Descartes:contexto y aportes filosóficos

René Descartes

born March 31, 1596, La Haye, Touraine, France
died February 11, 1650, Stockholm, Sweden

Latin Renatius Cartesius

French mathematician, scientist, and philosopher. Because he was one of the first to oppose scholastic Aristotelianism, he has been called the father of modern philosophy. He began by methodically doubting knowledge based on authority, the senses, and reason, then found certainty in the intuition that, when he is thinking, he exists; this he expressed in the famous statement “I think, therefore I am.? He developed a dualistic system in which he distinguished radically between mind, the essence of which is thinking, and matter, the essence of which is extension in three dimensions. Descartes’s metaphysical system is intuitionist, derived by reason from innate ideas, but his physics and physiology, based on sensory knowledge, are mechanistic and empiricist.

Family and regional background

Descartes was born in La Haye (now Descartes), France. Although La Haye was in Touraine, Descartes’s family connections were south across the Creuse River in Poitou, where his father, Joachim, owned farms and houses in Châtellerault and Poitiers. Because Joachim was a councillor in the Parlement of Brittany in Rennes, Descartes inherited a low rank of nobility. Descartes’s mother died when he was one year old. His father remarried in Rennes, leaving him in La Haye to be raised by his maternal grandmother and a nurse and probably also by his great-uncle Michel Ferrand, lieutenant general (court judge) in Châtellerault. The Descartes family was Roman Catholic, but Poitou was a Huguenot stronghold and Châtellerault a “secure city,? in which the Edict of Nantes, which gave Protestants freedom of worship in France, was worked out in 1597–98. Descartes returned to Poitou regularly until 1628.

Education, travels, and early influences

In 1606 Descartes was sent to the Jesuit college at La Flèche, established in 1604 by Henri IV. (1553-1610). At La Flèche 1,200 young gentlemen were trained for careers in military engineering, the judiciary, and government administration. Besides classical studies, science, mathematics, and metaphysics, students were taught acting, music, poetry, dancing, riding, and fencing. Descartes’s philosophy professor was Father François Véron, known later as the scourge of the Protestants. Aristotle was taught from scholastic texts. In addition, Descartes received special attention from a relative, Father Charlet, later rector of La Flèche. In 1610 Descartes participated in an imposing ceremony in which Henry IV.’s heart was placed in the cathedral of La Flèche. Henry IV’s assassination had destroyed the hope of religious tolerance in France and Germany.

In 1614 Descartes went to Poitiers, where he took a law degree in 1616. At this time Huguenot Poitiers was in virtual revolt against Louis XIII. Descartes’s father probably expected him to enter Parlement, but, because the legal age for that was 27, Descartes had seven years to wait. In 1618 he went to Breda in the Netherlands for 15 months as a student in mathematics and military architecture in the peacetime army of the Protestant ruler, Maurice, prince of Orange. There Descartes met the physicist Isaac Beeckman, who encouraged him in science and mathematics and for whom Descartes wrote his Musicae Compendium (written 1618, published 1650; Compendium of Music).

During the period 1619 to 1628, Descartes traveled in northern and southern Europe, saying that he was studying the book of the world. While in Bohemia in 1619, he had three dreams that defined for him his career as a scientist and a philosopher seeking knowledge for the benefit of humanity. By 1620 he had conceived of a universal method of deductive reasoning, applicable to all the sciences. He had also investigated reports of esoteric knowledge such as theosophical claims to command nature. Although disappointed with the followers of the magician Raymond Lulle and the alchemist Cornelius Agrippa, Descartes was impressed by the German mathematician and Rosicrucian Johann Faulhaber.

Descartes shared a number of Rosicrucian goals and habits of life. Like Rosicrucians, he lived a single, secluded life, changing residence often (during his 22 years in the Netherlands, he lived in 18 different places), practiced medicine without charge, tried to increase human longevity, and expressed optimism about the ability of science to improve the human condition. At the end of his life, he left a chest of personal papers—none of which has survived—with his close friend, the Rosicrucian physician Corneille van Hogelande, who handled his affairs in the Netherlands. Descartes, however, rejected the Rosicrucians’ magical and mystical beliefs. For him it was a time of hope for revolution in science. The English philosopher Francis Bacon, in Advancement of Learning (1605), had already proposed a new science of observation and experiment to replace the traditional Aristotelian science, as did Descartes later.

In 1620 Descartes was in the Roman Catholic army of Maximilian I, duke of Bavaria, who defeated the Protestants in Bohemia. There is, however, no evidence that Descartes ever participated in any battles; he said military life was idle, stupid, immoral, and cruel. In 1622 Descartes moved to Paris. There he gambled, rode, fenced, and went to the court, concerts, and the theatre. Among his friends were the poets Jean-Louis Guez de Balzac, who dedicated his Le Socrate chrétien (1652; “Christian Socrates?) to Descartes, and Théophile de Viau, who was burned in effigy and imprisoned in 1623 for writing verses mocking religious themes. Descartes also made friends with the mathematician Claude Mydorge and with Father Marin Mersenne, a man of universal learning who during his lifetime wrote thousands of letters to hundreds of scholars, writers, mathematicians, and scientists, keeping everyone aware—despite his almost unreadable handwriting—of what everyone else was doing. Mersenne was Descartes’s main contact with the larger intellectual world. Descartes regularly hid from his friends in order to work, writing treatises, now lost, on fencing and metals. He acquired a high reputation long before he published anything.

At a talk in 1628, Descartes denied the alchemist Chandoux’s claim that probabilities are as good as certainties in science and demonstrated his own method for attaining certainty. The Cardinal de Bérulle, who had founded the Oratorian teaching order in 1611 to rival the Jesuit order and who was forming the Compagnie du Saint-Sacrement (“Company of the Sacred Sacrament?), a militant, secret society of laymen to fight Protestantism, was impressed and invited Descartes to a conference. Bérulle was a strange combination of astute politician, courtier, and mystic who often advised the Queen Mother and talked familiarly with God and angels every day. Many commentators speculate that Bérulle urged Descartes to write an Augustinian metaphysics to replace Jesuit teaching. There can be no question that, in one way or another, Bérulle tried to recruit Descartes to the Catholic cause. The result, however, was that within weeks Descartes left for the Netherlands, which was Protestant, took great precautions to conceal his whereabouts, and did not return to France for 16 years. Rather than taking Bérulle as director of his conscience, as some argue, it is probable that Descartes—who was a Roman Catholic but not an enthusiast, who was accused of being a Rosicrucian, who was from a Huguenot province, who glorified reason, and who advocated religious tolerance—was frightened by the mystical, militant Bérulle.

