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René Descartes

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edit index René Descartes
René Descartes (31 Mar 1596 - 11 Feb 1650), also known as Renatus Cartesius and dubbed "Father of Modern Philosophy", was a French philosopher crucial to Western Philosophy in the fields of Metaphysics and Philosophy of Mind, and he was a key figure, with Francis Bacon and others, in the Scientific Revolution. Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy (1642) has become a standard text in many Philosophy courses, and in Mathematics, he established Analytic Geometry, and the Cartesian Coördinate System, Coördinate Algebra, which allows geometric shapes to be expressed in algebraic equations.

Descartes is often cited as a "Continental Rationalist" in American schools, apart from the "British Empiricism begun by Bacon, Hobbes and Locke - merely facile definitions having more exceptions than rules, as later philosophers shared many of Descartes' ideas, including Baruch Spinoza and Gottfried Leibniz, but also John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume. Descartes' seminal contribution to Modern Philosophy is his proof of individual existence in the face of radical doubt, "cogito ergo sum", or "I think, therefore, I am."

Life and Works

Descartes was born in La Haye en Touraine (now Descartes, Indre-et-Loire), Indre-et-Loire, France. His Mother, Jeanne Brochard, died of tuberculosis when he was one, and his Father, Joachim, was a member in the provincial parliament. By age eleven, he entered the Jesuit College at La Fleche. After graduation, he studied at the University of Poitiers, earning the Bacalauriat and a License in Law in 1616, as his Father wished he would become an attorney. In 1618 he joined the Army of the Prince of Orange, Maurice of Nassau, in the Dutch Republic. Descartes eventually met Isaac Beeckman, who sparked his interest in Mathematics and the New Physics, such as studies of the falls of heavy bodies. Descartes took part in the Battle of the White Mountain outside Prague, but by 1622 moved on to Paris and travelled Europe. Investments in bonds provided him a comfortable life, yet by 1629 joined the University of Franeker and enrolled at Leiden University in Mathematics, with Jacob Golius and Astronomy with Martin van den Hove. In Amsterdam he had a daughter, Francine, with a servant, Helene Jans, and Descartes died in 1650 from pneumonia during the tutoring of Queen Christina of Sweden.

Descartes' ground-breaking work is due to his provision of the first philosophical framework for Natural Science and a study of the limitations of the senses, and because he arrived at a fundamental, "Archimedian", idea which could not be doubted, even in the face of the strongest possible doubt - that "I exist." Not without dangers, though, by 1633 Galileo Galilei had been condemned by the Roman Catholic Church, and Descartes abandoned plans to publish his Treatise on the World, releasing his "Discourse on the Method" in 1637, and in 1643, Cartesian Philosophy was condemned by the University of Utrecht, and Descartes began his long correspondence with Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia, and awarded a pension by the King of France.

Like Thomas Hobbes, Descartes reasoned that the Body works like a Machine, a result of the material properties of extension and motion following the laws of Physics. The Mind, or Soul, is a mental, non-material "entity" lacking such extension or motion. Descartes argued that only humans have Mind, and its connection to the Body is through a "pineal gland". Dualism was a result, not unlike the separation inherited from Plato, but more akin to the spiritual distinction from Medieval Philosophy. Cartesian Dualism literally dominates philosophical discussion to the present day, and his Analytic Geometry allowed Calculus, independently co-founded by Newton and Leibniz, to be developed, applying infinitesimals to the tangent line.

Further Reading

  • 1618. Compendium Musicae. A treatise on music theory and the aesthetics of music written for Descartes' early collaborator Isaac Beeckman.
  • 1626-1628. Regulae ad directionem ingenii (Rules for the Direction of the Mind). Incomplete. First published posthumously in 1684. The best critical edition, which includes an early Dutch translation, is edited by Giovanni Crapulli (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1966).
  • 1630-1633. Le Monde (The World) and L'Homme (Man). Descartes' first systematic presentation of his natural philosophy. Man was first published in Latin translation in 1662; The World in 1664.
  • 1637. Discours de la Methode (Discourse on the Method). An introduction to the Essais, which include the Dioptrique, the Medatores and the Geomatrie.
  • 1637. La Geomatrie (Geometry). Descartes' major work in mathematics. There is an English translation by Michael Mahoney (New York: Dover, 1979).
  • 1641. Meditationes de prima philosophia (Meditations on First Philosophy), also known as Metaphysical Meditations. In Latin; a French translation, probably done without Descartes' supervision, was published in 1647. Includes six Objections and Replies. A second edition, published the following year, included an additional objection and reply, and a Letter to Dinet.
  • 1644. Principia philosophiae (Principles of Philosophy), a Latin textbook at first intended by Descartes to replace the Aristotelian textbooks then used in universities. A French translation, Principes de philosophie by Claude Picot, under the supervision of Descartes, appeared in 1647 with a letter-preface to Queen Christina of Sweden.
  • 1647. Notae in programma (Comments on a Certain Broadsheet). A reply to Descartes' one-time disciple Henricus Regius.
  • 1647. The Description of the Human Body. Published posthumously.
  • 1648. Responsiones Renati Des Cartesius¦ (Conversation with Burman). Notes on a Q&A session between Descartes and Frans Burman on 16 April 1648. Rediscovered in 1895 and published for the first time in 1896. An annotated bilingual edition (Latin with French translation), edited by Jean-Marie Beyssade, was published in 1981 (Paris: PUF).
  • 1649. Les passions de l'ame (Passions of the Soul). Dedicated to Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia.
  • 1657. Correspondence. Published by Descartes' literary executor Claude Clerselier. The third edition, in 1667, was the most complete; Clerselier omitted, however, much of the material pertaining to mathematics.


