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Preface: Thinking this a question on Linguistics, I first posed on Linguistics SE but was redirected here.
Source: p 76, Philosophy ; A Very Short Introduction (2002) by Edward Craig.

Admittedly, there is value in some of what he [Descartes] has been taught, and he gives a sentence each to the advantages of languages, history, mathematics, oratory, and poetry – though the latter two are ‘more gifts of the mind than fruits of study’.

I assume 'languages' to mean L2 Acquisition (as L1 acquisition ordinarily needs no study).

Descartes's opinion above presumes differences in learning 'languages' vs 'oratory and poetry' which I do not comprehend. How are languages more 'fruits of study', but oratory and poetry more 'gifts of the mind'?

Chance and talent affects L2 Acquisition (eg Savant Syndrome); but if 'genius is 1% talent and 99% percent hard work' (Thomas Edison's aphorism), then why cannot mastery of oratory and poetry be achieved by study?

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This is not what René Descartes means in his Discours de la méthode (16737).

He is commenting - with disappointment - on his personal educational experience in the Jesuit college of La Flèche:

J'ai été nourri aux lettres dès mon enfance. (From my childhood, I have been familiar with letters.)

Je savois que les langues qu'on y apprend sont nécessaires pour l'intelligence des livres anciens. (I was aware that the languages taught in them are necessary to the understanding of the writings of the ancients.)

He is clearly alluding to the study of ancient Greek and Latin.

Mais je croyois avoir déjà donné assez de temps aux langues, et même aussi à la lecture des livres anciens, et à leurs histoires, et à leurs fables. (But I believed that I had already given sufficient time to languages, and likewise to the reading of the writings of the ancients, to their histories and fables.)

J'estimois fort l'éloquence, et j'étois amoureux de la poésie; mais je pensois que l'une et l'autre étoient des dons de l'esprit plutôt que des fruits de l'étude. (I esteemed eloquence highly, and was in raptures with poesy; but I thought that both were gifts of nature rather than fruits of study.)

Je me plaisois surtout aux mathématiques, à cause de la certitude et de l'évidence de leurs raisons. (I was especially delighted with the mathematics, on account of the certitude and evidence of their reasonings.)

Je révérois notre théologie, [...] Je ne dirai rien de la philosophie, sinon que, [...] Puis, pour les autres sciences, d'autant qu'elles empruntent leurs principes de la philosophie, je jugeois qu'on ne pouvoit avoir rien bâti qui fût solide sur des fondements si peu fermes. (I revered our theology, [...] Of philosophy I will say nothing, except that [...] As to the other sciences, inasmuch as these borrow their principles from philosophy, I judged that no solid superstructures could be reared on foundations so infirm.)

C'est pourquoi, sitôt que l'âge me permit de sortir de la sujétion de mes précepteurs, je quittoi entièrement l'étude des lettres; et me résolvant de ne chercher plus d'autre science que celle qui se pourrait trouver en moi-même, ou bien dans le grand livre du monde. (For these reasons, as soon as my age permitted me to pass from under the control of my instructors, I entirely abandoned the study of letters, and resolved no longer to seek any other science than the knowledge of myself, or of the great book of the world.)

Thus, D's famous intellectual autobiography sketched in the Discours has nothing to do with language aquisition.

He is not commenting on the need of studying in order to learn new languages, but he is commenting on Humanities that are the core of Jesuit colleges's curricula: grammar, rhetorics, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, philosophy, mathematics, and theology.

  • Thanks. I can read French and so am sorry if you felt forced to translate; but others will benefit! I did know that Descartes meant study of Ancient Greek and/or Latin, which I described and generalised as L2 Acquisition because Descartes's L1 was French. – Greek - Area 51 Proposal Feb 19 '16 at 21:57
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During Descartes' times there were enough books with advices and theory on how to write (good) poetry, known generally as 'Art poétique' (e.g. by Boileau, Horace or Aristotle). Rhetoric had gained a new popularity with the Renaissance, medieval uses of Latin were treated disparagingly and books on Rhetoric, old and new, were marketed with promises to make you successful. Descartes would have none of this and apparently he looks at all of them just as today we look at books of this kind.

He was somewhat of an enthusiast for promoting new science and thought that reading and writing such texts is a waste of time, so he argues that natural gifts for thinking or feeling are more important that techniques:

J'estimois fort l'éloquence, et j'étois amoureux de la poésie; mais je pensois que l'une et l'autre étoient des dons de l'esprit plutôt que des fruits de l'étude. Ceux qui ont le raisonnement le plus fort, et qui digèrent le mieux leurs pensées afin de les rendre claires et intelligibles, peuvent toujours le mieux persuader ce qu'ils proposent, encore qu'ils ne parlassent que bas-breton, et qu'ils n'eussent jamais appris de rhétorique; et ceux qui ont les inventions les plus agréables et qui les savent exprimer avec le plus d'ornement et de douceur, ne laisseroient pas d'être les meilleurs poëtes, encore que l'art poétique leur fût inconnu.

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