Descartes said that he went to the Netherlands to enjoy a greater liberty than was available anyplace else and to avoid the distractions of Paris and friends so that he could have the leisure and solitude to think. (He had inherited enough money and property to live independently.) The Netherlands was a haven of tolerance. Descartes could be an original, independent thinker there without fear, for example, of being burned for giving natural explanations of miracles, as was Lucilio Vanini in 1619, or of being drafted as a soldier for the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation. He opposed vows that restricted liberty and said, when accused of having illegitimate children, that, after all, he was a man and had taken no vows of chastity. In France, by contrast, religious intolerance was mounting. The Jews were expelled in 1615, and the last Protestant stronghold, La Rochelle, was crushed—with Bérulle’s participation—only weeks before Descartes’s departure. Catholic commentators insist that Descartes would have been safe in France, but the Parlement of Paris passed a decree in 1624 forbidding attacks on Aristotle on pain of death. Although the Catholic priests Mersenne and Pierre Gassendi did publish attacks without being persecuted, heretics continued to be burned, and laymen lacked church protection. Descartes may have felt in some jeopardy because of his friendship with such libertines as Father Claude Picot, a bon vivant known as “the Atheist Priest,? with whom Descartes left his financial affairs in France.

Residence in the Netherlands

In 1629 Descartes went to the university at Franeker, where he stayed with a Roman Catholic family and wrote the first draft of his Meditations. He registered at the University of Leiden in 1630, where he gained as a disciple the physician Henri Reneri. In 1631 he visited Denmark and in 1633–34 was in Germany with the physician and alchemist Étienne de Villebressieu, who invented siege engines, a portable bridge, and a two-wheeled stretcher. The physician Henri Regius taught Descartes’s views at the University of Utrecht in 1639, starting a fierce controversy with the Calvinist theologian Gisbertus Voetius that continued until the end of Descartes’s life. In his Letter to Voetius of 1648, Descartes made a plea for religious tolerance and the rights of man. He said that he wrote not only for Christians but also for Turks—meaning libertines, infidels, deists, and atheists. He argued that, because Protestants and Roman Catholics worship the same God, both can hope for heaven. When the controversy became intense, however, Descartes sought the protection of the French ambassador and of his friend Constantijn Huygens, secretary to Prince Frederick Henry, ruler of the Dutch Republic.

In 1635 Descartes’s daughter Francine was born to Helena Jans and was baptized in the Reformed Church in Deventer. Although Francine is referred to as Descartes’s illegitimate daughter, her baptism is recorded in a register for legitimate births. Descartes said that his greatest sorrow was Francine’s death of scarlet fever at the age of five and that he was not a philosopher who believed that one must refrain from tears to prove oneself a man.

The World, Rules, and Discourse on Method

In 1633 Descartes was about to publish Le Monde (published 1664; The World), when he heard that the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei had been condemned in Rome for publishing the view that the Earth revolves around the Sun. Because this Copernican position is central to Descartes’s cosmology and physics, he suppressed The World, hoping that the church would retract its condemnation and make it possible for him to publish his work later. He feared the church, but he also hoped that his physics would one day replace Aristotle’s in church doctrine.

In 1637 Descartes published Discours de la méthode (Discourse on Method), one of the first important modern philosophical works not written in Latin. Descartes said that he wrote in French so that all who had good sense, including women, could read his work and learn to use their reason to think for themselves. He believed that everyone could tell true from false by the natural light of reason. In three essays forming part of the Discourse, he illustrated his method for utilizing reason in the search for truth in the sciences. In Dioptrics he then presented the law of refraction, in Meteorology he explained the rainbow, and in Geometry he gave an exposition of analytic geometry, which is a method of representing geometric figures with algebraic equations that made many previously unsolvable problems solvable. He also introduced the conventions of representing known numerical quantities with a, b, c, . . . , unknowns with x, y, z, . . . , and squares, cubes, and other powers with numerical superscripts, as in x2, x3, . . . , which made algebraic notation much clearer than it had been before.

In Discourse and Regulae ad Directionem Ingenii (Rules for the Direction of the Mind), written by 1628 but not published until 1701, Descartes gave four rules for reasoning: (1) Accept nothing as true that is not self-evident. (2) Divide problems into their simplest parts. (3) Solve problems by proceeding from simple to complex. (4) Recheck the reasoning. These rules are a direct application of mathematical procedures. Descartes insisted that key notions and the limits of each problem must be clearly defined.

In Discourse he also provided a provisional moral code (later presented as final) for use while seeking truth: (1) Obey local customs and laws. (2) Make decisions on the best evidence and then stick to them firmly as though they were certain. (3) Change desires rather than the world. (4) Always seek truth. This code exhibits Descartes’s prudential conservatism, decisiveness, stoicism, and dedication. For Descartes all knowledge was like a tree—with metaphysics forming the roots, physics the trunk, and medicine, mechanics, and morals the branches—on which the fruit of knowledge is produced.


In 1641 Descartes published in Latin—because it was dedicated to the Jesuit professors at the Sorbonne in Paris—Meditationes de Prima Philosophia (Meditations on First Philosophy in Which Is Proved the Existence of God and the Immortality of the Soul). Mersenne submitted it before publication to eminent thinkers, among whom were the Jansenist philosopher and theologian Antoine Arnauld, the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, and the Epicurean atomist Pierre Gassendi. Mersenne collected their critical responses and published them with the Meditations. Even though Descartes said that the Jesuit priest Pierre Bourdin, a respondent added in the second edition (1642), was a fool, these objections and replies constitute a landmark of cooperative discussion in philosophy and science at a time when dogmatism was the rule.

