|René Descartes (1596-1650)|
On March 31, 1596, French philosopher, mathematician, and writer René Descartes was born. The Cartesian coordinate system is named after him, allowing reference to a point in space as a set of numbers, and allowing algebraic equations to be expressed as geometric shapes in a two-dimensional coordinate system. He is credited as the father of analytical geometry, the bridge between algebra and geometry, crucial to the discovery of infinitesimal calculus and analysis. Descartes was also one of the key figures in the Scientific Revolution and has been described as an example of genius. He has been dubbed the ‘Father of Modern Philosophy’. His Meditations on First Philosophy continues to be a standard text at most university philosophy departments.
René Descartes was born in the Touraine, France and attended the Jesuit College of La Fleche in 1606. At the school he learned Latin, Greek and studied the philosophies of Aristotele, Plato, the Stoics, and Cicero. Descartes also studied curiously mathematics, physics, and especially the works of Galileo Galilei. Just like many of Descartes’ ancestors, he was supposed to become a lawyer, but never actually practiced law or anything like it after graduating in 1616. Instead, Descartes became a soldier as support to Protestant Prince Maurice for some years.
One of his first influences depicted Isaac Beeckman, a mathematician and natural philosopher, who met with Descartes while stationed at Breda. In these years, Descartes discovered the technique of describing lines through mathematical equations, which led to the combination of both, algebra and geometry. Algebra and analysis evolved step by step after Descartes’ findings and the coordinate system of algebraic geometry came to be called “Cartesian coordinates” in honor to the scientist. Later on, Descartes enrolled at Leiden University, studying mathematics and astronomy and then became teacher at Utrecht University.
In the 1620’s, René Descartes worked on a metaphysical piece on the existence of God, nature, and soul as well as tried to explain the set of parhelia in Rome. He combined both in the work Treatise on the World, which consisted of three parts. Only two of these, The Treatise of Light and the Treastise of Man survived. The two parts gave a good illustration of the universe as a system including all of its structures, operations, planet formations, light transmission, and the role of the human on Earth. However, Descartes abandoned his plans to publish the Treatise on the World after Galileo was condemned. He continued publishing works on philosophy, geometry, meterology and his most famous Discours de la Méthode, demonstrating four rules of thought. Further influential works followed after 1641, when Descartes published his Mediations on First Philosophy and his Principles of Philosophy.
During his lifetime, Descartes is now regarded as one of the first to write about the importance of reason in natural sciences rejecting any doubtable ideas. This was illustrated in his famous phrase ‘cogito ergo sum’ (I think, therefore i am) through which he concluded that doubting the existence of a person was already the prove of one’s presence. Descartes was also known for his dualism. He once wrote that a human body functioned like a machine with material properties and the mind, both interacting at the pineal gland. In other words, this means that the body is controlled by the mind and vise versa.
Through his works, René Descartes was able to set the foundations of the society’s emancipation from the Church, and shifting it from the medieval to the modern period. In mathematics, Descartes was able to lay the foundations for Leibniz and Newton to develop calculus and he discovered the law of reflection, achieving a critical contribution to the field of optics.
René Descartes passed away on February 11, 1650 in Stockholm. In 1663, Pope Alexander VII set his works on the ‘Index of Prohibited Books’.
At yovisto, you can enjoy a video lecture by Dr. Richard Brown on Descartes’ Method of Doubt.
References and Further Reading:
-  René Descartes at Stanford
-  René Descartes at the Encyclopedia of Philosophy
-  René Descartes Website
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