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The Core Curriculum

René Descartes

1596 CE – 1650 CE

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.

Bibliography and Additional Resources

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).


Daniel Leonard, Department of French and Romance Philology, Columbia University

Historical Contexts

Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy

The Discourse on Method

The Discourse on Method is one of the greatest intellectual autobiographies ever written.  Composed in the midst of the Thirty Years War, one of the most destructive conflicts in European history, the Discourse testifies to a desire to retreat from external chaos and establish lasting foundations for order.  As religious controversy continued to divide Christendom from within, with both Catholics and Protestants claiming privileged access to divine truth and the right to kill to defend it, Descartes adopted as his motto Bene vixit, bene qui latuit (“a life well hidden is a life well lived”).  He determined to advance “masked,” presenting his life in the form of a “fable.” As Descartes narrates his disenchantment with the confused diversity of traditional learning and human opinion, even rejecting the testimony of his own senses, he maps out a minimal, modern space of the self, certain initially only of its own existence.  

The Discourse is also a key text of the Scientific Revolution. The Discourse was originally the preface to three scientific “essays” on geometry, optics and meteorology: as the final parts make clear, Descartes intends it as the manifesto for a new scientific undertaking destined to make us “masters and possessors of nature.”  He shares this ambition with his contemporaries.  Like Bacon (1561-1626), Descartes saw the need for a new approach to knowledge, a method to organize the many new discoveries being made through technological advances and voyages of exploration.  Like Galileo (1564-1642), Descartes advocated a form mathematical and geometric reductionism: by explaining complex physical systems in terms of simple, universal principles, the moderns hope to surpass even the wildest dreams of the ambitious ancients in creating a science capable of improving nature.  In this respect, the heroic project of scientific conquest doubles the consolidation of absolute royal power occurring in Europe at the same time: in both cases, an individual can lay claim to mastery of the entire world.  

The Meditations on First Philosophy

In contrast to the Discourse on Method, the Meditations were originally published in Latin, the standard scholarly language for serious philosophical works.  Descartes expands the meditative episode of the Discourse into a six-day skeptical retreat, adapting the widespread and popular genre of spiritual exercises to further develop his theory of knowledge and the mind.  Once again, this inner journey allows him to remake the world: probing much deeper than previously, he sets out to establish foundations for reason, sense perception and belief in a divinely ordered world.  In this difficult but immensely rewarding text, Descartes develops his most famous arguments about the nature of the mind and the body, the challenge of proving the existence of the external world, and some novel proofs for the existence of God.  After a searching exploration of some of the greatest questions posed by all of western philosophy, Descartes and his reader – like God himself – are granted rest on the seventh day.

Following the example of both Montaigne and Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order and author of the Spiritual Exercises, Descartes devotes himself to an exploration of the workings of his own mind and a disciplined self-examination.  This inward turn and the resolution to establish both peace and certainty within the space of one’s own mind, recalls ancient Stoic practices even as it addresses contemporary religious concerns.  In response to Protestantism, the Catholic Counter-Reformation placed new emphasis on developing a personal relationship with God and cultivating mystic experiences.  Meditations and spiritual exercises were designed to deepen convictions: believers could train themselves to “see God in all things,” as Loyola recommended.

Descartes was viewed as a revolutionary by many of his contemporaries for his vocal criticism of scholastic philosophy and the daring simplicity of his new method.  At first he attracted just as much, if not more, attention for his scientific theories as his philosophical writings, the works for which he is best known today.

The Catholic church viewed him as a dangerous influence, putting his works on the Index of prohibited books (Index librorum prohibitorum) in 1663 and he was widely seen as encouraging atheistic materialism – an interpretation that made him a hero to some later radical Enlightenment figures. In the eighteenth century, Descartes was increasingly seen as a dogmatic, excessively systematic metaphysician, in contrast to Newton, Boyle, and Locke, the new heroes of empirical science. After being banned from French universities for years, he had become a figure of the establishment and hence a target for criticism and ridicule.

Core Connections

LIT HUM
Plato, Symposium
Augustine, Confessions
Montaigne, Essays
Cervantes, Don Quixote
Goethe, Faust
Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment
Woolf, To the Lighthouse

ART HUM
Bernini
Rembrandt
Le Corbusier

MUSIC HUM
Corelli
Monteverdi
Praetorius
Purcell
Rameau
Vivaldi



Bibliography and Additional Resources


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).


Daniel Leonard, Department of French and Romance Philology, Columbia University