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(La Haye, France, 1596 - Stockholm, Sweden, 1650) French mathematician and philosopher. After the splendour of ancient Greek philosophy and the apogee and crisis of Scholasticism in medieval Europe, the new airs of the Renaissance and the scientific revolution that accompanied it would result, in the 17TH century, the birth of modern philosophy.
Supposed portrait of Descartes
Descartes with the Queen Cristina of Sweden
The first of the philosophical ISMS of modernity was rationalism; Descartes, its initiator, proposed to make tabula rasa of the tradition and construct a new building on the basis of reason and the effective methodology of mathematics. Their «methodic doubt» not questioned God but quite the opposite; However, like Galileo, he had to suffer persecution because of their ideas.
René Descartes educated are in the Jesuit College of La Flèche (1604-1612), then one of the most prestigious in Europe, where it enjoyed a certain treatment of favour in view of his delicate health. Studies carried out in this Centre had a decisive importance in his intellectual formation; known turbulent youth of Descartes, no doubt in La Flèche base of their culture was based. Traces of such education manifested objective and sharply in all the philosophical ideology of the Sage.
Program of studies of that school (according to various testimonies, among which figure the same Descartes) was varied: revolved essentially around the traditional teaching of the Liberal Arts, which added notions of Theology and practical exercises useful for the life of the future gentlemen. Even if the program itself should be rather light and oriented in essentially practical sense (not intended form wise, but men prepared for high political missions to rank allowed them to suck), more active or curious students could complete them on their own through personal readings.
Years later, Descartes would bitterly criticize received education. It is perfectly possible, however, that their discontent in this regard not so much philosophical considerations about the natural reaction of a teenager who for so many years was subjected to a discipline, and the feeling of uselessness of everything I learned in relation to their possible future occupations (militia or bureaucracy). After his time at La Flèche, Descartes was awarded the title of Bachelor degree in law from the Faculty of Poitiers (1616), and at the age of twenty-two left for the Netherlands, where he served as a soldier in the army of Maurício de Nassau. In 1619 he enlisted in the ranks of the Duke of Bavaria.
As it reported the own discards in the Discourse of the method, during the harsh winter of that year found himself locked in a town in the upper Danube, possibly near Ulm; There remained locked up next to a stove and away from any social relationship, without more company than of his thoughts. In such a place, and after a strong crisis of skepticism, revealed it the foundations on which to build his philosophical system: the mathematical method and the principle of the cogito, ergo sum. Victim of a feverish excitement, during the night of November 10, 1619 had three dreams, during which sensed his method and knew its profound vocation to devote his life to science.
Supposed portrait of Descartes
After relinquishing the military life, Descartes traveled through Germany and the Netherlands and returned to France in 1622, to sell their possessions and thus ensure an independent life; He spent a season in Italy (1623-1625), and settled in Paris, where related to the majority of scientists of the time.
In 1628, he decided to settle in Holland, a country in which scientific research enjoyed great consideration and, in addition, were favored by a relative freedom of thought. Descartes considered the most favorable place to meet philosophical and scientific objectives that had been set, and resided there until 1649.
The five first years mainly dedicated to develop its own system in the world and its conception of man and of the human body. In 1633 should already have very advanced a broad text of metaphysics and physics entitled treatise on light; However, the news of the condemnation of Galileo frightened him, since Descartes also argued in that work the movement of the Earth, opinion that believed not objectionable from the theological point of view. As I was afraid that such text could contain reprehensible theories, he renounced his publication, which would take place posthumously.
His famous discourse on the method, presented as a prologue to three scientific essays appeared in 1637. By audacity and newness of concepts, the genius of the discoveries and the momentum of ideas, the book was enough to give the author an immediate and deserved reputation, but also therefore caused a flood of controversies, which henceforth would be tiring and dangerous life.
Descartes proposed in the Speech a methodical doubt, that to refer to trial all the knowledge of the time, although, unlike the skeptics, his was a doubt Search recent principles on which solidly build knowledge-oriented. This principle found him in the existence of one's consciousness that doubt, in his famous formulation 'I think, therefore I exist'. On the basis of this first evidence could partly retrace the path of their skepticism, finding the = s ultimate guarantor of the truth of the evidence of reason, which manifest themselves as "clear and distinct" ideas in God.
