References

Descartes: A New Approach
By Garth Kemerling. A superb introduction to Descartes in ten parts. Read this.

Philosophy Talk: Descartes
Listen to this excellent radio program and take notes. The segment is about one hour. The free Real Player is required for streaming audio.

René Descartes
A long and well-written analysis of Descartes' philosophy by Douglas Burnham and James Fieser.

René Descartes: Mathematician
Detailed orientation to Descartes' mathematical and scientific ideas. Perhaps this is of most value to math and science oriented folks. From the History of Mathematics Archive from the University of St Andrews, Scotland.

Meditations on a First Philosophy
Descartes' most important work.

 

Rene Descartes

"If you would be a real seeker after truth, you must at least once in your life doubt, as far as possible, all things." [Meditations on First Philosophy]

René Descartes is frequently regarded as the parent of modern philosophy. While scholars point out other important 17th century thinkers, here is no question concerning Descartes' immense influence in bringing intellectual activity out of the middle ages and into the modern age. The modern age, here, refers to a period in which science, technology, and industry grew at a remarkable pace. This development was largely due to changes in the way people thought and learned. The modern period starts roughly in the 1600's (the17th century - Descartes lived from 1596-1650) and extends to present -- although some thinkers claim that Western culture has recently passed beyond the modern age to a post-modern age.

Scholasticism was characterized by the effort to construct a coherent system out of traditional thought rather than producing speculation or new ideas. Scholasticism involved methods of interpretation (of traditional texts such as scripture and the works of Aristotle) and methods for combining ideas in sophisticated ways. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) codified the scholastic method and provided a primary model of inquiry for several centuries after him.

The Renaissance is a period from the 14th century to the early 17th century in which humanistic values began to flourish and traditional authorities, including the church and the scholastic method came under increasing questioning. Miguel de Montaigne (1533-1592) was a writer whose challenge of traditional values, including the claims of human knowledge, well exemplifies the Renaissance spirit.

It fell to original thinkers such as Descartes to transform challenge and skepticism into a positive agenda for the movement away from scholastic authority and towards the systematic search for truth. With his method Descartes produces the first modern system of philosophy. At the same time, Galileo was revising the sciences with his experimental method and mathematical models. By study of Descartes and Galileo we can discern the parentage of the modern age, of which we are the children.

The scholastic ideal is still with us. For example, there are millions of people today who regard sacred texts (e.g. the Bible or the Koran) as factual records with supreme authority. Perhaps you can discern the echoes of the struggle between Scholasticism and Descartes' scientific view in the contemporary struggle between religious creationism and scientific biology. Another example of contemporary scholasticism is found in the strict constructionist legal position under which the written letter of the law (e.g. the US Constitution) is regarded as a fixed authority over judicial opinion, as opposed to judges who read the law as a "living document" that must be interpreted in the context of application. Lastly, consider someone who consistently appeals to the dictionary to settle all disputes over the meanings of words; even of controversial concepts such as freedom, morality, and truth. In all of these cases we see a tendency to vest authority in a traditional source and text. The reader's purpose, on their view, is not to add to the text or create something new, but to faithfully interpret the text as the author intended. Descartes and Galileo challenged the authority of traditional texts by requiring that the claims in them be validated by some external standard, such as experimental observation or logical demonstration. In some ways, the struggle they started continues today. It may even effect you personally.

Descartes’ system of philosophy established several important issues that remain live today. His focus on issues knowledge and beliefs the primary philosophical concerns gave rise to modern epistemology (Greek; episteme = knowing, ology = to study). Among Descartes’ ideas that remain potent today are”

Radical skepticism: Arguments that pushed the skeptic conclusions further than had been taken before. He did so in order to defeat skepticism on its strongest possible interpretation.

The Cogito: Descartes’ famous proposition “I think, therefore I am” is known by many and understood by few. It is a remarkable solution to the problem of skepticism.

Dualism: Identifying the mind as something distinct and separate from matter and the body.

Artificial intelligence: In book V of Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting Reason in the Sciences (1637) Descartes investigates whether an artificial human with a full mental life could be constructed in principle. This remains a seriously active pursuit in science today and Descartes’ arguments are still take seriously; for instance in the the book Cartesian Linguistics (1966) by Noam Chomsky.

Analytic geometry: As a mathematician, Descartes applied geometric methods to algebraic problems and founded a new and crucial field of mathematics. The Cartesean coordinate system that you learned in High School is a result of his innovation.

A very telling indicator of Descartes’ continued relevance is the range of contemporary criticisms of him. Feminist philosophers frequently critique his arguments and influence, particularly his mind/body dualism, such as in Susan Bordo’s Feminist Interpretations of Rene Descartes (1999). Philosophers and Cognitive Scientists who aim to reduce consciousness and all mental phenomena to physical processes often take issue with Descartes, such as Antonio R. Damasio with his popular book Descartes' Error : Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. Some philosophers seek to challenge the very notion of consciousness as self-refection, which is so clearly stated by Descartes. Richard Rorty in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1980) makes explicit criticism of Descartes on this matter.

An important point about these contemporary criticisms of Descartes is that philosophers who wish to produce major revisions of our thinking usually attack what they take to be the foundations of that thinking. That is what Descartes succeeded at in opposing scholasticism, empiricism, and skepticism; he undermined these belief systems at their foundations. That so many major thinkers continue to chip away at Descartes demonstrates how important a role he has in the foundations of our modern belief systems.


 

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