Descartes begins Meditations with methodic doubt, rejecting as though false all types of knowledge by which he was ever deceived. His arguments derive from the Pyrrhonism of the Greek skeptic Sextus Empiricus as reflected in the skeptical writings of Michel de Montaigne and Pierre Charron. Thus knowledge based on authority is set aside because even experts are sometimes wrong. Knowledge from sensory experience is declared untrustworthy because people sometimes mistake one thing for another, as with mirages. Knowledge based on reasoning is rejected as unreliable because one often makes mistakes as, for example, when adding. Finally, knowledge may be illusory because it comes from dreams or insanity or from a demon able to deceive men by making them think that they are experiencing the real world when they are not. Descartes finds certainty in the intuition that when he is thinking, even if deceived, he exists: “Cogito, ergo sum? (Latin: “I think, therefore I am?). The cogito is a logically self-evident truth that gives certain knowledge of a particular thing’s existence—that is, one’s self—but the cogito justifies accepting as certain only the existence of the person who thinks it. If all one ever knew for certain was that one exists and if one adhered to Descartes’s method of doubting all that is uncertain, then one would be reduced to solipsism, the view that nothing exists but one’s individual self and thoughts. To escape this, Descartes argues that all ideas that are as clear and distinct as the cogito must be true, for, if they were not, the cogito also, as a member of the class of clear and distinct ideas, could be doubted. Since “I think, therefore I am? cannot be doubted, all clear and distinct ideas must be true.

On the basis of clear and distinct innate ideas, Descartes then establishes that each mind is a spiritual substance and each body a part of one material substance. The mind or soul is immortal because it is unextended and cannot be broken into parts, as can extended bodies. Descartes also advances proof for the existence of God. He begins with the statement that he has an innate idea of God as a perfect being and then intuits that God necessarily exists, because, if he did not, he would not be perfect. This ontological proof for the existence of God is at the heart of Descartes’s rationalism, for it establishes certain knowledge about an existing thing solely on the basis of reasoning from innate ideas, with no help from sensory experience. Descartes then argues that, because God is perfect, he does not deceive human beings; therefore the world exists. Thus Descartes claims to have given metaphysical foundations for the existence of his own mind, of God, and of the world.

A famous objection to Descartes’s procedure is Arnauld’s Cartesian Circle, which exposes the circularity inherent in Descartes’s reasoning. To know that God exists, one must trust the clear and distinct idea of God; but, to know that clear and distinct ideas are true, one must know that God exists and does not deceive man. Descartes the rationalist rejected magic, but he failed to see that his ontological proof is word-magic based on the superstition that things can be determined by ideas and thoughts. In opposition to Descartes’s rationalism, empiricists hold that descriptions of things must come after, not before, one knows by experience that they exist.

Physics, physiology, and morals

Descartes’s goal was to be master of nature. He provided understanding of the trunk of the tree of knowledge in The World, Dioptrics, Meteorology, and Geometry and revealed its roots in Meditations; he then spent the rest of his life working on the branches of mechanics, medicine, and morals. Mechanics is the basis of his medicine, or physiology, which in turn is the basis of his moral psychology. Descartes believed that all material bodies, including the human body, are machines that operate by mechanical principles. In his physiological studies, he dissected animal bodies to show how their parts move. He argued that, because animals have no souls, they do not think or feel; thus vivisection, which Descartes pioneered, is permitted. He also described the circulation of the blood but came to the erroneous conclusion that heat in the heart expands the blood, causing its expulsion. Descartes’s L’Homme, et un traité de la formation du foetus (Man, and A Treatise on the Formation of the Foetus) was published in 1664.

In 1641 Descartes was visited by Picot and Jacques Vallée Desbarreaux, known as “the Grand Debauché,? who had published the libertine poet Théophile de Viau. Descartes used them as models for characters (he was himself model for a third) in his dialogue Recherche de la verité (1701; Search After Truth). In 1642 Samuel Sorbière, the French translator of Sextus and Hobbes, visited Descartes and wrote a charming description of him as host. Descartes then lived in the small but very elegant château of Endegeest, outside Leiden, near the court in The Hague.

In 1644 Descartes published Principia Philosophiae (Principles of Philosophy), a compilation of his physics and metaphysics. He dedicated this work to Princess Elizabeth, daughter of Elizabeth Stuart (1596-1662), titular queen of Bohemia, who was in exile in The Hague for he had developed his moral philosophy in correspondence with her. According to Descartes, a human being is a union of mind and body, two dissimilar substances that interact in the pineal gland. He reasoned that the pineal gland must be the uniting point because it is the only non-double organ in the brain, and double reports, as from two eyes, must have one place to merge. He argued that each action on a person’s sense organs causes subtle matter to move through tubular nerves to the pineal gland, causing it to vibrate distinctively. These vibrations give rise to emotions and passions and also cause the body to act. Bodily action is thus the final outcome of a reflex arc that begins with external stimuli and involves first an internal response, as, for example, when a soldier sees the enemy, feels fear, and flees. The mind cannot change bodily reactions directly—for example, it cannot will the body to fight—but it can change the pineal vibrations from those that cause fear and fleeing to those that cause courage and fighting.

Descartes furthermore argued that men can be conditioned by experience to have specific emotional responses. He, for example, had been conditioned to be attracted to cross-eyed women because he had loved a cross-eyed playmate as a child. When he remembered this fact, however, he was able to rid himself of his passion. This insight was the basis for Descartes’s defense of free will and of the mind’s ability to control the body. Despite such arguments in defense of free will, in his Les Passions de l’âme (Passions of the Soul), dedicated in 1649 to Queen Christina of Sweden, Descartes holds that most bodily actions are determined by external material causes.

Descartes’s morality was anti-Christian in that, in contrast to Calvinists and Jansenists, he suggested that grace is not necessary for salvation but that human beings are virtuous and able to achieve salvation when they do their best to find and act upon truth. His optimism about the ability of human reason and will to find truth and reach salvation is in stark contrast with the pessimism of the Jansenist (predestinarian) apologist and mathematician Blaise Pascal, who believed that salvation comes only as a gift of God’s grace. Descartes was correctly accused of holding the view of Jacobus Arminius, an anti-Calvinist Dutch theologian, that virtuous behaviour depends on free will rather than on grace. Descartes also held that, unless people believe in God and immortality, they will see no reason to be moral.

