Ports of Call  


Descartes 1

Rene Descartes: Early Life

Rene Descartes

Descartes was born at La Haye (now called Descartes) in 1595 and educated at the Jesuit college of La Flèche. Descartes lived during the period of the Counter Reformation -- the powerful Catholic reaction to the Reformation. One of the ways in which the Church reacted was the creation of the Society of Jesus -- the Jesuits.

One of the primary functions of the Jesuits was education, and in France they built a number of colleges accross the country. Descartes was educated at the Jesuit College of La Flèche between 1606 and 1614. La Flèche was the most prestigeous of the colleges which the Jesuits established in France. When Descartes arrived it was only two years old. The buildings and grounds were originally a palace. They were the gift of the French king, Henry IV who had been born there. The King had the palace renovated and converted to a college at his own expense.

the Jesuit College of La Flèche

The Jesuits had been expelled from Paris in 1595, and then allowed to return and were allowed to resume teaching in a number of cities. They responded by becoming fervent defenders of the Bourbon monarchy. After the King's assisination in 1610, his heart was buried at La Flèche in a theatrical ceremony. The entire college was draped in black. Descartes among 24 chosen students participated in the burial of the King's heart. With the death of Henry IV, Marie de Medicis became regent for the young Louis XIII and the French government was to become increasingly centralized and more and more powerful under the able leadership of two powerful ministers -- Cardinal Richelieu followed by Cardinal Mazarin.

The Apotheosis of Henry IV and the proclamation
of the Regency of Mari de Medecis -- Rubens 1610
At La Flèche, all teaching and disputation were carried out in Latin. Latin, after all, was the language of the Catholic Church, and not the language of Protestantism. The Church saw Europe as one family under the leadership of the Pope, and Latin as the common language of the family. The first five years of schooling were devoted to Latin, Greek and classical literature.

Descartes later claimed that his education gave him little of substance and that only mathematics had given him certain knowledge. In this lament he joins a chorus of seventeenth century philosophers including Bacon, Hobbes and Locke. Neverthless, his education may well have effected him in ways which he failed to recognize. Descartes was a superb writer in many respects, and his training in rhetoric at the Jesuit college very likely contributed to this.

In 1618 he went to Holland to serve in the army of Prince Maurice of Nassau, and he traveled to Germany with that army. The most important influence on Descartes at this time was the mathematician Isaac Beeckman, who stimulated Descartes by posing a number of problems and discussing issues in physics and mathematics with him. Beeckman was interested in using mathematics to solve practical physical problems, in the Dutch tradition of practical mechanics. He believed that macro-geometrical regularities can be explained in terms of a micro-mechanical model. The idea is that mechanical phenomena which we can encounter through the senses (macrosopic phenomena) can be explained in terms of microscopic mechanical phenomena (groups of corpuscles) which are essentially similar to them, and which we can thus understand from their analogs on the macroscopic level. Beekman was almost certainly the first person in Europe to pursue this approach in detail. His effect on Descartes was profound. He ensured that Descartes would not become a lawyer or a soldier, but would pursue these new kinds of enquiries. A year after meeting Beekman, on the night of November 10, 1619 Descartes had a series of dreams which he interpreted as signs that he would found a universal science.

Father Mersene and Mechanism

Descartes in Paris
Descartes returned to France in February 1622 and from 1625 to 1628 he remained in Paris. Descartes met Father Marin Mersene (1588-1648) sometime around 1623. They had gone to school at La Flèche at the same time, but did not meet each other there. Mersene had gone on to study at the Sorbonne and later at Poitiers. He became a priest in the pious and austere Minimi order. Mersene went to Paris in 1619 and remained there until his death in 1648 except for a few trips to the Netherlands, Italy and the French Provinces. His cell in Paris was one of the centers of the European scientific and intellectual worlds.
Father Mersene
Mersene was significant because of his immense correspondence. The modern publication of it runs to about 10,000 pages. His correspondence thus provides us with a detailed history of the developments in scientific and philosophical thought in this period. He was one of the key figures in advancing the work of the new philosophers and scientists. He was capable of grasping the most abstruse scientific and mathematical points. He was also interested in such questions as; "How high was Jacob's ladder?" and "Why do fools make more money than wise men?"

In 1623 Mersenne published Quaestiones celeberrimae to refute various heretical doctrines, such as sorcery, caballism, naturalistic psychology, astrology and alchemy. Mersenne held that the root error in many of these doctrines and practices was a bluring of the distinction between the natural and the supernatural. The result is seeing nature as full of all kinds of powers. As Stephen Gaukgroger puts it in his fine Descartes: an intellectual biography "Naturalism, broadly defined, is the doctrine that the truly supernatural (God alone) does not need to be invoked to explain a whole range of events in which it was traditionally thought to be required." It is this which makes naturalism a threat to established religion.

