Who Was Descartes?

Some years ago I was struck by how many false things I had believed, and by how doubtful was the structure of beliefs that I had based on them. I realized that if I wanted to establish anything in the sciences that was stable and likely to last, I needed – just once in my life – to demolish everything completely and start again from the foundations.

- René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, I

Podcast of the Day

René Descartes has been called the 'father of modern philosophy'. His life coincided with an extraordinarily significant time in history, wracked by civil and international conflicts and full of intellectual and spiritual ferment. Before his death in 1650 Descartes made immense contributions to an exceptionally wide range of fields and disciplines, and his assertion 'Cogito, ergo sum' ('I think, therefore I am') has become one of the most famous maxims in all philosophy.

The last ten years have seen the publication of four biographies in English (one of them translated from the French) of the great philosopher. This week, A.C Grayling author of the most recent of them, talks about an extraordinary life and times.

Listen to The Philosopher's Zone episode: The Life of René Descartes and His Place in His Times

Video of the Day

Short Article of the Day

René Descartes has long been credited with the near-single-handed creation of modern philosophy. Generations of students have read, and continue to read, his famous “Meditations” as the rejection of medieval ways of thinking and the invention of the modern self. They learned that he doubted all traditional ways of knowing before pivoting to the modern subjective individual. Tumbling into a “deep whirlpool,” the doubter of the “Meditations” has no secure footing until he hits upon a single firm and indubitable truth: He is most essentially “a thinking thing.” The modern individual is born, with the rejection of the past as its midwife.

It’s a dramatic story. But it’s false...

Continue reading Christia Mercer's article Descartes Is Not Our Father

Further Reading

René Descartes (1596–1650) was a creative mathematician of the first order, an important scientific thinker, and an original metaphysician. During the course of his life, he was a mathematician first, a natural scientist or “natural philosopher” second, and a metaphysician third. In mathematics, he developed the techniques that made possible algebraic (or “analytic”) geometry. In natural philosophy, he can be credited with several specific achievements: co-framer of the sine law of refraction, developer of an important empirical account of the rainbow, and proposer of a naturalistic account of the formation of the earth and planets (a precursor to the nebular hypothesis). More importantly, he offered a new vision of the natural world that continues to shape our thought today: a world of matter possessing a few fundamental properties and interacting according to a few universal laws. This natural world included an immaterial mind that, in human beings, was directly related to the brain; in this way, Descartes formulated the modern version of the mind–body problem. In metaphysics, he provided arguments for the existence of God, to show that the essence of matter is extension, and that the essence of mind is thought. Descartes claimed early on to possess a special method, which was variously exhibited in mathematics, natural philosophy, and metaphysics, and which, in the latter part of his life, included, or was supplemented by, a method of doubt...

Continue reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on René Descartes by Gary Hatfield

Bonus Webcomic

Descartes' Demon - Existential Comics

Related Topics

Existence | Scientific Method | SkepticismThe Soul

Become a lifelong learner. Sign up via email to get the best videos, articles and podcasts on a new topic each day. Or you can follow on Twitter or Facebook.

Leave a Reply