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The Father of Modern Philosophy

March 31, 1596-February 11, 1650


Ren Descartes was born on March 31, 1596, in La Haye en Touraine, a small town in central France, which has
since been renamed after him to honor its most famous son. He was the youngest of three children, and his mother,
Jeanne Brochard, died within his first year of life. His father, Joachim, a council member in the provincial parliament,
sent the children to live with their maternal grandmother, where they remained even after he remarried a few years
later. But he was very concerned with good education and sent Ren, at age 8, to boarding school at the Jesuit
college of Henri IV in La Flche, several miles to the north, for seven years.

Descartes was a good student, although it is thought that he might have been sickly, since he didnt have to abide
by the schools rigorous schedule and was instead allowed to rest in bed until midmorning. The subjects he studied,
such as rhetoric and logic and the mathematical arts, which included music and astronomy, as well as metaphysics,
natural philosophy and ethics, equipped him well for his future as a philosopher. So did spending the next four years
earning a baccalaureate in law at the University of Poitiers. Some scholars speculate that he may have had a nervous
breakdown during this time.

Descartes later added theology and medicine to his studies. But he eschewed all this, resolving to seek no
knowledge other than that of which could be found in myself or else in the great book of the world, he wrote much
later in Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason and Seeking Truth in the Sciences, published in

So he traveled, joined the army for a brief time, saw some battles and was introduced to Dutch scientist and
philosopher Isaac Beeckman, who would become for Descartes a very influential teacher. A year after graduating from
Poitiers, Descartes credited a series of three very powerful dreams or visions with determining the course of his study
for the rest of his life.

Descartes never married, but he did have a daughter, Francine, born in the Netherlands in 1635. He had moved to
that country in 1628 because life in France was too bustling for him to concentrate on his work, and Francines mother
was a maid in the home where he was staying. He had planned to have the little girl educated in France, having
arranged for her to live with relatives, but she died of a fever at age 5.

Descartes lived in the Netherlands for more than 20 years but died in Stockholm, Sweden, on February 11, 1650.
He had moved there less than a year before, at the request of Queen Christina, to be her philosophy tutor. The fragile
health indicated in his early life persisted. He habitually spent mornings in bed, where he continued to honor his dream
life, incorporating it into his waking methodologies in conscious meditation, but the queens insistence on 5 am lessons
led to a bout of pneumonia from which he could not recover. He was 53.

Sweden was a Protestant country, so Descartes, a Catholic, was buried in a graveyard primarily for unbaptized
babies. Later, his remains were taken to the abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prs, the oldest church in Paris. They were
moved during the French Revolution, and were put back lateralthough urban legend has it that only his heart is
there and the rest is buried in the Panthon.



Descartes begins his Meditation on First Philosophy by doubting everything there was to doubt. The
purpose of this exercise was to strip away all knowledge that could possible held in doubt as genuine in order
to arrive at something that could be determined to be known at absolute certainty. Descartes determines that
because his senses can be fooled, he has no reason to believe in the findings of science, the existence of
the external world or even that his own body exists. He postulates that reality may be a dream and that he
would have no way of knowing whether he was dreaming.

He outlined four main rules for himself in his thinking:

Never accept anything except clear and distinct ideas.

Divide each problem into as many parts are needed to solve it.
Order your thoughts from the simple to the complex.
Always check thoroughly for oversights.

Descartes also uses a thought experiment called the evil demon (sometimes evil genius or other
phrases are used for the concept) which consists of a being that exists only to fool his senses. Descartes
uses other analogies, such as a piece of wax that changes shape to appear to be something different but
remains a piece of wax and of people walking across the square that he cant be sure that they are not
automations. Descartes realizes that he cannot be sure that even other minds exist but he comes to a
conclusion that he can know one thing and that is that he doubts.

Because he doubts he knows that he is a doubting thing. In order to doubt there must be something to
do the doubting and that doubting thing is Descartes himself. Descartes conclusion is, I think therefore I


Cogito, ergo sum, ( Latin: I think, therefore I am) dictum coined by the French philosopher Ren
Descartes in his Discourse on Method (1637) as a first step in demonstrating the attainability of certain
knowledge. It is the only statement to survive the test of his methodic doubt. The statement is
unquestionable, as Descartes argued in the second of his six Meditations on First Philosophy (1641),
because even if an all-powerful demon were to try to deceive him into thinking that he exists when he does
not, he would have to exist in order for the demon to deceive him. Therefore, whenever he thinks, he exists.
Furthermore, as he argued in his replies to critics in the second edition (1642) of the Meditations, the
statement I am (sum) expresses an immediate intuition, not the conclusion of a piece of reasoning
(regarding the steps of which he could be deceived), and is thus indubitable. However, in a later work, the
Principles of Philosophy (1644), Descartes suggested that the cogito is indeed the conclusion of a syllogism
whose premises include the propositions that he is thinking and that whatever thinks must exist.

