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René Descartes - Biography

René Descartes (1596–1650)

René Descartes was born in a village near Tours in France in 1596. At the age of eight years he entered the Jesuit college La Flèche in Anjou, where he would study classics, logic, and Aristotelian philosophy, as well as mathematics from the books of Clavius. On account of his fragile health he was allowed the privilege of sleeping until 11 o'clock every morning, a habit he kept for his entire life. Descartes studied at the college until 1612, and despite his Jesuit education, would maintain the importance of separating reason and faith.

Descartes went on to obtain a degree in law from Poiter, then enlisted in the Dutch military. Military service was tradition in his family, and when the Thierty Years' War began he was encouraged to volunteer under the Count de Bucquoy in the Bavarian army. In his leisure time he studied mathematics, having been influenced by the Dutch mathematician and scientist Beeckman. Descartes dates his first new philosophical ideas and his analytical geometry from three dreams that he had while campaigning on the Danube. He saw November 19, 1619, the date of these dreams, as a landmark moment in his life. It was around 1619 that he may have started Rules for the Direction of Mind, his first major philosophical treatise, which would remain unfinished. This work discusses the proper method for engaging with science and rational theology.

From 1620 to 1628 Descartes traveled through Europe, moving from Bohemia, to Hungary, Germany, Holland and France. In 1623 he was is Paris where he met Mersenne, a connection who would keep him in contact with his contemporaries in science. After Paris, he spent time in Venice, returning to France in 1625. In 1628 he met the Cardinal de Berulle, the founder of the Oratorians. Berulle was impressed by his conversation with Descartes, and he encouraged Descartes to devote his life to the study of truth. In 1629 Descartes moved to Holland where he would live in seclusion for 20 years. Occasionally during this time he would visit France, and he changed his address frequently to maintain his privacy.

During his first four year in seclusion he wrote Le Monde, a thesis on physics defending a heliocentric view of the universe. 1633 was the year that Galileo's Dialogue was condemned by the Catholic Church, and although Descartes book was ready, he put off its publication out of concern that his views might too be censured. The incomplete manuscript of Le Monde was finally published in 1664. In 1637 Descartes published Optics, Meteorology, and Geometry, a collection of essays. The preface to the collection is titled Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Feason and Seeking Truth in the Sciences, and was written for the most part before 1633. A conclusion to the preface, added later, explained that he would publish despite of the risks because he needed readers to help confirm his scientific theories. In Discourse Descartes insists on the use of deductive reasoning, countering Francis Bacon's induction as introduced in Novum Organum from 1620. The work from these years forms the basis of some of Descartes most important contributions to mathematics and physics, including the introduction of what is now known as analytic geometry.

In 1640 Descartes expanded on the metaphysical themes from his collection of essays in his Meditations on the First Philosophy: In Which the Existence of God and the Distinction Between Mind and Body are Demonstrated. The six Meditations of the book are titled: Of the Things that we may doubt; Of the Nature of the Human Mind; Of God: that He exists; Of Truth and Error; Of the Essence of Material Things; Of the Existence of Material Things; and Of the Real Distinction between the Mind and the Body of Man. In Meditations Descartes argues that the mind and body are distinct substances, He writes that humans are spirits, and that their essential attributes are exclusively of the spirit (for example thinking, willing, and conceiving). The human spirit occupies a mechanical body, made up of extended substance. Attributes like sense perception, movement and appetite are of the body and not the spirit, so they do not comprise human essence. Meditations was published in Latin 1641, and translated into French in 1642.

In 1644 Principia Philosophiae was published in Amsterdam. Its four sections, titled The Principles of Human Knowledge, The Principles of Material Things, Of the Visible World and The Earth, are a study of mechanics, developing a mathematical foundation of the universe. The book concentrates on physical science, specifically the laws of motion and theory of vortices. In 1647 the French court granted Descartes a pension to honor his work.

In 1649 Descartes moved to Stockholm to tutor Queen Christina in philosophy. The Queen desired to begin her studies at 5 A.M., and Descartes was unaccustomed to working at this early hour. The work, combined with the harsh climate, had ill effects on Descartes' health. He died of pneumonia in 1650.

Perhaps Descartes' most well known philosophical ideas are his method of hyperbolic doubt, and the idea that though one may doubt, one may not doubt that one exists. The method of hyperbolic doubt is the refusal to accept either the authority of previous philosophers or information gleaned from one's own senses. He decided that in developing a foundation for philosophy anything that might be doubted must be rejected. Only what is beyond doubt is acceptable and may lead to truth. He finds that all that remains is the fact of doubting itself, and that something must exist to doubt, namely the philosopher himself.

Descartes always refused the Aristotelian and Scholastic traditions that had been the dominant shape of philosophy throughout the Medieval times, and he rejected religious influence in his scientific and philosophical studies. Throughout his life and afterwards his work was condemned by the Catholic Church, and was officially prohibited in 1663. Nonetheless, Descartes was a devout Catholic, and influenced by the Reformation's challenge of Church authority, and he often uses a vocabulary influenced by scholastic thought. As long as he felt an idea was in line with his thoughts on clear reasoning he was glad to borrow it. He saw reason as the foundation and guide in the pursuit of truth, and he was relentless in his search for absolute certainty.

Descartes is considered a revolutionary figure, especially for his attempts to change the relationship between philosophy and theology, and integrate philosophy with the new forms of science. He is respected for his attempts to create a form of philosophical argument akin to science or mathematics, his emphasis on perspective of consciousness in epistemology, and his work on methodology. Descartes has been influential to philosophers throughout the 17th and 17th centuries, including Spinoza, Malbrache, Locke and Leibniz.