René Descartes


René Descartes was born on March 31, 1596 in La Haye,
Touraine. He was the son of a minor nobleman, and belonged
to an intellectual family. His mother died of tuberculosis
a few days after he was born. He inherited the disease from
her, and was continually sick throughout his infancy. The
only one who cared for him was his nurse, who gave him
warmth and nourishment from her body.(Durant pg.456
,Philosophy) He eventually came back to life, and perhaps
that is why he was named Rene, which means Renatus,
 His early education began at the Jesuit school of La
Fleche in Anjou. Roman Catholicism was a strong influence
in his life. Upon graduating from school, he studied law at
the University of Poitiers, graduating in 1616. However, he
never practiced law, and in 1618 he entered the army of
Prince Maurice of Nassau at Breda in the Netherlands. His
intention was t have a military career. Here he had a
vision that encouraged him to focuses on a life of
learning, education and intellect. Descartes served in a
few armies, but his attention quickly turned to mathematics
and philosophy, to which he devoted the rest of his life. 

Descartes lived in France for four years where he studied
philosophy and optics, and returned back to the
Netherlands. It was during his first year back in the
Netherlands that he wrote his first major work, Essais
Philosophiques. The work contained four parts: an essay on
geometry, one on optics, a third on meteors, and a fourth
titled Discors de la Methode, which described his
philosophical speculations. His other works include
Meditations on First Philosophy 1641, and The Principles of
Philosophy 1644, which was dedicated to Princess Elizabeth
Stuart of Bohemia., with whom Descartes had formed a deep
friendship. (Durant pg.456 Philosophy) In 1649 Descartes
was invited to the court of Queen Christina of Sweden in
Stockholm, to join an elite circle of intellectuals which
would instruct the queen in philosophy. Descartes died on
February 1, 1650 of pneumonia, which was caused by the
rigors of the Northern Swedish climate, and the rigorous
schedule demanded by the queen.(Durant pg. 398

Descartes has been labeled the father of modern
philosophy.(Barrett pg. 53) He is classified as a dualist
because he claimed that the world consisted of two sorts of
basic substance- matter and spirit. Matter is the physical
universe, which our bodies are part of . Spirit is the
human mind, which interacts with the body, but can, in
principle, exist without it. Descartes theories were called
and refered to as Occasionalism. Descartes believed matter
could be understood through certain concepts that he
borrowed from geometry and his theories of motion.
Descartes invented the Cartesian Coordinate System, and
analytic geometry both of which are the fore ground for
more complex physics and math. In Descartes view, the whole
world, including it's laws and even the truths of
mathematics, was created by God. He believed that
everything functioned according to God. Descartes thought
of God as resembling the mind in that both God and the mind
think but have no physical being. But he believed God is
unlike the mind in that God is infinite and does not depend
on his existence from some other creator. This problem of
whether mental entities are different in nature from
physical entities continues to be a primary concern of
philosophers and phycologists. (Bell pg. 51) 
In Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes first
considered the strongest reasons that might be used to show
that he could never be certain of anything. These so called
"skeptical" arguments included the idea that perhaps he
might be dreaming, so that nothing he seemed to perceive
would be real. In another argument, Descartes reflected
that perhaps God or some evil spirit was constantly
tricking his mind, causing him to believe what was false.
Descartes responded to these arguments by saying that even
if he were dreaming, or constantly deceived, he could at
least be certain that he had thoughts, and therefore
existed as a thinking being. This, he wrote, was a "clear
and distinct" perception of the mind. Nothing could make
him doubt it. From this Descartes created the famous Latin
phrase "cogito ergo sum", which means "I think therefore I
am". Descartes then argued that he could also clearly and
distinctly perceive that an infinitely powerful and good
God exists. This God would not let Descartes be deceived.
According to Descartes, one cannot be certain of one's
reasoning unless one is certain good exists. To Descartes
this is why the physical world existed. Descartes also
believed that self evident truths could not be found
through the senses, they were innate. This is called
rationalism. Rationalism, as stated by Webster, is the
formation of opinions by relying upon reason alone.
(Randall pg.45)
In Descartes Discours on Method, I found two particularly
interesting quotes. The first one was; "For to be possessed
of a vigorous mind is not enough; the prime requisite is
rightly to apply it". (Descartes Discours on Method pg.2)
This makes perfect sense to me. Just to be smart is not
enough, you must constantly be using your knowledge, and
always striving to gain more. If people state that they're
knowledgeable Descartes would responded by saying; "O.K.,
prove it." This quote showed Descartes in a more realistic,
human-like picture. The second quote in Descartes Discours
on Method is:
For it occurred to me that I should find much more truth in
the reasoning of each individual with reference to the
affairs in which he is personally interested, and the
issues of which must presently punish him if he has judged
amiss, than those conducted by a man of letters in his
study, regarding speculative matters that are of no
practical moment, and followed by no consequences to
himself.( Barrett pg.14) 
One thing this quote tells me is that you learn more by
doing and experiencing then just by being lectured or
reading out of a book, especially if it is something you
are interested in. I also feel that this quote means that
you should study things that are practical and have
relevance to you. Of course there are things we all must
study, but why should an arts major have to sit through a
class of chemistry. For one to have great knowledge there
must be a strong desire of relevance to that knowledge.
Before his time, philosophy had been dominated by the
method of Scholasticism, which was entirely based on
comparing and contrasting the views of recognized
intellectuals. Rejecting this method, Descartes stated, "In
our search for the direct road to truth, we should busy
ourselves with no object about which we cannot attain a
certitude equal to that of the demonstration of arithmetic
and geometry." (Bell pg. 67)
Clear connections can be drawn between the philosophies of
Descartes and Socrates. Descartes clearly follows the
Socratic tradition. Both believe that our senses are not
good indicators of truth and reason. They lie to us, and
conceal the truth. Our senses cannot confirm empirical
data. Descartes believed that just by thinking we are
confirming what our senses tell us. Socrates and Descartes
both believed that we should find our truths and reasons in
other things. Descartes believed we could find them in
geometry and math, not our senses. Just by thinking we are
attaining the highest knowledge possible.


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