WRIT 100 Ethos Analysis Assignment
Read the attached opening six paragraphs of the Discourse on Method by the 17th century
French philosopher, René Descartes. This text may be outside of your comfort zone, but a slow,
careful reading should reveal all of the relevant rhetorical moves Descartes makes. You do not
have to analyse any actual philosophy; your task is just to consider how effectively Descartes has
established his credibility among those reading the Discourse.
The reason this text is interesting to analyse from the perspective of ethos is that Descartes’
rhetorical strategies are very different from what came before him. Prior to Descartes, the main
way philosophers and other writers tried to get their readers to believe them was by appealing to
authority. They might give a quote from the Bible or a well-respected ancient source to backup
their claims. In the course material, we called this sort of appeal “borrowing authority.”
In the assigned passage, Descartes is making a very different type of appeal. Beyond not
borrowing the authority of others, Descartes does not even claim authority for himself. In
paragraph two, he denies that he is any more intelligent than others, even wishing that he “were
equal to some others in promptitude of thought, or in clearness and distinctness of imagination,
or in fullness and readiness of memory.” Instead of relying on intelligence, Descartes claims in
the following paragraph that he has developed reliable a method of inquiry that has allowed him
to find the answers to some difficult questions, once he devoted enough time to them:
I have formed a method that gives me the means, as I think, of gradually
augmenting my knowledge, and of raising it by little and little to the highest point
which the mediocrity of my talents and the brief duration of my life will permit
me to reach (para. 3).
Descartes states that he wants to share his method so that others might make use of it in their
own areas of interest. Presenting this method, which Descartes claims is simple enough to be
followed by anyone willing, will be his project in the Discourse.
But Descartes remains demure. He even allows that he may be delusional to think that his
method would be helpful to anyone, and he implores his readers to help him improve it (para.
4). In paragraph five, Descartes thus makes the rather modest statement of his intentions:
My present design, then, is not to teach the method which each ought to follow
for the right conduct of his reason, but solely to describe the way in which I have
endeavored to conduct my own.
The assigned except ends with a comparatively bombastic coda in which Descartes sets his sights
on his opponents in academia. In stark opposition to the standard rhetorical approaches of his
time, he appears to reject the established wisdom being taught in “the most celebrated schools in
Europe” (para. 6). Descartes recounts how he would often finish a course at school, only to find
that he was more confused about the subject than when he started (again, a rather odd way of
establishing credibility!). He therefore came to believe that the teachings of these esteemed
schools are no more trustworthy than the considered beliefs of regular people. Descartes
concludes with the following bold assertion:
WRIT 100 Ethos Analysis Assignment
I was thus led to take the liberty of judging of all other men by myself, and of
concluding that there was no science in existence that was of such a nature as I
had previously been given to believe” (para. 6).
In the remainder of the Discourse, which you are not required to read, Descartes goes on to
explain his method and then apply it to various topics in theology and natural science.
In your essay, explain how Descartes’ humble yet iconoclastic approach is supposed to establish
his credibility. If Descartes is not claiming authority or appealing to that of someone else, what
appeal to ethos is he making? Then, evaluate the effectiveness of this appeal. As a reader, have
you been effectively “primed” to receive Descartes’ presentation of his method? Do you think
his intended audience would feel the same way as you? You should employ the concepts and
methods covered in the course material for analysing ethos, in addition to your own insights.
In thinking about these issues, it might be useful to consider contemporary analogues as well:
Can you think of instances of people using similar rhetorical strategies today? Would such an
approach be effective today? You might also consider the current backlash to “experts” and the
rise of anti-intellectualism. How can these rejections of authority and expertise be used to build
trust with one’s audience?