RENE DESCARTES (1595-1650)

"I am thinking therefore I exist."
(Latin: Cogito ergo sum)
from the Discourse on Method

Rene Descartes was a famous French mathematician, scientist and philosopher. He was arguably the first major philosopher in the modern era to make a serious effort to defeat skepticism. His views about knowledge and certainty, as well as his views about the relationship between mind and body have been very influential over the last three centuries.

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 travelled 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 Issac Beeckman, who stimulated Descartes by posing a number of problem s and discusiing 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 probablitiies. This view reflected the dominance in French intellectual circles of Renaissance skepticism. This skptical 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 strengthend 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 supressed. 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 th an 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. (For a more detailed account of this work see Structure of the Meditations. 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.

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 terrestial phenomena. Two more parts were planned, to deal with pl ants 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 Medecine 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 rigours 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.

Biographies of Descartes

Here is another on-line biography of Descartes.

Descartes Time Line

1596 31 March: born at La Haye near Tours

1606-14 He attends Jesuit college of La Fleche in Anjou

1616 Descartes takes doctor of law at University of Poitiers

1618 He goes to Holland and joins the army of Prince Maurice of Nassau

1619 He travels in Germany; on 10 November in Ulm has dream of a unified scientific system based on mathematics

1622 He returns to France, during next few years spends time in Paris, but also travels in Europe

1628 (or 29) He composes Rules for the Direction of Mind (which was first published in 1701);

1628 In November Descartes distinguished himself in a confrontation with Chandoux, who claimed that all science is based on probability while Descartes claimed that only certainty could be the basis of human knowledge and that he had a method for attaining certainty. Following this, Descartes was encouraged by Cardinal Berulle to develop his system.

1628 Descartes leaves for Holland which is to be his home until 1649

1629 He begins working on The World

1633 The condemnation of Galileo leads Descartes to abandon plans to publish The World

1635 The birth of Descartes' natural daughter, named Francine, baptized 7 August (died 1640)

1637 Descartes publishes Discourse on Method, with Optics, Meterology and the Geometry

1641 Meditations on First Philosophy published together with the first six sets of Objections and Replies

1642 Second edition of the Meditations published along with all seven sets of objections and replies. Descartes meets Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia

1643 Cartesian philosophy condemned at the University of Utrecht; Descartes' long correspondence with the Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia begins.

1644 Visits France: The Principles of Philosophy published.

1647 Descartes is awarded a pension by the King of France; he publishes Comments on a Certain Broadsheet; begins work on The Description of the Human Body

1648 He is interviewed by Frans Burman at Egmond-Binnen which leads to the publication of Conversations with Burman

1649 He goes to Sweden on invitation of Queen Christina; the Passions of the Soul published

1650 11 February: dies in Stockholm

Descartes Time Line Sources

Captain's Choice

The literature on Descartes is immense. I make no effort here to list even all the major commentaries on Descartes philosophical works. The w orks cited simply represent some of my own favorite secondary sources. To get a larger view of what is available, one should consult library indexes (now often on line) such as OASIS here at Oregon State University, and such data bases as the Philoso phers; Index which lists books and articles published over (roughly) the last fifty years).
  • John Cottingham, ed. The Cambrigde Companion to Descartes, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK,1992.
  • John Cottingham, Descartes,Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1986.
  • Edwin Curley, Descartes Against the Skeptics, Blackwell, Oxford, 1978.
  • Willis Doney, Descartes: A Collection of Critical Essays, Doubleday, New York, 1967.
  • A. O. Rorty, Essays on Descartes' Meditations, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1986.


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