René Descartes - Biography, Facts and Pictures (2022)

René Descartes - Biography, Facts and Pictures (1)

Lived 1596 – 1650.

René Descartes invented analytical geometry and introduced skepticism as an essential part of the scientific method. He is regarded as one of the greatest philosophers in history.

His analytical geometry was a tremendous conceptual breakthrough, linking the previously separate fields of geometry and algebra. Descartes showed that he could solve previously unsolvable problems in geometry by converting them into simpler problems in algebra. He represented the horizontal direction as x and the vertical direction as y. This concept is now indispensable in mathematics and other sciences.

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Beginnings

René Descartes was born into a well-educated, upper-class family on March 31, 1596 in the French village of La Haye en Touraine. The village is now called Descartes, Indre-et-Loire in his honor.

René’s father was Joachim Descartes, a lawyer at Brittany’s Court of Justice. His mother was Jeanne Brochard, daughter of the Lieutenant General of Poitiers. René was their third child.

A year after René’s birth his mother and her fourth child died during childbirth.

René’s father’s worked six months of the year in the Court of Justice in Rennes, about 200 miles (300 km) from their home. René was raised by his grandmother and his great-uncle. His father remarried when René was four and began living in Rennes permanently. Despite this, there was always affection between René and his father.

From birth René suffered poor health and had a permanent cough. Local doctors thought he would not survive infancy. His father employed a nurse who devoted herself to René’s care. As an adult he believed his nurse saved his life – he paid her a permanent pension.

Education

At the age of about ten or eleven René was finally considered healthy enough to begin school. He boarded at the Jesuit School at La Flèche in Anjou. In a concession to his delicate health he was allowed to rise later in the morning than other students.

René spent seven or eight years at La Flèche learning logic, theology, philosophy, Latin and Greek. In his final two years he also learned mathematics and physics. The physics was that of Aristotle – almost entirely wrong.

He was a boy of prodigious curiosity, asking questions endlessly.

René learned something of Galileo’s work including his recent amazing discovery of Jupiter’s moons. At this time, Galileo had still not published his greatest works overturning Aristotle’s physics; his trouble with the Catholic Church lay in the future.

At the age of 18, in 1614, René Descartes left La Flèche. Later he recorded his thoughts about his education as follows:

On Mathematics

René Descartes - Biography, Facts and Pictures (2)“I took pleasure, above all, in mathematics, because of the certainty and the absoluteness of its reasons; but I had not yet discovered its true use… I was astonished that with such solid foundations nothing more eminent had ever been built upon them.”

René Descartes

(Video) René Descartes Biography

1637

On Philosophy

René Descartes - Biography, Facts and Pictures (3)“Seeing it had been cultivated by the most powerful minds… but nevertheless there is not in it one single thing which is not disputed, and therefore open to doubt, I had not the presumption to hope that I should succeed better than others. Considering how many different opinions there are… while it was impossible that more than one of them could be true, I regarded as little better than false everything that was merely probable.”

René Descartes

1637

On the Sciences

René Descartes - Biography, Facts and Pictures (4)“Since they all borrow their principles from philosophy, I judged that nothing solid could have been built on such insecure foundations.”

René Descartes

1637

The Law, the Army, and Mathematics

His father encouraged René Descartes to follow in his footsteps and study law. He did this, graduating from the University of Poitiers in 1616, aged 20, with a diploma and license in church and civil law.

Rather than becoming a lawyer, however, Descartes went traveling for about two years, including spending some time in Paris. He joined the Dutch States Army in Breda in 1618 and began studying engineering in a military academy. He soon met the Dutch scientist and philosopher Isaac Beeckman. In 1619 Descartes wrote Beeckman:

René Descartes - Biography, Facts and Pictures (5)“To tell you the truth, it was really you who got me out of my idleness and made me remember things I once learned and had nearly forgotten: when my mind wandered from serious [mathematical] matters, you put me back on the right path.”

René Descartes

1619

Descartes, aged 23, was now profoundly serious in his desire to make new discoveries in mathematics.

