René Descartes was an analytical genius. He conceived and articulated ideas about the nature of knowledge that were essential to the Enlightenment and created the philosophical underpinnings for the development of modern science, which included the idea that laws of nature are constant and are sufficient to explain natural phenomena. Descartes felt that truth was clear and accessible to the ordinary human intellect, if the search for truth was directed properly.
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Two of his writings, Rules for the Direction of the Mind and Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason defined ways of obtaining knowledge. The latter work contained Geometry, that introduced the Cartesian coordinate system and marked the birth of analytic geometry, in which geometric relationships are investigated by means of algebra. Descartes also contributed to areas of music theory, mechanics, physics, optics, anatomy, and physiology.
René du Perron Descartes was born on March 31, 1596 in La Haye (now Descartes), in the province of Touraine, France. He was born into the gentry, a well-to-do class of landowners between the nobility and the bourgeoisie. His father, Joachim, was a councilor to the high court at Rennes in Brittany. From his mother, Jeanne Brochard, Descartes received the property that gave him his financial independence. Descartes was her third and last surviving child. She died in childbirth in 1597 and he and his older brother and sister were brought up by their maternal grandmother, Jeanne Sain. In 1600, Descartes’ father remarried and moved to Chételleraut. Descartes seems not to have had enduring relationships with his father or siblings; however, the elder Descartes early on recognized his youngest child’s curiosity, referring to him as “my little philosopher.”
In 1606, Descartes was sent to La Fléche, the Jesuit school at Anjou. Descartes’ health was considered delicate and the rector, Father Charlet, allowed him to spend mornings in bed in contemplation, a habit he continued throughout most of his life. Descartes spent nine years at La Fléche, where he perfected his Latin, studied humanities, philosophy, and mathematics, and was introduced to new developments in opticsin astronomy. Although Descartes expressed high regard for his education, it was at La Fléche he realized that, with the exception of mathematics and geometry, he had learned nothing that was absolute truth. He first saw mathematics only as the servant of mechanics, but was struck “by the certainty of its proofs and the evidence of its reasonings” and was surprised that nothing loftier had been erected upon its foundations.
Descartes moved to a house outside Paris in 1614, where he shut himself off from others. Although he was self-assured and expected admiration from others, scholars have suggested that he suffered from depression. He spent the year 1615-1616 at the University of Poitiers, where he earned a law degree.
The law did not interest Descartes; he chose instead to become a gentleman soldier. He had resolved “to seek no knowledge other than that which could be found in myself or else in the great book of the world,” and in the summer of 1618 he traveled to Holland, where he joined the army of Prince Maurice of Nassau as an unpaid volunteer. In Breda he met Isaac Beeckman, the Dutch philosopher, doctor and physicist. Descartes’ discussions with Beeckman rekindled his interest in applying mathematical reasoning to problems in physics. Descartes’ first work, Compendium Musicae, an arithmetical account of sound, was dedicated to Beeckman and given to him as a New Year’s gift in 1619. At this time, Descartes also worked on problems in falling bodies, hydrostatics, a proportional compass, and a theory of proportional magnitudes.
Descartes resigned from Maurice’s army, and traveled to Bavaria to join the Bavarian Army. Stationed at Ulm in Neuburg, he met the Rosicrucian and mathematician Johannes Faulhaber. On November 10, 1619, in a “stove-heated room,” Descartes had the mystical experience that set his life’s course. He had been searching for a method of obtaining knowledge, and in a state of delirium had three vivid dreams in succession. Much has been made of the dreams (even the suggestion that they were symptomatic of migraine headaches), but their result was to convince Descartes of his divine mission to found a new philosophical system, in which he would reduce physics to geometry and connect all sciences through a chain of mathematical logic.
