René Descartes was one of the great thinkers of history. His influence on Western thought and philosophy is undeniable, especially if we consider his famous work “The Discourse of Method”
It was well ahead of its time, a time when Galileo Galilei, one of his contemporaries, was censored by religious elites, which made it difficult to publish Cartesian philosophy at first.
Below we will see the life and work of this philosopher through a biography of René Descartes, In addition to understanding in more detail his philosophical thought.
Biography of René Descartes
Mathematician, physicist and above all known as a philosopher, René Descartes was a versatile character. Below we will see his biography.
First years of life
René Descartes was born in The Hague, France, on March 31, 1596. His mother died when he was only 13 months old, and his father, busy with his work in the Parliament of Brittany, barely had time for the young Descartes, so that his education fell into the hands of his maternal grandmother.
Little René studied at a Jesuit school in La Flèche, Between 1604 and 1612, which at that time was one of the most famous Jesuit institutions in Europe. This center was of capital importance for his intellectual development.
There he learned several things, although he focused on teaching traditional liberal education, theology and how to be a good gentleman. Years later, Descartes would criticize the education he received at such a center. At La Flèche, Descartes obtained his baccalaureate and then went to Potters to obtain his law degree.
In 1616, at only 22 years old, he left for the Netherlands to serve in the ranks of the Mauritian army in Nassau, Protestant Prince in the Thirty Years’ War. He would later enlist in the ranks of Maximilian I of Bavaria, who was Catholic. This may seem paradoxical, given that in such a struggle there were Catholic and Protestant enmities. Descartes would admit that he had enlisted in different armies to know new countries and understand the reality of each camp.
During the winter of 1619, Descartes was stranded in a village in the upper Danube, near Ulm. He remained isolated from any social connection, on the side of a stove and with no more company than that of his own thoughts. By being there, the bases would be revealed to him which would ensure their philosophical system: the mathematical method and the more than famous Cartesian principle, “I think, therefore I exist”.
On the night of November 10 to 11, 1619, victim of a feverish excitement, Descartes would have three dreams in which the form of his method would be revealed to him and his vocation to devote his life to philosophy and science.
End of military life
Resigning to the military life, Descartes served to travel by fraternal and Dutch earth, returning to France in 1622. He spent a season in Italy, between 1623 and 1625, then returned to France., Settle in Paris and make contact with the most eminent scientists of the time.
In 1628 he returned to Holland, a country where science was advancing in leaps and bounds thanks to relative freedom of thought and where the scientist enjoyed good popularity, residing in the Netherlands for 21 years. For the first five years he would be dedicated to shaping his own world system, what he understood to be human being, and how our soul was encapsulated within our body.
In 1633, the drafting of a Treatise on Light was already very advanced, an ample text in which he spoke of metaphysics and physics. However, he decided not to publish it, given the terrible condemnation of Galileo Galilei. Descartes he defended Copernican heliocentrism in this work. In the end, the work would be published posthumously.
In 1637 his famous “Discourse on Method” would appear, presented as a prologue to three scientific essays. The book would gain popularity, and many educated readers would dare to send letters to its author discussing what they were thinking or possible errors in the Cartesian method.
In the speech, Descartes he proposed a methodical doubt, with which all the knowledge of the time was to be questioned. Not that it was a skeptical doubt, because oriented towards the search for principles on which to base knowledge, and not the simple criticism of all the knowledge of the moment.
He proposed the Cartesian method for all sciences and disciplines, and consists in breaking down the most complex problems into simpler parts, until the most fundamental elements are detected, simple ideas that can be presented as obvious reasons. He would then come to link these same ideas to understand the more complex postulates that they constituted.
In his mechanical physics, he explained that extension was the main property of material bodies, a postulate stated in his Metaphysical Meditations of 1641. In this work, he attempted to prove the existence of God and his perfection, as well as the immortality of the soul, already underlined in the fourth part of the Discourse on Method. As his popularity grew, criticism and threats of religious persecution became dark shadows hanging over René Descartes.
Escape to Sweden and end of life
Tired of the struggles, criticisms and threats of the French and Dutch ecclesiastical and academic authorities, Descartes, in 1649, accept the invitation of Queen Christina of Sweden, who invited him to reside in Stockholm as a professor of philosophy.
It was no accident. Descartes and the monarch had maintained an intense correspondence. But if René Descartes enjoyed the company of Cristina of Sweden, a cultured queen, the country he ruled was not so pleasant to him. He went so far as to describe it as a land of bears, where men’s thoughts freeze, along with water.
In the Scandinavian country Descartes he had to get up at four in the morning, in the dark and with the winter cold devouring his bones, to teach philosophy to the queen, Because the monarch had this free time only because of his royal obligations. It would surely be the end of his life, for he died on February 11, 1650 of pneumonia, taking only five months in Sweden.