René Descartes’ Contributions to Science

The Miracle

On November 10, 1619 Descartes was dozing in a warm, stove-heated room in the German town of Neuburg an der Donau.

There he had a series of dreams that would ultimately change the way scientists work. He believed a spirit sent by God gave him new ideas about:

(Video) Mini Biography - Rene Descartes

  • The Scientific Method
  • Analytical Geometry
  • Philosophy

18 years later, in 1637, he published his ideas in Discours de la mèthode (Discussion of the Method), La Gèomètrie (Geometry), Les Mètèores (Meteorology), and La Dioptrique (Optics). The first two of these works contain his most significant contributions.

The Method

In Discussion of the Method Descartes shared his framework for doing science.

One of his main lines of thought was skepticism – that everything should be doubted until it could be proved.

His four main ideas for scientific progress were:

1. Never accept anything as true until all reasons for doubt can be ruled out.

2. Divide problems into as many parts as possible and necessary to provide an adequate solution.

3. Thoughts should be ordered, starting with the simplest and easiest to know, ascending little by little, and, step by step, to more complex knowledge.

4. Make enumerations so complete, and reviews so general, that nothing is omitted.

It is ironic that Descartes’ own method might lead us to doubt that a dream 18 years earlier could have been the true source of his ideas!

Analytical Geometry

Descartes made the revolutionary discovery that he could solve problems in geometry by converting them into problems in algebra.

In La Gèomètrie he showed that curves could be expressed in terms of x and y on a two-dimensional plane and hence as equations in algebra.

The Cartesian coordinate system used in the image below is named in his honor. (Descartes’ name in Latin is Cartesius.)

René Descartes - Biography, Facts and Pictures (6)

The blue line can be expressed using algebra by the equation y = 2x + 1.

Descartes never actually drew an x- or y-axis in his work. These were assumed in his diagrams. The axes were formally introduced by the mathematician Frans van Schooten and other mathematicians in Leiden who translated La Gèomètrie from French into Latin, while developing it further. Latin editions of La Gèomètrie were released in 1649, 1659 and 1661.

Descartes also introduced the modern notation for exponents. For example, rather than writing a.a.a he would write a3.

By unleashing the mathematical power of algebra to tackle problems in geometry, Descartes surpassed the expertise of Ancient Greece’s brilliant geometers: he could now solve problems that had defeated them.

(Video) PHILOSOPHY - René Descartes

Analytical geometry was independently invented earlier by Pierre de Fermat, who lived in France at the same time as Descartes. Fermat worked on mathematics for his own pleasure and often kept his results private. He did, however, enjoy issuing challenges to other mathematicians to solve problems.

In 1638 Fermat sent a work entitled Introduction to Plane and Solid Loci to the mathematician, Marin Mersenne, to show how problems he had posed at an earlier date could be solved. Fermat’s approach was different from Descartes’. Descartes showed how geometry could be expressed as algebra; Fermat showed how algebra could be expressed as geometry.

Influencing Isaac Newton and the Invention of Calculus

Calculus has been crucial to the progress of mathematics and the sciences. It was developed in the 1660s by Isaac Newton, and developed independently in the 1670s by Gottfried Leibniz.

In La Gèomètrie, Descartes showed how he could find tangents to curves. This process is a vital part of differential calculus. His mathematical competitor Fermat was also able to find tangents to curves; his methods were actually simpler than Descartes’. Both Descartes and Fermat helped guide Newton and Leibniz’s development of calculus.

Silenced by Fear of the Church

Four years before he released his 1637 works, Descartes had intended publishing The World.

In 1633, however, he learned that the Catholic Church had tried Galileo for heresy and sentenced him to life in prison. This was reduced to permanent house arrest because Galileo was rather elderly. The Church also prohibited Galileo’s works.

Descartes, like Galileo, believed the sun sits at the center of the solar system. He decided not to risk the Church’s wrath and did not publish The World. (Galileo could have been burned at the stake if his trial had gone worse than it did.)

Philosophy

Descartes is regarded as one of the greatest philosophers of all time. Here we are concerned with science rather than philosophy, so we will restrict ourselves to noting his most famous declaration:

“I think therefore I am.”

