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René Descartes was born in the town of La Haye (now Descartes) nears Tours in the center of France. After completing a rigorous education at the newly-opened Jesuit high school La Flèche in 1614, Descartes’ life was marked by frequent travels, long periods of isolation and secrecy, and several nervous breakdowns. In early 1619, he set out on a journey through Germany to join the army of Maximilian of Bavaria as a gentleman soldier: while stationed in Ulm, on November 11, 1619, he had a series of three dreams that inspired him to devote the rest of his life to developing a new, universal method for the perfection of all human knowledge. For the next decade Descartes assiduously avoided this Promethean task. Traveling throughout Europe, he considered a variety of possible careers, drank, gambled and dueled, working fitfully on mathematical and scientific writings. At the end of 1628 he settled in Holland, where he lived for most of the rest of his life, moving frequently to avoid attracting attention and controversy. In Holland, he wrote his most famous works: the Discourse on Method, published in French in 1637; the Meditations on First Philosophy, published in Latin in 1641; and a comprehensive account of his philosophical and scientific system, The Principles of Philosophy (1644, also in Latin). In 1649, Descartes moved to Sweden to work as the tutor of Queen Christina. This new position required him to break his lifelong habit of sleeping late: after a few months of taxing lessons at 5 a.m., Descartes contracted pneumonia and died in the land of “bears, rocks and ice” on February 11, 1650. His last words are reputed to have been, “Ça, mon âme, il faut partir” (“So, my soul, it is time to part”).
Descartes put forward some of the most radical skeptical arguments ever explored by philosophy: as Martin Heidegger noted, not without some regret, “Through Descartes, realism is first put in the position of having to prove the reality of the outer world, of having to save that which is as such.” Descartes redefined traditional notions of human nature, transforming the distinction between spirit and flesh into the modern distinction between mind and body. For him the mind is an immaterial substance defined by thought and reason, whereas the body is a material substance governed by mechanistic laws. Thus, the internal and external realms can be seen as two distinct worlds: one composed of ideas and representations, the other of mere matter extended in space. The challenges posed by Descartes still resonate today: how can our minds grasp external reality, given the often deceptive nature of the senses and appearances? Can we ever be sure that our mental representations really match what’s “out there”? How do we account for interactions between the body and mind? The consequences of this “epistemological turn” can be seen in the development of Enlightenment philosophy from Locke to Kant, a period often conceived of as exploring the tensions between rationalism and empiricism. Is our knowledge grounded in reason or experience? What is the relation between these ways of knowing?
Descartes achieved important mathematical and scientific advances. He laid the foundations of what is now analytical geometry, simplified algebraic notation, and perhaps most importantly, contributed to the modern scientific notion of quantitative physics. In his scientific writings, Descartes developed the idea that natural phenomena can be understood in terms of the basic properties of matter: the size, shape and motion of the particles that compose it. Based on these principles, he put forward theories about the structure of the universe, the nature of light and optics, as well as animal and human physiology. He greatly influenced scientific method by insisting that our understanding of nature and the world is not given, but must be constructed through an act of interpretation, i.e. a theoretical model or hypothetical mechanism. Since invisible and unobservable processes underlie familiar phenomena, Descartes advocated the use of mechanical arts and the imagination to motivate scientific hypotheses.
Written by Daniel Leonard, Department of French and Romance Philology, Columbia University
John Cottingham, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Descartes (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1992).
Daniel Garber, Descartes’ Metaphysical Physics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).
Stephen Gaukroger, Descartes: An Intellectual Biography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995).
Stephen Gaukroger, John Schuster and John Sutton, eds., Descartes’ Natural Philosophy (London: Routledge, 2000).
A. O. Rorty, ed., Essays on Descartes’ Meditations (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).