On this day in 1596, the celebrated philosopher, scholar, and mathematician René Descartes was born. For his pioneering ideas, and breaking the hegemony of Aristotelian philosophical tradition, he is sometimes dubbed the “father of modern philosophy.”
Descartes was born into a relatively wealthy family in the town of La Haye en Touraine, in central northern France. In honour of its most famous son, the town has since been renamed Descartes. He was educated at a Jesuit college in the nearby town of La Flèche, before studying law at the University of Poitiers, graduating in 1616.
Descartes’s formative years had instilled a sense of restlessness and thirst for knowledge beyond the confines of convention. Rather than pursue a career in jurisprudence, as his father had intended, the young Descartes resolved to travel, and expand his mind through studying “the great book of the world.” He attached himself to several different army battalions, embarking on a life as a gatherer of information and an itinerant observer.
His questioning mind led him to challenge the accepted truths of the world, and to examine the essence of existence and human experience. As early as 1620, he began setting out his theories in hand-written treatise, expounding his views on anything from morals, music, politics, war and religion. Over the years his ideas began to solidify and develop, leading him to publish his Discourse on Method in 1637, one of the most important works in modern philosophy. The discourse dealt with a number of issues, including how to explain the physical nature of the world through utilising logical deduction rather than unreliable and inexact perception.
Part 4 of the discourse is perhaps the most quoted in philosophy, as it contains the maxim Cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am.” It is an answer to the philosophy of skepticism, and those who argue that there is no real way of proving whether one exists or not. Descartes argues that the process of doubting one’s existence is an active process that can only be driven by one’s mind. To doubt one’s existence, one must be thinking, and thinking proves one’s existence. He was prepared to accept that things beyond one’s own mind could not be said to categorically exist, but argued the presence of a benevolent God made the actuality of external matter likely. After all, why would God, having given him sensory faculties, wish to deceive him?
Over the years Descartes added many more philosophical treatises to his oeuvre, including the important work of 1641, Meditations on the First Philosophy. This outlined the principles of Cartesian Dualism, and the notion that the brain and the mind were distinct, and sometimes opposing, entities. It is a work that informs the study of human psychology to this day.
Descartes died while in self-imposed exile in Holland in 1650. Although a staunch Catholic, he was alarmed at the Church’s treatment of some of the more radical thinkers in France, and chose to live in the more accommodating Netherlands. He will be remembered as one of the great philosophical innovators of the post-classical era, and also as the man who introduced the algebraic symbols a, b, and c to represent known numbers, and x, y, and z to represent unknown numbers.
Credit: © North Wind Picture Archives / Alamy
Caption: A portrait of René Descartes, after a painting by Frans Hals.