Rene Descartes 2 Essay, Research Paper
Ren Descartes (1596-1650)
LIFE. Descartes was educated at a Jesuit college which was firmly grounded in the
scholastic tradition. After furthering his education in Paris, he enlisted in the Dutch and,
later, the Bavarian militaries. In 1629 Descartes moved to Holland where he lived in
seclusion for 20 years, changing his residence frequently to preserve his privacy. During
this period he produced the writings upon which his fame rests. His studies were first
restricted to science, and only later did he explore metaphysics. In 1649, Descartes moved
to Stockholm at the request of Queen Christina of Sweden who employed him as a
philosophy tutor. Christina scheduled the lectures at 5 A.M. The early hours and harsh
climate took their toll on Descartes’s already weakened condition. He died shortly after in
1650. During his life, Descartes’s fame rose to such an extent that many Catholics believed
he would be a candidate for sainthood. As his body was transported from Sweden back to
France, anxious relic collectors along the path removed pieces of his body. By the time his
body reached France, it was considerably reduced in size.
Descartes’ philosophy developed in the context of the key features of Renaissance
and early modern philosophy. Like the humanists, he rejected religious authority in the
quest for scientific and philosophical knowledge. For Descartes, reason was both the
foundation and guide for pursuing truth. Although Descartes was a devout Catholic, he was
also influenced by the Reformation’s challenge to Church authority, particularly the
challenge against medieval Aristotelianism. He was an active participant in the scientific
revolution in both scientific method and in particular discoveries. Finally, and perhaps most
importantly, Descartes reacted strongly against the Renaissance resurgence of ancient
Greek skepticism. Thus, we find in Descartes’ writings a relentless pursuit of absolute
DISCOURSE ON THE METHOD. Descartes’ first discussion of scientific method is
in an unfinished work of 1628 titled Rules for the Direction of the Mind. The first 12 of the
planned 36 rules deal with the general aspects of his proposed methodology, and are
considered early versions of principles which made their way into his later writings. In 1633
Descartes prepared for publication a work on physics called Le Monde which defended a
heliocentric view of the universe. That same year the Catholic Church condemned Galileo’s
Dialogue (1632). Descartes did not think Galileo’s views were prejudicial to religion and he
worried that his own views might be censured. Thus he suspended publication of it. In 1637
Descartes published a collection of essays titled Optics, Meterology, and Geometry.
Prefaced to these essays was a work titled “Discourse on the Method of Rightly
Conducting the Reason and Seeking Truth in the Sciences.” Most of the “Discourse” was
written before the 1633 condemnation of Galileo’s Dialogue. However, he later added a
concluding section which explained that he insisted on publishing, in spite of political risks.
The simple reason was that he counted on the public to help confirm his scientific theories.
In the Discourse, Descartes offers a method of inquiry quite different from Bacon’s.
Whereas Bacon advocated induction, Descartes insists on a more deductive approach.
Most of the Discourse is autobiographical insofar as it traces Descartes intellectual
development and how his method assisted him in his investigations. Descartes realized that
he needed to reject much of the teachings of his youth. This raised the question as to
exactly how he should proceed in replacing old theories with new ones. He found his answer
by observing how old parts of cities are replaced with the new. The more elegant cities are
those which are methodically built from scratch, not those which continually renovate old
Descartes explains that he had learned a variety of methodological approaches in a
variety of disciplines. They all had limits, though. Syllogistic logic, he believes, only
communicates what we already know. Geometry and algebra are either too abstract in
nature for practical application, or too restricted to the shapes of bodies. However, he
believed that a more condensed and universal list of methodological rules was better than a
lengthy and varied list.
The first of these was to accept nothing as true which I did not clearly
recognize to be so; that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitation and prejudice
in judgments, and to accept in them nothing more than what was presented to
my mind so clearly and distinctly that I could have no occasion to doubt it.
The second was to divide up each of the difficulties which I examined into
as many parts as possible, and as seemed requisite in order that it might be
resolved in the best manner possible.
