Descartes -- Background

First Sightings

You are going to read much of Descartes' Meditations,

The birth of modern science

A Spanish historian writing some fifty years after the voyages of Columbus, remarked of those voyages that nothing had happened of such importance in the history of the world since "the birth of our Savior." A modern historian of science, reflecting on the development of modern science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, remarked that nothing had happened of such importance in European cultural history since the advent of Christianity. Rene Descartes was a major figure in these developments.

In the sixteenth century, European mathematicians reached the point where they surpassed the ancient mathematicians -- Euclid, Archimedes, Apollonius. The ancients had left a series of unsolved problems. European mathematicians either solved those remaining problems or showed that they could not be solved. Similarly, astronomical thinking during the sixteenth century broke with ancient models. Copernicus, mentioned by Montaigne in An Apology for Raymond Sebond published his book suggesting that the earth and other planets moved about the sun in 1543. The Copernican system raised questions about the Aristotelian and Ptolemaic view of the universe. That view held that all change was confined to the sublunar sphere. Beyond the moon the planets, the sun and stars revolved around the earth in unchanging crystal spheres. This view of the universe had been integrated with Christian theology by Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century. Later in the sixteenth century a Danish astronomer, Tycho Brahe, engaged in the most painstaking observation of the positions of the planets up to that time. One of the things he observed in the 1680s was the vast explosion of a star -- a supernova. This suggested that the Aristotelian/Ptolemaic view that the realm beyond the moon was unchangeable was false. Brahe's observations were inherited by his German assistant, Johan Kepler. In 1609 Galileo Galilee constructed a telescope and for the first time pointed it at the night sky. Galileo discovered the moons of Jupiter. Galileo was a convinced Copernican. His telescopic discoveries were regarded as subversive of the Aristotelian/Ptolemaic account. Kepler, also a Copernican, eventually discovered that the orbits of planets around the sun were elliptical rather than circular and developed three laws of planetary motion.

Galileo also played an important role in the development of physics. Like Raymond Sebond, he viewed nature as a book, but in his view the language of the book was mathematics. The ancient Greek and Roman atomists had distinguished between sensible qualities, such as color, taste, smell and sound, which were dependent on a relationship between atoms and organs of perception for their existence; and other qualities such as occupying space, being in motion or rest, and others, which were qualities existing independently of any perceiver. Galileo adopted this distinction. Galileo also came very close to the most fundamental physical discovery of all, the law of inertia -- that bodies at rest tend to remain at rest and bodies in motion tend to remain in motion. This law, the most crucial discovery in the development of modern physics, ran counter to Aristotelian physical theory. Galileo formulated the law of intertia in terms of circular motion. It remained for Descartes to give the law its modern formulation.

The development of mathematics, astronomy and physics in Europe beyond what the ancients had achieved, was a major factor in bringing the Renaissance to a close. Francis Bacon understood what was happening. He captured these developments in an image which compares voyages of the mind with voyages by ship. The Mediterranean Sea was the boundary of the ancient world, beyond the pillars of Hercules was the unknown Atlantic Ocean. Bacon saw Europeans breaking the bounds of ancient learning and sailing past the Pillars of Hercules (The Straits of Gibralter) and passing out into a voyage of discovery on the unknown sea. It is clear that Descartes was a great captain in these new intellectual voyages of discovery.

Rene Descartes

Descartes was born at La Haye (now called Descartes), and educated at the Jesuit College of La Flèche between 1606 and 1614. 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. In 1618 he went to Holland to serve in the army of Prince Maurice of Nassau, in traveled to Germany with that army. On the night of Nov ember 10, he had a series of dreams which he interpreted as signs that he would found a universal science. The most important influence on Descartes at this time was the mathematician Isaac Beeckman, who stimulated Descartes by posing a number of problem s and discussing issues in physics and mathematics with him. His first substantial work was the Regulae or Rules for the Direction of Mind written in 1628-9 but 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 these discoveries? 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 analysis). Descartes is clearly convinced that the discovery of the proper method is the key to scientific advance. For a more extended and detailed discussion of these methods, see John Cottingham , The Rationalists, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1982. Chapter 2.

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. In the same year Descartes moved to Holland where he remained with only brief interruptions until 1649.

In Holland Descartes produced a scientific work called Le Monde or The World which he was about to publish in 1634. At the point, however, he learned that Galileo had been condemned by the Church for teaching Copernicanism. Descarte s' book was Copernican to the core, and he therefore had it suppressed. In 1638 Descartes published a book containing three essays on mathematical and scientific subjects and the Discourse on Method. These works were written in French (rather than Latin) and were aimed at the educated world rather than simply academics. In 1641 Descartes followed this with the Meditationes de Prima Philosophia (Meditations on First Philosophy). This short work is more metaphysical than scientific, and aims to establish the certain foundations for the sciences which Descartes had announced in his confrontation with Chandoux in 1628. The work was published together with Objections and Replies from a six (and then seven) philosophers and theologians, including Thomas Hobbes, Pierre Gassendi and Antoine Arnauld.

Locating Descartes

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, 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 Gaukroger view, Descartes interest in defeating skepticism, is that by doing so, he can put his physical theory on such a firm foundation that it could not be questioned. However one decides this 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.

Descartes' Life and Work after the Meditations

After the Meditations, Descartes produced The Principles of Philosophy in 1644, the most complete statement of his mature philosophy and of the Cartesian system in general. Part 1 explains Descartes metaphysical views. Part II gives a detailed exposition of the principles of Cartesian physics. Part III applies those principles of physics to give a detailed explanation of the universe, and Part IV deals with a wide variety of terrestrial phenomena. Two more parts were planned, to deal with plants and animals and man, but were not completed. In 1648 Descartes published "Notes against a Program" -- a response to a pamphlet published anonymously by Henricus Regius, Professor of Medicine at the University of Utrecht. Regius had been an early and enthusiastic supporter of Descartes. But when Regius published his Foundations of Physics Descartes complained that Regius had shamelessly used unpublished papers of Descartes to which he had access and had distorted Descartes' ideas. The "Notes" both illustrate the kind of academic controversies in which Descartes was involved during this decade, but also provides some insight into his views about mind and his doctrine of innate ideas.

Descartes last work Les Passions de l'áme was written as a result of the correspondence which Descartes carried on with Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia. The work was written in French, and published in Amsterdam and Paris in 1649. This work (like the Principles) is composed of a large number of short articles. Princess Elisabeth had raised the question of how the soul could interact with the body in 1643. In response to Elisabeth's questions, Descartes wrote a short work which developed into the Passions of the Soul. The work is a combination of psychology, physiology and ethics, and contains Descartes' theory of two way causal interaction via the pineal gland.

Two months before the publication of the Passions Descartes set sail for Stockholm, Sweden, at the invitation of Queen Christina of Sweden. Descartes' death in Stockholm of pneumonia, has regularly been attributed to the rigors of the Swedish climate and the fact that Descartes (no early riser) was sometimes required to give the Queen lessons as early as five in the morning. However unpleasant these conditions may have been, it seems plain that Descartes acquired his fatal malady as a result of nursing his friend the French ambassador (who had pneumonia) back to health.