Descartes: Early Life
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
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.
At La Flèche, all teaching and
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.
|The Apotheosis of Henry IV and the
of the Regency of Mari de Medecis -- Rubens
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.