Rene Descartes
Rene Descartes

Rene Descartes (1596-1650)


Rene Descartes was a French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist and can be considered the father of modern philosophy and the founder of modern mathematics. He is best known for originating Cartesian philosophy ("I think, therefore I am") and the Cartesian plain (coordinate plain).

Table of Contents:

I. Biography
II. Works /Contributions to Science

III. Philosophy and Ideas
IV. Importance to the Scientific Revolution**

V. Bibliography
VI. External Links


Rene Descartes was born on March 31st, 1596 in a small village called La Haye (now named Descartes in honor of him) in France. He was the son of Joachim Descartes, a Councilor in Parliament, so Rene enjoyed a good upbringing. However, his mother died when he was only one. There were many things in his life that separated him from the other people of the upper class in France. For one, his father believed that Rene should solely focus on his studies. Because of this, his father moved him to another wing of the house that isolated him from other possible distractions.(11) He got his education from the Jesuit College of Henri IV where he studied literature, grammar, science and mathematics. Descartes proved to be the most adept at mathematics and science. After the Jesuit College, he went to Poitiers and earned his Law degree, on the side he studied philosophy, theology and medicine.(11)

In 1618 while on a peaceful trip though Breda, Rene had the amazing fortune to run into what would become one of the most famous and respected philosophers of all time. While walking through Breda he met Isaac Beckham, a renowned physicist and and extremely progressive mind during the time. When the two met they immediately hit it off and began to have a deep conversation about science and just life in general. During their conversation they began to discuss physics and new age math. After talking about this for a while, their conversations began to fall more heavily on the concept of gravity and the falling body and objects. His conversations with Issac Beckham would lead him to become one of the greatest minds of our time and would direct his thinking towards " I think, therefore I am.". Descartes led a quiet life from then on while making important philosophical, mathematical and scientific discoveries. He came to be quite famous because of his achievements. He left France for the Netherlands and stayed there for 16 years. It is there that he made his greatest discoveries and he returned to his native France for only brief visits. In his later years, he was sent to Sweden to tutor Queen Christina in philosophy. However, the high altitudes, cold weather, and early schedule proved to be too much for Descartes' health. He developed pneumonia soon after he arrived in Sweden and died on February 11th, 1650 at the age of 54.(11)

II.Works/ Contributions to Science

Rene Descartes' works include (5):
  • Compendium Musica (1618): Descartes' Compendium Musica attempted to express the notion of harmony in mathematical terms.(1)
  • Rules for the Direction of the Mind (1628): This document is a set of 21 rules set down by Descartes. These rules state that "The aim of our studies should be to direct the mind with a view to forming true and sound judgments about whatever comes before it."(12)
  • Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason, and Seeking the Truth in the Sciences (1637): This is arguably one of Descartes' most important works. It swept away the beliefs of the past and set the stage for modern thought as it attempted to put human knowledge on a firm footing.(10)
  • La Géométrie (1637): This document was an appendix to his previous work, Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason, and Seeking the Truth in the Sciences. In this work, Descartes invented what is now known as analytical geometry. Another important contribution Descartes made in Geometry was the invention of the Cartesian coordinates.(10)
  • Meditations on First Philosophy (1641): In this document Descartes establishes modern skepticism and rejects the Aristotelian belief that all knowledge is gained from the senses. He also addresses the mind-body relationship and explains the concept of Dualism.(8)
  • Les Principes de la philosophie (Principles of Philosophy) (1644): Although intended to have six parts, this document had just four: The Principles of Human Knowledge, The Principles of Material Things, The Visible Universe, and The Earth. In this document, Descartes took one step further in trying to create a unified science and reject the Scholastic tradition.
  • The Singing Epitaph (1646)
  • Comments on a Certain Broadsheet (1647)
  • The Description of the Human Body (1647): In this document, Descartes shows the intricacies of the human body based on his experiments and explains the importance of knowing one's own body. "There is nothing one can more profitably occupy oneself with than with trying to know oneself." (4)
  • Conversation with Burman (1648):In 1648, Descartes allowed Frans Burman to interview him. In the interview they discussed a critical analysis of his past works and accomplishments. (15)
  • Passions of the Soul (1649): In Descartes' Passions of the Soul he delves further into the Mind-Body problem and in addition he gives an insight to his own personal moral philosophy.
  • Descartes also worked with the scholar Isaac Beckham which enhanced his knowlegde of gravity and mathematics. (7)
  • Descartes popularized the basics for Calculus and Analytical Geometry for future scholars and laid the foundation for modern mathematics and philosophy. (15)