The Cartesian method, Descartes proposed for all sciences and disciplines, is to break down complex problems into parts progressively easier to find its basic elements, simple ideas, presented to reason in a clear way, and proceed from them, by synthesis, to rebuild the entire complex, requiring every new relationship established between simple ideas the same evidence of these. Scientific trials that followed the speech offered a compendium of his physical theories, notably his formulation of the law of inertia and a specification of their method for mathematics.
The foundations of his mechanistic physics, making the extension the main property of the material bodies, were exposed by Descartes in metaphysical meditations (1641), where he developed his demonstration of the existence and the perfection of God and the immortality of the soul, already pointed in the fourth part of the discourse on the method. The radical mechanism of physical theories of Descartes, however, determined that they were later overcome.
As grew his fame and the dissemination of their philosophy, they arreciaron the criticisms and threats of religious persecution by some academic and ecclesiastical, authorities in the Netherlands and France. Born in the middle of discussions, metaphysical meditations were earning him several allegations promoted by the theologians; something like that happened during the drafting and publishing other works their own, such as the principles of philosophy (1644), and the passions of the soul (1649).
Descartes with the Queen Cristina of Sweden
Tired of these struggles in 1649 Descartes accepted an invitation from the Queen Cristina of Sweden, who urged him to move to Stockholm as his tutor of philosophy. They had previously maintained an intense correspondence, and, despite the intellectual satisfaction that he provided Cristina, Descartes was not happy in "the country bears, where the thoughts of men appear, like water, metamorphose in ice". He was accustomed to the comforts and was not easy to get up every day at four in the morning, in the dark and cold winter gnawing you the bones, to indoctrinate a Queen who did not have more free time because of their obligations. The madrugones Spartans and cold could more than the philosopher, who died of pneumonia in early 1650, five months after their arrival.
The philosophy of Descartes
Descartes is considered the initiator of the modern rationalist philosophy by its approach and resolution of the problem of finding a foundation of knowledge that ensures its certainty, and as the philosopher who is the final breaking point with the scholastic. In the discourse on the method (1637), Descartes said that its project to develop a doctrine based on completely new principles came from disenchantment to philosophical teachings he had received.
Convinced that the entire reality responded to a rational order, its purpose was to create a method that made possible to achieve in the whole area of knowledge the same certainty that provide its arithmetic and geometry. His method, exposed in the speech, is composed of four precepts or procedures: not accept as true anything which does not have absolute certainty that is it; break down each problem in its minimal parts; go more understandable to the most complex; and, finally, completely review the process to ensure that there is no omission.
The system used by Descartes to meet the first precept and achieve certainty is «methodical doubt». According to this system, Descartes puts into question all their knowledge acquired or inherited, the testimony of the senses and even his own existence and that of the world. Now, in doubt there is something of what we can't doubt: the same doubt. Put another way, we can't doubt of that we're doubting. Thus we arrive at a first obvious and absolute certainty that we can accept as true: doubt.
I think, then I exist
The doubt, then reason Descartes, is thinking: doubt is thinking. Now, you cannot think there is. The suspension of any really concrete, the same doubt, is an act of thought which immediately implies the existence of thinking "I". Hence his famous formulation: I think, therefore I am (cogito, ergo sum). We can therefore be firmly confident of our thinking and our existence. We exist and we are a thinking, spiritual substance.
From this made Descartes all his philosophy. Since you can not rely on things whose existence has not been demonstrated, Descartes tries to splitting of thought, whose existence has already been demonstrated. Although it can refer to the outside, thought does not consist of things, but of ideas about things. The question that arises is if there are in our thought any idea or representation that we can perceive with the same «clarity» and «distinction» (the two Cartesian criteria of certainty) that we perceive as thinking subjects.
Kinds of ideas
Descartes then goes to revise all the knowledge that had previously ruled out at the start of their search. And to reconsider them observed that representations of our thinking are of three kinds: ideas "innate", like beauty or justice; "adventitious" ideas that come from outside, such as the star or horse things; (e) 'fictitious' ideas, which are mere creations of our fantasy, as for example the monsters from mythology.
«Fictional» ideas, mere sum or combination of other ideas, not obviously serve as handle. And with regard to 'adventitious' ideas, originated by our experience of foreign things, act with caution, since we are not sure there are external things. It might, says Descartes, "adventitious" knowledge, that we consider relevant to impressions of things that actually exist outside of us, had been caused by a "malignant genius" who wanted to fool us. Or what we think the reality is not more than an illusion, a dream of which we have not awakened.
