René Descartes Biography

Synopsis

René Descartes was born on March 31, 1596, in La Haye en Touraine, France. He was extensively educated, firstat a Jesuit college at age 8, then earning a law degree at 22, but an influential teacher set him on a course to applymathematics and logic to understanding the natural world. This approach incorporated the contemplation of thenature of existence and of knowledge itself, hence his most famous observation, "I think; therefore I am."

Early Life

Philosopher René Descartes was born on March 31, 1596, in La Haye en Touraine, a small town in central France, which has since been renamed after him to honor its most famous son. He was the youngest of three children, andhis mother, Jeanne Brochard, died within his first year of life. His father, Joachim, a council member in the provincialparliament, sent the children to live with their maternal grandmother, where they remained even after he remarried afew years later. But he was very concerned with good education and sent René, at age 8, to boarding school at theJesuit college of Henri IV in La Flèche, several miles to the north, for seven years.

Descartes was a good student, although it is thought that he might have been sickly, since he didn't have to abideby the school's rigorous schedule and was instead allowed to rest in bed until midmorning. The subjects he studied, such as rhetoric and logic and the "mathematical arts," which included music and astronomy, as well asmetaphysics, natural philosophy and ethics, equipped him well for his future as a philosopher. So did spending thenext four years earning a baccalaureate in law at the University of Poitiers. Some scholars speculate that he mayhave had a nervous breakdown during this time.

Descartes later added theology and medicine to his studies. But he eschewed all this, "resolving to seek noknowledge other than that of which could be found in myself or else in the great book of the world," he wrote muchlater in Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason and Seeking Truth in the Sciences, published in1637.

So he traveled, joined the army for a brief time, saw some battles and was introduced to Dutch scientist andphilosopher Isaac Beeckman, who would become for Descartes a very influential teacher. A year after graduatingfrom Poitiers, Descartes credited a series of three very powerful dreams or visions with determining the course ofhis study for the rest of his life.

Becoming the Father of Modern Philosophy

Descartes is considered by many to be the father of modern philosophy, because his ideas departed widely fromcurrent understanding in the early 17th century, which was more feeling-based. While elements of his philosophyweren't completely new, his approach to them was. Descartes believed in basically clearing everything off the table, all preconceived and inherited notions, and starting fresh, putting back one by one the things that were certain, which for him began with the statement "I exist." From this sprang his most famous quote: "I think; therefore I am."

Since Descartes believed that all truths were ultimately linked, he sought to uncover the meaning of the naturalworld with a rational approach, through science and mathematics—in some ways an extension of the approach SirFrancis Bacon had asserted in England a few decades prior. In addition to Discourse on the Method, Descartes alsopublished Meditations on First Philosophy and Principles of Philosophy, among other treatises.

Although philosophy is largely where the 20th century deposited Descartes—each century has focused on differentaspects of his work—his investigations in theoretical physics led many scholars to consider him a mathematicianfirst. He introduced Cartesian geometry, which incorporates algebra; through his laws of refraction, he developed anempirical understanding of rainbows; and he proposed a naturalistic account of the formation of the solar system, although he felt he had to suppress much of that due to Galileo's fate at the hands of the Inquisition. His concernwasn't misplaced—Pope Alexander VII later added Descartes' works to the Index of Prohibited Books.

Later Life, Death and Legacy

Descartes never married, but he did have a daughter, Francine, born in the Netherlands in 1635. He had moved tothat country in 1628 because life in France was too bustling for him to concentrate on his work, and Francine'smother was a maid in the home where he was staying. He had planned to have the little girl educated in France, having arranged for her to live with relatives, but she died of a fever at age 5.

Descartes lived in the Netherlands for more than 20 years but died in Stockholm, Sweden, on February 11, 1650. He had moved there less than a year before, at the request of Queen Christina, to be her philosophy tutor. Thefragile health indicated in his early life persisted. He habitually spent mornings in bed, where he continued to honorhis dream life, incorporating it into his waking methodologies in conscious meditation, but the queen's insistence on5 am lessons led to a bout of pneumonia from which he could not recover. He was 53.

Sweden was a Protestant country, so Descartes, a Catholic, was buried in a graveyard primarily for unbaptizedbabies. Later, his remains were taken to the abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the oldest church in Paris. Theywere moved during the French Revolution, and were put back later—although urban legend has it that only his heartis there and the rest is buried in the Panthéon.

Descartes' approach of combining mathematics and logic with philosophy to explain the physical world turnedmetaphysical when confronted with questions of theology; it led him to a contemplation of the nature of existenceand the mind-body duality, identifying the point of contact for the body with the soul at the pineal gland. It also ledhim to define the idea of dualism: matter meeting non-matter. Because his previous philosophical system had givenman the tools to define knowledge of what is true, this concept led to controversy. Fortunately, Descartes himselfhad also invented methodological skepticism, or Cartesian doubt, thus making philosophers of us all.