Meditations on First Philosophy (with Objections and Replies) | Study Guide

René Descartes

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René Descartes | Biography


Early Years

René Descartes was born in the small town of La Haye, France, on March 31, 1596. The youngest of three children, Descartes was only a year old when his mother, Jeanne Brochard Descartes, died. His father, Joachim, sent the children to live with their maternal grandmother but maintained an active interest in their education.

Because of his father's status as a landowner and provincial parliament council member, young Descartes inherited a modest nobility rank that came with an inheritance. This money allowed Descartes some measure of independence as an adult.

In 1606 Descartes was sent to the Jesuit College of La Flèche, where he studied a wide range of disciplines, including science, math, metaphysics, rhetoric, logic, acting, fencing, poetry, and music. Students at La Flèche were trained for careers in government administration, judiciary, and military engineering.

In 1614 Descartes moved to the University of Poitiers to study law. Little is known about this period of Descartes's life, and some speculate that he suffered a nervous breakdown between 1614 and 1615. Thereafter he decided to "study the great book of the world," as he writes later in his 1637 work, Discourse on the Method.

Descartes began to travel, and in 1618 he joined the Dutch army as a gentlemen soldier, during which time he studied mathematics and military architecture. It was during this time he met the Dutch scientist and philosopher Isaac Beeckman, who inspired him to return to philosophy.

Descartes traveled to various parts of Europe until 1628. During this time he invented analytic geometry, a method for solving algebraic problems geometrically and geometric problems algebraically. In addition he developed a method applicable to all the sciences. This method, later published in the Discourse as well as in the posthumously published Rules for the Direction of the Mind (1701), includes steps drawn from mathematical procedures: 1. Never accept as true anything that is not clearly and distinctly known; 2. Divide problems or difficulties into as many smaller, simpler parts as possible; 3) Order thoughts and solve problems from the simplest to the most complex; and 4) Complete enumerations and conduct general reviews in order not to omit anything.

Later Years and Publications

Descartes conversed, debated, corresponded, and developed friendships with many scientists and intellectuals. In 1628 he moved to the Netherlands, where he could avoid the distractions of Paris to think and write and enjoy the tolerance of his host country. A year after his arrival he enrolled at the University of Franeker, and he interacted with various scientists and theologians.

Although Descartes had become rather well known in intellectual circles, he had not published. His Rules for the Direction of the Mind was completed in 1628 but would not be published until after his death. Le Monde (The World) was completed and ready for publication in 1633, but he withdrew it when he learned of Italian scientist Galileo Galilei's (1564–1642) fate. Like Galileo, and Polish mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543) before him, Descartes held a heliocentric view of the universe—an idea central to both his cosmology and physics. In this view Earth revolves around the sun, but the Roman Catholic Church deemed it heretical. Galileo had been convicted of heresy by the Church in 1633, and Descartes did not wish to suffer the same fate.

This was not, however, Descartes's greatest sorrow. That came when his five-year-old daughter, Francine, died from scarlet fever in 1640. Francine had been born to Helena Jans van der Strom, a serving maid at the Amsterdam home where Descartes was living. Descartes had supported his daughter and Helena and was devastated by Francine's death.

Meanwhile Descartes had slowly released parts of the Discourse he believed would not offend the Church. In 1637 he published the complete work. It is worth noting it was published anonymously, out of consideration for the Galileo effect. In 1641 Descartes published Meditations on First Philosophy together with Objections and Replies. It was this work that would generate the most interest in Descartes—positive and negative—and he spent most of the 1640s defending and expanding upon the ideas presented there.

In 1644 Descartes published Principles of Philosophy, which offered a restatement of the main ideas found in the Meditations, along with ideas about the soul and the structure of the universe. It was intended as an educational textbook. Descartes would publish one final work before his death, The Passions of the Soul, in 1649. In it he argues for a scientific footing for ethics. He dedicated the book to Queen Christina of Sweden. She had invited him to tutor her in Stockholm in 1649, but the association was short-lived. Descartes died February 11, 1650, shortly before his 54th birthday. It is said that the queen liked to meet early, typically before five a.m., in a cold and drafty room, despite knowing Descartes habitually remained in bed until about 11 a.m.—a habit he had maintained since his childhood. Descartes soon contracted pneumonia and died.

Lasting Influence

Descartes's wide-ranging interests yielded discoveries in several fields, including mathematics and geometry. He was also a productive scientist, having coframed the sine law of refraction, and he developed both a precursor to the nebular hypothesis and an empirical explanation of the rainbow.

In the realm of philosophy, Descartes's contributions continue to be studied and debated. He argued that there is a mind-body distinction, that matter's essence is extension and mind's extension is thought, and that God exists. His method of investigation has been equally as important, both in philosophy and in other disciplines.

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