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René Descartes

René Descartes
Who was Descartes?
 Son of a minor noble family
 Student with the Jesuits at La Flèche (1604-1612), studied
logic, Aristotelian ‘Scholastic’ philosophy, some maths
 Law degree 1616 (following his father)
 Soldier (a noble’s occupation) (1618-19)
 Peripatetic in Europe 1620-1628
 Settled in Holland 1628; pursued his studies privately,
corresponded with other philosophers (scientists) such as
 Died in Stockholm, 1650.
Major Themes
 Reconstruction of epistemology on new foundation
 Man is a thinking thing—this is certain; animals are
mere machines
 Mind-Body Dualism: res cogitans vs res extensa
 Innate Ideas (cf. Locke!)
 Proof of Existence of God starting with human
imperfection: doubt
 Universe/nature as mechanism
Descartes’ Major Works
 Discourse on the Method for Rightly Conducting
One’s Reason and for Seeking Truth in the
Sciences (1637)—in French
 La Géométrie (algebra applied to geometry)
 La Dioptrique (optics)
 Les Météores (meteorology)
 Meditations on First Philosophy (1641)—in Latin:
replies to readers’ responses to DM;
 [What is the significance of Descartes’ using these
different languages?]
Discourse on Method (1637)
 Contains reflections from when Descartes was in
military service in Germany (1619);
 Arises from the insights of his three dreams (see
Gaukroger, 106-9):
 Travel opened his eyes to the role of prejudice in
our thinking (cf. Bacon’s ‘idols’)
 DM = a stylized intellectual autobiography
 D’s relativism leads to skepticism.
Appendices to DM
 La Géométrie and La Dioptrique
 Les Météores attempts to put the study of weather on a
scientific basis. However many claims are not only wrong,
but could have easily been seen to be wrong if he had
done some simple experiments. Descartes claims: “...
we see by experience that water which has been kept on
a fire for some time freezes more quickly than otherwise,
the reason being that those of its parts which can be most
easily folded and bent are driven off during the heating,
leaving only those which are rigid.”
DM, Pt. 1: Descartes’ Education
 “I took especially great pleasure in mathematics
because of the certainty and the evidence of its
 “Of philosophy I shall say only that…there is
nothing about which there is not some dispute—
and thus nothing that is not doubtful….”
 “As to the other sciences, since they derive their
principles from philosophy, I judged that one
could not have built anything solid upon
foundations having so little firmness.”
DM, Pt. 2: Prelude to Method

 (1) Metaphor of the well-engineered town, e.g. city-

state of ancient Sparta (8th -4th cents.BCE) Descartes =
Lycurgus [lawgiver] of the Mind.
 (2) Reflects on reasoning by “man of good sense”
(“good sense or reason…is naturally equal in all men”
[Pt. 1]).
 (3) Expunges all prior beliefs, but does not consider
himself an example for everyone since he had the
opportunity to travel, see diversity of beliefs, cultures,
and free himself from prejudices.
 (4) Rejects Aristotelian syllogism.
The Rules of Method
 Accept only that which is evidently true; avoid precipitous
judgment and prejudice; accept only clear and distinct ideas
(intuitions, immediate apprehensions of truth).
 Divide, dissect down to smallest possible units of analysis
(see vivisection in pt. 5);
 Proceed from simplest (atoms or cells) to more complex in
an orderly manner (e.g. biology, mechanics);
 Make “enumerations so complete and reviews so general”
that nothing is omitted.
Discourse, Pt. 3

Adopts a provisional morality, a home in which to reside

while the new house under construction.
 Accepts laws, religion and other external conditions in
his culture (cf. Socrates);
 Wishes to know himself first (Socratic idea: “the
unexamined life is not worth living”).
 Descartes’ Stoicism: “conquer myself rather than
 Rejects Skepticism for its own sake; wants to focus on
attaining certainty.
Pt. 4: Doubt, Dualism, and God

 1. “Hyperbolic” doubt: senses deceive, dreams appear real;

 2. Doubt presupposes thought;
 3. Thinking (cogito) presupposes existence and is the only
 Needs “no place and depend[s] on no material thing”; his soul is
“entirely distinct from the body,” and “even if there were no body,
the soul would not cease to be all that it is.”
 The “locus of knowledge of the empirical world is… removed from
the empirical world” (Gaukroger, 319).
Exkursus:The Mind-Body
 nerves are transducers;
 sensations do not reveal properties of extramental
reality (cf. Locke);
 pineal gland is seat of sensory modules (see next
 sensations do not inform the mind about
extramental things; rather, they enable soul to
assess utility of extramental objects.
The Pineal Gland (at H)
Descartes’ Proof of God’s
4. His doubt indicates his lack of perfection (more perfect to know
than to doubt);
5. Seeks a being more perfect than himself, namely, God, who is
not “composed,” but unitary (“composition” = imperfection).
This is a “clear and distinct” idea, immediately intuited once he
has grasped point 4.
6. Innate idea of God placed in him by God, since “the receiving
of this idea from nothing is a manifest impossibility.”
7. Descartes’ Platonism: “lift…minds above
sensible things.”
Descartes, DM, Pt. 5

 Doctrine of innate idea of natural laws (Le

Monde; Hackett, p. 23).
 Imagines an alternate, identical world according
to exactly the same physical laws: “…I here
resolved to leave all this world to their disputes
and to speak only of what would happen in a
new world were God now to create enough
matter to make it up, somewhere in imaginary
space…” (Hackett, p. 24).
DM, Pt. 5
 Anatomical and physiological studies (pp. 26-34)
 On his mechanical model of nature, Descartes posits the doctrine
of the Animal-Machine; an animal accordingly does not feel pain
when it is vivisected (so why does it make sounds?)
 There are 3 kinds of soul in the world, BUT only the human soul is
rational (has logos); animals have non-rational, ‘animal’ souls.
 How does Descartes demonstrate the difference between human
and animal, and why is he so concerned with this difference?
Pt. 6: Descartes’ practical
Descartes’ empirical concerns:
-conquest of nature: we should “make ourselves …masters and
possessors of nature”;
-medicine—one of the chief areas to be investigated
-experiments to further medical and other scientific work, but too
many for Descartes to perform on his own;
-hence, the need to organize science, engage in cooperative
experimental endeavour and communicate experimental results.
Pt. 6: Descartes’ practical
 “…I see quite well in what direction one must go in order
to do the majority of the experiments that can serve this
purpose [to search for some experiments that are such
that their outcomes are not the same]; but I also see
that they are of such a nature and in such a multitude
that neither my hands nor my financial resources…
would be sufficient for all of them…I urge all those who
desire the general well being of men…to communicate
those experiments that they have already done as well
as to help me in the search for those that remain to be