Published 03 Mar 2017
Rene Descartes was a French philosopher, scientist, and mathematician. At a time when the intellectual movements of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance had become moribund, he conceived fresh programs for philosophy and science and elaborated and defended them with great originality and brilliance. Descartes founded modern philosophical rationalism and had a profound and pervasive influence on subsequent philosophers of all schools. He was among the first to construe philosophy as providing a necessary foundation for science and rejecting the traditional contemplative ideal, to regard science as a means of acquiring mastery over nature for the benefit of mankind. In addition to being an innovator in philosophy, he was one of the creators of mathematical physics, the inventor of analytic geometry, and an important figure in the histories of optics, physiology, and other branches of science (Cottingham, 2002).
A. Early life
Rene Descartes was born on March 31, 1596, in La Haye, a small town in the Tonraine district, now called La Haye-Descartes in his honor. He claimed, mistakenly, that his mother died while giving birth to him: in fact, she died while giving birth to another child about a year later. He was raised first by one of his grandmothers and then by the other until, at the age of 10, he entered the Jesuit school at La Fleche, near Le Mans, in 1614 he graduated from this school: two years later, perhaps to satisfy his father (who was an official of the Parlement of Britanny) he obtained a degree in law from University of Poitiers.
Descartes’ family was well-to-do, and he received an income that enabled him to live in moderate comfort throughout his life. He appears to have had considerable difficulty, as a young man, in finding himself. Until he was about 30 his devotion to the philosophical and scientific interests he had developed at La Fleche was somewhat intermittent and unsystematic. Periods in which his intellectual activity was remarkably intense and productive alternated with periods in which he led a more or less dilettantish life (Cottingham, 2002).
Descartes spent several years as a soldier, a customary occupation for younger sons of his social class. In 1617, he went to the Netherlands and joined the army of Maurice of Nassau. He found garrison life boring in the extreme until he met Isaac Beeckman, a mathematician and physicist who recognized Descartes’ talent and whom Descartes credited with having aroused him from his intellectual torpor. After serving briefly in Germany with the Duke of Bavaria in 1619, Descartes ended his military career. There is no evidence that he was ever in combat. Several years later, however, while living in Paris, he disarmed a man in swordplay over an insult to a lady (Moyal, 2001).
B. First Creative Period
During his stay in Germany, Descartes had maintained and intensified the intellectual momentum previously generated in him by his discussions with Beeckman. Not long after leaving the Netherlands, he made some important mathematical discoveries, and this success inspired him with ambition. His efforts to extend his achievement reached their climax in the fall of 1619, when he conceived the plan of a universal science, in which all problems susceptible to human reason could be solved and in which all philosophical and scientific truth could be unified as a single system (Kenny, 2004).
The exaltation induced in him during this sustained period of strikingly creative work was followed shortly by exhaustion and self-doubt, and he suffered a brief emotional crisis. On the night of Nov. 10-11, 1619, he had three dreams that impressed him deeply. He understood the dreams as reflecting his conflicts concerning the value of his ideas and the risks involved in committing his life to them. His anxieties were apparently resolved when he interpreted the dreams to mean that his conceptions were sound and that it was his mission to create the system of thought whose possibility he believed he had discovered.
Between 1619 and 1627, Descartes lived in Paris for several years and spent the rest of time traveling. He lived in Italy for about 18 months, during which period he made a pilgrimage to the shrine of the Virgin Mary at Loreto, fulfilling a vow he made following his three dreams in November 1619. For a while he joined the whirl of Parisian social life, but the role of a cavalier did not satisfy him, and he sloughed it off neatly by changing his residence without notice to his friends. He wrote very little during this period, but his reputation was growing, and he had access to the most advanced intellectual circles (Cottingham, 2002).
Part of Descartes’ vision of universal science was a notion of the method of inquiry by which progress in philosophy and in the sciences might most reliably be made. Episodes of distracted idleness apart, he devoted himself largely to practicing the use of this method and to refining his conception of it. He was especially fascinated by the telescope, which had recently become known in France, and he worked successfully on various problems in optics that arose in the course of his efforts to design more effective telescopic lenses.
Late in 1627, Descartes had a long conversation about his philosophical and scientific program with Pierre Cardinal de Berulle, a leading figure in the Roman Catholic renaissance in France. He convinced
Berulle that the enterprise he had conceived might lead to progress in medicine and in the useful arts generally, and therefore would be of enormous practical benefit to mankind. Berulle strongly counseled him to devote all his energies to the enterprise and to make it possible for others to join him in his work (Moyal, 2001). The conversation evidently had a decisive impact on Descartes. Imbued with a vivid sense of the urgency of his responsibility, he resolved to improve his conditions of work and to commit himself wholeheartedly to achieving the results that he believed his method made possible. It was at about this time that he decided to leave France for the Netherlands, where the climate was cooler and where he would not be subject to the distractions of French life.
C. Move to the Netherlands
Descartes settled in the Netherlands in 1628 and, except for a few rather brief visits of France, remained there until 1649. By 1633, he had completed a major work, entitled The World (Le Monde), in which presented parts of his system of physics and the results of his research in physiology and in embryology. The book was about to be published when he learned that the Roman Catholic Church had just condemned Galileo for espousing the Copernican theory of the solar system. Because the astronomical theory developed in The World was also Copernican, Descartes suppressed the book, and it did not appear until many years after his death (Kenny, 2004).