Free will, Descartes stated, is the sign of God in human nature, and human beings can be praised or blamed according to their use of it. People are good only if they act in goodwill for the good of others; such generosity is the highest virtue. Descartes was Epicurean in his assertion that human passions are good in themselves and an extreme moral optimist in his belief that to understand the good is to want to do it; because passions are willings, to want something is to will it. He was also stoic, however, in his admonition that human beings should control their passions rather than change the world.

Although Descartes wrote no political philosophy, he approved of Seneca’s admonition to acquiesce in the order of things. He rejected Machiavelli’s recommendation to lie to friends, because friendship is sacred and life’s greatest joy. Human beings cannot exist alone but must be parts of social groups, such as nations and families, and it is better to do good for the group than for oneself.

Descartes had been a puny child with a weak chest and was not expected to live. He therefore watched his health carefully and became a virtual vegetarian. In 1639 he bragged that he had not been sick for 19 years and expected to live to be 100. He told Elizabeth to think of life as a comedy; bad thoughts cause bad dreams and bodily disorders. Because there is always more good than evil in life, one can always be content, no matter how poorly off one is.

In his later years Descartes said that he had once hoped to learn to prolong life to a century or more, but he then saw that, in order to achieve that goal, the efforts of many generations would be required; he himself had not even learned to prevent a fever. Thus, he said, instead of continuing to hope for long life, he had found an easier way, namely to love life but not fear death. It is easy, he claimed, for a true philosopher to die tranquilly.

Final years and heritage

After 16 years in the Netherlands, Descartes returned to France for brief visits in 1644, 1647, and 1648, on financial business and to oversee the translation into French of Principles, Meditations, and Objections and Replies. (The translators were, respectively, Picot, the Duke de Luynes, and Claude Clerselier.) In 1647 he also met with Gassendi and Hobbes and suggested to Pascal the famous experiment of taking a barometer up Mount Puy-de-Dôme to determine the influence of the weight of the air. In Paris Descartes joined with Pierre d’Alibert, treasurer general of France, in a plan to establish a workshop school of arts and crafts in the Royal College. Picot returned with Descartes to the Netherlands for the winter of 1647–48. During Descartes’s final stay in Paris in 1648, the revolt of the nobility against the crown, known as the Fronde, broke out. As a result, Descartes left Paris precipitously on Aug. 17, 1648, only days before his mortally ill old friend Mersenne died. Back at his retreat in Egmond, in the Netherlands, Descartes was visited by the young Frans Burman, whose Conversations (first published in 1896) gives a genial and illuminating picture of Descartes.

Hector Pierre Chanut, Clerselier’s brother-in-law, helped to procure a pension for Descartes from Louis XIV (which was never paid). Then Chanut, who was French resident and later ambassador to Sweden, gained an invitation for Descartes to the court of the Swedish monarch, Queen Christina, who by the close of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) had become one of the most important and powerful monarchs in Europe. Descartes went reluctantly, arriving early in October 1649. He may have gone because he needed protection; the Fronde seemed to have destroyed his chances in Paris, and the Calvinist theologians were still harassing him in the Netherlands.

The 22-year-old Christina perversely made the 53-year-old Descartes rise at 5:00 AM to give her philosophy lessons, even though she knew of his habit of meditating in bed until 11 o’clock in the morning. She also is said to have ordered him to write a ballet in verse, La Naissance de la paix (1649; The Birth of Peace), celebrating Christina’s role in the Peace of Westphalia (1648), which ended the Thirty Years’ War, and a comedy in five acts, now lost. In addition he wrote the statutes for a Swedish Academy of Arts and Sciences. While delivering these statutes to the Queen at 5:00 AM on Feb. 1, 1650, Descartes caught a chill. In this land, where he said that in winter men’s thoughts freeze like the water, Descartes developed pneumonia. He died in Stockholm on Feb. 11, 1650. Many pious last words have been attributed to Descartes, but the most trustworthy report is probably that of his German valet, Schulter, who said that Descartes was in a coma and died without saying anything at all. The last thing Descartes wrote was a letter asking his brother to continue the pension Descartes had been paying to their old nurse.

After his death, Descartes’s papers came into the possession of Clerselier, a pious Catholic, who began the process of turning Descartes into a saint by cutting, adding to, and selectively publishing his letters. This cosmetic work culminated in 1691 in the massive biography by Father Adrien Baillet, who had previously published a 17-volume Lives of the Saints. Even while Descartes was still alive, there were questions as to whether he was a Roman Catholic apologist, primarily concerned with supporting Christian doctrine, or an atheist, concerned only with protecting himself with pious sentiments while establishing a deterministic, mechanistic, and materialistic physics.

These questions remain difficult to answer, not least because many papers and manuscripts available to Clerselier and Baillet are now lost. The Roman Catholic church made its decision in 1667 by putting Descartes’s works on the Index of Forbidden Books on the very day his bones were ceremoniously placed in Sainte-Geneviève-du-Mont in Paris. During his lifetime, Protestant ministers in the Netherlands called him a Jesuit and a papist—i.e., an atheist—but he said that they were intolerant, ignorant bigots. Up to about 1930, the majority of scholars, many of whom were religious, believed that Descartes’s major concerns were metaphysical and religious. By the late 20th century, however, numerous commentators had come to believe that Descartes was a Catholic in the way he was a Frenchman and a royalist—that is, by birth and by politics.

Descartes himself said that good sense is destroyed when one thinks too much of God. He once told the German protégée Anne-Maria de Schurman that she was wasting her intellect studying Hebrew and theology. He also was perfectly aware of, although he tried to conceal, the atheistic potential of his materialist physics and physiology. Descartes also seemed indifferent to the emotional depths of religion. Whereas Pascal trembled when he looked into the infinite universe and perceived the puniness and misery of man, Descartes rejected the view that human beings are essentially miserable and sinful. Instead he exulted in the power of human reason to understand the cosmos and to promote human happiness. He held that it was impertinent to pray to God to change things, insisting rather that human beings must try to improve themselves.

