Rene Descartes

Rene Descartes

Rene Descartes (1596-1650) was not only one of the most prominent philosophers of the 17th century but in history of Western philosophy. Often referred to as the “father of modern philosophy”, Descartes profoundly influenced the European thought with his writings. Probably best known for his statement “Cogito ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am), the philosopher started the school of rationalism which broke with the scholastic Aristotelianism in two ways. Firstly, Descartes rejected the mind-body dualism, arguing that matter (the body) and intelligence (the mind) are two independent substances (metaphysical dualism) and secondly, he rejected the final causal model of explaining natural phenomena and replaced it with science-based observation and experiment. He spent a major part of his life in conflict with scholastic approach which still dominated the thought in the early 17th century and trying to convince the Churchly authorities that the new sciences are not challenging the traditional theological teachings.

Personal Life

Rene Descartes was born in La Heye in the French region of Touraine in 1596 to Joachim Descartes and his wife Jeanne Brochard. His mother died when he was only one year old. His father remarried, while he and his older brother and sister were raised by his grandmother and a nurse. At the age of 10 years, he enrolled into the Jesuit college of La Fleche which was attended by children of nobility and which was according to Descartes one of the best schools in early 17th century Europe. At the age of 18, he completed the Le Fleche college and spent the following years refining noble skills- fencing, dancing and horsemanship. In 1614, he went to Poitiers and took a law degree two years later. He then spend more than one year in the Netherlands studying mathematics and military architecture.

During the first decade of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1628), Descartes was travelling extensively over Europe and as he said, studied “the book of the world”. He was attached to various military units but appears to have taken little action. Instead, he dedicated himself to mathematics. In 1619, he invented analytic geometry but he also came to conclusion that mathematics-based deductive reasoning is applicable to other sciences. During this period, he is also said to be greatly influenced by three dreams which according to Descartes revealed him that all sciences are one. He did not reject different objects of study but he claimed that a generalised method would allow one mind to know everything.

In 1629, Descartes moved to Holland where he spent the next 20 years of his life. He completely dedicated himself to studying and writing, living from his inheritance, his books and patrons who financially supported his work. He never married but he had a relationship with a servant who bore him a daughter, Francine who died at the age of 5 from Scarlet fever. In 1649, he accepted the invitation of Queen Christina to come to Stockholm where he died only one year later.

Major Works

Rene Descartes left a large number of writings of major importance for both philosophy and mathematics. Of all his works, the “Meditations on First Philosophy” published in 1641 and 1642 is probably of the greatest importance and remains one of the seminal texts in virtually all university philosophy departments. In contrary to his earlier works which dealt with methodology, the Meditations show that it can be applied to the fundamental philosophical questions including scepticism, existence of soul, nature of God, truth, human knowledge of the external world and the relation between the body and mind. The Meditations caused a lot of controversy and as a result, Descartes spent most of his remaining life defending his positions which were very dangerous at the time. He was a devoted Catholic, however, we must not forget that he was a contemporary of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) who was tried by the Inquisition and forced to recant his heliocentric model. Fortunately for Descartes, his writings were not seen as “heretical” for the ecclesiastic authorities but it is also true that he was afraid of persecution and censure which clearly reveals the withdrawal of the work “The World” in which he supports the Copernican theory that earned Galileo a condemnation by the Church and house arrest.

Other major works by Rene Descartes include Compendium Musicae (1618), The Word (originally Le Monde, published posthumously in 1664), L’Homme (published posthumously in 1662), Discourse on the Method (1637), Geometry (1637), Principles of Philosophy (1641) and the Passions of the Soul (1649).