Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
The appearance of Meditations on First Philosophy in 1641 marked a dramatic turning point in the history of Western thought. Born in France in 1596, René Descartes was sent to a Jesuit school as a young man and in 1616 obtained a law degree. He spent much of his youth traveling. Like many young Frenchmen of the time, he enlisted as a gentleman volunteer in the army of Prince Maurice of Nassau in Holland during the Thirty Years’ War. In November, 1619, when the onset of winter had slowed the fighting, Descartes retired to the village of Ulm on the Danube River to devote himself to study and contemplation. He wrote that one day, while trying to escape the cold in a heated room, he had three visions or dreams in which he saw flashes of light and heard thunder. He said it seemed to him that some spirit was revealing a new philosophy to him. He interpreted these visions as a divine sign that it was his destiny to place all of human thought on the firm foundation of mathematics.
In 1637, Descartes had published Discours de la méthode (Discourse on Method, 1649), which roughly outlined that new philosophy. Both Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy were written in French rather than Latin, the usual language of scholarly works. Like Galileo before him, who wrote in Italian, Descartes intended to reach beyond the university to a larger educated audience.
The great intellectual tension...
(The entire section is 1758 words.)
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