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René Descartes

Life and Works
. . Method
. . Animals
. . Doubt
. . Cogito
. . God
. . Error
. . Extension
. . Dualism
. . Cartesianism
Internet Sources

After receiving a sound education in mathematics, classics, and law at La Flèche and Poitiers, René Descartes embarked on a brief career in military service with Prince Maurice in Holland and Bavaria. Unsatisfied with scholastic philosophy and troubled by skepticism of the sort expounded by Montaigne, Descartes soon conceived a comprehensive plan for applying mathematical methods in order to achieve perfect certainty in human knowledge. During a twenty-year period of secluded life in Holland, he produced the body of work that secured his philosophical reputation. Descartes moved to Sweden in 1649, but did not survive his first winter there.

Although he wrote extensively, Descartes chose not to publish his earliest efforts at expressing the universal method and deriving its consequences. The Regulae ad directionem ingenii (Rules for the Direction of the Mind) (1628) contain his first full statement of the principles underlying the method and his confidence in the success of their application. Descartes In Le Monde (The World) (1634), Descartes clearly espoused a Copernican astronomy, but he withheld the book from the public upon learning of Galileo's condemnation.

Descartes finally presented (in French) his rationalist vision of the progress of human knowledge in the Discours de la méthode pour bien conduire sa Raison et chercher la Vérité dans les Sciences   (Discourse on Method) (1637). In this expository essay, Descartes assessed the deficient outcomes of a traditional education, proposed a set of rules with which to make a new start, and described the original experience upon which his hope for unifying human knowledge was based. The final sections of the Discourse and the essays (on dipotric, meteors, and geometry) appended to it illustrate the consequences of employing this method.

A few years later, Descartes offered (in Latin) a more formal exposition of his central tenets in Meditationes de Prima Philosophia (Meditations on First Philosophy) (1641). Descartes After an expanded statement of the method of doubt, he argued that even the most dire skepticism is overcome by the certainty of one's own existence as a thinking thing. From this beginning, he believed it possible to use our clear and distinct ideas to demonstrate the existence of god, to establish the reliability of our reason generally despite the possibility of error, to deduce the essence of body, and to prove that material things do exist. On these grounds, Descartes defended a strict dualism, according to which the mind and body are wholly distinct, even though it seems evident that they interact. The Meditations were published together with an extensive set of objections (by Hobbes, Gassendi, Arnauld, and others) and Descartes's replies. Descartes later attempted a more systematic exposition of his views in the Principia Philosophiae (Principles of Philosophy) (1644) and an explanation of human emotion in Les Passions de L'Ame (The Passions of the Soul)

Recommended Reading:

Primary sources:

  • Oeuvres de Descartes, ed. by C. Adam and P. Tannery (Cerf, 1896-1913)
  • The Philosophical Works of Descartes, tr. by E. S. Haldane and G. T. R. Ross. (Cambridge, 1968)
  • The Philosophical Writings of Descartes: The Correspondence, ed. by John Cottingham, et. al. (Cambridge, 1991)
  • René Descartes, Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy, tr. by Donald A. Cress (Hackett, 1999)
  • The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, tr. by John Cottingham Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch (Cambridge, 1985)
  • René Descartes, Philosophical Essays and Correspondence, ed. by Roger Ariew (Hackett, 2000)
  • René Descartes, The World and Other Writings, ed. by Stephen Gaukroger (Cambridge, 1998)
  • René Descartes, Discourse De La Methode / Discourse on the Method (Bilingual Edition), ed. by George Heffernan (Notre Dame, 1994)
  • René Descartes, Meditationes De Prima Philosophia / Meditations on First Philosophy (Bilingual Edition), ed. by George Heffernan (Notre Dame, 1990)

Secondary sources:

  • Richard Watson, Cogito Ergo Sum: The Life of Rene Descartes (Godine, 2002)
  • The Cambridge Companion to Descartes, ed. by John Cottingham (Cambridge, 1992)
  • Marjorie Grene, Descartes (Hackett, 1998)
  • Anthony Kenny, Descartes: A Study of His Philosophy (St. Augustine, 1993)
  • Margaret Dauler Wilson, Ideas and Mechanism (Princeton, 1999)
  • Feminist Interpretations of Rene Descartes, ed. by Susan Bordo (Penn. State, 1999)
  • John Cottingham, Descartes (Routledge, 1999)
  • George Dicker, Descartes: An Analytical and Historical Introduction (Oxford, 1993)
  • Daniel E. Flage and Clarence A. Bonnen, Descartes and Method: The Search for a Method in the Meditations (Routledge, 1999)
  • Daniel Garber, Descartes Embodied: Reading Cartesian Philosophy Through Cartesian Science (Cambridge, 2001)
  • Roger Florka, Descartes's Metaphysical Reasoning (Routledge, 2001)
  • Martial Gueroult, Descartes' Philosophy Interpreted according to the Order of Reasons, tr. by Roger Ariew [in two volumes] (Minnesota, 1984)
  • E. M. Curley, Descartes Against the Skeptics (Iuniverse, 1999)
  • Richard Davies, Descartes: Belief, Scepticism and Virtue (Routledge, 2001)
  • Janet Broughton, Descartes's Method of Doubt (Princeton, 2002)
  • Stephen Gaukroger, Descartes's System of Natural Philosophy (Cambridge, 2002)
  • Descartes' Natural Philosophy, ed. by Stephen Gaukroger and John Schuster (Routledge, 2000)
  • Daniel Garber, Descartes' Metaphysical Physics (Chicago, 1992)
  • Joseph Almog, What Am I? Descartes and the Mind-Body Problem (Oxford, 2002)

Additional on-line information about Descartes includes:

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