This could also be expressed as:

“I can think, therefore I exist.”

Descartes regarded this statement as the unshakeable foundation that all other philosophy could be built upon.

His most famous philosophical work is Meditations on First Philosophy, published in 1641.

Deducing the Laws of Nature from First Principles

Descartes’ most comprehensive work, Principles of Philosophy, was published in 1644. In it he tried to deduce all of nature’s laws from first principles. Although the book had much to commend it to philosophers, its science was incorrect.

He argued that action at a distance is impossible and agreed with the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle that there could be no vacuum. Soon, however, all his power as a philosopher would be defeated by scientific experiments.

René Descartes - Biography, Facts and Pictures (7)An experiment is a question which science poses to Nature, and a measurement is the recording of Nature’s answer.

Max Planck, Theoretical Physicist

(Video) René Descartes - The Founder of Modern Western philosophy.

1858 to 1947

In 1654 Otto von Guericke constructed the first vacuum pump. In 1662 Robert Boyle demonstrated that the magnetic force can travel through a vacuum, establishing that action at a distance is possible.

Unfortunately Descartes did not live long enough to learn of these developments.

Some Personal Details and the End

Descartes was wealthy enough to pursue his own interests. His father gifted him a number of properties which Descartes, at the age of 24, sold. This raised enough money for him to live on comfortably for the rest of his life.

Descartes spent much of his life on the move. He lived for 20 of his later years in various locations in Holland. He also studied and taught mathematics there. He found he could work better in Holland, with fewer distractions than in France.

Although he never married, in 1635, aged 39, he became a father. His partner was an Amsterdam servant, Helena Jans van der Strom. Their daughter was named Francine. Mother and daughter lived with Descartes in his house – he told people Francine was his niece. He planned to educate his daughter in France, but sadly, at the age of five, she died of scarlet fever. Francine’s mother later got married, with Descartes playing a fatherly role by paying the wedding dowry.

In 1649 Descartes was invited to Stockholm by Queen Christina of Sweden. She wanted him to set up a new academy of science.

René Descartes died, aged 53, of pneumonia in Stockholm on February, 11 1650. He was buried at the Adolf Fredriks Church in Stockholm.

In death, as in life, Descartes was mobile. 16 years after his first burial his remains were moved and buried in the Saint-Ètienne-du-Mont church in Paris, France. In 1819 his remains minus skull and finger were moved again, this time to the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Près in Paris, where he now rests.

In 1663, despite his efforts to avoid such a fate – he regarded himself as a devout Catholic – a number of Descartes’ works joined Galileo’s on the index of books prohibited by the Catholic Church. Over 300 years later, in 1966, this index was finally discontinued.

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Further Reading
René Descartes
The Method Meditations and Philosophy
M. Walter Dunne, Washington and London, 1901

Elizabeth S. Haldane
Descartes: His Life and Times
John Murray, London, 1905

René Descarte, translators David E. Smith and Marcia L. Latham
The Geometry
Dover Publications Inc. 1954

Tom Sorell
Descartes (Past Masters)
Oxford University Press, 1987

(Video) Will Durant --- René Descartes (1596 - 1650)

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FAQs

Who is Rene Descartes explain briefly? ›

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.

What did Rene Descartes discover in philosophy? ›

René Descartes was a mathematician, philosopher, and scientist. He developed rules for deductive reasoning, a system for using letters as mathematical variables, and discovered how to plot points on a plane called the Cartesian plane.

What is René Descartes most famous for? ›

What is René Descartes known for? René Descartes is most commonly known for his philosophical statement, “I think, therefore I am” (originally in French, but best known by its Latin translation: "Cogito, ergo sum”).

What are the four main principles of Descartes method? ›

This method, which he later formulated in Discourse on Method (1637) and Rules for the Direction of the Mind (written by 1628 but not published until 1701), consists of four rules: (1) accept nothing as true that is not self-evident, (2) divide problems into their simplest parts, (3) solve problems by proceeding from ...

