M1: Unit 1: Task 9.1 Solution

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There are quite a number of translations of the Discourse on Method in a range of languages, but a straightforward answer to the question of the universality of notions like ‘pure natural reason’ and ‘good sense’ remains impossible. Nevertheless we can get a sense of the cultural embeddedness of Descartes’ thinking. After he has, famously, applied his systematic doubt everything, he arrives at the equally famous proposition that because he is doubting he must be thinking and therefore he must at least exist: ‘I think, therefore I am.’  It is the next move that is of interest from a postcolonial perspective. Having established the certainty of his thinking being, Descartes argues that because he has doubts, his being cannot be perfect, ‘for I saw clearly that it was a greater perfection to know than to doubt.’ This ‘greater perfection’ that he ‘saw clearly’ is God. In other words, we go from systematic doubt to building up, by means of ‘pure natural reason,’ a series of certainties that are beyond doubt, beginning with the idea of God as perfection – a very Christian idea.

It is worth asking what other cultures make of this reasoning. But there is another angle too. The close association Descartes establishes with ‘reason’ and the idea of a God as he conceives in the context of Christianity, can make us understand how in the era of colonial expansion the European colonizers looked on cultures with radically different ways of thinking.