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Philosopher of the month: René Descartes

This August, the OUP Philosophy team honors René Descartes (1596–1650) as their Philosopher of the Month. Called “The Father of Modern Philosophy” by Hegel, Descartes led the seventeenth-century European intellectual revolution which laid down the philosophical foundations for the modern scientific age. His philosophical masterpiece, the Meditations on First Philosophy, appeared in Latin in 1641, and his Principles of Philosophy, a comprehensive statement of his philosophical and scientific theories, also in Latin, in 1644.

Born in La Haye, France, Descartes was educated at the Jesuit College of La Flèche and at the University of Poitiers. Much of Descartes’s early work as a “philosopher’ was what we now call scientific. The World, composed in the early 1630s, explored physics and cosmology, but Descartes cautiously withdrew it from publication in 1633 after the condemnation of Galileo by the Roman Inquisition for his heliocentric hypothesis (which Descartes too supported).In the Discourse on Method, a popular introduction to his philosophy, Descartes developed his celebrated method of doubt. By doubting all his ideas, he reached one unquestionable proposition: “I am thinking”, and from this that he existed: cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”).

Developing the theory later known as Cartesian dualism, Descartes maintains that there are two different kinds of substance: physical, or that which has length, breadth, and depth and can therefore be measured and divided—and thinking substance, which is indivisible. Mental phenomena, for Descartes, have no place in the quantifiable world of physics, but have an autonomous, separate status. Fascinated by the problems of ascertaining natural knowledge, Descartes’s metaphysics can be seen as an attempt to make a mathematical physics possible while paying tribute to traditional metaphysical and theological concerns like the existence of God and the immateriality of the soul.

His later works develop the ideas of the Discourse. The Meditations is a work of pure philosophy, and attempts to establish more firmly the metaphysics of the Discourse, in particular the existence of God and the mind‐matter distinction. The Principles is Descartes’s fullest account of his philosophy, devoted to metaphysics, physical science, and cosmology. The work was designed to replace existing school manuals, declaring that all people are capable of philosophy.

Although the structure of Descartes’s epistemology, theory of mind, and theory of matter have been rejected many times, their exposure of the hardest issues, their exemplary clarity, and even their initial plausibility, all make him the central point of reference for modern philosophy.

Featured image: photo of Chateau de Chenonceau – Indre-et-Loire, France by Ra-smit. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

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