René Descartes

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(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

René Descartes 1596–1650

French philosopher and mathematician.

Descartes is considered the father of modern philosophy and one of the seminal figures of French thought. In his philosophical program, as presented in such important works as Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy, he "brought together," as Wilhelm Windelband wrote, "the scientific movement of his time to establish rationalism anew, by filling the scholastic system of conceptions with the rich content of Galilean research." Descartes argued that philosophy must be based on a clear, rational method of inquiry. In order to establish a firm basis for this method, he subjected popularly-held assumptions concerning the nature of the self and the universe to a process of rigorous doubt. Descartes effectively reduced verifiable reality to the thinking self, though he eventually accepted the objective reality of the external world and the existence of God. Critics affirm that the most significant result of Descartes' methodological skepticism was his radical separation of the thinking subject from the physical world, which he viewed in purely scientific, mechanistic terms, suggesting the modern metaphor of the world conceived as an intricate machine.

Biographical Information

Descartes was born in 1596 at La Haye in Touraine. His family belonged to the noblesse de robe, or juridical nobility, as attested by his father's position as councilor of the parlement of Rennes in Brittany. Like his mother, who died of a lung infection a few days after his birth, Descartes suffered from a delicate constitution, and his health was a subject of great concern for his doctors. Nonetheless, in 1604 he was sent to the Jesuit college of La Flèche in Anjou, where he received a largely classical education, but also familiarized himself with new discoveries in optics and astronomy. After graduating from La Flèche in 1612, he studied law at the University of Poitiers until 1616, though he appears never to have practiced. Weary of studying, Descartes finally decided on a military career and served under the banners of Maurice of Nassau and the German emperor Ferdinand during the early phases of the Thirty Years War. During 1618–19 at Breda, Holland,

Descartes became acquainted with the famous mathematician Isaac Beeckman, who encouraged him to return to the study of science and mathematics.

In April, 1619, Descartes began travelling, settling in Neuberg, Germany, where he secluded himself "dans un poêle" ["in a heated room"] for the winter. On November 10, 1619, Descartes experienced a series of extraordinary dreams that led him to believe that he was destined to found a universal science based on mathematics. During the next few years Descartes continued travelling in Europe. He returned to France in 1622, eventually establishing himself in Paris, where he continued to refine his philosophy in the company of mathematicians and scientists. In 1628 Descartes publicly presented his philosophical ideas in a confrontation with the chemist Chandoux, who upheld a probabilistic view of science. Demonstrating to the audience through brilliant argumentation that any philosophical system not grounded in certainty would inevitably fail, Descartes was taken aside after the lecture by Cardinal de Bérulle, who urged him to fully elaborate on his method, explaining that it was God's will for him to do so. Shortly afterward Descartes completed his first substantial work, Regulae ad directionem ingenii (1701; Rules for the Direction of the Mind), explicating the methodological foundations of the new system.

At the beginning of 1629 Descartes moved to Holland, where he was able to work in an atmosphere of tranquility and intellectual freedom. In 1633 Descartes completed Le monde de M. Descartes, ou le traité de la lumière (1644; The World), in which he supported the Copernican theory of the earth's movement around the sun. However, he suppressed publication of this work after hearing from his friend Marin...

(The entire section is 1,927 words.)