Unformatted text preview: René Descartes and his ‘method’
Dissatisfied with Aristotelian scholasticism, René Descartes (1596–1650, French)
sought to replace its inconclusive wranglings with proofs modeled on mathematics.
1633: spooked by news of Galileo’s troubles with the Church, Descartes pulled
back from publishing his mechanical theories on the workings of the world;
shifted to emphasizing his methods: Discourse on Method (1637), followed by
Meditations on First Philosophy (1641), and Principles of Philosophy (1644).
In Discourse, Descartes turned the tools of skepticism against skepticism, trying to
dig down to bedrock on which he could rebuild with certainty. Set out to doubt
everything, but found he could not doubt his own existence:
Cogito ergo sum—I think, therefore I am.
Descartes quickly dropped his skeptical pose; taking ‘clear and distinct’ ideas as
necessarily true, he proved (to his own satisfaction) the existence of God and the
material world. Drew sharp distinction between res cogitans (‘that which thinks’—
mind) and res extensa (‘that which is extended’—matter). Descartes said we find
the properties of the material world first through our reason, not our senses; he and
his followers (Cartesians) took it to be a philosophical principle, not an empirical
discovery, that matter can only have size, shape, and motion.
Descartes viewed plants, animals, and human bodies as essentially just machines.
Humans alone have something extra: minds. But Descartes was never able to offer
a satisfactory explanation of how mind and body are linked; this remained a major
philosophical issue. ...
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