Rene Descartes is considered the Father of (Western) Modern Philosophy. He is famous for espousing Cartesian dualism: the view that mind and body are separate, distinct substances. He is also famous for placing human consciousness or subjectivity at the forefront of epistemology, as he did with his Cogito argument: I think therefore I am.

He is also one of the greatest scientists in history, having worked on mathematics, mechanics, optics and many other fields. As a mathematician, he has elaborated the modern concept of mathematical function, which he derived from his research on set theory (d'you remember good old Cartesian Product ?). He also discovered (among others) some of optics' fundamental laws (including the famous principle stating that "light always chooses the quickest path between two points"). Laws of refraction bear his name in many countries (you can also find them under the name of "Snell laws").

Rene Descartes' most fundamental work was his Meditations. In these he works to beat the skeptic at his own game: there is something that is knowable. The question then becomes what is truly knowable.

Is what I remember reliable?
unfortunately not. We all have memories that are wrong. At times two people can sit there arguing about the color of a shirt years ago. They can't both be right. Even our recent memories can be drawn into question.

What about what the future? Is there anything trustable there?
Still no. We are constantly surprised by what happens in daily life. How can we ever trust that something will happen?

Do I know that what I see is really there?
Nope. I see things in my dreams that are just as real as the things that I see now. I could be still dreaming. It is impossible to tell if I am dreaming or not... I could build a device that tells me if I am dreaming or not, but then, I could build that device in a dream and have it give me the wrong answer just as easily.

So, we can't trust our senses for anything that we are to know, but can we trust the basic foundations of math and logic?
Once again, nope. There could be an evil demon, or more modernly, I could be a brain in a vat. Every time I think "1+1" I get the answer "2" put into by brain by something, even though this isn't right, because "1+1" is actually "3". Though, being a brain in a vat, I can't help but think it when it is forced into my mind.

So we don't know that true is true, and "1+1" is "2", what can we know?
Despite the fact that basic logic and our senses are not reliable, there is still something that is knowable. I am thinking. From this, it is impossible for that to put into my brain sitting in a vat without having a mind. There is no way to make a person disbelieve that they exist. I think therefore I am. This is an undeniable truth. I know this. I have beaten the skeptic.

There was this stable hand, see, and his kid was doing her math homework one day while he was mucking out the stalls. But she was having a little trouble.

"Daddy," she says, "what's 128 divided by 8?"

Of course he didn't get that job for his math skills. While he's still working it out, one of the horses stomps all 4 feet 4 times each.

The little girl and the stable hand are both amazed that the horse could figure this out, let alone so quickly. Anyway, after they polish off the homework assignment, the guy decides to take the horse down to the local college and see how smart it really is.

Calculus, physics, computer science. It aces them all. By then there is a pretty large group of people following the horse around and making suggestions. Somebody asks if it knows anything but science, so they take it across the campus to the humanities building, but of course, it is after 3 and all the class rooms are empty, and most of the faculty have gone home.

While the stable hand is off looking for someone to quiz the horse, it wanders into an empty room. There on the chalkboard is written "I think, therefor I am."

The horse looks at it for a while, absorbs what it says, and then lets out this horrible whinny - almost a scream - and falls over, dead.

Of course everyone is horrified that the world's smartest horse just died in this class room, and about the time they start wondering how to get a dead horse out of a room, an old wizened, grizzled philosophy professor walks in.

He looks at the board.

He looks at the horse.

He looks at the people and says (in a thick german accent) "You fools. You utter, utter fools. You never put Des Cartes before Des Horse!"

Basic Biographical Facts
Rene Descartes was born March 31, 1596 at La Haye, near Tours, France and educated at the Jesuit school La Fleche, in Anjou. He travelled in his youth, and lived for most of his life in Holland. In the winter of 1649, he moved to Sweden at the request of Queen Christina, to become her tutor, and within a year was dead of pneumonia (February 11, 1650).

Descartes' Works, partial chronological listing
Rules for the Direction of the Mind composed 1628.

The World or Treatise on Light and Treatise on Man -- Descartes began work on these in 1629, but abandoned plans to publish them when Galileo was condemned, 1633.

Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One's Reason and Seeking the Truth in the Sciences published 1637, as a preface to the Optics, Meterology, and Geometry (separate essays). (This work is often called Discourse on Method; current scholars prefer the more accurate nickname Discourse on the Method.)

Meditations on First Philosophy published, together with first six sets of Objections and Replies, in 1641.

Principles of Philosophy published 1644

Comments on a Certain Broadsheet published, begins work on Description of the Human Body 1647

Conversation with Burman, later transcribed by Burman, occurs 1648

The Passions of the Soul published 1649

The Search for Truth by Means of the Natural Light was found unfinished at the time of Descartes' death.

Descartes also carried on a lengthy and philosophically rich correspondence with such figures as Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia, and others.

Standard Method of Citation
In the margins of most translations, and referred to in scholarly papers, you'll find AT numbers -- these refer to the page numbers as set in the 12-volume Ouvres de Descartes, edited by Ch. Adam and P. Tannery, revised edition published 1964-1976. Using these numbers, people using different editions and different translations (even in different languages) can tell each other where to find a given passage in whatever book they're using.

Standard Editions of Descartes' Works
Descartes wrote in both French and Latin. If you're reading Descartes seriously, it's crucial to use a good translation of his work, as important details can be obscured or entirely deleted in a sloppy translation. The standard English translation of Descartes' philosophical works is the excellent translation by John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch (it is generally referred to as CSM), published by Cambridge in 1985. This supercedes the previous standard edition, translated by Elisabeth Haldane and G. R. T. Ross (referred to as HR) and published by Cambridge in 1911. Complete citations for these:

The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, 3 vols.; tr. Cottingham, Stoothoff, Murdoch; Cambridge 1985.
The Philosophical Works of Descartes; tr. Haldane, Ross; Cambridge 1911 (reprinted 1931).

My chronology, above, is largely drawn from the CSM volume.

René Descartes, born on the 31st of March in 1596 in La Haye, Tourraine in France. (Since then the town has been renamed Descartes, France). His father, Joachim Descartes, had connections south of La Haye in the Poitou region where he worked and owned property.

René inherited a low level of nobility because his father was a counselor in the Parliament of Brittany in Renees. However, René’s mother died when he was only one year old. His father went off to Rennes, leaving him behind, to marry another wife. René was brought up by his grandmother, a nurse, and possibly his great uncle, Michael Catholic, as well.

At the age of 10, René was sent to a Jesuit college in La Flèche which was created only two years earlier by King Henry IV. René was joined by about 1,200 other young men training in governmental and judicial studies as well as military engineering. Descartes studies everything from the basic academic subjects such as science, classical studies, and metaphysics to acting, music, poetry, and fencing. Descartes first teacher of philosophy was Father François Véron, who became known later on as the scourge of the Protestants.

Descartes spent a part of his life and major work residing in the Netherlands. In 1692, he traveled to the University of Franeker during which time he wrote the first draft to his Meditations. In 1630, he moved on to the University of Leiden and shortly after in 1631 he went to Denmark.

For about two years starting in 1633, he worked with an alchemist Étienne de Villebressieu in Germany. Villebressieu’s work included such inventions as a portable bridges, “siege engines”, and stretchers with two wheels. By 1639, Descartes views were being taught at the University of Utrecht, and caused a bitter dispute with a theologian by the name of Gisbertus Voetius, eventually even causing Descartes to seek protection from friends in high places.

Besides Meditations, Descartes came out with his Discours de la méthode, or Discourse on the Method. He wrote it in French, as opposed to the traditional Latin, because he intended it for reading and understanding by everyone, allowing them to better use their reason and think for themselves. Descartes thought that everybody had the ability to discern truth from untruth through reason.

He had written other works such as Le Monde, discussing the physical theory of the universe (which he decided against publishing for fear of conflicting with the views of the Church), as well as Principia Philosophiae, which explored much of the physical science in 1644. In 1647, the French court honored him with a pension for his discoveries and works. The Queen invited him to Sweden in 1649, but only for him to die from pneumonia only a few months afterwards.

