René Descartes, born on the 31st of March in 1596 in La Haye, Tourraine in France. (Since then the town has been renamed Descartes, France). His father, Joachim Descartes, had connections south of La Haye in the Poitou region where he worked and owned property.
René inherited a low level of nobility because his father was a counselor in the Parliament of Brittany in Renees. However, René’s mother died when he was only one year old. His father went off to Rennes, leaving him behind, to marry another wife. René was brought up by his grandmother, a nurse, and possibly his great uncle, Michael Catholic, as well.
At the age of 10, René was sent to a Jesuit college in La Flèche which was created only two years earlier by King Henry IV. René was joined by about 1,200 other young men training in governmental and judicial studies as well as military engineering. Descartes studies everything from the basic academic subjects such as science, classical studies, and metaphysics to acting, music, poetry, and fencing. Descartes first teacher of philosophy was Father François Véron, who became known later on as the scourge of the Protestants.
Descartes spent a part of his life and major work residing in the Netherlands. In 1692, he traveled to the University of Franeker during which time he wrote the first draft to his Meditations. In 1630, he moved on to the University of Leiden and shortly after in 1631 he went to Denmark.
For about two years starting in 1633, he worked with an alchemist Étienne de Villebressieu in Germany. Villebressieu’s work included such inventions as a portable bridges, “siege engines”, and stretchers with two wheels. By 1639, Descartes views were being taught at the University of Utrecht, and caused a bitter dispute with a theologian by the name of Gisbertus Voetius, eventually even causing Descartes to seek protection from friends in high places.
Besides Meditations, Descartes came out with his Discours de la méthode, or Discourse on the Method. He wrote it in French, as opposed to the traditional Latin, because he intended it for reading and understanding by everyone, allowing them to better use their reason and think for themselves. Descartes thought that everybody had the ability to discern truth from untruth through reason.
He had written other works such as Le Monde, discussing the physical theory of the universe (which he decided against publishing for fear of conflicting with the views of the Church), as well as Principia Philosophiae, which explored much of the physical science in 1644. In 1647, the French court honored him with a pension for his discoveries and works. The Queen invited him to Sweden in 1649, but only for him to die from pneumonia only a few months afterwards.
Descartes’ approach to epistemology was very instrumental in the way modern philosophy took shape. Epistemology is defined as the science of the study of knowing, and it concerned with knowledge, relations between the one who knows and the object known, as well as the degree of which one can know, and more about perception and knowing. There are two major types of epistemological positions, empiricism and rationalism. Empiricists put truth of knowledge into the person doing the perceiving and Rationalists indicate that the truth is in the object being perceived and in it’s essence, or substance. René Descartes was a realist and rationalist. He believed that the basis of one’s knowledge was deductive reasoning, and the truth of an object was absolute, or contained within the object, and was not subject to the perceiver. His works were based on his rationalistic views, on how the truth of the object was definite. Rationalism sometimes came in conflict with the Church, and thus he refrained from publishing some of his works and ideas because of this.
Descartes is also the philosopher who developed the overused Latin statement “Cogito ergo sum,” or ‘I think therefore I am.’ His rationalistic views show through because he attempts not to prove the existence of one’s self through sense experience but through reasoning. His logic is flawed however, because Descartes presupposes the “I”, in “I think.”
Descartes' God position is based on a concept of his called the Cartesian Circle. His arguments are impeded by some type of doubt, because certainty is essential to his system here. Descartes made arguments to show that the “author or his being” didn’t construct him to perceive improperly or defectively. These arguments were part of his work, Meditations. The two main parts of this Cartesian Circle are as follows:
- I am certain that God exists only because I am certain of whatever I clearly and distinctly perceive
- I am certain of whatever I clearly and distinctively perceive only because I am certain that God exists.
Descartes also argued that if a God existed, that God would not have “equipped” him with faulty senses to perceive incorrectly, thus Descartes posits that he can be certain of what he clearly and distinctly perceived, thus he can be certain that God exists. However, if God does not exist then there would have been no God to construct Descartes with the proper empirical senses. Descartes had difficulty arguing and working with the Cartesian Circle, because it was, in a sense, a non-ending (or circular) argument.
René Descartes’ work and philosophy created an interesting and lasting effect on the way modern philosophy would develop. I believe 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 on, 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 me to believe that Descartes contributions helped fuel modern philosophy, but were not the end all to explain what he attempted to define.
- “Descartes Epistemology”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://cd1.library.usyd.edu.au/stanford/entries/descartes-epistemology/
- Muscalino, Fr. Daniel. Lecture Notes. Bishop Ludden, New York. 2000.
- Descartes, René, “Mediatations on First Philosophy”. 1641. http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/text/descart/des-med.htm
- “Descartes, René”. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. http://www.britannica.com/bcom/eb/article/printable/5/0,5722,115145,00.html