Descartes subsequently gave up the military life and traveled widely for several years, visiting Italy, Germany, and Holland, where along the way he studied glaciers, made meteorological observations, and computed the heights of mountains. From 1625 to 1628, he lived in Paris and became friends with Marin Mersenne, a Franciscan friar who had also attended La Fléche. In Paris, Descartes produced Regulae(“Rules for the Direction of the Mind”), which was published in 1701, after his death.
In 1629 Descartes retired to Holland, where he devoted the next 20 years to studies of science and philosophy. During this time he made three trips back to Paris, where Mersenne acted as his editor and agent. The tolerant Protestant climate of Holland protected Descartes from academic and theological disputes, at least in the beginning, and he moved frequently to avoid visitors. He was not a recluse, however; he visited universities and talked with mathematicians, philosophers, and physicians. Descartes studied anatomy and frequently visited butcher shops to obtain animal carcasses for dissection. In 1633, he completed Le monde(“Of the World”), which included his theories in physiology, perception, and a heliocentric cosmology. When Descartes learned that Galileo had been condemned by the Inquisition for embracing Copernicus’ ideas, he withheld Le monde from publication. He modified information from Le monde for use in his 1637 masterpiece, A Discourse on the Method of rightly conducting the Reason and seeking Truth in the Sciences. Further, the Dioptric, Meteors, and Geometry, essays in this Method. The Meteorswas the first attempt to give a scientific theory of the weather. The Dioptric explained rainbows, and contained the law of refraction, describing the behavior of light rays transmitted from one medium to another.
Descartes’ Geometry, essentially an appendix to the Discourse on Method, revolutionized mathematics and provided the foundation for what is now known as analytic geometry. It enabled the use of algebra, a relatively new branch of mathematics, for the discovery and investigation of geometrical theorems. He introduced the use of coordinates, by which is possible to begin with equations of any degree of complexity and interpret their algebraic and analytic properties geometrically. In the Geometry, Descartes introduced algebraic notation that is still in use today, dealt with the problem of Pappus, and provided a systematic definition of curves.
In Amsterdam, Descartes had formed a liaison with his serving girl, Héléne, who bore him a daughter, Francine, on July 19, 1635. Héléne and Francine came to live with him in Santpoort, and he made arrangements for Francine to be educated in France. Unfortunately, she died in 1640, probably of scarlet fever.
Descartes published his major metaphysical work, Meditations on First Philosophy, in which the Existence of God and the Distinction between Mind and Body are Demonstrated in 1641. Although he quickly published an edition containing solicited objections and his replies to them, he was particularly criticized and attacked by the president of the University of Utrecht, Gisbert Voet, and published his lengthy defense as Episula at Voetium.
In 1643 Descartes began a long-lasting correspondence with 24-year-old Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia, who lived in exile in Holland. In his letters, Descartes discussed his philosophy of the mind and its relation to the body, and the relationship between reason and the passions. He dedicated his 1644 Principles of Philosophy, which contains a naturalistic theory of the solar system, to Princess Elizabeth.
Descartes accepted an invitation to tutor 20-year-old Queen Christina of Sweden in 1649. After much hesitation he left for Sweden on September 1, where the energetic Queen put him to work writing verses and a pastoral comedy, and planning a Swedish academy of science. She insisted that he meet with her at five in the morning when her mind was most active. The lessons began in mid-January 1650, but the early hours and the record cold winter quickly took their toll on Descartes. On February 1, he contracted pneumonia. He refused to see the royal physician and instead relied on his own remedy, wine flavored with tobacco. He died in Stockholm on February 11, 1650.
In 1666, Descartes’ remains were exhumed and returned to France, where they were moved several times before being permanently placed in the chapel of the Sacré Coeur in the church of St. Germain-des-Prés in 1819. At the time of the original exhumation, the French ambassador was given permission to cut off Descartes’ right forefinger. Descartes’ skull was said to have been removed by a guard and it was sold several times, coming into the possession of Georges Cuvier in 1821. Although it has not been authenticated, the skull is on display at the Musée de l’Homme in the Palais de Chaillot.
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