Descartes, René (1596–1650)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DA026-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 21, 2021, from

1. Life

René Descartes was born on 31 March 1596 in the Touraine region of France, in the town of La Haye, later renamed Descartes in his honour. In 1606 or 1607 he was sent to the Collège Royal de La Flèche, run by the Jesuit order. Here he received an education that combined elements of earlier Aristotelian scholasticism with the new humanistic emphasis on the study of language and literature. But the core of the collegiate curriculum was the study of Aristotelian logic, metaphysics, physics and ethics. Descartes left La Flèche in 1614 or 1615, and went to the University of Poitiers, where he received his baccalauréat and his licence en droit in late 1616. In Part I of the Discours de la méthode (Discourse on the Method) (1637), he discusses his education in some detail, explaining why he found it increasingly unsatisfactory. In the end, he reports, he left school, rejecting much of what he had been taught there. He chose the life of the military engineer, and set out across Europe to learn his trade, following the armies and the wars. On 10 November 1618, in the course of his travels, he met Isaac Beeckman . An enthusiastic scientific amateur since his early twenties, Beeckman introduced Descartes to some of the new currents in science, the newly revived atomist ideas, and the attempt to combine mathematics and physics (see Atomism, ancient). Despite the fact that they only spent a few months together, Beeckman put Descartes on the path that led to his life’s work. A number of discussions between them are preserved in Beeckman’s extensive notebooks (1604–3 4), which still survive, and include problems Beeckman set for Descartes, as well as Descartes’ solutions. It was for Beeckman that Descartes wrote his first surviving work, the Compendium musicum, a tract on music theory, then considered a branch of what was called mixed mathematics, along with other disciplines such as mathematical astronomy and geometric optics. Exactly a year after first meeting Beeckman, this new path was confirmed for Descartes in a series of three dreams that he interpreted as a call to settle down to his work as a mathematician and philosopher.

During the 1620s, Descartes worked on a number of projects including optics and the mathematics that was eventually to become his analytic geometry. In optics, he discovered the law of refraction – the mathematical law that relates the angle of incidence of a ray of light on a refractive medium, with the angle of refraction. Though some claim that Descartes learned this law from Willebrod Snel, after whom the law is now named, it is generally thought that Descartes discovered it independently. In his mathematical programme, he showed how algebra could be used to solve geometric problems, and how geometric constructions could be used to solve algebraic problems.

Descartes’ most extensive writing from this period is the Regulae ad directionem ingenii (Rules for the Direction of the Mind), a treatise on method that he worked on between 1619 or 1620 and 1628, when he abandoned it incomplete. He continued to travel extensively throughout Europe, returning to Paris in 1625, where he was to stay until spring 1629. In Paris, Descartes became closely associated with Marin Mersenne who later became a central figure in the dissemination of the new philosophy and science in Europe, the organizer of a kind of scientific academy and the centre of a circle of correspondents, as well as Descartes’ intellectual patron (see Mersenne, M.). Through his voluminous correspondence with Mersenne, Descartes remained connected to all the intellectual currents in Europe, wherever he was to live in later years. An important event in this period took place at a gathering at the home of the Papal Nuncio in Paris in 1627 or 1628, where Descartes, responding to an alchemical lecture by one M. Chandoux, took the occasion to present his own ideas, including his ‘fine rule, or natural method’ and the principles on which his own philosophy was based (letter to Villebressieu, summer 1631; Descartes 1984–91 vol 3: 32). This attracted the attention of the Cardinal Bérule, who in a private meeting, urged Descartes to develop his philosophy.

In spring 1629 Descartes left Paris and moved to the Low Countries, where he set his methodological writing aside and began his philosophy in earnest. The winter of 1629–30 was largely occupied with the composition of a metaphysical treatise, which, as we shall later see, represents the foundations of his philosophy. The treatise is now lost, but Descartes told Mersenne that it had tried to ‘prove the existence of God and of our souls when they are separated from the body, from which follows their immortality’ (letter to Mersenne, 25 November 1630; Descartes 1984–91 vol 3: 29). This was followed by the drafting of Le Monde (The World), Descartes’ mechanist physics and physiology, a book intended for publication. In the first part, also called the Traité de la lumière (Treatise on Light), Descartes begins with a general account of the distinction between a sensation and the motion of tiny particles of different sizes and shapes that is its cause, followed by an account of the foundations of the laws of nature. After then positing an initial chaos of particles in motion (not our cosmos, but one made by God in some unused corner of the world), Descartes argues that by means of the laws of nature alone, this cosmos will sort itself into planetary systems, central suns around which swirl vortices of subtle matter which carry planets with them. He concludes the Traité de la lumière with an account of important terrestrial phenomena, including gravity, the tides and light, showing how much like our cosmos this imaginary mechanist cosmos will appear. The second part, the Traité de l’homme (Treatise on Man), begins abruptly by positing that God made a body that looks exactly like ours, but which is merely a machine. Presumably missing – or never written – is a transition between the two treatises that shows how by the laws of nature alone this human body could arise in our world. (This part of the argument is noted in Part V of the later Discourse on the Method.) In the text that we now have, Descartes then went on to argue that all phenomena that pertain to life (thought aside) can arise in this body in a purely mechanical way, including nutrition and digestion, the circulation of blood, the movement of the muscles and the transmission of sensory information to the brain.

