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René Descartes (1596-1650) - in latin RENATUS CARTESIUS


French philosopher, "the father of modern philosophy," scientist and mathematician, whose philosophical conclusion, "Cogito; ergo sum" (Je pense, donc je suis; I think, therefore I am), is the best-known quotation in all philosophy and which revolutionized the ways of thinking. In somewhat different form, it is also found in Augustine (354-430), who thought that the mind can have absolute and certain knowledge only about what is directly and immediately presented to it. Being a mathematician Descartes decided to apply the so certain-seeming methods of mathematical reasoning to philosophy.

"Good sense is the best distributed thing in the world, for everyone thinks himself to be  so well endowed with it that even those who are the most difficult to please in everything else are not at all wont to desire more of it than they have."  (Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy by René Descartes, transated by Donald A. Cress, Fourth Edition, 1998, p. 1)

René Descartes was born in La Haye (now called La Haye-Descartes), into a well-to-do family. His mother died soon after his birth. Joachim, his father, was a judge in the High Court of Brittany; he soon remarried and Descartes was brought up by his maternal grandmother. At the age of ten he was sent to the Jesuit College at La Flèche in Anjou, where his masters allowed him to stay late in bed because of his poor health. Descartes later described La Flèche as one of the best schools in Europe. Descartes studied classical literature, history, rhetoric, and natural philosophy. In 1616 he obtained a degree in law from the University of Poitiers. At the age of twenty-two, he enrolled in the Protestant Dutch army of Maurice of Nassau. He spent several years as a soldier and met the Dutchman Isaac Beeckman, who awakened his interest in mathematics. For Beeckman he dedicated one of his earliers works, Compendium Musicae (1618). In 1619 he served in the Bavarian army. While on duty at Ulm, he devised a methodology for the unification of the sciences. According to a story, Descartes had spent a cold morning in a "stove-heated room" (or in some sources in a large oven, poêle), and when he came out, half of his philosophy had got ready.

"I distinctly perceived that its three angles were necessarily equal to two right angles, but I did not on that account perceive anything which could assure me that any triangle existed: while, on the contrary, recurring to the examination of the idea of a Perfect Being, I found that the existence of the Being was comprised in the idea in the same way that the equality of its three angles to two right angles is comprised in the idea of a triangle, or as in the idea of a sphere, the equidistance of all points on its surface from the center, or even still more clearly; and that consequently it is at least as certain that God, who is this Perfect Being, is, or exists, as any demonstration of geometry can be.."  (Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason, and Seeking the Truth in the Sciences by René Descartes, translated by John Veitch, 1910, p. 39)

From 1619 to 1627 Descartes lived in Paris. He spent the rest of his life traveling outside France, settling eventually in Holland, where he remained from 1629 to 1649, his great creative years. There he devoted himself to philosophy and sciences, resolve "no longer to seek any other science than the knowledge of myself, or of the great book of the world." (Discourse on the Method, 1910, pp. 9-10) Although he was Catholic, Descartes opposed scholasticism. To put an end to the current philosophical ideas that went so far as to deny one's own existence, he started to inquire human knowledge on the basis of methodological skepticism, "Cartesian doubt". He introduced the famous of device of a malignant demon, who had employed all his energies in deceiving him.

Descartes argued that one can doubt all, but not one's own existence as a thinking being, "whilst I thus wished to think that all was false, it was absolutely necessary that I, who thus thought, should be somewhat; and as I observed that this truth, I think, therefore I am (COGITO ERGO SUM), was so certain and of such evidence that no ground of doubt, however extravagant, could be alleged by the Sceptics capable of shaking it, I concluded that I might, without scruple, accept it as the first principle of the philosophy of which I was in search." (Ibid., p. 35) 

Existence, being a perfection, can no more be separated from the concept of a supremely perfect being. From this he concluded that God must exist and because God cannot be a deceiver, the significance on sensory data must be evaluated by reason. Descartes's friend Antoine Arnaud among others criticized his reasoning. "We can be sure that God exists, only because we clearly and evidently perceive that he does; therefore, prior to being certain that God exists, we need to be certain that whatever we clearly and evidently perceive is true." ('Descartes to Kant' by Anthony Kenny, in The Oxford Illustrated History of Western Philosophy, edited by Anthony Kenny, 2001, p. 126) Although one can doubt that there was any circularity (the "Cartesian circle") in Descartes's original arguments, he had to maintain that there are some basic logical truths, which are present in us from birth, such as something cannot both be and not to be at the same time.