Major Works:

The history of the original works and their early translations into English is as follows: Musicae Compendium (written 1618, published 1650); Renatus Des-Cartes Excellent Compendium of Musick (1653); Regulae ad Directionem Ingenii (written 1628, published 1701); Le Monde de Mr Descartes; ou, le traité de la lumière (written 1633, published 1664); Discours de la méthode pour bien conduire sa raison, & chercher la verité dans les sciences. Plus la dioptrique; les meteores; et la geometrie (1637; A Discourse of a Method for the Wel-guiding of Reason, and the Discovery of Truth in Sciences, 1649); Meditationes de Prima Philosophia (1641; and its 2nd ed., with Objectiones Septimae, 1642; Six Metaphysical Meditations; Wherein It Is Proved That There Is a God, 1680); Principia Philosophiae (1644); and Les Passions de l’âme (1649; The Passions of the Soule, 1650).Descartes’s correspondence has been collected in Lettres de Mr Descartes: où sont traittées plusieurs belles questions touchant la morale, physique, medecine, & les mathematiques, ed. by Claude Clerselier, 3 vol. (1666–67); and Correspondance, ed. by Charles Adam and Gaston Milhaud, 8 vol. (1936–63, reprinted 1970). The standard edition of complete works is the multivolume Oeuvres de Descartes, ed. by Charles Adam and Paul Tannery, published several times since it appeared in 12 vol. with a supplement in 1897–1913. See it in a later edition, 11 vol. in 13 (1974–82). It includes Descartes’s correspondence. Modern translations into English, many with valuable commentaries, include such selections as The Philosophical Works of Descartes, trans. by Elizabeth S. Haldane and G.R.T. Ross, 2 vol. (1911–12, reprinted 1978); The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, trans. by John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch, 2 vol. (1984–85); Descartes: Philosophical Letters, trans. and ed. by Anthony Kenny (1970, reprinted 1981); Descartes’ Conversation with Burman, trans. by John Cottingham (1976); Le Monde; ou, traité de la lumière, trans. into English by Michael Sean Mahoney (1979); Treatise of Man, trans. by Thomas Steele Hall (1972); Discourse on Method, Optics, Geometry, and Meteorology, trans. by Paul J. Olscamp (1965); Principles of Philosophy, trans. by Valentine Rodger Miller and Reese P. Miller (1983); The Passions of the Soul, trans. by Stephen Voss (1989); and Descartes, His Moral Philosophy and Psychology, trans. by John J. Blom (1978).

Additional reading


Basic biographical sources are Descartes’s own works and letters. Adrien Baillet, La Vie de Monsieur Des-Cartes, 2 vol. (1691, reprinted 1987), is a major source, notwithstanding its apologetic bias. Elizabeth S. Haldane, Descartes: His Life and Times (1905, reissued 1966), is an early modern biography; Charles Adam, Vie & oeuvres de Descartes: étude historique (1910), was published as part of the above-mentioned edition of complete works. See also Gustave Cohen, Écrivains français en Hollande dans la première moitié du XVIIe siècle (1920, reprinted 1976); Cornelia Serrurier, Descartes: l’homme et le penseur (1951; originally published in Dutch, 1930); Jack R. Vrooman, René Descartes: A Biography (1970); Jonathan Rée, Descartes (1974); and Leon Pearl, Descartes (1977).


Descartes’s philosophical doctrine is studied in many works, beginning with his contemporaries and continuing into present-day scholarship. See Benedictus de Spinoza, The Principles of Descartes’ Philosophy, trans. from Latin by Halbert Hains Britan (1905, reprinted 1974); Henri Gouhier, Les Premières pensées de Descartes: contribution à l’histoire de l’anti-Renaissance, 2nd ed. (1979), and La Pensée métaphysique de Descartes, 4th ed. (1987); Jean Laporte, Le Rationalisme de Descartes (1950); Geneviève Rodis-Lewis, L’ OEuvre de Descartes, 2 vol. (1971); Maxime Leroy, Descartes: le philosophe au masque (1929); Norman Kemp Smith, New Studies in the Philosophy of Descartes: Descartes as Pioneer (1952, reprinted 1987); Willis Doney (ed.), Descartes: A Collection of Critical Essays (1967); Anthony Kenny, Descartes: A Study of His Philosophy (1968, reprinted 1987); and Ferdinand Alquié, Descartes, new ed. (1969), in French; Hiram Caton, The Origin of Subjectivity: An Essay on Descartes (1973); Margaret Dauler Wilson, Descartes (1978, reprinted 1982); E.M. Curley, Descartes Against the Skeptics (1978); Nicolas Grimaldi, L’Expérience de la pensée dans la philosophie de Descartes (1978); Bernard Williams, Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry (1978); Michael Hooker (ed.), Descartes: Critical and Interpretative Essays (1978); John Cottingham, Descartes (1986); Peter J. Markie, Descartes’s Gambit (1986); Willis Doney (ed.), Eternal Truths and the Cartesian Circle: A Collection of Studies (1987); Geneviève Rodis-Lewis (ed.), Méthode et métaphysique chez Descartes (1987); Gregor Sebba, The Dream of Descartes, ed. by Richard A. Watson (1987); and Theo Verbeek (ed.), La Querelle d’Utrecht: René Descartes et Martin Schoock (1988).Descartes’s theology and ontology are explored in Etienne Gilson, Études sur le rôle de la pensée médiévale dans la formation du système cartésien, 4th ed. (1975); Henri Gouhier, La Pensée religieuse de Descartes, 2nd rev. ed. (1972); J.-R. Armogathe, Theologia cartesiana: l’explication physique de l’Eucharistie chez Descartes et dom Desgabets (1977); Martial Guéroult, Descartes’ Philosophy Interpreted According to the Order of Reasons, 2 vol. (1984–85; originally published in French, 1953); and Jean-Luc Marion, Sur la théologie blanche de Descartes: analogie, création des vérités éternelles et fondement (1981), Sur l’ontologie grise de Descartes: science cartésienne et savoir aristotélicien dans les Regulae (1975), and Sur le prisme métaphysique de Descartes: constitution et limites de l’onto-théo-logie dans la pensée cartésienne (1986). For Descartes the scientist and mathematician, see J.F. Scott, The Scientific Work of René Descartes (1952, reprinted 1987); Stephen Gaukroger (ed.), Descartes: Philosophy, Mathematics, and Physics (1980); Desmond M. Clarke, Descartes’ Philosophy of Science (1982); Geneviève Rodis-Lewis (ed.), La Science chez Descartes (1987); and William R. Shea, The Magic of Numbers and Motion: The Scientific Career of René Descartes (1991). Interpretative studies of Descartes’s separate works include René Descartes, Discourse de la méthode, text and commentary by Etienne Gilson, 6th ed. (1987); Jean-Marie Beyssade, La Philosophie premiére de Descartes: le temps et la cohérence de la métaphysique (1979); Henri Gouhier, Descartes: essais sur le “Discours de la méthode,? la métaphysique et la morale, 3rd ed. (1973); L.J. Beck, The Metaphysics of Descartes: A Study of the Meditations (1965, reprinted 1979); Alexander Sesonske and Noel Fleming (eds.), Meta-meditations (1965); Frederick Broadie, An Approach to Descartes’ Meditations (1970); Harry G. Frankfurt, Demons, Dreamers, and Madmen: The Defense of Reason in Descartes’s Meditations (1970, reprinted 1987); Richard B. Carter, Descartes’ Medical Philosophy: The Organic Solution to the Mind-Body Problem (1983); and Amélie Oksenberg Rorty (ed.), Essays on Descartes’ Meditations (1986).


