Rene Descartes (1596-1650)
Rene Descartes is one of the most popular names that embodies the Scientific Revolution. His great mind has created valuable works in the area of philosophy, mathematics and physics and his talent as a writer has produced a number of scholarly materials that are still being used as refernces today. Descartes life was interesting as much as it is complicated and is representative of a period that presented a lot of advances that are very much acclaimed today. The Scientific Revolution was a moment in history that became foundation of the sciences as society knows it today.
Rene Descartes was born in La Haye, France on March 31, 1596. He was the son of Jeanne Brochard, who died when he was one, and Joachim who was a member of the Parliament. He started his education with the Jesuit College of Le Feche between 1606 and 1614. He then studied in the University of Poitiers where he earned a license and Baccalaureate degree in Law in accordance with his father’s ambition for him to become a lawyer. Descartes joined the International College of War of “Maurice of Nassau” in the Dutch Republic in 1618 (Baillet, Livre 1, Chapitre 9, p. 41) . While he was stationed in Breda, he met Isaac Beeckman who was the greatest influence that sparked his interest in mathematics and new physics (Gaukroger, 1995). He was present in the Battle of White Mountain in Pargue in November 1620. While stationed in Neuburg Germany, he experienced a series of dreams in which he interpreted as signs that he would discover a universal science in the future. He considered this as having a profound impact in his life because it opened for him a realization that he was in the pursuit of wisdom and science. This will later on prove to be vital in his development of his life’s works. Descartes returned to France in 1622 and during the next few years, spent his time in Paris and other parts of Europe. He returned to La haye in 1623 where he sold all of his properties and investing the proceeds in bonds which provided him with a good income for the rest of his life. In 1628, he decided to return to the Dutch Republic where he lived until 1649. In his time there, he joined the University of Frakener and later enrolled at the Leiden University to study mathematics and astronomy. He formed a relationship in Amsterdam with Helena Jans van der Strom with whom he has a daughter named Francine. At that time, Descartes was teaching at the Utrecht University. All of his major works were created in the 20 or more years that he stayed in the Netherlands where he was known to revolutionize mathematics and philosophy. He planned to publish Treatise of the World, but decided not to due to the reason that Galileo was condemned by the Catholic Church in 1633. He published Discourse on the Method in 1637 where he laid out four rules of thought that reiterated the firm foundation that knowledge should rest upon. Descartes continued to publish his works on mathematics and philosophy and in 1643, his Cartesian philosophy was condemned in the University of Utrecht. He was known to have had a long correspondence with Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia and in 1647 was awarded a pension by the King of France. Descartes was invited to teach Queen Christina of Sweden where he died on February 11, 1650 in Stockholm, Sweden. The cause of his death was pneumonia and other speculations regarding his death were entertained. His remains were buried in Stockholm but was later transferred to France and is currently resting between two graves in Paris (Clarke, 2006, p. 394).
Descartes gained his popularity and published his major works at a time that was popularly known as the Scientific Revolution. The Scientific Revolution was a period in the history of science where new ideas in physics, astronomy, biology, chemistry, human anatomy and other sciences led to the rejection of the prevailing doctrines that were currently embraced. This doctrines actually started in Ancient Greece (Shapin, 1996). This doctrines continued until the Middle Ages and were replaced and reinforced by major philosophical works and discoveries of other scholars which laid out the foundations of modern science. Rene Descartes is among the roster of scholars who was the source of one of the most important scientific developments. His most important work published was his Discourse on the Method in 1637 which helped establish the Scientific Method.
The Discourse on the Method as one of the most significant works of Rene Descartes, is a treatise of philosophical and mathematical ideologies. It is important for many reasons. One of those is the fact the it contains Descartes’ thoughts about his education and his early exposure to mathematics. It also introduces the concept of skepticism which has already been studied by other scholars but which he further modified. He extends the idea that the world should be assessed with the absence of preconceived notions and from a fresh perspective. The book is considered to be organized in six parts such as how to think correctly, the Method of Science, Morals and Maxims deduced from this method, proof of God and the soul, physics, the heart, the soul of man and animals, and experiments. In how to think correctly, it emphasizes that an individual’s opinions and thoughts should be the ground on which future perceptions should be built. In summary, it clearly presents the idea that one should not only build on old foundations of knowledge but should look for feasible areas to build the knowledge upon. The method of science which he presented, introduced the four precepts that in writing were very critical of knowledge. He suggests that at first, one should not take anything for true. Secondly, he says that difficulties should be divided into many parts so as to be able to come up with adequate solutions for them. The third precept says that thoughts should be in order so as to attack the difficulty in a most efficient manner. The last of the four suggests the evaluation of the whole work to make sure that nothing is omitted in ways that make use of tables and diagrams. The discourse also introduced the morals and the maxims that Descartes intended for everyone to adapt while conducting the method and this were divided in three parts. To appease the Catholic Church and avoid the same fate that Galileo experienced, Descartes also injected the existence and proof of God and the soul in his discourse. He contends that God exists and that He guarantees that reasons are not misguided. Descartes also introduced the laws of nature such as the suns and the stars as well as the moon which he beliesved influneced the ebb and the flood. He also discussed a few points on gravitation and the examination of light and fire. His inquiries on medicine were also included such as the motion of blood in the heart and the arteries. Lastly, a part of the work also touched on experiments which became the culmination of all his ideas. It was the where the Method was applied in mathematics and Science.
Along with the Discourse on the Method are three essays that have contributed a lot to the improvement of his published work. These essays are Optics, Meteorology and Geometry. These works are quite independent from the Discourse on the Method because they are about entirely different topics. The Optics for example contained Descartes’ laws on refraction and Geometry contained the basis of the Cartesian coordinate system. However, a lot of critics have questioned the magnanimity that is given to Descartes’ work. When the Discourse on the Method is read, it contains complex ideas that may not have the concreteness of modern day ideas that are presented in textbooks and other scholarly articles. However, in Descartes period, these series of works that were philosophical were considered as valuable references for the educated and the academics. His work does seem more metaphysical rather than academic, but the ideas were based on notions that became part of the whole as it influened other scholars that came after him. For example, his contribution of the idea establishing the sigificant connection between geometry and algebra became the foundations of calculus by Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz. Though the Cartesian Coordinate system was not exactly verbatim in the essay Geometry, the idea of it was contained in the essay and made the concepts of Descartes lead to the development of analytic geometry. Despite the many questions that bombard the substantial contribution of Descartes, it does not diminish the historical importance of his work. Same is true with his works that are significantly rooted on philosophy. Descartes work may not be accepted at face value but definitely laid out the foundations and influenced philosophy. It was his idea, “I think, therefore I exist” that became the foundation for modern thought. It gained him the title “Father of Modern Philosophy” and it is only fitting as his “method” presented in the Discourse still influences the quest for scientific truth as we know it today.
Rene Descartes is someone that definitely revolutionized science and mathematics
in a way that has impacted the present society in a most remarkable manner. His own dedication and philosophical prowess has provided the world with knowledge that is immortal and his name will forever be imprinted in books. He definitely embodies the Scientific Revolution because he contributed wisdom that revolutionized science and mathematics and proposed methods that made possible the whole modern philosophical development.
Baillet, A. (1691) La Vie de M. Descartes (2 vols.) Paris.
Clarke, D. (2006). Descartes : A Biography. Cambridge University Press.
Descarte, R. Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason and Seeking the Truth in the Sciences. Wildslide Press.
Gaukroger, S. (1995). Descartes : An Intellectual Biography. New York : Oxford University Press.
Shapin, Steven (1996). The Scientific Revolution.