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René Descartes

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Descartes Coffee, Chicago: Larry Miller

Descartes Coffee, Chicago: Larry Miller via Flickr

René Descartes (1596-1650) was a French lawyer, philosopher and mathematician often hailed as the father of modern philosophy.

While serving in the Bavarian army he devised an ambitious scheme for unifying truth with a rational model based on mathematics, physics, morality and medicine.

As a philosopher, Descartes questioned so many issues that he’s known for his ‘method of doubt,’ outlined in Discours de la Méthode (1637), the Meditationes de prima Philosophia (1641) and the Principia Philosophiae (1644).

Descartes made a fundamental distinction between mind and matter, the latter to include the body. The philosopher Gilbert Ryle said, somewhat pejoratively, that for Descartes the mind is like a “ghost in the machine,” the machine representing the body.

Descartes is probably best known for arguing that the very act of thinking proves one’s existence: cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am). His next question, not unlike that of solipsism, was: “how do I know that the outside world truly exists?”

He was not the first to look at things this way. Thomas Leahey notes that

St. Augustine [354–430 CE] had said, “If I am deceived, I exist,” and Parmenides [515-445 BCE] had said, “For it is the same thing to think and to be.”¹

Descartes’ answer to the problem of truth seeming to be only inside oneself (that is, truth as entirely subjective) involved God. For Descartes, God exists by necessity. God must exist in order to be perfect. A perfect God also by necessity is Good. And a God that is Good would not deceive his creatures into believing in an outside world if no such thing existed.

Often lampooned by contemporary professors for saying the pineal gland mediates among body, mind and soul, we’d do well to remember that,  given the medical knowledge of his day, this was an innovative and arguably rational attempt on the part of Descartes to explain the relation between body and spirit.

In mathematics Descartes developed algebra and contributed to major innovations in geometry.

¹Leahey, Thomas H. A History of Psychology, Prentice Hall, 1980, p. 92.

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