Gregor Sebba, Bibliographia Cartesiana: A Critical Guide to the Descartes Literature, 1800–1960 (1964), is an informative bibliography covering biographical and doctrinal books and articles. See also Vere Chappell and Willis Doney (eds.), Twenty-Five Years of Descartes Scholarship, 1960–1984: A Bibliography (1987).

Richard A. Watson

Copyright © 1994-2002 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.


Encylopedia Britannica 2002, Expanded Edition DVD

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article
Wikipedia article

Published in: on January 18, 2012 at 10:20 pm  Leave a Comment  


1. The relation of Descartes to the philosophy of Enlightenment
In France and in England, all the philosophical thoughts from the middle of 17th century through the 18th century were under Descartes’s influences.
Fontenelle (1657-1757)
The admirer of Descartes’ physics and his radical rationalism threatened the Christianity and the established Church. Fontenelle’s philosophy did not accept the Cartesian spiritualism and overemphasized the positive elements of the Cartesian philosophy. Thus, Fontenelle merely criticized the Ancient oracles as superstition, but this was immediately applied to the miracles of Christianity.
Bayle (1647-1706)
Starting with the Cartesian rationalism, Bayle considered that to believe in Christianity means to abandon Reason and the human rationality and to surrender to the miraculous phenomena. The opposition between philosophy (rationalism) and religion set up by Bayle created an anti-religious movement against Christianity as well as prepared for the development of the 18th Century philosophy.
The Enlightenment Movement in France is a synthesis of the Cartesian philosophy of the mechanistic understanding of nature and the British Empiricism.
In the 17th century, British philosophers such as Bacon, Hobbes and Locke came to France and were strongly influenced by the French Philosophies. In the 18th century, the French philosophers visited England and were strongly influenced by the British Empiricism and advocated empiricism rather than idealism in France upon their return.

Published in: on January 18, 2012 at 10:14 pm  Leave a Comment  

sociedad del siglo XVII en tiempos de Descartes

(FRagmento) Sí, en el período comprendido entre 1601 y 1700 todavía mucha gente creía que la Tierra era el centro del Universo. Y que todos los cuerpos celestes giraban alrededor. La gente creía en la astrología, que aún no estaba muy separada de la astronomía, y la química apenas se diferenciaba de la alquimia. La evolución del ser humano no tenía otra alternativa que el creacionismo bíblico. Esas cosas ni siquiera se discutían. Sin embargo, es en este siglo donde se da el gran salto hacia la modernidad, hacia el principio de lo que hoy es la ciencia. Es un siglo de mentes brillantísimas e ilustres, en todos los ámbitos. No corresponden a un movimiento filosófico homogéneo, son más individualistas que los renacentistas, pero comienzan a plantearse el mundo sobre bases firmes. El Renacimiento había traído el fin de las viejas estructuras, de una sociedad teocrática, totalmente regida por la Iglesia. Al poner una nueva visión del mundo con acento especial en el ser humano, deja también un gran vacío. Si nada se puede explicar tan fácilmente por la fé, entonces, cuáles es la real interpretación de la naturaleza? Es por eso que en este siglo comienza a funcionar el motor de los grandes cerebros, hacia la fundación de los cimientos de la ciencia. Descartes, Galileo, Leibnitz, Hume, Torricelli, Sir Isaac Newton, son sólo algunos de los nombres que comenzarán a revolucionar el mundo del conocimiento moderno. Es un siglo en el que todo se plantea de nuevo: las formas adquieren más elaboración, más detalles. Nace el barroco, en música y en arquitectura. El hombre comienza a dar sus primeros más importantes pasos en la comprensión de su universo. Ahora, guiados por un principio básico: la confianza en la Razón humana.

Published in: on January 18, 2012 at 10:04 pm  Leave a Comment  

filosofía moderna, conceptos básicos


Una “filosofía moderna”, que cubre lo que los historiadores llaman la Edad Moderna (desde 1.492 hasta 1.789). Esta filosofía es, en primer lugar, el heredero del pensamiento antiguo de muchas maneras. Los escritores modernos están lejos de haber roto todas las relaciones con la filosofía de los antiguos, que conocían perfectamente el contrario, a veces prestado su vocabulario. Por otro lado, los modernos a menudo han diseñado su propio trabajo como una mejora de lo que los filósofos de la antigüedad ya había hecho, que a veces les llevó a oponerse a ellos.
Este deseo de volver a la filosofía de los antiguos parece mejorar, desde el Renacimiento, a través del movimiento humanista. Se continúa en el siglo XVII, cuando la ciencia moderna surgió, y donde los grandes filósofos a menudo se aprenden en la ciencia (Descartes, Pascal, Leibniz), es entonces los principales enfoques de conocimiento que distinguen a los dos las principales tendencias que son el racionalismo (Descartes, Leibniz) y el empirismo (Hume, Locke). Durante el mismo período, la expansión de la filosofía política moderna, empezando por el hombre tal cual es y no lo que debería ser (Maquiavelo, Hobbes, Spinoza).
Pero también incluye la filosofía moderna, desde finales del siglo XVII, la Ilustración, que se adjunta a disipar las tinieblas del oscurantismo y la ignorancia por el triunfo de la razón y educar a la gente, especialmente a través del proyecto enciclopédico (en Alembert, Diderot), sino también por la elaboración de una filosofía política que hace hincapié en la democracia, la tolerancia y la soberanía del pueblo (Spinoza, Locke, Rousseau Voltaire). Esto creará la filosofía política del liberalismo y el republicanismo.
El Renacimiento [editar]