Of the self to God
But considering "innate" ideas, without sensitive outer correlative, find in us a very unique idea, because it is fully away of what we are: the idea of God, a supreme being infinite, eternal, unchanging, perfect. Humans, finite and imperfect, can form ideas like "triangle" or "justice". But the idea of an infinite and perfect God can not be born of an individual finite and imperfect: has necessarily been placed in the minds of men by the same Providence. Therefore, God exists; and being as it is a perfect being, cannot deceive or delude ourselves, or allow the existence of a "malignant genius» who fooled us, making us believe that it is real to a world that does not exist. The world, therefore, also exists. The existence of God thus ensures the possibility of a true knowledge.
This demonstration of God's existence is a variant of the ontological argument, already employed in the 12th century by Saint Anselmo de Canterbury, and she was harshly attacked by the adversaries of Descartes, who accused him of falling into a vicious circle: the criteria of clarity and distinction are used to prove the existence of God and thus to ensure knowledge of the outside world , but the reliability of such criteria is justified also by the existence of God. Such a criticism aims not only to the validity or invalidity of the argument, but also to the fact that Descartes does not seem to apply at this point its own methodology.
RES cogitans and res extensive
Admitted the existence of the external world, Descartes goes to examine what is the essence of beings. Please enter here your concept of substance, which is defined as what «exists in such a way that you only need himself to exist». Substances manifested through their modes and attributes. They attributes are properties, or essential qualities that reveal the identification of the substance, i.e., are those properties without which a substance would be such substance. Modes, on the other hand, are not properties or qualities essential, but merely accidental.
The attribute of the bodies is the extension (a body can not lack of extension, if you lack of it it is not a body), and all other determinations (color, shape, position, movement) are only modes. And the attribute of the spirit is the thought, because the spirit 'always thinks'. There is, therefore, a thinking substance (res cogitans), devoid of extension and whose attribute is thinking, and a substance that makes up the physical bodies (wide res), whose attribute is the extension, or, if you prefer, the three-dimensionality, quantitatively measurable in a space of three dimensions. Both are completely separate and mutually irreducible. It is what is called the Cartesian "dualism".
To the extent that the substance of the matter and bodies is the extension, and that this is observable and measurable, it must be possible to explain their moves and changes by mathematical laws. This leads to the mechanistic view of nature: the universe is like a huge machine whose performance we can get to know through the study and discovery of the mathematical laws governing it.
The communication of substances
The radical separation between matter and spirit is applied rigorously, in principle, to all beings. Thus, animals are more than complex machines. However, Descartes makes an exception when it comes to the man. Since it is composed of body and soul, and as body material and extensive (wide res), and the thinking and spiritual soul (res cogitans), should be among them an absolute isolation.
However, in the Cartesian system does not, but that the soul and body communicate among themselves, not to the classic mode, but in a unique way. The soul is seated in the pineal gland, located in the brain, and from there ruled the body as «the nauta governs the ship» by animal spirits, intermediates between spirit and body by way of fine particles of blood, transmitting orders of the soul to the body. Solution of Descartes was not satisfactory, and the so-called problem of communication of substances would be long discussed by later philosophers.
So by not having successfully defined the notion of substance as by franco dualism established between two substances, Descartes raised the fundamental problems of 17TH-century European speculative philosophy. Understood as strict and closed system, Cartesian philosophy was not excessive followers and lost its validity in a few decades. However, Cartesian philosophy became point of reference for many thinkers, a few times to try to resolve the contradictions that locked up, as did the Rationalist thinkers, and others to rebut it frontally, as the empiricists.
Thus, the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Baruch Spinoza Dutch established forms of psycho-physical parallelism to explain the communication between body and soul. Spinoza, in fact, went further, and said that there was a single substance, which included in itself the order of things and ideas, and that the res cogitans and res wide were not but attributes, which came to Pantheism.
From a completely opposite point of view, the British empiricists John Locke and Thomas Hobbes denied that the idea of a spiritual substance would be provable; They stated that there is no innate ideas, and that philosophy should be reduced to the field of what is known by experience. The Cartesian conception of a mechanistic universe, finally, decisively influenced the genesis of classical physics, founded by Newton.
It is not too much say, in sum, that although Descartes did not resolve many of the problems raised, such problems became central issues of Western philosophy. In this sense, modern philosophy (rationalism, empiricism, idealism, materialism, phenomenology) can be considered a development or a reaction to the Cartesian philosophy.