Mersenne realized that a return to the Aristotelian conception of nature which had served medieval theologians and natural philosophers was not going to be effective in countering these new forms of naturalism. Aristotle's essentially biological treatment of nature encourages a picture of nature as an essentially active realm, containing many hidden or 'occult' powers which could be tapped and exploited if one could only discover them. These powers, of which magnetism is a prime example, can operate at a distance. The basic problem as Mersenne saw it was that these naturalistic views treated matter as active, and his response is to offer a form of mechanism in which the key doctrine is that matter is inactive and that all causality is by impact or contact -- thus no causality at a distance. On the other hand, Mersenne did not reject scholastic Aristotelianism insofar as it made a clear separation between the natural and the supernatural, argued for the personal immortality of the soul and rejected determinism. Descartes agreed with Mersenne completly about these issues, and provided his own version of this mechanistic program.

Before the Meditations

Descartes first substantial work was the Regulae or Rules for the Direction of Mind now believed to have been written in two stages, the first in 1619-20 and the second in 1626-8. The work was not published until 1701. This work shows Descartes interest in method which he shared with many sixteenth and seventeenth century scientists, mathematicians and philosophers.

One source of this interest in method was ancient mathematics. The thirteen books of Euclid's Elements was a model of knowledge and deductive method. But how had all this been achieved? Archimedes had made many remarkable discoveries. How had he come to make them? The method in which the results were presented (sometimes called the method of synthesis) was clearly not the method by which these results were discovered. So, the search was on for the method used by the ancient mathematicians to make their discoveries. The method of discovery was often refered to as the method of analysis. Descartes is clearly convinced that the discovery of the proper method is the key to scientific advance. The discussion of the Method of Analysis will continue in the Commentary section of this unit.

Locating Descartes

In November 1628 Descartes was in Paris, where he made himself famous in a confrontation with Chandoux. Chandoux claimed that science could only be based on probabilities. This view reflected the dominance in French intellectual circles of Renaissance skepticism. This skeptical view was rooted in the religious crisis in Europe resulting from the Protestant Reformation and had been deepened by the publication of the works of Sextus Empiricus and reflections on disagreements between classical authors. It was strengthened again by considerations about the differences in culture between New World cultures and that of Europe, and by the debates over the new Copernican system. All of this had been eloquently formulated by Montaigne in his Apology for Raymond Sebond and developed by his followers. Descartes attacked this view, claiming only that certainty could serve as a basis for knowledge, and that he himself had a method for attaining such certainty. Scholars are not agreed about Descartes motives in opposing Chandoux. Was he reacting to the skeptical crisis in French intellectual life or was he simply convinced that science could be put on a firmer foundation than mere probability? In the same year Descartes moved to Holland where he remained with only brief interruptions until 1649.

The book we are reading, Descartes' Meditations was written after Descartes had made the great bulk of his discoveries in mathematics and natural philosophy. Descartes was a mathematician of the first rank. He played a major role in interpretation of arithmetic and geometry in terms of algebra. His analytic geometry is characteristic of this general movement in mathematics in this period. His physical theory was enormously important.

There are a variety of ways to understand what Descartes is doing in the Meditations. Richard Popkin, in an influential book, The History of Skepticism from Erasums to Spinoza, suggests that from the beginning of his career, Descartes was responding to the skeptical crisis of the seventeenth century. According to Popkin, Descartes, along with many others rejected the alliance between skepticism and Catholicism. He viewed skepticism as a threat to both religion and science and wanted to put both on a firm footing. This explains the interest which Descartes shows in defeating skepticism both in the earlier Discourse on Method and in the Meditations. Stephen Gaukroger, a recent biographer of Descartes, disagrees with this view. According to Gaukroger, Descartes' primary interest in the 1620s was in mathematics and mechanism, Descartes wrote a book called Le Monde -- The World in which he developed a physical account of the evolution of the world with Copernicanism at its heart. Gaukroger claims that Descartes showed no interest in skepticism until after the condemnation of Galileo in 1632. After hearing of the condemnation of Galileo, Descartes suppressed Le Monde, only giving some account of it in the Discourse on the Method. On the Gaukroger view, Descartes' has an interest in defeating skepticism because by doing so he can put his physical theory on such a firm foundation that it could not be questioned. In the next unit, among other matters, we will consider how Descartes' account of the foundations of knowledge is connected with his physical theory. However one decides the question of intent, it is clear that Descartes in the Discourse and the Meditations is out to defeat the skeptics. We will follow him in his attempt.


BACK   2 of 5   NEXT