A Biographical Profile of Philosopher Rene Descartes

Rene Descartes
 Jan Baptist Weenix [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Rene Descartes was a French philosopher who is widely regarded as the “founder” of the modern age of philosophy because he challenged and questioned all of the traditional systems of thinking, most of which were founded upon Aristotle’s ideas. Rene Descartes’ treated philosophy as an integral part of other fields like mathematics and science.

Descartes was born on March 31, 1596, in Touraine, France and died: February 11, 1650, in Stockholm, Sweden.

On November 10, 1619: Descartes experienced a series of intense dreams that set him on a mission to develop a new scientific and philosophic system.

Important Books by Rene Descartes

  • Meditations on First Philosophy (1641)
  • Discourse on Method (1637)
  • The Principles of Philosophy (1644)
  • Passions of the Soul (1649)

Famous Quotations

  • "It is not enough to have a good mind. The main thing is to use it well."
  • Cogito Ergo Sum. "I think, therefore I am."

Understanding the Cartesian System

Although Rene Descartes is usually recognized as a philosopher, he also published several works on pure mathematics and in scientific fields like optics. Descartes believed in the unity of all knowledge and all field of human study. He likened philosophy to a tree: the roots are metaphysics, the trunk physics, and the branches individual fields like mechanics. Everything is linked and everything depends upon a proper philosophical grounding, but the “fruit” comes from the branches of science.

Early Life and Education

Rene Descartes was born in France in a small town near Tours that is now named after him. He attended a Jesuit school where he studied rhetoric, literature, and philosophy. He got a degree in law but developed a passion for mathematics because he saw it as one field where absolute certainty could be found.

He also saw it as a means for achieving greater progress in both science and philosophy.

Did Rene Descartes Doubt Everything?

Rene Descartes realized that much of what he had long taken for granted was unreliable, so he resolved to develop a new philosophical system by doubting everything. In the process of systematically taking down every assumed bit of knowledge, he believed that he came across one proposition which could not be doubted: his own existence. The mere act of doubting presupposed something which was engaging in doubt. This proposition is famously expressed cogito, ergo sum: I think, therefore I am.

Rene Descartes and Philosophy

Descartes’ goal was not simply to make a contribution to a larger and older body of knowledge but rather to totally reform philosophy from the ground up. Descartes thought that, by doing so, he could construct his ideas in a more systematic and rational manner than if he simply added to the things done earlier by others.

Because Descartes concluded that he definitely existed, he also concluded that there exists at least one existential truth which we can claim to know: that we, as individual subjects, exist as thinking beings. It is on this which he attempts to base anything else because any secure philosophy must have, as a matter of course, a secure starting point.

From here he proceeds through two attempted proofs for the existence of god and other things which he thinks he can deduce.