The third was to carry on my reflections in due order, commencing with
objects that were the most simple and easy to understand, in order to rise little
by little, or by degrees, to knowledge of the most complex, assuming an order,
even if a fictitious one, among those which do not follow a natural sequence
relatively to one another.
The last was in all cases to make enumerations so complete and reviews
so general that I should be certain of having omitted nothing.
Descartes commentator S.V. Keeling argues that Descartes’ method, as expressed in the
above rules, rests on three mental operations: intuition, deduction, and enumeration. These
three abilities constitute our human reason. Intuition involves directly apprehending the
simplest components (or “simple natures”) of a subject matter. Deduction is not syllogistic,
but a process of inferring necessary relations between simple natures. Enumeration is a
process of review which we use when deductions become so long that we risk error due to a
faulty memory. Descartes realized that he needed a provisional set of moral guidelines to
carry him through the transition. He presents four such rules: (1) obey the laws of his
country and adhere to his faith in God, (2) to be consistent in following positions, even if
they seem doubtful, (3) change his desires rather than the order of the world, (4) to choose
the best occupation he could (i.e., that of a philosopher). Accordingly, vowing to live as a
spectator rather than an actor, he traveled for a year, then lived in Holland for eight years
where he had no relatives and was free from political turmoil. Descartes continues
discussing metaphysical issues which he developed more fully in the Meditations. Although
Descartes’ method had its advocates, it was also criticized by his contemporaries, such as
the mathematician Pierre de Fermat, and ultimately dismissed. Leibniz says that Descartes’
rules amount to saying “take what you need, and do what you should, and you will get what
RENE DESCARTES’ LIFE
Rene Descartes was born on March 31, 1596 in La Haye , Touraine (Cates, 125).
The beginning of his life lead to a whole new world of math, science, and philosophy.
Descartes’ father was a councilor in the Brenton parliament which kept him away from home most of the time.
Decartes’ mother died when he was a year old. This left Decartes and his older brother and sister under the care of their grandmother.
As a child Rene was very intelligent (Britannica, 29-30). When he was ten years old he was sent to La Fleche where he was schooled under the Jesuits for 9 years (Britannica, 29-30). In 1616 he studied law in Pointiers. It was there that he received his degree in law. Soon, law bored Descartes, and he moved on to math.
In the field of mathematics Descartes did great work. In 1618 Descartes met a man named Isaac Beckman who helped him realize that mathematics could be a lifetime profession(Cates, 126). In a journal that resurfaced in 1905 it tells that by the end of 1618 Descartes had invented analytic geometry. After inventing analytic geometry, Descartes mysteriously wrote Isaac saying that there was no problem in geometry that could not be solved, but it was far to much for one man to do, and he left to pursue other areas.
A year later he set out for the army. During this time he roamed all over Europe and was even involved in the Thirty Years War. A war between the protestants and Catholics in which Decartes fought for the Catholics. During one of his camps, Descartes records that he had 3 visionary dreams on the same night of November 10, 1619. These dreams changed his life forever and also charted his life course.
In the first dream he is confronted in a street by several ghosts that scared him so badly that he leaned away from them to keep from falling over. Then he was being pushed by this furious wind toward a college chapel. A stranger confronted him before he could go in to pray, and told him that a Monsieur N. brought him a melon from a foreign land. In the second dream, which was not necessarily a dream to Descartes, he fell asleep, and a short while later he was awakened by an
“ear-splitting noise, like a thunderclap, and horrifying sparks of fire dancing before my eyes”(Cates, 128).
In his final dream, he found a dictionary on the table that was later joined by an anthology of poetry. Upon opening the two, he came upon the verse
“Quad vitae sectabor iter (or what path of life should I follow).” (Cates, 128)?
A stranger then appeared to him giving him another verse which read
“Est et non.”
Descartes awoke and began to interpret the dreams. From the dreams he concludes that “all the sciences are linked together,” and that, “scientific thinking essentially is mathematical thinking”(Judd, 10).