By 1634 Descartes had completed his Le Monde (The World), but withdrew it after hearing what the Inquisition thought of Galileo. Discourses on the First Philosophy was published in 1641, together with a series of Objections by noted thinkers. Descartes also was the founder of analytical geometry. In his thirties he wrote a treatise on dioptrics which was a substantial contribution to the science of optics and he composed one of the first scientific treatises on meteorology. In 1637 Descartes decided to publish his dioptrics, his geometry, and his meteorology; and he prefaced these works with a brief Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason, and Seeking the Truth in the Sciences. The three scientific studies are now part of the history of science. According to some estimations, the preface is reprinted every year and has been translated into more than hundred languages.

Addressed to the general reader, Discourse on Method was written in French, not in the more conventional Latin. The autobiographical work is divided into six parts. Descartes portrays himself as a sort of Socrates in search of truth and wisdom. The first two parts depict his early philosophical doubts, and culminate in the discovery of his "method". He finds four rules for reforming his own ways of thinking: first, accept nothing that is not clear and distinct; second, divide difficult subjects into many small parts; third, start with the simplest problems; fourth, be comprehensive. – In the third part Descartes explains his system of morality, metaphysics in part 4, in part 5 he describes his model of cosmos and the mechanics of human body, especially the workings of the circulation system. Part 6 provides an introduction to the essays on meteorology and optics.

Much to Descartes's  disappointment, Discourse on Method did not sell well, but it attracted a wide and immediate reaction. Only one edition of 500 copies was printed, including the 200 which  Descartes received for his own distribution. The composite work was originally entitled "The Project of a Universal Science Which Can Bring Our Nature To the Highest Degree of Perfection. With Dioptics, Meteorology, and Geometry, in Which the Most Curious Matters Which the Author Could Have Chosen To Establish the Universal Science He Is Proposing Are Explained in Such a Way That Even the Unlearned Will Be Able To Understand Them." ('Introduction' by Ian Maclean, in A Discourse on the Method of Correctly Conducting One's Reason and Seeking Truth in the Sciences by René Descartes, translated with an Introduction and Notes by Ian Maclean, 2006, p. xl) The Latin version of the Meditations was a commercial success.

Descartes's publications brought him fame throughout Europe. He entered into correspondence with most of the learned men of his time. In 1644 he published, in Latin, The Principles of Philosophy, which he hoped to gain similar position as standard texts based on Aristotle. The last of his full-length works, The Passions of the Soul, grew out of his correspondence with Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia, the niece of Charles I of England, but dedicated to Queen Christina of Sweden. In it he argued, that the mind is not directly affected by any part of the body, except the pineal gland in the brain. All sensations consist of motions in the body which travel through the nerves to this gland and there give a signal to the mind, which calls up a certain experience. Mind and body are distinct substances, which made immortality possible.

In 1649 Descartes went to Sweden, where he was invited by the Queen Christina (1626-89) to teach her philosophy at five o'clock in the morning and establish an institute for sciences. Descartes arrived in October at Stockholm, where he settled in the home of his friend Chanut at the French embassy, opposite the the Royal Palace. The climate did not suit him and he was forced to break his usual habit of late rising. To the palace he went by carriage. Christina herself proved to be a dedicated student, although too much obsessed with studying Greek. In February 1650, Descartes caught cold. He was not treated by Queen's first physician, the Frenchman du Ryer, but by his intellectual enemy at the court, a physician named Weulles. Descartes died in Stockholm on February 11, 1650. His remains were first buried in a tomb in a Catholic cemetery and later transferred to Paris – possibly at that time his head had been separated from the body and was missing. Following Descartes's death, rumors began to circulate that he had been poisoned by grammarians, who opposed his teachings as a threat to their position at the court. In 1654, Christina abdicated her throne and converted to Catholicism; Descartes's role in her conversion was indirect. She died in Rome in 1689. Descartes's (alleged) skull was auctioned off in 1821, the buyer was a casino owner, who gave it to the Swedish chemist Jöns Jacob Berzelius. The jawless skull was eventually placed on display at the Musée de l'Homme, near the skull of the Neanderthal man.