Collected Works

  • 1983. Oeuvres de Descartes in 11 vols. Adam, Charles, and Tannery, Paul, eds. Paris: Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin.
  • 1988. The Philosophical Writings Of Descartes in 3 vols. Cottingham, J., Stoothoff, R., Kenny, A., and Murdoch, D., trans. Cambridge University Press.
  • 1618. Compendium Musicae.
  • 1628. Rules for the Direction of the Mind.
  • 1637. Discourse on the Method ("Discours de la Methode"). An introduction to Dioptrique, Des Medatores and La Geomatrie. Original in French, because intended for a wider public.
  • 1637. La Geomatrie. Smith, David E., and Lantham, M. L., trans., 1954. The Geometry of Rene Descartes. Dover.
  • 1641. Meditations on First Philosophy. Cottingham, J., trans., 1996. Cambridge University Press. Latin original. Alternative English title: Metaphysical Meditations. Includes six Objections and Replies. A second edition published the following year, includes an additional "Objection and Reply" and a Letter to Dinet. HTML Online Latin-French-English Edition
  • 1644. Les Principes de la philosophie. Miller, V. R. and R. P., trans., 1983. Principles of Philosophy. Reidel.
  • 1647. Comments on a Certain Broadsheet.
  • 1647. The Description of the Human Body.
  • 1648. Conversation with Burman.
  • 1649. Passions of the Soul. Voss, S. H., trans., 1989. Indianapolis: Hackett. Dedicated to Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia.


Secondary Literature

  • BOOK, Boyer, Carl, 1985, A History of Mathematics, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 0-691-02391-3,
  • BOOK, Clarke, Desmond, Desmond Clarke, 2006, Descartes: A Biography, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 0-521-82301-3,
  • BOOK, Costabel, Pierre, 1987, Rene Descartes - Exercices pour les alaments des solides, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 2-13-040099-X,
  • BOOK, Cottingham, John, 1992, The Cambridge Companion to Descartes, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 0-521-36696-8,
  • BOOK, Duncan, Steven M., 2008, The Proof of the External World: Cartesian Theism and the Possibility of Knowledge, Cambridge, James Clarke & Co, ISBN 978-02271-7267-4weblink
  • Farrell, John. "Demons of Descartes and Hobbes", Paranoia and Modernity: Cervantes to Rousseau (Cornell UP, 2006), chapter 7.
  • BOOK, Garber, Daniel, 1992, Descartes' Metaphysical Physics, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 0-226-28219-8,
  • BOOK, Garber, Daniel, Michael Ayers, 1998, The Cambridge History of Seventeenth-Century Philosophy, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 0-521-53721-5,
  • BOOK, Gaukroger, Stephen, Stephen Gaukroger, 1995, Descartes: An Intellectual Biography, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 0-19-823994-7,
  • BOOK, Grayling, A.C., 2005, Descartes: The Life and times of a Genius, New York, Walker Publishing Co., Inc., 0-8027-1501-X,
  • Gillespie, A. (2006). Descartes' demon: A dialogical analysis of "Meditations on First Philosophy." weblink Theory & Psychology, 16, 761-781.
  • BOOK, Keeling, S. V., 1968, Descartes, Oxford, Oxford University Press, ISBN,
  • BOOK, Melchert, Norman, 2002, The Great Conversation: A Historical Introduction to Philosophy, New York, McGraw Hill, 0-19-517510-7,
  • Moreno Romo, Juan Carlos (Coord.), Descartes vivo. Ejercicios de Hermeneutica Cartesiana, Anthropos, Barcelona, 2007
  • BOOK, Ozaki, Makoto, 1991, Kartenspiel, oder Kommentar zu den Meditationen des Herrn Descartes, Berlin, Klein Verlag., ISBN 392719901X,
  • BOOK, Schafer, Rainer, 2006, Zweifel und Sein - Der Ursprung des modernen Selbstbewusstseins in Descartes' cogito, Wuerzburg, Koenigshausen&Neumann, 3-8260-3202-0,
  • Serfati, M., 2005, "Geometria" in Ivor Grattan-Guinness, ed., Landmark Writings in Western Mathematics. Elsevier: 1-22.
  • BOOK, Sorrell, Tom, 1987, Descartes, Oxford, Oxford University Press., 0-19-287636-8,


External Links



Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy




Some content adapted from the Wikinfo article René_Descartes under the GNU Free Documentation License.
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