The philosophy of Descartes
René Descartes he is considered the promoter of modern rationalist philosophy, One of the first philosophical currents after the end of the Middle Ages. His approach aims to solve philosophical and scientific problems through knowledge that guarantees the certainty of the same postulates.
In his Discourse on Method of 1637, he declared that he intended to develop a doctrine entirely based on new principles, breaking with the philosophical teachings he had received during his studies at La Flèche. He was convinced that reality completely responded to a rational order. It aimed to create a method that would allow the whole field of knowledge to be reached with the same certainty provided by the exact sciences, such as geometry and arithmetic.
Its method consists of four procedures:
- Do not accept as true anything of which there is no absolute certainty.
- Break each problem down into smaller parts.
- Go from the simplest to the most complex.
- Go through the entire process to make sure that no steps were skipped.
To accomplish the first step, he is lifted methodical doubt, i.e. questioning all the knowledge acquired or inherited. All knowledge has a part that can be criticized, but in turn there is a part that is impossible to question, and that is the very act of doubting.
In other words, we doubt reality, we doubt knowledge, but what we cannot doubt is that we doubt. In this way we come to absolute certainty and obvious: we doubt. Doubt is a thought, with which we do the action of thinking. One cannot think without existing, with which the act of thinking, doubting and performing other cognitive actions implies the indisputable existence of the thinking ego. This is where his famous phrase “Cogito, ergo sum” comes from, it is the maxim “I think therefore I exist”.
It is on the basis of this simple sentence, albeit with absolute certainty, that Descartes elevates his whole philosophy. You can’t trust the existence of things, Because even if we see them or touch them, how are we sure that they are not fooling us? How are we sure that our senses are giving us truthful information?
Instead, thought is not a material thing, but contains ideas of things, representations of reality. What follows is whether our thought contains an idea or a representation that can be perceived with the same clarity and distinction, which it regards as two criteria of certainty with which we perceive reality.
Types of ideas
Descartes reviews all the knowledge he had previously discarded at the start of his philosophical research. Reconsidering, he sees that mental representations of our way of seeing reality can be grouped into three categories:
- Innate ideas.
- Adventurous ideas.
- Fictitious ideas.
Innate ideas are already, as the name suggests, in us at the time of birth. These are ideas like beauty or justice. It is not something that is in the outside world, it is abstract aspects.
Adventurous ideas would be those that came from outside, Like the representation of what a horse, a table or a building is. They are the result of our experience, obtained through the senses. The problem is, because our senses can fail, we cannot be sure that the fortuitous ideas we have are true. Maybe the reality is nothing more than a simple illusion.
Finally they are fictitious ideas which, as the name suggests, are those representations of things that do not exist, Such as monsters from mythology, unicorns or any other. These are invented ideas, creativity. These fictitious ideas are the result of the sum or the combination of other ideas which would be fortuitous.
Our existence and that of God
By examining innate ideas, which are not given to us by the senses since they have no external representation, we encounter a rather paradoxical fact. Human beings are not perfect, since we die and have our weaknesses, but we can conceive of ideas of perfection., Like that of God, an infinite being, eternal and unchanging.
The idea of God, something perfect, cannot arise from a finite and imperfect individual, it must come from before, by the action of another being, of God himself. The fact that we believe in the existence of God as a perfect being being imperfect us is proof that God exists, because otherwise it was he who put his idea of perfection in our imperfect mind who was he?
About the substance
Descartes defines the concept of substance, understood as that which exists in such a way that it only needs itself to exist. Substances are manifested by means and attributes. Attributes are essential properties which reveal the determination of the substance, that is, the qualities without which a substance would cease to be that substance. Manners are not properties, but simply accidental situations or temporal aspects.
The attribute of bodies is extension, since not having it they cease to be bodies. All other properties, such as their shape, color, location and movement, are just modes, that is, relatively temporary phenomena.
The attribute of the mind is thought, since the mind always has this property. Therefore, there is a thinking substance, called “nothing cogitan”, but it is not a body, because it has no extension, and its attribute is thought. Then there is a substance which is composed of physical bodies, called “nothing extensive”, the attribute would be extension, understood as three-dimensionality. The two substances are irreducible to each other and totally separate and this conception of these two substances is called Cartesian dualism.
The human being is composed of body, that is to say nothing extensive, and of the soul, nothing cogitan. But this comes up against the idea that these two substances are completely separate. In the case of the human being, the soul resides in the pineal gland, ruling the body. This is how our cogitan nothing and our extensive nothing establish contact, being the soul that exerts an influence on the body.
- Descartes, René (2011). Cirilo Flórez Miguel, ed. Complete work. Library of great thinkers. Madrid: Editorial Gredos. ISBN 9788424920807.
- Ruiza, M., Fernández, T. and Tamaro, I. (2004). Biography of René Descartes. In Biographies and Lives. The online biographical encyclopedia. Barcelona, Spain). Retrieved from https://www.biografiasyvidas.com/biografia/d/descartes.htm on February 29, 2020.