Now that Descartes has established the one thing that he can be absolutely certain of he begins to
construct other things that he believes he can know based on that single certainty.


Descartes goal with the Meditations of First Philosophy was to make an argument for the existence of
God. Descartes was not the first to propose an ontological argument for the existence of God. His just
happens to be the best one that has ever been proposed. There is an essential misunderstanding of the
argument that nearly every modern reader of Descartes makes and that is a misunderstanding of what he
means by the term perfect and perfection. Descartes does not mean perfect the way that we mean
perfect today, as in the absence of flaws, but he means it in a context of a medieval definition.

When Descartes says perfection he means a positive trait. For instance, intelligence is a perfection
while ignorance is not a perfection because it is merely the absence of intelligence. A perfect being would be
a being that had all perfections, meaning all positive traits. Another concept that was widely believed during
Descartes time was that in order for something of complexity to exist it must have come from something
more complex. So if a human could have intelligence (a perfection) then he must have been created by
something of even greater intelligence. (That would be God.) When most people look at Descartes argument
they look at in from a modern perspective that has evolutionary biology as explanations for human
complexity and a different definition of perfection so they often completely miss what the argument is saying.
The ontological argument is found in the Fifth Meditation and follows a more straightforwardly
geometrical line of reasoning. Here Descartes argues that Gods existence is deducible from the idea of his
nature just as the fact that the sum of the interior angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles is
deducible from the idea of the nature of a triangle. The point is that this property is contained in the nature of
a triangle, and so it is inseparable from that nature. Accordingly, the nature of a triangle without this property
is unintelligible. Similarly, it is apparent that the idea of God is that of a supremely perfect being, that is, a
being with all perfections to the highest degree. Moreover, actual existence is a perfection, at least insofar as
most would agree that it is better to actually exist than not. Now, if the idea of God did not contain actual
existence, then it would lack a perfection. Accordingly, it would no longer be the idea of a supremely perfect
being but the idea of something with an imperfection, namely non-existence, and, therefore, it would no
longer be the idea of God. Hence, the idea of a supremely perfect being or God without existence is
unintelligible. This means that existence is contained in the essence of an infinite substance, and therefore
God must exist by his very nature. Indeed, any attempt to conceive of God as not existing would be like
trying to conceive of a mountain without a valley it just cannot be done.


Descartes went on to accept that because God existed he could not necessarily be a deceiver and
because God had created his mind, body and senses then the external world must exist. Satisfied that he
had settled the whole matter, something he was completely wrong about, he dedicated a lot of time to
defining the existence of the soul and how it worked. Descartes came to the conclusion that the mind was
completely separate from the body. In philosophy of mind, what constitutes the Mind Body Problem is that
the experience of consciousness and the physical processes of the brain and body seem so at odds with
each other. Descartes came to the conclusion that this was because they interacted but were at the same
time completely separate from each other.

One of Descartes main conclusions is that the mind is really distinct from the body. But what is a real
distinction? Descartes explains it best at Principles, part 1, section 60. Here he first states that it is a
distinction between two or more substances. Second, a real distinction is perceived when one substance can
be clearly and distinctly understood without the other and vice versa. Third, this clear and distinct
understanding shows that God can bring about anything understood in this way. Hence, in arguing for the
real distinction between mind and body, Descartes is arguing that 1) the mind is a substance, 2) it can be
clearly and distinctly understood without any other substance, including bodies, and 3) that God could create
a mental substance all by itself without any other created substance. So Descartes is ultimately arguing for
the possibility of minds or souls existing without bodies.

Descartes argues that mind and body are really distinct in two places in the Sixth Meditation. The first
argument is that he has a clear and distinct understanding of the mind as a thinking, non-extended thing and
of the body as an extended, non-thinking thing. So these respective ideas are clearly and distinctly
understood to be opposite from one another and, therefore, each can be understood all by itself without the
other. Two points should be mentioned here. First, Descartes claim that these perceptions are clear and
distinct indicates that the mind cannot help but believe them true, and so they must be true for otherwise God
would be a deceiver, which is impossible. So the premises of this argument are firmly rooted in his foundation
for absolutely certain knowledge. Second, this indicates further that he knows that God can create mind and
body in the way that they are being clearly and distinctly understood. Therefore, the mind can exist without
the body and vice versa.

The second version is found later in the Sixth Meditation where Descartes claims to understand the
nature of body or extension to be divisible into parts, while the nature of the mind is understood to be
something quite simple and complete so as not to be composed of parts and is, therefore, indivisible. From
this it follows that mind and body cannot have the same nature, for if this were true, then the same thing
would be both divisible and not divisible, which is impossible. Hence, mind and body must have two
completely different natures in order for each to be able to be understood all by itself without the other.
Although Descartes does not make the further inference here to the conclusion that mind and body are two
really distinct substances, it nevertheless follows from their respective abilities to be clearly and distinctly
understood without each other that God could create one without the other.
In an effort to try and find some biological evidence for this, Descartes came to the conclusion that the
mind and the body interacted in the pineal gland. His reasoning for this was that the gland was located at the
base of the brain and while most human body parts came in twos, there was only one pineal gland. In reality,
even Descartes was dissatisfied with this explanation and he struggled to come up with an answer to this
problem for the rest of his life.


