René Descartes Additional Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

0111200810-Descartes.jpg René Descartes (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Descartes’s cardinal contribution is the extension of the mathematical method to all fields of knowledge. He is the father of analytic geometry and the author of the most universally appropriate version of mind-body dualism in the history of philosophy.

Early Life

René Descartes was born to one of the most respected families among the French-speaking nobility in Touraine. His father, Joachim, held the post of counselor to the Parlement de Bordeaux. Descartes’s mother died of tuberculosis only a few days after giving birth to her son, leaving a frail child of chronically poor health to the sole care of his father. René’s physical condition remained delicate until he was in his twenties.

Joachim Descartes was a devoted and admiring father, determined to obtain the best education for “his philosopher.” When Descartes was ten, he was sent to the Collège de La Flèche, newly established by the Jesuits under the auspices of Henry IV.

Descartes was an exemplary student of the humanities and of mathematics. When, at the age of sixteen, he began his study of natural philosophy, he came to the insight that would later give rise to his revolutionary contributions to modern thought. Uncertainty and obscurity, he discovered, were hallmarks of physics and metaphysics. These disciplines seemed to attract a contradictory morass of opinions that yielded nothing uniform or definite. By contrast, Descartes’s studies in mathematics showed him something firm, solid, and lasting. He was astonished to find that while mathematical solutions had been applied to scientific problems, the method of mathematics had never been extended to important practical matters. At La Flèche, Descartes concluded that he would have to break with the traditions of the schools if he were to find knowledge of any worth.

Descartes left his college without regret, and his father subsequently sent him to Paris. Social life there failed to amuse him, and he formed his most intimate friendships with some of France’s leading scholars and teachers. When he was twenty-one, he joined the army but spent little time campaigning. In his spare time, he wrote a compendium of music and displayed his mathematical genius by instantaneously solving puzzles devised for him by soldiers in his company.

Descartes was housed with a German regiment in winter quarters at Ulm, waiting for active campaign, when the whole core of his subsequent thought suddenly took shape. On the night of November 10, 1619, after a day of intense and agitated reflection, Descartes went to bed and had three dreams. He interpreted these dreams as a divine sign that he was destined to found a unified science based on a new method for the correct management of human reason. Descartes’s sudden illumination and resolve on that night to take himself as the judge of all values and the source of all certainty in knowledge was momentous for the world of ideas.

Life’s Work

Descartes spent the next ten years formulating his method while continuing scientific researches, and he occupied himself with travel in order to study what he called “the great book of the world.” He had come to the view that systems of human thought, especially those of the sciences and philosophy, were better framed by one thinker than by many, so that systematizing a body of thought from the books of others was not the best method. Descartes wanted to be disabused of all the prejudices he had acquired from the books of others; thus, he sought to begin anew with his own clear and firm foundation. This view was codified in his first substantial work, Rules for the Direction of the Mind. In this work, Descartes set forth the method of rational inquiry he thought requisite for scientific advance, but he advocated its use for the attainment of any sort of knowledge whatever.

Descartes completed a scientific work entitled The World in 1633, the same year that Galileo was condemned by the Inquisition. Upon hearing this news, Descartes immediately had his own book suppressed from publication, for it taught the same Copernican cosmology as did Galileo, and made the claim that indicted Galileo’s orthodoxy: that human beings could have knowledge as perfect as that of God. A few years later, Descartes published a compendium of treatises on mathematics and physical sciences that were written for the educated but nonacademic French community; this work obliquely recommended his unorthodox views to the common people of “good sense” from whom Descartes hoped to receive a fair hearing. This work was prefaced by his Discourse on Method and contained the Geometry, the Dioptric, and the Meteors.

Discourse on Method provided the finest articulation of what has come to be known as Descartes’s method of doubt. This consisted of four logical rules:

1. to admit as true only what was so perfectly clear and distinct that it was indubitable.

2. to divide all difficulties into analyzable elements.

3. to pass synthetically from what is easy to understand to what is difficult.

4. to make such accurate enumerations of the steps of reasoning so as to be certain of having omitted nothing.

The method is fundamentally of mathematical inspiration, and it is deductive and analytical rather than experimental. It is a heuristic device for solving complex problems that yields explicit innovation and discovery. Descartes employed his method to this end in the tract on geometry when he discovered a way to resolve the geometric curves into Cartesian...

(The entire section is 2329 words.)


(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Descartes was an accomplished mathematician, scientist, and philosopher whose works include the Discourse on Method (1637), Meditations on the First Philosophy (1641), Principles of Philosophy (1644), and The Passions of the Soul (1649). Often considered the father of modern philosophy, he discarded the absolutist systems of the scholastic philosophers who had preceded him, and subjected all knowledge to universal doubt, through which he attempted to establish new foundations for knowledge of the physical world and of God. He was the victim of posthumous censorship, as various of his works were banned after his death by the Roman Catholic church and, much later, by the Soviet Union.


(The entire section is 502 words.)


(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

Descartes was educated at the Jesuit College of La Flèche. In his influential works Discours de la méthode (1637; Discourse on Method, 1649) and Meditationes de Prima Philosophia (1641; Meditations on First Philosophy, 1680), Descartes moved toward epistemology, questioning what a person can know. This move was accompanied by a particular method that proceeded by systematically doubting everything that could be doubted. Only an “unshakable foundation” that was absolutely impregnable to doubt could serve as a reliable basis for a system of knowledge.

Descartes believed that he had found this foundation in the formulation cogito ergo sum—“I think, therefore I am.” Consciousness of one’s own existence appeared to be a certainty that could not be doubted. The rest of his system proceeds from this initial certainty.

The Cartesian method, which aims to take nothing for granted and assumes that truth is to be defined in terms of certainty and mathematical clarity, presented ground rules of scientific inquiry that are still used.

Descartes’ dualism, which divides reality into two categories of things—human consciousness, defined as “thinking things” (res cogitans), and all matter, defined as “place-filling things” (res extensa)—played a central role in founding the modern perception of human beings as “subjects” and things as “objects.”


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

René Descartes (day-kahrt), born on March 31, 1596, was the third child of Joachim Descartes, a fairly prosperous member of the minor noblesse de robe (nobility of the robe); he was a counselor in the Parlement (or law court) of Rennes. From 1604 to 1612, René Descartes studied at the College of La Fleche at Anjou, where he received from the Jesuits a firm grounding in every aspect of scholastic philosophy, which he subsequently challenged. After La Fleche, he continued his studies at the University of Poitier, where he sharpened his analytic and geometric methods. His brilliance was quickly recognized, and since he was of very frail health, he was granted relief from morning duties; it was during this time that he...

(The entire section is 759 words.)


(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Chappell, Vere, ed. Descartes’s Meditations: Critical Essays. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997. A significant collection of essays by scholars who carefully assess the perspectives and problems in one of Western philosophy’s most important texts.

Cottingham, John. Descartes. New York: Routledge, 1999. An excellent biographical introduction to the thoughts of the philosopher, clearly presented and requiring no special background. Includes a bibliography.

Cottingham, John, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Descartes. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. A helpful collection of essays focusing on a variety of topics in Descartes’s thought.


(The entire section is 522 words.)