Descartes realization that all the sciences were linked was brilliant because 17 century scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers still saw all the sciences and math’s as separate and distinct in their own way.
After this realization Descartes realized the army wasn’t for him so he packed up and went to Holland were he studied, performed experiments, and wrote. During this time Descartes wrote the famous writing “Discourse on Method.” After some time he was called to tutor in Sweden for the kings daughter. He left his home in Holland to tutor Queen Cristina of Sweden. There he developed severe pneumonia and refused treatment and died of complications on February 11, 1650 in Stockholm, Sweden (http://www.rice.edu).
Rene Descartes was 53 years old when he died.
Decartes famous writing Discourse on Method begins with four rules that help him to break down his theory. The first two rules use deductive reasoning. Deductive reasoning is arriving at a conclusion by breaking down the problem. The first rule was never accept anything as true unless it is certain to be so. The second was to divide the difficulties into as many portions as possible in order to examine them. In these two steps he denies everything that he has ever known to be true and believes them as false. He then breaks them down, and using deductive reasoning, he examines each to conclude which he can prove to be true. For the third and fourth rules he uses inductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning is related to using mathematical or logical thinking. In the third rule he says he is going to conduct his thoughts in a logical order, working from the easiest to the most difficult. In the fourth and final rule Descartes draws conclusions so big therefore leaving nothing unaccounted for. In the third rule he uses inductive reasoning by mathematical and logical thinking to organize his thoughts in order to determine what is true. In the final rule he uses an inference which is a conclusion derived from already stated facts. Rule four is derived from rule three by accepting the facts and conclusions presented in rule three. These stated four rules contributed to Descartes statement “I think therefore I am.”
While Descartes was doubting, desiring things to be false, and drawing conclusions he discovered that there was only one thing that he could prove as truth. He realized that since he was thinking that he must be something. As his first principle he accepted the statement that he had to exist based on the fact that in order to think you must exist. From this he could now prove all things from which he already thought to be true. He stated that things that we think are true are in fact true but the trouble we have is in finding what we think to be truth(Judd, 12).
Descartes realizes that he is a being that thinks, doubts, desires, and questions many things. He realizes that since he is a being that doubts therefore he wasn’t perfect. Upon realizing that he wasn’t perfect he concluded that there must be a supreme being that helps him to realize his imperfections. For example, he could not know what his faults were without a perfect, supreme being to compare himself to. Also, how can he exist without a supreme being to create him. All of these ideas led him to his conclusion that a God does exist.
This conclusion is better understood when looking deep into the third principle of Discourse on Method. In the first two principles, he realizes that he is a being that thinks, stating, “I think therefore I am.” Also he doubts his senses because he thinks they are fantasies of the mind. From these he concludes that because he is a being that doubts, realizes his imperfections and thinks that he is a definite being. Now that he has proved himself as a being he must prove his third principle, the existence of a God. First of all Descartes believes that something can not evolve from nothing. He shows this through ideas. When there is and idea it is caused by a reality. He states that even though one idea may come from another, the cause of all of it must come from a source or a God. Descartes proves that there is a God by saying that if there were an idea so great that it was not in him that the idea must have a cause therefore he is not alone in the world and the cause of the idea is God.
Discourse on Method also shows Descartes’ view on the mind and the body. Descartes is a dualist because he believed that the world consisted of two things. First there was matter which was the physical aspect and the part our bodies are included in. He reasoned that matter could be explained through simple geometry and laws of motion. Secondly, there was the mind. He believed that the mind, or spirit, could interact with the body but it could exist separately, on its own.
Descartes was one of the most brilliant minds of the 17 century. Discourse on Method is the most renowned of his writings. The Discourse leads to the conclusion that we all exist and so does a supreme being. Descartes ideas lead to the discovery that all sciences and math’s were linked together which is essential knowledge in the world today. His life lead to a whole new world of science, math, and philosophy. He is truly a great scientist, mathematician, and a philosopher.