". . . one cannot imagine anything so strange and so little believable that it had not been said by one of the philosophers . . . ." (Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy by René Descartes, transated by Donald A. Cress, Fourth Edition, 1998, p. 9)

Descartes's conceptions of philosophy and science influenced deeply European culture and thinking. Even his opponents, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), and later among others Voltaire (1694-1778), who satirized Descartes's theory of vortices, largely followed him in his emphasis on analysis and in rejection of tradition. Stephen Toulmin has argued in Cosmopolis (1990) that Descartes and his followers suppressed the emergence of true modernity – tolerance, relativism, and indeterminacy – for over 300 years with their attempt to unify all knowledge through the power of reason and create a cosmopolis, an unchanging, logically based system for the human and natural worlds. "Cartesian dualism" – the separation between the mental and the physical – has been criticized from many points of view. Descartes wrote: "Accordingly this 'I' – that is, the soul, by which I am what I am, is entirely distinct from the body, and would not fail to be what it is even if the body did not exist." (Meditations on First Philosophy: With Selections from the Objections and Replies by René descartes, translated and edited by John Cottingham, 1996, p. xxx) According to Gilbert Ryle, this conception is based on category-mistake. "It is perfectly proper to say, in one logical tone of voice, that there exist minds, and to say, in another logical tone of voice, that there exist bodies. But these expressions do not indicate two different species of existence, for 'existence' is not a generic word like 'coloured' or 'sexed'. They indicate two different senses of 'exist', somewhat as 'rising' has different senses in 'the tide is rising', hopes are rising', and 'the average age of death is rising'." (The Concept of Mind by Gilbert Ryle, 2002, p, 23)

For further reading: Descartes: Lehre-Persönlichkeit-Wirkung by Ernst Cassirer (1939); The Metaphysics of Descartes by Leslie Beck (1965); René Descartes: A Biography by J.R. Vrooman (1970); Descartes by M. Wilson (1978); Descartes by T. Sorell (1981); Descartes by John Cottingham (1986); Demons, Dreamers, and Madmen by Harry G. Frankfurt (1987); Descartes and the Enlightenment by P. Schouls (1989); The Cambridge Companion to Descartes, ed. by John Cottingham (1992); Descartes by Georges Dicker (1993); Essays on the Philosophy and Science of Rene Descartes, ed. by Stephen Voss (1993); Descartes by Stephen Gaukroger (1995); Descartes: A Very Short Introduction by Tom Sorell (2000); What Am I?: Descartes and the Mind-Body Problem by Joseph Almog (2002); Descartes's Ballet: His Doctrine of the Will and His Political Philosophy by Richard A. Watson (2002); Descartes' Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason by Russell Shorto (2008); Drottningen och filosofen: mötet mellan Christina och Descartes by Svante Nordin (2012); The Young Descartes: Nobility, Rumor, and War by Harold J. Cook (2018); Descartes's Fictions: Reading Philosophy with Poetics by Emma Gilby (2019); Descartes and the Ingenium: the Embodied Soul in Cartesianism, edited by Raphaële Garrod with Alexander Marr (2020) - Note: Descartes' remains have been moved and buried several times. His skull has been in the Musée de l'Homme. Suomeksi Descartesilta on käännetty mm. valikoima Teoksia ja kirjeitä, suom. J.A.Hollo. Vuonna 2001 ilmestyi Sami Janssonin kääntämänä René Descartes: Teokset I, joka sisälsi Yksityisiä ajatelmia, Järjen käyttöohjeet, Metodin esitys, Optiikka ja Kirjeitä 1619-1640.

Selected works:

  • Le Discours de la méthode pour bien conduire sa raison et chercher la vérité dans les sciences, 1937
    - Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason and Seeking Truth in the Sciences (translated by John Veitch, 1870) / Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy (translated by Donald A. Cress, 1980) / A Discourse on the Method of Correctly Conducting One's Reason and Seeking Truth in the Sciences (translated with an Introduction and Notes by Ian Maclean, 2006)
    - Metodin esitys. Mielenliikutuksien tutkistelu. Metafyysillisiä mietelmiä (suom. Ph. Suuronen, 1899) / Metodin esitys (suom. J. Hollo, teoksessa Teoksia ja kirjeitä, 1956) / Teokset I: Yksityisiä ajatelmia; Järjen käyttöohjeet; Metodin esitys; Optiikka; Kirjeitä 1619-1640 (suom. Sami Jansson, 2001)
  • La Géométrie, 1637
    - The Geometry of René Descartes (translated by David Eugene Smith and Marcia L. Latham, 1925) / Discourse on Method, Optics, Geometry, and Meteorology (translated by Paul J. Olscamp, 1965, rev. ed. 2001)
  • Meditationes de prima philosophia / Méditations sur la philosophie première, 1641
    - Meditations on First Philosophy (translated by Donald A. Cress, 1979) / Meditations on First Philosophy: with Selections from the Objections and Replies (translated by John Cottingham, 1986) / Meditationes de prima philosophia = Meditations on First Philosophy (translated by George Heffernan, 1990) / Meditations, Objections, and Replies (translated by Roger Ariew and Donald Cress, 2006)
    - Metodin esitys. Mielenliikutuksien tutkistelu. Metafyysillisiä mietelmiä (suom. Jalmari Hahl & Ph. Suuronen, 1899) / Metafyysisiä mietiskelyjä (suom. J. Hollo, teoksessa Teoksia ja kirjeitä, 1956) / Teokset II: Mietiskelyjä ensimmäisestä filosofiasta; Kirjeitä 1640-1641 (suom. Tuomo Aho ja Mikko Yrjönsuuri, 2002)
  • Epistola ad R.P. Dinet, 1642
  • Epistola Renati Des Cartes ad celeberrimum virum D. Gisbertum Voetium, 1643
  • Principia philosophiae, 1644; (Les Principes de la philosophie, tr. Claude Picot, 1647)
    - The Principles of Philosophy (translated by V.R. Miller and R.P. Miller, 1983)
    - Teokset III: Filosofian periaatteet; Totuuden tutkimus luonnollisella valolla; Huomautuksia erääseen ohjelmajulistukseen; Kirjeitä 1641-1645 (suom. Mikko Yrjönsuuri, et al., 2003)
  • Specimina Philosophiae: seu Dissertatio de Methodo recte regendae rationis & veritatis in scientiis investigandae: Dioptrice et Meteora, 1644
  • Notae in programma quoddam, 1648
  • Responsiones Renati des Cartes ad quasdam difficultates ex Meditationibus ejus etc., ab ipso haustae, 1648
    - Descartes' Conversation with Burman (translated by John Cottingham, 1976)
  • Les Passions de l'âme, 1649
    - Passions of the Soul (translated by Stephen H. Voss, 1989)
    - Mielenliikutukset (suom. J. Hollo, teoksessa Teoksia ja kirjeitä, 1956) / Teokset IV: Sielun liikutukset; Ihmisruumiin kuvaus; Sikiön kehityksestä; Kirjeenvaihto prinsessa Elisabethin kanssa; Kirjeitä 1646-1650; Rauhan synty (suom. Timo Kaitaro, et al., 2005)
  • La Naissance de la Paix par René Descartes ballet dansé au château royal de Stockholm le jour de la naissance de Sa Majesté, 1649
  • Compendium musicae, 1650 (written in 1618)
    - Compendium of Music (translated by Walter Robert, 1961)
  • Querela apologetica ad amplissimum magistratum Ultrajectinum, 1656
  • Lettres, 1656-67 (3 vols., edited by Claude de Cherselier)
  • Le Monde ou Traité de la lumière, 1664 (edited by Claude de Cherselier)
    - The World and Other Writings (translated by Stephen Gaukroger, 1998)
  • L'Homme, et un traité de la formation du foetus , 1664 (ed. Claude de Cherselier)
    - Treatise of Man (translated by Thomas Steele Hall, 1972)
  • Opuscula posthuma physica et mathematica, 1701 (includes
    Regulae ad directionem ingenii, ut et inquisitio veritatis per lumen naturale)
    - Rules for the Direction of the Mind (translated by Laurence J. Lafleur, 1961)
  • Œuvres, 1897-1910 (12 vols., edited by C. Adam and P. Tannery)
  • Correspondance, 1931-1963 (8 vols., edited by C. Adam and G. Milhaud)
  • Œuvres et lettres, 1953 (edited by André Bridoux)
  • Œuvres de Descartes, 1964-76 (11, vols., edited by C. Adam and P. Tannery)
  • The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, 1975-1991 (3 vols., edited by J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff, D. Murdoch, A. Kenny)
  • Oeuvres de jeunesse 1616-1631, 2012 (edited by Vincent Carraud)

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