The coordinate system we commonly use is called the Cartesian system, developed by Descartes in
the 17th century. Legend has it that Descartes, who liked to stay in bed until late, was watching a fly on the
ceiling from his bed. He wondered how to best describe the fly's location and decided that one of the corners
of the ceiling could be used as a reference point.

Imagine the ceiling as a rectangle drawn on a piece of paper: taking the left bottom corner as the
reference point, you can specify the location of the fly by measuring how far you need to go in the horizontal
direction and how far you need to go in the vertical direction to get to it. These two numbers are the
fly's coordinates. Every pair of coordinates specifies a unique point on the ceiling and every point on the
ceiling comes with a unique pair of coordinates. It's possible to extend this idea, allowing the axes (the two
sides of the room) to become infinitely long in both directions, and using negative numbers to label the
bottom part of the vertical axis and the left part of the horizontal axis. That way you can specify all points on
an infinite plane.

Descartes' coordinate system created a link between algebra and geometry. Geometric shapes, such
as circles, could now be described algebraically using the coordinates of the points that make up the shapes.
For example, a circle centered on the point with coordinates $(0,0)$ and of radius $2$ is given by the
equation $$x^2+y^2 = 2^2.$$ All points whose coordinates $(x,y)$ satisfy this equation lie on the circle, and
all points on the circle have coordinates satisfying the equation. Using such a coordinate system it is possible
to solve geometric problems using algebra, and vice versa.

Descartes also made a number of other contributions to mathematics. He discovered the Law of
Angular Deficiency for all polyhedrons and was the first to offer a quantifiable explanation of rainbows. In La
Gometrie, Descartes introduced a familiar mathematics symbol, a raised number to indicate an exponent .
The expression 4 4 4 4 4 may be written as 45 using Descartes's notation. He also instituted
using x, y, and z for unknowns in an equation.


Ren Descartes (1596-1650) made an even more radical break with Aristotelian physics than did
Galileo. He abandoned the notion of the four elements (earth, water, air and fire) with their associated
qualities (hot, cold, wet and dry) and their natural places (at the center or periphery of the cosmos). Instead,
Descartes posited that all matter was made up of particles in motion. He divided matter into three elements:
fire, air and earth. The smallest, fastest-moving particles were the element fire. Air particles were larger and
slower than fire particles. And earth particles were the largest and slowest of all. The entire cosmos was
made of these three elements. Further, the entire cosmos was filled with matter; there was no empty or void
space. All particles of all the elements were constantly in motion. As one particle moved, it displaced another
particle, which in turn displaced another particle, which displaced another, and so forth. Eventually,
somewhere in this chain, a particle would have to take the place of the first particle. This meant that all
motion was effectively circular motion, although this was certainly not the uniform circles of the Aristotelian

Descartes posited that the sun and stars were made of fire. The heavens were made almost entirely of
air, although they contained a small amount of the element fire. The earth, the other planets, and comets
were made of earth. Each star was the center of its own heaven, meaning that the sun was the center of our
heaven, as Copernicus had argued, and also that there were an indefinite number of other heavens, possibly
with planets and inhabitants like our own. The second element, air, swirled around the central fire, carrying
with it the planets. The motion of the air not only moved the planets around the sun, but also caused them to
rotate on their own axes. The air closest to the sun moved fastest, while that at the periphery of the heavens
moved slowest, so that the planet closest to the sun, Mercury, moved fastest, and the most distant, Saturn,
moved slowest. Comets were earthy objects that moved between different heavens, hence their far more
irregular appearance and path. Finally, mixed bodies, that is, those composed of all three elements, were
only found on the surface of the earth, and they were produced by the agitation and mixing of the matter of
the surrounding heavens. By the surface of the earth, Descartes meant the crust, extending some way
underground. Mixed objects included metals and minerals. In sum, all terrestrial and celestial phenomena
were produced by particles of matter colliding with each other, pushing each other and resisting each other.
Descartes physics had the advantage of being considerably more comprehensive than Galileos, and of
accommodating phenomena like comets and the rotation of the earth on its axis in more logically consistent
ways. For a time, Cartesian physics achieved considerable prominence and inspired other natural
philosophers eager to replace Aristotelian physics.

For comparison with other physics theories, Descartes three laws of motion would be ;

1. Every body will remain at rest, or in a uniform state of motion unless pushed or pulled.

2. When a body is pushed or pulled, it accelerates proportional to the force of the push or pull and inversely
proportional to the mass of the body and in the direction pushed or pulled.

3. Every push or pull has an equal and opposite reaction.