Published in: on January 18, 2012 at 9:43 pm  Leave a Comment  

contexto de Descartes


La modernité philosophique et le projet moderne

par Martin Godon, du cégep du Vieux Montréal


Au XVIIe siècle, on assiste à divers bouleversements dans le monde de la pensée. On remet alors en question les autorités du passé ainsi que la tradition. Dans ce contexte, les croyances religieuses et les superstitions prennent une nouvelle dimension. Désormais, elles ne concernent que la vie personnelle. En conséquence, les dogmes de la foi n’ont plus à intervenir dans le cadre du développement de la pensée. Cette révolution est le fruit d’un lent et long processus qui s’amorce dès la fin du Moyen Âge, s’accélérant et se précisant à la Renaissance, et il conduit certains penseurs modernes à s’opposer à ceux qui veulent rester fidèles aux idéaux du passé.

Principales caractéristiques

Chronologiquement, l’époque moderne succède à la Renaissance. Le mot « moderne » vient du latin modernus et signifie : qui est récent. L’attitude intellectuelle qui caractérise la pensée moderne joue encore un rôle dominant dans notre société. Mais la modernité est tout d’abord un phénomène de civilisation caractérisé par une révolution intellectuelle majeure, elle-même stimulée par un développement technologique sans précédent. Les progrès du transport, l’apparition de l’imprimerie et l’urbanisation vont faciliter la circulation des connaissances. Dès lors, la référence à la tradition va prendre un sens nouveau. Ainsi, les penseurs modernes vont jusqu’à s’opposer explicitement aux idées religieuses ou traditionnelles qui dominaient à l’époque précédente.

Ouvert à la nouveauté, on tente alors de construire une représentation du monde à partir de nouveaux fondements, de nouveaux paradigmes (paradigme: modèle). Par exemple, on abandonne la représentation géocentrique du cosmos (Système de Ptolémée) pour une construction héliocentrique de l’univers (N. Copernic). Bref, la terre n’est plus le centre du monde.

Les progrès technologiques qui caractérisent la naissance de la modernité vont également favoriser la transformation de la vie économique, sociale et politique. Graduellement, une économie industrielle va se développer. Cette forme de production et de distribution s’inspire d’une des principales valeurs de la pensée moderne : l’efficacité. Sur le plan proprement philosophique, la notion relativement nouvelle d’individu rationnel et autonome, affirmant de plus en plus sa liberté de conscience (Luther) et d’action face au féodalisme religieux d’abord, politique ensuite, constitue un terreau favorable à la vision industrielle et capitaliste du monde.

La pensée moderne va trouver de nouveaux fondements dans ces valeurs d’efficacité technique et instrumentale et de liberté. Elle va notamment valoriser particulièrement les pouvoirs de notre raison. C’est donc en elle-même que la pensée moderne va trouver les nouveaux fondements métaphysiques qu’elle cherche. Cela signifie qu’on attribue à la subjectivité un rôle fondamental dans le processus de la connaissance. Autrement dit, la vérité ne correspond plus ni à une révélation divine ou mystique, ni à une croyance très ancienne. Dorénavant, on admet comme vérité uniquement ce qui peut faire l’objet d’un examen critique par la raison, par suite d’une démonstration strictement rationnelle. Le concept de modernité philosophique désigne cette nouvelle manière de penser ainsi que la nouvelle hiérarchie de valeur qui en découle. On peut donc dire de cette époque qu’elle est l’ère de la raison triomphante.

Qu’on pense à René Descartes (1596-1650), Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), John Locke (1632-1704), Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), David Hume (1711-1776) et bien d’autres encore, les philosophes modernes sont préoccupés à un très haut degré par le sens de leur démarche et par la rigueur et l’exactitude de leur système. Dans ce contexte, les mathématiques puis les sciences de la nature vont souvent monopoliser les énergies. Les modernes croient, parfois aveuglément, au pouvoir libérateur de la science. Voilà pourquoi c’est à cette dernière qu’on va demander de produire une société d’individus libres de toutes contraintes.

La raison

Parce qu’ils ne tiennent plus compte de la révélation, de la foi et de la croyance religieuse comme critère de vérité, les penseurs modernes ne considèrent plus l’univers comme un monde rempli de mystères insondables. Concrètement, la pensée moderne n’accepte que les explications qui sont rationnelles. Cette autonomie de la raison constitue la principale caractéristique de la pensée moderne. Le monde n’est plus une structure sacrée, mais une réalité intelligible dont on peut découvrir les lois par une observation rigoureuse et méthodique. Bref, on croit que l’univers obéit à des lois rationnelles. C’est-à-dire que les lois qui déterminent la nature sont conformes aux lois qui déterminent la pensée. Par ailleurs, les penseurs modernes considèrent que chaque être humain possède la capacité de raisonner. Toute personne, en principe, peut donc comprendre les lois qui gouvernent la nature. Pour cela, il suffit de se donner la peine de réfléchir rationnellement, de bien conduire sa raison pour trouver quelque vérité, comme dit Descartes.

Puisque chaque individu possède la capacité de raisonner convenablement, les penseurs modernes vont croire que tous les humains sont égaux. En conséquence, ils vont inviter chaque humain à se servir de sa pensée afin de se libérer du pouvoir de toute forme d’autorité arbitraire. Par sa raison, l’individu possède donc une dignité qui lui est propre et en vertu de laquelle on ne lui demande plus d’être immolé au profit de puissances qui le dépassent. Pour le penseur moderne, le moi (ou encore l’individu ou la subjectivité) et tout ce qui s’y rattache prend donc une valeur primordiale, presque sacrée.

