire knowledge: 1) human beings cannot admit any ideas that are not absolutely clear; 2) human beings must divide each problem in so many parts as appropriate for its best resolution; 3) human beings should apply deductive reasoning to organize their thoughts from the simplest to the most complex ones 4) the analytical-synthetic process of reasoning leads to true knowledge.
According to Descartes, the first principle of his method focuses the importance of “never accepting something as true that I clearly don’t know as such” (Discourse of Method, Part II). Indeed, Descartes inspired himself in Geometry as a model of Science. As a result, he considered the postulates of Geometry not only as universal and necessary but also as clear and distinctive ideas related to intellectual intuition. Only these clear and distinctive ideas are considered to be the pillars of true knowledge.
Based on the second principle, Descartes builds his research method of analysis that isolates the clear and distinctive ideas from the most complex ones. His emphasis on the order of thoughts strengthens the role of Mathematics in the Cartesian method of pure inquiry. Moreover, the third principle of his method leads to a special kind of organization of thoughts. In his own words, the organization of thought should start “with the simplest and easier to gradually rise, as if by means of steps, to the knowledge of the more composed, and assuming an order between the ones that don’t precede naturally each other” (Discourse of Method, Part II).
Departing from the mathematical method of reasoning, Descartes arrives at the notion of order in scientific thought, that is to say, once the human subject knows the simple elements of a problem, he can assume all the consequences that derive from those first ideas considered as absolutely certain. Those first ideas have the characteristics of clarity and distinction. Besides, they are known intuitively and constitute the pillars on which relies true knowledge.
Finally, Descartes reinforced the analytical-synthetic process of reasoning. Following the deductive method of pure inquiry, human knowledge grows throughout a rigorous chain of ideas. As a consequence, new thoughts arise while the human subject applies deductive reasoning so as to create a chain of ideas that links the most simple to the most complex ones. In this attempt, true knowledge can be obtained.
As a matter of fact, the Cartesian method presents the intellectual intuition and the deductive reasoning as crucial elements of the discovery and construction of true knowledge. Moreover, clarity, distinction and order overwhelmed the mathesis universalis that turned out to be considered as the pinnacle of the epistemo-ontological construction of Cartesian thinking. The mathesis universalis is, according to the Cartesian epistemology, a general method of pure inquiry able to explain everything, regardless of the nature of the objects to be studied.
As E. Gilson (1945) highlighted, the Cartesian method represents an attempt to extend the mathematical method of inquiry to all of human knowledge in the form of the mathesis universalis. Indeed, this extension is at the center of the a priori foundations of scientific knowledge in Neoclassical Economics.
DESCARTES, René. Discurso do Método. São Paulo: Abril Cultural, 1973.
FULLBROOK, E. Narrative Fixation in Economics, WEA Books, 2016.
WILLIAMS, Bernard. Descartes: The Project Of Pure Enquiry. UK: Penguin, 1978