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, "reborn".
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 Civilization)
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.