Cependant, il ne faut pas croire que les intellectuels modernes ont inventé la raison ou la rationalité. Il ne faut pas oublier que depuis leur naissance, la philosophie et les sciences favorisent la pensée rationnelle. Mais, soit la raison était un outil parmi d’autres, soit la raison obéissait, du moins en partie, à d’autres principes que les siens propres. Ce qui est distinctif de la pensée moderne c’est l’invention d’une nouvelle attitude intellectuelle selon laquelle la raison obéit exclusivement à des règles qu’elle s’est données elle-même en toute rigueur dans le but d’établir des liens indubitables entre les causes et les effets observables dans la nature ou entre les idées et les réalités auxquelles elles correspondent. On nomme cette attitude intellectuelle le rationalisme et il va susciter un grand enthousiasme pour toute une catégorie de penseurs. Le rationalisme conduit le penseur à chercher des certitudes qui peuvent être expliquées rationnellement hors de tout doute, tandis que dans les siècles passés, les penseurs cherchaient souvent, tant par l’usage de la raison que par d’autres outils, des vérités révélées de type interprétatif.

Pour le rationalisme cartésien, la nature est uniquement composée de matière et elle fonctionne comme une machine, c’est-à-dire que l’univers est strictement régi par des forces mécaniques qui sont également soumises aux lois de la raison. On peut dire que la raison semble avoir pris possession de tout dans l’univers tel qu’il est conçu par les rationalistes. Ceux-ci découvrent aussi que les lois de la nature peuvent être exprimées en langage mathématique. Autrement dit, on prend conscience que la matière et les forces mécaniques à l’œuvre dans la nature sont mesurables. Ainsi, grâce aux mathématiques on va pouvoir lire le grand livre de la nature.

Le projet moderne

Nicolas Copernic (1473-1543), Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), Isaac Newton (1642-1723), Galilée (1564-1642) et tous les scientifiques modernes cherchent à comprendre l’univers dans un but bien précis. Il s’agit de devenir, selon l’expression de Descartes, maître et possesseur de la nature par l’usage de la raison, cela afin d’améliorer le sort des êtres humains. On peut parler du projet moderne : par le progrès des sciences et des arts, les penseurs modernes souhaitaient libérer l’humain de ses souffrances et de ce qui l’aliène. On influence donc le développement des forces productives en vue d’une domination des phénomènes naturels par la science et la technique. Les philosophes et les scientifiques modernes croyaient que ce développement du savoir et de la technologie devait nécessairement produire une amélioration de nos conditions sociales et politiques. Le projet moderne est donc à la fois philosophique, scientifique et sociopolitique. Ce désir de libération grâce aux bienfaits de la science et de la technologie donne lieu à un renouveau scientifique sans précédent. Trois éléments caractérisent ce renouveau :

a) Un travail d’observation méthodique : afin de comprendre et de dominer la nature, il faut travailler avec rigueur, ce qui signifie l’observation méthodique des phénomènes naturels. S’ajoute à cela la validation des théories et des hypothèses par un travail méticuleux d’expérimentation. L’exactitude des conceptions théoriques doit permettre de dominer tout processus naturel ou social qui asservit l’être humain.

b) L’unité des sciences : par l’usage commun des mathématiques, les scientifiques modernes envisagent les sciences comme un arbre. Ainsi, puisque les sciences partagent le même langage, on en vient à imaginer un ordre hiérarchique des sciences et des connaissances, les mathématiques constituant le tronc auquel se rattachent les branches des diverses sciences.

c) Des progrès et inventions multiples : grâce à l’observation méthodique et un travail rigoureux, on assiste à de nombreuses découvertes théoriques qui vont souvent conduire à diverses inventions pratiques ayant pour but d’améliorer le sort de la condition humaine. Ici s’incarne l’idée maîtresse du projet moderne, celle d’un « Progrès Libérateur ». Dans ce contexte, l’efficacité et la productivité sont des valeurs extrêmement positives. Les penseurs modernes ne concevaient pas le côté déshumanisant que l’on attribue souvent à ces valeurs aujourd’hui.

Il ne faut surtout pas oublier que c’est l’usage rigoureux de la raison qui seul peut rendre possible ce progrès libérateur. On utilise désormais le concept de rationalité instrumentale pour désigner cette attitude de la pensée qui est exclusivement orientée vers le développement technoscientifique.


Finalement, la modernité va transformer la vie politique occidentale. Puisque tous sont aptes à se servir de leur raison, tous doivent avoir le droit de s’exprimer et doivent se partager les rênes du pouvoir. Les modernes vont donc, peu à peu, essayer de remplacer les formes de pouvoir fondées sur la violence et l’arbitraire par la démocratie.

Dans presque toutes les activités scientifiques, artistiques et intellectuelles de cette époque, on va assister à une lutte féroce entre ceux qui défendent les traditions et ceux qui font la promotion des idées nouvelles. Cette opposition a culminé en littérature dans ce que les historiens ont appelé la querelle des Anciens et des Modernes. Du côté des Anciens on compte Nicolas Boileau (1636-1711), Jean de Lafontaine (1621-1695), Jean Racine (1639-1699), Jean de La Bruyère (1645-1696), tandis qu’on peut classer Charles Perrault (1628-1703), Thomas Corneille (1625-1709) et Fontenelle (1657-1757) dans le rang des Modernes.

Sommairement, on peut dire que l’ère moderne s’achève au début du vingtième siècle. Cependant, dès le début du dix-neuvième siècle, des philosophes vont rejeter le projet moderne. Durant le vingtième siècle, les critiques vont devenir de plus en plus radicales. Ceux qu’on nomme parfois les penseurs postmodernes vont chercher à montrer que si la pensée rationnelle a produit le progrès promis, en revanche, ce progrès ne s’est pas avéré libérateur; que la raison ne peut pas être totalement fiable, digne de confiance; que la pensée moderne a rendu notre monde terne et gris, qu’elle est donc responsable du désenchantement du monde.

© CVM, 2003

Published in: on January 18, 2012 at 9:37 pm  Leave a Comment