The Greatest Modern Philosopher! The Great French Philosopher!
René Descartes

 "cogito ergo sum"

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  1. Who is Descartes?
    • René Descartes (pronounced "deika:t") was a 17th century French philosopher, mathematician and a man of science.
  2. Why the big deal?
    • He could be quite justifiably called the Father of Modern Philosophy.
    • Descartes is regarded as the bridge between scholasticism and other schools of philosophy that followed.
    • He provided a link to physics and philosophy.
    • It was he who developed the'X','Y' and 'Z' coordinates to locate a point in 2 or 3 dimentions.
    • We also owe the analytical geometry to him (Quite naturally, dont we know that!)
    • Thanks to him you are able to use algebra and calculus to solve geometrical problems.
    • In addition to the convention of exponent notation, his other contribution to Algebra is the treatment of Nagative Roots.
  3. Tell us something about his philosophy.
    • He asserted that thinking is the sole aim, meaning and purpose of living!
    • This (in my opinion) is opposed to "Hedonism" which believes in pleasure as the sole aim of humankind.
    • His theory in a nutshell is 'cogito ergo sum' meaning,'I think, therefore I am'
    • He developed a dualistic theory of mind (conscious experience) and matter.
    • His approach was of fundamental importance in the developement of modern philosophy ,especially Epistemology
    • He has done extensive research on meditation, reasoning and seeking truth in the sciences.
    • He has extensively dwelt on the relationship of the soul to the body, the nature of emotions and the ways of controlling the emotions.
    • He aimed to reach totally secure foundations for knowledge.
    • His method of systematic doubt to arrive at the truth laid the foundation for subsequent developement of philosophy.
    • His argument was that the sciences must be founded on certainty.
    • He invoked scepticism as a means of reaching certainty.
    • Some of his theories were paradoxical, eg:
      • No argument to show that God exists can be certain unless one is certain of one's own reasoning;
      • But according to Descartes, one can't be certain of one's reasoning unless one is certain that God exists!
      • This is known as the Cartesian Circle!
      • Perhaps this is the forerunner for Catch22!!
    • He believed only in those forms of art and learning from which something tangible could be extracted.
    • But he richly deserves credit, inter alia, for his formulations of the Law of Inertia.
  4. Any bizzare theories?
    • Descartes held that part of the blood was a subtle fluid, which he called animal spirits. The animal spirits, he believed, came into contact with thinking substances in the brain and flowed out along the channels of the nerves to animate the muscles and other parts of the body!
    • Descartes also believed that colors were caused by the rotation of "spheres" of light, using the tennis ball as a model of a spinning sphere.
    • There are many others which I'll add to this list by and by!

"I have tried to be a philosopher, but cheerfulness was breaking in!"
Can you make money by being one!Oliver Edwards to Dr. Johnson
The greatest thinker of them all!

"I think, therefore I am"
"cogito ergo sum"

4. Now, about the man, Descartes.
  • He was born on March 31, 1596 in a small town called La Haye (renamed Descartes) in France.
  • He belonged to an aristocratic family and lived a good life!(Hmph!)
  • He was a small man with a large head, prominent nose, projecting brows and long black hair!
  • Descartes remained single. No descendants.
  • His disposition was considered to be cold and selfish.
  • He studied mathematics and law and had a brief stint in army too.
  • He lived in Holland for 20 years when he wrote his first books starting from a short treatise on Metaphysics (which was not published)
5. Philosophers do not have a smooth living...?
  • Yep, Descartes had his own share of woes.
  • He had to suppress the publication of his heretical doctrines of earth's rotation and infirmity of the universe and also his research on light after learning of the trial of Galileo in Rome.
  • His book 'Meditations' was marked by controversy and polemics.
  • Many of his theories especially his quest for certainty are not taken well by philosophers.
  • He was dubbed an atheist and a libertine.
6. His legacies...
Cartesian coordinates:
X,Y and Z coordinates.
Yes, he was the first to make a Graph!
Cartesian Diver:
A toy device that rises and falls in the liquid when the vessel containing it is subjected to varying pressures.
The philosophy of Descartes.
A cartesian:
His follower!
7. Well, er..His last days?
  • In 1649 he went to Stockholm on an invitation from Queen Christina of Sweden to teach her philosophy!
  • He couldnt stand the brutal winters of Scandinavia and finally succumbed to pneumonia on 11th February 1650.
8. To sum up?
  • René Descartes' work and philosophy created an interesting and lasting effect on the way modern philosophy would develop. It is believed that Descartes raised some valid points, but his theories also had faults. The Cartesian Circle, while very arguable, cannot achieve any result, because each of the two statements are dependent on the latter being true. Without the means to prove either, per se, to be true, neither statement can be verified.
  • Descartes' theories often only applied when a conditional, or "if", had been met (Such as being able to perceive correctly). This leads to believe that Descartes' contributions helped fuel modern philosophy, but he failed to consummate what he attempted to define.

More Descartes Resources
My page on Vortex Theory of Descartes!
Descartes page of Wright State University
Seeking Truth in the Sciences!
Meditations on First Philosophy
The last important work of his to be published during his lifetime was 'Passions of the soul' in which Descartes explores the emotions,soul and the body!
His "vortex" theory of gravity, his denial of the existence of vacuum and his laws of impact were proved wrong as physics developed, but remember, Sir Isaac Newton was only 8 years old when Descartes died!
(What about the Corpuscular Theory, eh!!)

Do you feel I have tried to do some justice to the Great Soul in this page?

"I hope that posterity will judge me kindly, not only as to the things which I have explained, but also to those which I have intentionally omitted so as to leave to others the pleasure of discovery."

-René Descartes

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Thank You, Philosopher No. .