What is the meaning of I think therefore I am? ›

Phrase. I think therefore I am. (philosophy) I am able to think, therefore I exist. A philosophical proof of existence based on the fact that someone capable of any form of thought necessarily exists.

Does Descartes believe in God? ›

According to Descartes, God's existence is established by the fact that Descartes has a clear and distinct idea of God; but the truth of Descartes's clear and distinct ideas are guaranteed by the fact that God exists and is not a deceiver. Thus, in order to show that God exists, Descartes must assume that God exists.

Who influenced Descartes philosophy? ›

René Descartes

Why Descartes is called the father of modern philosophy? ›

René Descartes is often credited with being the “Father of Modern Philosophy.” This title is justified due both to his break with the traditional Scholastic-Aristotelian philosophy prevalent at his time and to his development and promotion of the new, mechanistic sciences.

Who is the father of philosophy? ›

Socrates of Athens (l. c. 470/469-399 BCE) is among the most famous figures in world history for his contributions to the development of ancient Greek philosophy which provided the foundation for all of Western Philosophy. He is, in fact, known as the "Father of Western Philosophy" for this reason.

How did René Descartes explain the origin of the universe? ›

A depiction of Rene Descartes' vortices. In his theory, the entire universe was filled with elements of different sizes which shifted around each other. At the center is the sun, which is made up of the smallest kind of element and the bigger ones sift out and circle around it.

Who believed that there is no self? ›

David Hume* continued in the empiricist tradition of John Locke, believing that the source of all genuine knowledge is our direct sense experience.

How many books did Descartes write? ›

René Descartes

Who said the quote I think, therefore I am? ›

cogito, ergo sum, (Latin: “I think, therefore I am) dictum coined by the French philosopher René 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.

What is Descartes rule of truth? ›

Descartes' Truth Rule: Clarity and Distinctness

"Whatever I clearly and distinctly perceive to be true is true." So descartes thinks that, so long as he is really careful, and doesn't form beliefs unless they are clear and distinct, he won't make any epistemic mistakes.

What are the 3 methods of philosophy? ›

3. The Three Approaches
  • doing philosophy as connective truth finding or communicative action;
  • doing philosophy as test-based truth finding; and.
  • doing philosophy as juridical debate, judging truth-value and making judgment (truth-value analysis).
3 Apr 2014

What are the two types of minds Descartes talks about? ›

Substance dualism, or Cartesian dualism, most famously defended by René Descartes, argues that there are two kinds of foundation: mental and physical. This philosophy states that the mental can exist outside of the body, and the body cannot think.

What is Descartes conclusion? ›

"By studying the idea of God, Descartes comes to the conclusion that 'he cannot be a deceiver, since the light of nature teaches us that fraud and deception necessarily proceed from some defect. ' From this principle he later proves the validity of mathematics and the external world."

What is know thyself means? ›

Presumably, it means to know, first and foremost, one's own character and it is important because only by knowing one's character can one be aware of one's limitations and avoid likening oneself to the gods.

What is the meaning of nothing but matter exists? ›

It means that all things in existence are matter, and although it is not quite correct, it is a good, broad statement about the makeup of the universe.

What is the famous line of Descartes? ›

Cogito ergo sum. (I think, therefore I am.)” “If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.”

What does Descartes say about dreams? ›

Descartes claims that the experience of a dream could in principle be indistinguishable from waking life – whatever apparent subjective differences there are between waking life and dreaming, they are insufficient differences to gain certainty that I am not now dreaming.

Does Descartes believe in free will? ›

Freedom is a central theme in Descartes's philosophy, where it is linked to the theme of the infinite: it is through the freedom of the will, experienced as unlimited, that the human understands itself to bear the "image and likeness" of the infinite God.

How did Descartes change the world? ›

René Descartes invented analytical geometry and introduced skepticism as an essential part of the scientific method. He is regarded as one of the greatest philosophers in history. His analytical geometry was a tremendous conceptual breakthrough, linking the previously separate fields of geometry and algebra.

What language did Descartes write in? ›

Descartes wrote his major philosophical treatises, the Regulae ad directionem ingenii, the Meditationes de prima philosophia, and the Principia philosophiae, all in Latin.

