Descartes was born on March 31, 1596 at La Haye en Touraine, a small town in central France, which has since been renamed after his most famous son. He was the youngest of three siblings and his mother, Jeanne Brochard, died in his first year of life.
Their father, Joachim, a member of the provincial parliamentary council, sent the children to live with their maternal grandmother, where they remained even after he remarried a few years later. But he was very concerned about good education and sent René, at age 8, to boarding school at the Jesuit Collège Royal Henry-Le-Grand at La Flèche, several miles to the north, for seven years.
Descartes was a good student, although it is believed that he may have been ill, as he did not have to adhere to the rigorous school schedule and was instead allowed to rest in bed until mid-morning. The subjects he studied, such as rhetoric and logic and the “mathematical arts”, which included music and astronomy, as well as metaphysics, natural philosophy and ethics, prepared him well for his future as a philosopher.
In addition, during the following four years, he graduated in law from the University of Poitiers, France. Some scholars speculate that he may have suffered a nervous breakdown during this time.
Descartes later added theology and medicine to his studies. But he avoided all these, «resolving to seek no knowledge other than that of which could be found in myself or else in the great book of the world», he wrote much later in Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and of Seeking Truth in the Sciences, published in 1637.
So he traveled, enlisted in the army for a brief period, saw some battles, and met the Dutch scientist and philosopher Isaac Beeckman, who would become for Descartes a very influential teacher. A year after graduating from Poitiers, Descartes credited a series of three very powerful dreams or visions with determining the course of his studies for the rest of his life.
Descartes is considered by many to be the father of modern philosophy, because his ideas departed widely from the prevailing conception of the early seventeenth century, which was based more on feelings. Although the elements of his philosophy were not entirely new, his approach was.
Descartes basically believed in taking everything off the table, all preconceived and inherited notions, and starting over, going back one by one to the things that were true, which for him began with the statement “I exist”. From this came his most famous quote, “I think, therefore I am”.
Since Descartes believed that all truths were ultimately linked, he sought to discover the meaning of the natural world with a rational approach, through science and mathematics, in a sense an extension of the approach that Sir Francis Bacon had asserted in England a few decades earlier.
In addition to the Discourse on the Method, Descartes also published Meditations on First Philosophy and Principles of Philosophy, among other treatises.
Although philosophy is largely where the 20th century deposited Descartes, his research in theoretical physics led many scholars to consider him first a mathematician.
He introduced Cartesian geometry, which incorporates algebra; through its laws of refraction, he developed an empirical understanding of the rainbow; and he proposed a naturalistic account of the formation of the solar system, although he felt he had to suppress much of that because of Galileo’s fate at the hands of the Inquisition. His concern was not unfounded: Pope Alexander VII subsequently added Descartes’ works to the index of banned books.
Descartes never married, but he had a daughter, Francine, born in the Netherlands in 1635. He had moved there in 1628 because life in France was too lively to concentrate on his work, and Francine’s mother was a servant in the house where he was staying. He had planned to educate the child in France, having arranged for her to live with relatives, but she died of fever at age 5.
Descartes lived in the Netherlands for more than 20 years, but died in Stockholm, Sweden, on February 11, 1650. He had moved there less than a year earlier, at the request of Queen Christina, to be her philosophy tutor.
1) A Discourse On Method
A Discourse on Method, whose full title is Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One's Reason and of Seeking Truth in the Sciences, is the major work written by René Descartes and a fundamental work of Western philosophy with implications for the development of philosophy and science.
It was published anonymously in Leiden (Holland) in 1637. It was, in fact, the prologue to three essays: Dioptrique, Météores and Géométrie; grouped under the joint title of Philosophical Essays.
Descartes titled this work Discourse on Method for a precise purpose. In a letter he wrote to Marin Mersenne, he explains that he titled it Discourse and not Treatise to show that he did not intend to teach, but only to speak.
Meditations, whose full title is Meditations on First Philosophy, in which the existence of God and the immortality of the soul are demonstrated, is a work first published in 1641, in Latin, under the title Meditationes de Prima Philosophia, in qua Dei existentia et animæ immortalitas demonstratur.
The work comprises six meditations:
●First meditation: Of things that can be called into doubt.
●Second meditation: Of the nature of the human mind.
●Third meditation: Concerning God, that he exists.
●Fourth meditation: Concerning the true and the false.
●Fifth meditation: Of the essence of material things, and again concerning God, that he exists.
●Sixth meditation: Of the existence of material things, and the real distinction between mind and body.