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René Descartes

René Descartes

1596-1650

French Philosopher, Physiologist, and Mathematician

René Descartes, who was born in La Haye (now Descartes), France and died in Stockholm, Sweden, has been called the founder of modern philosophy, but he is also honored as a mathematician and physiologist. Descartes's father, Joachim, who owned farms and houses in Châtellerault and Poitiers, was a councilor in the Parliament of Brittany in Rennes. Descartes's mother died when he was only one year old. After his father remarried, Descartes remained in La Haye where his maternal grandmother and other relatives raised him. In 1606 Descartes was sent to the Jesuit college at La Flèche, which had been established in 1604 by Henry IV. The curriculum included classical studies, science, mathematics, metaphysics, music, poetry, dancing, riding, and fencing. Students were prepared for careers in military engineering, law, and government administration. Philosophy was taught in the scholastic Aristotelian manner that Descartes would eventually challenge.

In 1614 Descartes went to Poitiers where he earned a law degree two years later. In 1618 he went to Breda in the Netherlands to study mathematics and military architecture. From 1619 to 1628, Descartes traveled widely through Europe. By 1920, while he was serving in the army of Maximilian I, duke of Bavaria, Descartes discovered a method of deductive reasoning that he believed would be applicable to all the sciences. Descartes moved to Paris in 1622 where he associated with prominent writers, scholars, philosophers, mathematicians, and scientists. During this period, Descartes wrote several treatises that have not survived. In 1628 Descartes presented a demonstration of his method for establishing truth, but he soon decided to move to the Netherlands, where he felt he could enjoy greater liberty and tolerance than anywhere else. Religious intolerance had grown in France and the Parliament of Paris had even passed a decree in 1624 that provided the death penalty for attacks on Aristotle.

In 1629 Descartes began writing his Meditations. In 1633 he was planning to publish a major work called Le Monde (The World), when he heard that Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) had been condemned by the Roman Catholic Church for publishing the view that the Earth revolves around the Sun. Although Descartes believed that eventually his physics would replace Aristotle's, he suppressed Le Monde because the Copernican theory was central to his own cosmology. Le Monde was finally published in 1664. Discourse on Method was published in 1637. It was one of the first significant modern philosophical works written in French instead of Latin so that all literate men and women could learn to use reason in the search for truth. Descartes's Geometry, which established analytic geometry, introduced modern algebraic notations. Descartes offered his readers four rules for reasoning: (1) Accept nothing as true that is not self-evident. (2) Divide problems into their simplest parts. (3) Solve problems by proceeding from simple to complex. (4) Recheck the reasoning.

Descartes began methodically doubting knowledge based on authority, the senses, and reason. For Descartes, the only certainty was that he was thinking and he must, therefore, exist: Cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am). To escape the trap of solipsism (the view that nothing exists but one's individual self and thoughts), Descartes argued that all clear and distinct ideas must be true. Using his philosophical method, Descartes devoted the rest of his life to the exploration of mechanics, medicine, and morals. His theories of medicine and physiology are based on mechanics. Descartes believed that animal and human bodies operate on purely mechanical principles. In his physiological studies, he dissected animal bodies to show how their parts move. His ideas and experiments were described in L'Homme, et un traité de la formation du foetus (Man, and a Treatise on the Formation of the Foetus, 1664). Although Descartes argued that animals were purely mechanical and had no soul, he described human beings as a union of mind and body. The interaction between mind and body took place only in the pineal gland, the only unpaired organ in the brain.

Finally, in 1649, as intolerance grew in both France and the Netherlands, Descartes sought refuge with Queen Christina, of Sweden. Apparently as a result of being forced to give Queen Christina philosophy lessons at 5 A.M., Descartes contracted pneumonia and died in Stockholm in February 1650. The Roman Catholic Church put his works on the Index of Forbidden Books in 1667.

LOIS N. MAGNER

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