What books did René Descartes write? ›

René Descartes

Why was mathematics important to the thinking of Descartes? ›

According to the present interpretation, Descartes relies upon mathematical reasoning to explicate the concept of infinity, which is essentially mathematical.

Who is Descartes in psychology? ›

He was the first to write of the concept of emotions and his famous quotation "I think therefore I am" elucidated his focus on the importance of cognition on the human experience. In psychology Descartes is most known for his concept of dualism.

Why does Descartes doubt his senses? ›

Abstract. Descartes first invokes the errors of the senses in the Meditations to generate doubt; he suggests that because the senses sometimes deceive, we have reason not to trust them.

What skills did René Descartes have? ›

René Descartes invented analytical geometry and introduced skepticism as an essential part of the scientific method. He is regarded as one of the greatest philosophers in history. His analytical geometry was a tremendous conceptual breakthrough, linking the previously separate fields of geometry and algebra.

What was René Descartes personality like? ›

And “Am what?” remains a good question to ask of Descartes the man, as two new biographies show. His personality remains an enigma. Vituperative, devious, insincere, proud, and unpredictable in his correspondence, he published works that ooze sweet reason and cool logic.

What math did Descartes contribute? ›

Apart from his work in philosophy, Descartes was a leading mathematician and scientist. He invented the Cartesian coordinate system, developed analytic geometry and laid the foundation for the development of calculus. He also did groundbreaking work in physics most prominently in the field of optics.

Who disagreed with Descartes? ›

My research has mainly been on David Hume, an 18th-century Scottish empiricist, who disagrees with much of what Descartes has to say about reason, the self, knowledge, belief in God and the passions.

Does Descartes believe in God? ›

According to Descartes, God's existence is established by the fact that Descartes has a clear and distinct idea of God; but the truth of Descartes's clear and distinct ideas are guaranteed by the fact that God exists and is not a deceiver. Thus, in order to show that God exists, Descartes must assume that God exists.

Who did Descartes influence? ›

René Descartes

Who is the Father of philosophy? ›

Socrates of Athens (l. c. 470/469-399 BCE) is among the most famous figures in world history for his contributions to the development of ancient Greek philosophy which provided the foundation for all of Western Philosophy. He is, in fact, known as the "Father of Western Philosophy" for this reason.

Why is Descartes known as the father of modern philosophy? ›

Becoming the Father of Modern Philosophy:

Descartes is considered by many to be the father of modern philosophy because his ideas departed widely from current understanding in the early 17th century, which was more feeling-based. While elements of his philosophy weren't completely new, his approach to them was.

Who said the quote I think therefore I am? ›

cogito, ergo sum, (Latin: “I think, therefore I am) dictum coined by the French philosopher René 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.

What language did Descartes write in? ›

Descartes wrote his major philosophical treatises, the Regulae ad directionem ingenii, the Meditationes de prima philosophia, and the Principia philosophiae, all in Latin.

Who invented bones? ›

John Napier
NationalityScottish
Alma materUniversity of St Andrews
Known forLogarithms Napier's bones Decimal notation Spherical trigonometry
Scientific career
6 more rows

Why is René Descartes important to psychology? ›

He was the first to write of the concept of emotions and his famous quotation "I think therefore I am" elucidated his focus on the importance of cognition on the human experience. In psychology Descartes is most known for his concept of dualism.

Where does Descartes believe ideas come from? ›

Descartes' analysis suggests that the contents of some of his innate ideas and all of his adventitious ideas have their origin in things existing independently of his mind. Such ideas are included in the category of Primary Idea.

Who said all ideas are innate? ›

Descartes. Descartes conveys the idea that innate knowledge or ideas is something inborn such as one would say, that a certain disease might be 'innate' to signify that a person might be at risk of contracting such a disease.

What did Locke say about Descartes? ›

Less obviously, most of Locke's other points of explicit disagreement with Descartes flow from his view that Descartes has made unjustified claims to know essences – the essence of mind, the essence of body. As a result, he has made unjustified claims about the certainty of dualism.

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