By 1633 Descartes had in hand a relatively complete version of his philosophy, from method, to metaphysics, to physics and biology. But in late 1633, he heard of the condemnation of Galileo’s Copernicanism in Rome, and cautiously decided not to publish his World, which was evidently Copernican (see Galileo Galilei). Indeed, he first decided never to publish anything at all. But the despair did not last. Between 1634 and 1636, Descartes collected some of the material he had been working on, and prepared three essays for publication, the Géométrie, the Météors and the Dioptrique. These scientific essays were preceded by a general introduction, the Discours de la méthode pour bien conduir sa raison et chercher la vérité dans les sciences (Discourse on the Method for Properly Conducting Reason and Searching for Truth in the Sciences). The Discourse presents itself as autobiography, an account of the path the young author (the book was published anonymously) followed in his discoveries, including a summary of his method (Part II), of his early metaphysical speculations (Part IV) and of the programme of The World (Part V). In the scientific essays, Descartes presented some of his most striking results, hiding the foundational elements (such as his apparent Copernicanism and his rejection of scholastic form and matter) that would be most controversial.

While not uncontroversial, the Discourse and Essays were very successful, and induced Descartes to continue his programme for publishing his philosophy. The next work to appear was the Meditationes (Meditations) of 1641, which included an extensive selection of objections to the Meditations from various scholars in learned Europe, including Hobbes, Gassendi, Arnauld, and Mersenne himself, along with Descartes’ responses, a total of seven sets in all (these are cited in this entry as the First Objections, Second Replies, and so on). This was followed in 1644 by the publication of the Principia Philosophiae (Principles of Philosophy) in which, after a review of his metaphysics, Descartes gives an exposition of his physics adapted and expanded from The World. French translations of the Meditations and the Principles done by others, but with important variants from the original Latin (presumably introduced by Descartes himself), appeared in 1647.

By the late 1630s, Descartes’ work had entered the Dutch universities, and was taught at the University of Utrecht by Henricus Reneri and, following him, by Henricus Regius. Descartes’ un-Aristotelian views called down the wrath of Gisbertus Voëtius, who started a pamphlet war against Descartes and Regius that raged for some time. Descartes supported Regius, and gave him advice as to how to respond and contain the affair. Eventually, however, Descartes broke with him when Regius wrote and in 1646 published his Fundamenta physices, about which Descartes had severe reservations. Regius responded with a broadsheet, a kind of summary of his main theses, emphasizing their differences. Descartes, in turn, responded in 1648 with the Notae in programma quoddam (Comments on a Certain Broadsheet). There was a similar incident in Leiden, where Descartes had disciples (François du Ban, Adriaan Heereboord) as well as an influential enemy (Revius).

In the late 1640s Descartes was working on drafting and publishing more of his philosophy. Two additional parts of the Principles were planned, extending the work to cover elements of human biology. While notes remain in the form of an incomplete treatise on the human body (La description du corps humainDescription of the Human Body) and on the foetus (Prima cogitationes circa generationem animaliumFirst Thoughts on the Generation of Animals), the larger work was never finished. There are also important works concerning morals and moral psychology dating from these years. Some of this material is found in the letters to the Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia, with whom he had a long and important correspondence, starting in 1643. Descartes’ account of the passions is found in the last work he published in his lifetime, the short Passions de l’âme (Passions of the Soul), which appeared in 1649.

With the exception of a few short trips to Paris in 1644, 1647 and 1648, Descartes remained in the Low Countries until October 1649, when he was lured to Stockholm to be a member of the court of Queen Christina. There he fell ill in early 1650, and died on 11 February of that year.

Citing this article:
Garber, Daniel. Life. Descartes, René (1596–1650), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DA026-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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