Descartes’ approach to epistemology was very instrumental in the way modern philosophy took shape. Epistemology is defined as the science of the study of knowing, and it concerned with knowledge, relations between the one who knows and the object known, as well as the degree of which one can know, and more about perception and knowing. There are two major types of epistemological positions, empiricism and rationalism. Empiricists put truth of knowledge into the person doing the perceiving and Rationalists indicate that the truth is in the object being perceived and in it’s essence, or substance. René Descartes was a realist and rationalist. He believed that the basis of one’s knowledge was deductive reasoning, and the truth of an object was absolute, or contained within the object, and was not subject to the perceiver. His works were based on his rationalistic views, on how the truth of the object was definite. Rationalism sometimes came in conflict with the Church, and thus he refrained from publishing some of his works and ideas because of this.

Descartes is also the philosopher who developed the overused Latin statement “Cogito ergo sum,” or ‘I think therefore I am.’ His rationalistic views show through because he attempts not to prove the existence of one’s self through sense experience but through reasoning. His logic is flawed however, because Descartes presupposes the “I”, in “I think.”

Descartes' God position is based on a concept of his called the Cartesian Circle. His arguments are impeded by some type of doubt, because certainty is essential to his system here. Descartes made arguments to show that the “author or his being” didn’t construct him to perceive improperly or defectively. These arguments were part of his work, Meditations. The two main parts of this Cartesian Circle are as follows:

  • I am certain that God exists only because I am certain of whatever I clearly and distinctly perceive
  • I am certain of whatever I clearly and distinctively perceive only because I am certain that God exists.

Descartes also argued that if a God existed, that God would not have “equipped” him with faulty senses to perceive incorrectly, thus Descartes posits that he can be certain of what he clearly and distinctly perceived, thus he can be certain that God exists. However, if God does not exist then there would have been no God to construct Descartes with the proper empirical senses. Descartes had difficulty arguing and working with the Cartesian Circle, because it was, in a sense, a non-ending (or circular) argument.

René Descartes’ work and philosophy created an interesting and lasting effect on the way modern philosophy would develop. I believe that Descartes raised some valid points, but his theories also had faults. The Cartesian Circle, while very arguable, cannot achieve any result, because each of the two statements are dependent on the latter being true. Without the means to prove either on, per se, to be true, neither statement can be verified. Descartes’ theories often only applied when a conditional, or if, had been met (Such as being able to perceive correctly). This leads me to believe that Descartes contributions helped fuel modern philosophy, but were not the end all to explain what he attempted to define.


  • “Descartes Epistemology”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  • Muscalino, Fr. Daniel. Lecture Notes. Bishop Ludden, New York. 2000.
  • Descartes, René, “Mediatations on First Philosophy”. 1641.
  • “Descartes, René”. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.,5722,115145,00.html
Barely a week goes by when a Descates-related writeup isn't seen making its way through the ENN. Seems a lot of noders have read and studied his stuff. So it's about time there was a

Rene Descartes Metanode


Meditations on First Philosophy:

Comment nodes, in roughly the same order as the Meditations:

Descartes' philosophical scepticism
The Method of doubt
Truman Burbank, Neo Anderson, and Rene Descartes

The Cogito:
Cogito ergo sum
I think therefore I am
Why Descartes should be Resurrected and then Shot
cogito cogito ergo cogito sum

Existence of God:
ontological argument
The Cartesian Argument for the Existence of God

The existence of objects:
God is not a deceiver
Descartes on truth, falsity, and the faculties of the mind
Decartes' proof of the existence of the corporeal world

The Real Distinction of mind and body:
the mind/body problem
Descartes' argument for Dualism
Cartesian Dualism
mind-matter dualism
Cartesian Theater
Cartesian materialism

Objections to Descartes
Descartes' Error
The Flaws in Descartes' Logic
Descartes was wrong
How Hume Would Respond to Descartes
Cartesian circle

Descartes' Mathematical stuff:
Cartesian coordinates
cartesian plane
folium of Descartes
Cartesian product
Cartesian oval
Cartesian geometry

Nothing to do with Rene Descartes:
Nailing Descartes to the Wall/(Liquid) Meat is Still Murder
alligator descartes

any other Descates nodes? Come on, msg me and let me know. You know you want to...

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