René Descartes  

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"I think, therefore I am" --René Descartes

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

René Descartes (31 March 1596 - 11 February 1650) was a French philosopher, mathematician, and writer who spent most of his adult life in the Dutch Republic. He has been dubbed the 'Father of Modern Philosophy', and much subsequent Western philosophy is a response to his writings, which are studied closely to this day. In particular, his Meditations on First Philosophy continues to be a standard text at most university philosophy departments.

He is perhaps best known for the philosophical statement "Cogito ergo sum" (French: Je pense, donc je suis; English: I think, therefore I am), found in part IV of Discourse on the Method (1637 – written in French but with inclusion of "Cogito ergo sum") and §7 of part I of Principles of Philosophy (1644 – written in Latin).

Descartes frequently sets his views apart from those of his predecessors. In the opening section of the Passions of the Soul, a treatise on the Early Modern version of what are now commonly called emotions, Descartes goes so far as to assert that he will write on this topic "as if no one had written on these matters before". Many elements of his philosophy have precedents in late Aristotelianism, the revived Stoicism of the 16th century, or in earlier philosophers like Augustine. In his natural philosophy, he differs from the schools on two major points: First, he rejects the analysis of corporeal substance into matter and form; second, he rejects any appeal to ends—divine or natural—in explaining natural phenomena. In his theology, he insists on the absolute freedom of God's act of creation.

Descartes was a major figure in 17th-century continental rationalism, later advocated by Baruch Spinoza and Gottfried Leibniz, and opposed by the empiricist school of thought consisting of Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Hume. Leibniz, Spinoza and Descartes were all well versed in mathematics as well as philosophy, and Descartes and Leibniz contributed greatly to science as well.


Mind-body dichotomy, dualism

Descartes in his Passions of the Soul and The Description of the Human Body suggested that the body works like a machine, that it has material properties. The mind (or soul), on the other hand, was described as a nonmaterial and does not follow the laws of nature. Descartes argued that the mind interacts with the body at the pineal gland. This form of dualism or duality proposes that the mind controls the body, but that the body can also influence the otherwise rational mind, such as when people act out of passion. Most of the previous accounts of the relationship between mind and body had been uni-directional.

Descartes suggested that the pineal gland is "the seat of the soul" for several reasons. First, the soul is unitary, and unlike many areas of the brain the pineal gland appeared to be unitary (though subsequent microscopic inspection has revealed it is formed of two hemispheres). Second, Descartes observed that the pineal gland was located near the ventricles. He believed the cerebrospinal fluid of the ventricles acted through the nerves to control the body, and that the pineal gland influenced this process. Cartesian dualism set the agenda for philosophical discussion of the mind–body problem for many years after Descartes's death.

In present day discussions on the practice of animal vivisection, it is normal to consider Descartes as an advocate of this practice, as a result of his dualistic philosophy. Some of the sources say that Descartes denied the animals could feel pain, and therefore could be used without concern. Other sources consider that Descartes denied that animal had reason or intelligence, but did not lack sensations or perceptions, but these could be explained mechanistically.


  • 1618. Compendium Musicae. A treatise on music theory and the aesthetics of music written for Descartes's early collaborator, Isaac Beeckman.
  • 1626–1628. Regulae ad directionem ingenii (Rules for the Direction of the Mind). Incomplete. First published posthumously in 1684. The best critical edition, which includes an early Dutch translation, is edited by Giovanni Crapulli (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1966).
  • 1630–1633. Le Monde (The World) and L'Homme (Man). Descartes's first systematic presentation of his natural philosophy. Man was published posthumously in Latin translation in 1662; and The World posthumously in 1664.
  • 1637. Discours de la méthode (Discourse on the Method). An introduction to the Essais, which include the Dioptrique, the Météores and the Géométrie.
  • 1637. La Géométrie (Geometry). Descartes's major work in mathematics. There is an English translation by Michael Mahoney (New York: Dover, 1979).
  • 1641. Meditationes de prima philosophia (Meditations on First Philosophy), also known as Metaphysical Meditations. In Latin; a French translation, probably done without Descartes's supervision, was published in 1647. Includes six Objections and Replies. A second edition, published the following year, included an additional objection and reply, and a Letter to Dinet.
  • 1644. Principia philosophiae (Principles of Philosophy), a Latin textbook at first intended by Descartes to replace the Aristotelian textbooks then used in universities. A French translation, Principes de philosophie by Claude Picot, under the supervision of Descartes, appeared in 1647 with a letter-preface to Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia.
  • 1647. Notae in programma (Comments on a Certain Broadsheet). A reply to Descartes's one-time disciple Henricus Regius.
  • 1647. The Description of the Human Body. Published posthumously.
  • 1648. Responsiones Renati Des Cartes... (Conversation with Burman). Notes on a Q&A session between Descartes and Frans Burman on 16 April 1648. Rediscovered in 1895 and published for the first time in 1896. An annotated bilingual edition (Latin with French translation), edited by Jean-Marie Beyssade, was published in 1981 (Paris: PUF).
  • 1649. Les passions de l'âme (Passions of the Soul). Dedicated to Princess Elisabeth of the Palatinate.
  • 1656. Musicae Compendium (Instruction in Music). Posth. Publ.: Johannes Janssonius jun., Amsterdam
  • 1657. Correspondance. Published by Descartes's literary executor Claude Clerselier. The third edition, in 1667, was the most complete; Clerselier omitted, however, much of the material pertaining to mathematics.

In January 2010, a previously unknown letter from Descartes, dated 27 May 1641, was found by the Dutch philosopher Erik-Jan Bos when browsing through Google. Bos found the letter mentioned in a summary of autographs kept by Haverford College in Haverford, Pennsylvania. The College was unaware that the letter had never been published. This was the third letter by Descartes found in the last 25 years.

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