In 1637, Descartes published anonymously three essays (Essais) reporting the results of his work in geometry, in optics, and in meteorology, prefaced by a lengthy Discourse on Method (Discours de la methode). Although most learned writing at that time was in Latin, Descartes wrote the Discourse and the essays in French. He hoped they would be read not only by scholars but by intelligent men generally and even by women; his intention was to go over the heads of the scholarly community to people who had no vested interest in the traditional doctrines he was eager to supplant.
The Discourse is written for the most part with great lucidity and charm, and it is widely regarded as one of the classics of French literature. It contains an intellectual autobiography, sketches of Descartes’ method and metaphysics, examinations of certain scientific questions (including an account of Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood, which Descartes was among the first to appreciate and to publicize), and a discussion of the conditions and prospects of further progress in the sciences. Despite its title, it does not provide a detailed account of his method. In 1628, before he left France, Descartes has begun to write, in Latin, a treatise on method called Rules for the Direction of the Mind (Regulae ad directionem ingenii). It was his only substantial work on methodology, but he did not complete it and his manuscript was not published until 1701, more than 50 years after his death (Dicker, 1993).
In 1641, Descartes published in Latin his most important book on metaphysics, Meditations Concerning Primary Philosophy (Meditationes de prima philosophia), in which he attempted to establish the framework of concepts and the basic assumptions that he believed the progress of science required. He dedicated the meditations to the theological authorities in France.
By the end of the 16th century, the coherence and authority of the primarily Aristotelian intellectual culture of the late Middle Ages (not to mention its social, political, and religious institutions) had been decisively undermined. But no equally comprehensive alternative view of the world, and of man’s place and role in it, had yet been satisfactorily established. For many of the most sensitive and conscientious intellectuals of the period the result was a deep sense of uncertainty (most notably expressed by Montaigne) to abandon active life and to withdraw into oneself (Dicker, 1993). Descartes reinvigorated the philosophical thought of his time by transforming its skepticism and emphasis on self from expressions of despair into creative instruments contributing to intellectual progress.
Descartes regarded the syllogisms of Aristotelian logic as worthless for the purposes of inquiry. He found them suitable for displaying in a convincing manner the evidence for conclusions that had already been established, but of no value whatever in the effort to make fresh discoveries. On the other hand, he believed that his own method was a powerful means of acquiring new truths.
This method was essentially rationalistic. It involved, first, identifying by conceptual analysis the simple elements to which all more complex objects of thought may be reduced, and second, synthesizing an understanding of the structure of reality by perceiving the necessary relationships in which these elements must stand to one another (Dicker, 1993).
His initial moves in applying this method were to press uncertainty to its ultimate limit by subjecting to the most uncompromising criticism the evidence on which his accustomed beliefs rested, and to suspend every opinion, however plausible, in which he found even the slightest rational basis for doubt (Kenny, 2004). This ruthless gambit had a double purpose. First, Descartes intended to regain complete control over his own mind by eliminating the preconceptions and prejudices he had acquired during the time when he was not yet capable of exercising his critical faculties autonomously. And, second, he hoped to uncover some preposition that would prove itself immune to even the most relentless skepticism and that could thus provide a firm foundation for the reconstruction of his system of beliefs (Kenny, 2004).
His plan was to proceed from this proposition, once he had found it, by steps so cautious and well-defined that there would be no risk of error or of misunderstanding. In pursuing this strategy, Descartes consciously imitated what he took to be the method of mathematics, whose peculiar lucidity and certainty he wished to introduce into the other branches of learning with which he was concerned.
b.) Senses and Reason
Descartes’ methodological skepticism led him first to a suspension of all beliefs based on the evidence of the senses. Sensory evidence is never in itself conclusive, he argued, since it is always possible (so far as can be determined by the senses) that a person is dreaming or that a supernatural power has arranged for him to be deceived.
But while Descartes therefore provisionally regarded the existence and character of physical objects (including his own body) as uncertain, like Montaigne he found the reality of his mind uniquely secure against all doubts (Cottingham, 2002). However determined his skepticism, he could not doubt that he was doubting; this preposition was confirmed by the very effort to refute it. In what is surely the most famous statement in philosophical literature—“I think; therefore I am” (“cogito ergo sum”)—he expressed the unimpeachable certainty of his own existence as a thinking being and identified the point from which his efforts to reconstruct his beliefs could confidently proceed (Moyal, 2001).
In conclusion, Descartes’ last book was Treatise on the passions (Les passions de l’ame, 1649), in which he dealt mainly with psychology, ethics, and the relation between mind and body. IN 1649, he went to Stockholm at the invitation of Queen Christina of Sweden, who wished him to teach her philosophy and to establish an institute for the advancement of science. When his friend Chanut, the French ambassador in Stockholm, became ill with pneumonia, Descartes helped to care for him and contracted the disease himself (Cottingham, 2002). Descartes died in Stockholm on February 11, 1650, and was buried in Sweden. In 1666, his remains were taken to Paris and buried in the Church of Ste. Genevieve du Mont; in 1819, they were moved to the Church of ST. Germain des Pres, except for his skull, which is in the Musee de l’Homme.
- Cottingham, John, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Descartes. Cambridge University Press, 2002. Standard handbook, with good guide to further reading.
- Dicker, Georges. Descartes: an Analytical and Historical Introduction. Oxford University Press, 1993. Rather more substantial than title suggests.
- Kenny, Anthony. Descartes, a Study of his Philosophy. 2004. New York: Random House; New York; London: Garland, 1999. Another classic study, by a leading British philosopher.
- Moyal, George D., ed. René Descartes: Critical Assessments. 7 v. London: Routledge, 2001. Comprehensive collection.