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What is the story of Descartes' life?

René Descartes' (1596-1650) father was a member of the minor nobility. His mother died when he was 13 months old, and after his father remarried he was raised by his

What was René Descartes like as a person?

It is difficult to say. In contemporary terms, Descartes would probably be considered a fearful, anxious, and self-absorbed man with social disorders. He was the only seventeenth-century philosopher who never had a patron or a secure post, and he was not independently wealthy.

Descartes moved to Holland to escape the distractions of Paris, so that he could concentrate on his work. He was secretive about his personal life and moved his household about once a year during a 20-year period. Wherever he was, he conducted experiments, sometimes getting animal organs from local butchers. One account has it that when he studied vision, he literally looked through a calf's eyes.

Descartes was greatly interested in special foods and diets, possibly as a way to prolong life or even to achieve immortality. At times he was a vegetarian—it's clear this was not for moral reasons, given his belief that animals are machines—and other times he thought that the secret lay in eggs. With a servant named Helena Jans, he had an illegitimate daughter.

While Descartes' daughter, Francine, is usually described as illegitimate by biographers, her baptism was recorded in 1635 in the Reformed Church in Deventer. Francine died at the age of five from scarlet fever, and Descartes expressed great sorrow for this loss. Descartes' motto was said to have been: "A life well hidden is a life well lived." Another version has it as: "I advance masked."

maternal grandmother. At 10 he was sent to the new Jesuit college of La Flèche in Anjou, France, and there studied the classics, history, rhetoric, and Aristotelian natural philosophy. Although he considered La Flèche an excellent school, he thought that the natural philosophy he learned there was "doubtful," mainly because it was based on scholastic abstractions that had been outdated by more recent discoveries and thought.

Descartes then took a law degree at Pottiers and set off to complete his education by travel in Europe. He wrote that he had resolved "to seek no knowledge other than that which could be found either in myself or the great book of the world." He served briefly in the army and then became friends with Isaac Beeckman (1588-1637), a Dutch philosopher and scientist who inspired him to study mathematics.

Descartes' first book, Compendium Musicae, applied mathematics to harmony and dissonance. Descartes also began work on his discovery of analytic geometry that was published in 1637.

How did René Descartes' philosophical work begin?

On November 10, 1619, Descartes spent many hours sequestered in a room-sized stove in a town in southern Germany. (Such very large stoves with shelves, places to sleep, and room to stand up in them were built in Germany and Russia, until the end of the nineteenth century.) Descartes had an epiphany as the result of three bizarre dreams, which set him on a course to create a new system for science and philosophy.

His inspiration was that, beginning with a few ideas known to be absolutely true, and careful methods of reasoning with them, the basic principles of all of the sciences could be logically derived from those ideas.

Descartes would go on to live briefly in Paris in 1628, before moving to Holland, where he was to remain for the rest of his life.

What was René Descartes' problem with the Inquisition?

Descartes never had a direct problem with the Inquisition, but he was always afraid of Church authorities, and at the same time he wanted their approval. His book on cosmology and physics, which was in accord with both atomism and Copernicanism, was ready to publish, when he withdrew it after he heard of the Inquisition's condemnation of Galileo. In 1637, Descartes published his Optics, Meteorology, and Geometry that was prefaced with Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One's Reason and Reaching the Truth in the Sciences (1637). Here, Descartes developed his "doctrine of clear and distinct ideas." (An idea was clear if one could be sure about what the idea was, and distinct, if it was different from other ideas.)

He next published his Meditations on First Philosophy (1641), partly in response to criticism he had received on the The Discourse on Method (1637). The Discourse explained Descartes' new way of deriving the first principles of the sciences from a few clear and distinct ideas. The Meditations was published with a set of objections and replies from his contemporaries (including Marin Mersenne (1588-1648), Thomas Hobbes [1588-1679], and Pierre Gassendi [1592-1655]), and it went to a second edition in 1642. It was a completely original work in its claims that it was possible to be certain about the nature of physical reality and the existence of God based on certainty about one's own existence.

Descartes' pre-publication discussions led to refinements in his position that related his ideas to the intellectual concerns of his peers. From these discussions, the Meditations became one of the most famous philosophical works. Philosophers still obsess about it in the twenty-first century!

Descartes became increasingly concerned about intellectual attacks on him by papal authorities. His friends thought that he exaggerated the personal and professional dangers of these attacks, but Descartes' own ambition was tied up with his response to them. His thinking went to the heart of the Catholic Church's use of skepticism to deny the findings of the new science that contradicted Church doctrine and scripture. It was Descartes' hope that the Jesuits would approve his ideas in the Meditations and even use it as a textbook.

Descartes' next publication was Principles of Philosophy (1644), which he believed would be a masterpiece that would gain the Church's approval.

 
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