René Descartes

Descartes

Modern philosophy

Descartes was a 17th century French philosopher (1596-1650), as well as a mathematician and physicist. Born in La Haye (renamed Descartes in 1961), he studied in Poitiers before moving to Paris. He travelled to Holland and Germany and joined the Duke of Bavaria's army. His reflections, as well as three dreams he had in Neubourg, led him to return to civilian life and he wrote, among other things the Discourse on the Method, the Meditations on First Philosophy in which he sought certain truth.


The works of Descartes summarised on this site

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Meditations on First Philosophy

Descartes here seeks a certain truth. This leads him to propose a radical doubt, justified by the hypothesis of evil genius. Can anything resist this doubt?



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Rules for the Direction of the Mind

Descartes here presents the rules that should be followed by a mind wishing to arrive at certain truth and to build a universal science



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The Passions of the Soul

What are the passions, and how do the mechanics of our bodies work? Descartes proposes here a new conception of the relationship between the mind and the body.


Bibliography

Here are the essential books if you wish to better understand the thought of this author:

Blom, John J., Descartes. His moral philosophy and psychology. New York University Press. 1978 Gaukroger, Stephen (1995). Descartes: An Intellectual Biography. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press
Grayling, A. C. (2005). Descartes: The Life of René Descartes and Its Place in His Times, The Free Press, London.
Grosholz, Emily (1991). Cartesian method and the problem of reduction. Oxford University Press
J. Cottingham, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Descartes Cambridge University Press, 1992

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Biography: life of Descartes

Childhood

René Descartes was born in 1596 in La Haye, a town in Indre-et-Loire, in the Centre region of France. The town was later renamed Descartes, in his honour. His father was a councillor in the Parliament of Brittany.

His mother died nearly a year later, as a result of childbirth. Raised by his father, grandmother and nanny, Descartes showed a keen intellectual curiosity from an early age. Never ceasing to ask questions, his father nicknamed him "my little philosopher".

At the age of eleven, he was admitted to the Collège royal Henri-le-Grand located in La Flèche, in the Sarthe region. At this Jesuit-run school, one of the largest in Europe, he learnt mathematics, physics and philosophy.

He passed his baccalauréat and then went to Poitiers, where he enrolled at the University of Law. Once he had obtained his licence in civil and canon law, at the age of twenty, he moved to Paris. For two years he led a solitary life, withdrawn from worldly affairs to devote himself to his studies.

The army and travel

Portrait of René Descartes
Painting depicting R. Descartes

He enlisted in the army of the Prince of Orange, in Holland. During this period, he met the physicist Beeckman, with whom he kept up a correspondence.

In his spare time, he devoted his thoughts to mathematics and philosophy.


In 1619, he travelled to Denmark and Germany, and joined a new army, that of Duke Maximilian of Bavaria, as the Thirty Years' War broke out.

It was during this same eventful year that he had a kind of revelation; he had a dream, or rather three successive dreams, during which he conceived the foundations of a new science.

He locked himself in a well-heated room (which he called his "stove"). According to legend, he imagined his Cartesian calculus system (the principle of which is to describe geometric figures by reducing their coordinates to arithmetic numbers) by observing, from his bed, the cracks in his ceiling.


He gave up military life, but continued his travels, to Germany, Holland and then Italy, living off his mother's inheritance.

He returned to France for a long period: six years, from 1622 to 1628. This was a decisive period, as he made invaluable contacts in intellectual circles. For example, he met Father Marin Marsenne, who corresponded with the whole of learned Europe.

This enabled him to publicise his mathematical theories, which were beginning to spread.

At this time, one of his encounters proved decisive: Cardinal de Bérulle made it a matter of conscience for him to return to the in-depth study of philosophy, and to write his own works. This he did by retiring to Brittany in 1627.

It was at the end of this spiritual retreat that his first major work of philosophy was published, the Rules for the Direction of the Mind.

Writing in the Netherlands

He went to Amsterdam again, again seeking solitude, in a kind of spiritual retreat that led him not to indicate the exact places where he was, to avoid being disturbed. Living near a slaughterhouse, he was able to carry out dissections. He also enrolled at Franeker University.

This period of reflection, devoted entirely to study, proved prolific, as he developed the principle of analytical geometry, became interested in optics and wrote The Dioptrique.

Seeing that Galileo was condemned by the Church, he gave up publishing the work he had just completed, The World, also called Treatise on the Light. The latter was in fact based on the very principle that had earned Galileo his condemnation: heliocentrism.

Having read Galileo's work in 1634, he decided to take his research in a different direction. Over the next few years, he wrote his two landmark works, the Discourse on the Method (1637), followed by the Meditations on First Philosophy (1641).


In 1635, he had a daughter, with the maid of an Amsterdam bookseller.

But five years later, in 1640, he lost both his daughter and her father, within a month of each other, which plunged him into the "greatest regret he had ever felt in his life".

The Meditations on First Philosophy began to have some impact in intellectual circles, and he had to respond both to Hobbes's objections, and to the accusations levelled against him during the Utrecht Quarrel.


In 1643, he met Elisabeth of Bohemia, exiled in Holland; they corresponded by letter to discuss, in particular, ethics. In a way, he became her director of conscience.

This stimulating encounter plunged him into a new period of intellectual creativity. For example, he dedicated his new work, Principles of Philosophy, which appeared in 1644, to her. A few years later, in 1649, he put the finishing touches to his last major work, the Passions of the Soul.

In the meantime, he met Pascal, during one of his rare visits to France. He claims to have inspired Pascal's famous experiment on emptiness, carried out at Puy de Dôme.

Death in Sweden

In 1649, he became the tutor of Queen Christine of Sweden. To do so, he travelled to Stockholm.

After neglecting him for a month, she asked him to write verses for a ballet, an entertainment given for her birthday.

Finally, a last request, no less strange, reaches him: she wants daily philosophy lessons, but at five in the morning, the time when the mind is "the quietest and freest of the day".

This unusual rhythm and the Scandinavian cold led Descartes to want to return the following spring to warmer climes, but his strength declined.

He died of pneumonia on 11 February 1650.

His body was repatriated to France, and his skull bequeathed many years later (in 1931) to the Musée de l'Homme in Paris (although doubts remain as to its authenticity). His coffin is still kept in the church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés in Paris. Plans to transfer him to the Panthéon were raised, but never came to fruition.

Main works

Rules for the Direction of the Mind
Discourse on the Method
Meditations on First Philosophy
Principles of Philosophy
Passions of the Soul