III.Philosophy And Ideas

Rene Descartes, also known as Cartesius, was the originator of Cartesian philosophy.(7) The quote " Cognitus Ergo Sum" ,which in English means " I think, therefore I am",(12) sums up the philosophy of doubt that Descartes derived, in which he stated that nothing that he knew could be true. He said all previously thought knowledge and his own senses could not be trusted. He then systematically eliminated all known knowledge, beliefs and ideas. He did this by applying the rules of mathematics that he knew so well. Like in math, he started with a strong foundation of self evident principles and then moving forward as axioms are added to form more complex truths.(7) The only thing that could not be doubted was that he existed, because he could think. He then began to reprove all knowledge starting with the existence of God and moving on from there. He figured that God must exist, because it was necessary for a perfect being to set the world in motion, by defining physical laws.(7)

Another element of Cartesian philosophy is the connection between the the mind and the physical world. He rationalized that the physical world had to be real because God would not deceive the mind with illusions of a physical reality. However, at the same time, he believed that the physical world was entirely mechanical and the only connection between the mind and the physical world was from God.

Descartes assumed that the physical world was made up of an infinite amount of particles that were continually moving, but not at random. He believed that these "corpuscles" did not move at random, but followed specific laws created by God. Descartes set out to discover these laws. He concluded at least that a particle will remain at rest until otherwise pushed in a direction, and a moving particle will not rest unless deflected. This was the first unequivocal statement of the law of inertia (included inertial linearity, unlike Galileo's thought of circularity).(7)

IV. Importance to the Scientific Revolution

Descartes played a very important role in the Scientific Revolution. Not only did he revolutionize human knowledge and thought through skepticism, but he laid the foundation for modern philosophy and mathematics. Before Descartes' time, many scientists who disagreed with traditional Scholastic and Aristotelian beliefs were afraid to oppose the Church. Although Descartes did not oppose traditional belief as radically as Galileo, it still gave aspiring scientists and mathematicians the courage to voice their opinions. Without Descartes' contributions to the Scientific Revolution, the world would not be where it is today.


1) "Compedium Musica." Stanford University. 12 Sept. 2007 <>.
2) "Descartes and Cartesianism." Encyclopedia Britannica. 15th ed. 29 vols. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc, 2001.
3) "Descartes's Passions of the Soul." Philosophy COmpass. Mar. 2006. 12 Sept. 2007 <>.
4) Descartes, Rene. "Descartes: the Description of the Human Body." 1647. 12 Sept. 2007
5) "Descartes, Rene, 1596-1650." The University of Adelaide Library. 16 Apr. 2007. University of Adelaide. 11 Sept. 2007 <>.
6) "Descartes, Rene." Encyclopedia Britannica. 15th ed. 29 vols. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc, 2001.
7) "Elements of Cartesian Philosophy." InfoPlease. 2007. The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia. 12 Sept. 2007 <>.
8) "Meditations on First Philosophy." SparkNotes. 2006. 12 Sept. 2007 <>.
9) "Rene Descartes 1596-1650." 11 Sept. 2007
10) "Rene Descartes." 5 Sept. 2005. 12 Sept. 2007 <>.
11) "Rene Descartes." 9 Dec. 2002. 12 Sept. 2007 <>
12) "Rules for the Direction of the Mind." 12 Sept. 2007 <>.
13) Stokes, Philip. Philosophy - 10 Essential Thinkers. New York: Enchanted Lion Books, 2003.
14) Tarnas, Richard. The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View. New York: Ballantine Books, 1991.
15) "The Philosophical Review." J Stor. 1976. 12 Sept. 2007 <>.

VI.External Links

Link to the Discource on Method
Wikipedia Artical on Descartes