otwo Icon: René Descartes

 
 

The father of modern philosophy, with his revolutionary method of doubt, is iconised by Diarmaid Lawlor and Alex Court

The Pixies asked ‘Where is My Mind?’ in 1987. They weren’t the first: René Descartes beat them to it by over 300 years. An intellectual giant, he was intent on providing a philosophical foundation for the possibility of science. Working in an age when still-young science was bound to religion, he was forced to face great grief.

Descartes was born in La Haye, France on March 31, 1596 to a well-to-do family. His father was a lawyer and magistrate rather than a dad, and his mother died soon after his birth. Along with his two siblings and two half-siblings, Descartes was raised by his grandmother. He was shipped off to a Jesuit college around the age of ten, and then went on to university to get a Baccalaureate in Canon & Civil Law.

At twenty-two years old, René embarked a military career. His intellectual strength saved him from fighting. Descartes employed applied mathematics to design machines to protect soldiers in battle. It was during these years Descartes met the mathematician Isaac Beeckman, whose friendship spawned the Compendium Musicae, which worked on expressing musical ‘harmony’ in mathematical terms. Descartes later played down the influence Beeckman had on his thinking, and died before the compendium was published.

This was not the only mathematical moment in Descartes’ career: after the army he worked on connecting geometry with algebra. Arguably, without Descartes’ contribution, Isaac Newton wouldn’t have been able to develop calculus when he did. The Cartesian Coordinate System, which expressed geometric shapes in terms of algebra, was developed by and named after him.

Descartes’ precise passions encompassed the sciences. At thirty-seven years old, Descartes had written Le Monde; a compilation of writings which included, among others, Treatise on Man, Optics and Meteorology. In the year of its intended release (1633), however, Descartes heard how the Church had damned Galileo for suggesting the sun – and not God’s creation, Earth – was at the universe’s centre. Descartes had assumed the same idea in his writing and, not wanting to be imprisoned, withdrew it from publication. While aspects of the work where published posthumously, this sad state of affairs really reveals the strength of the Church during Descartes’ life.

Two years after this disappointment, Descartes fathered a baby girl, Francine, with a servant. Even though he sometimes referred to her as his ‘niece’ in letters – not wanting certain citizens to learn of his social faux-pas – other evidence suggests Descartes loved his daughter. He cared for Francine, and her mother Helene.

This contentment couldn’t last, however. Five years after her birth, Francine died. Descartes was distraught – especially when his sister and father died later that same year, 1640. Descartes refused to attend his father’s funeral –they cared little for one another.

One excuse he might have given for dodging that date was that he was too busy – obsessed by the up-coming publication of his Meditations. It is this publication which will be the most celebrated, and remains a seminal text today. It is this thesis which has landed him in even more illustrious column than the otwo Icon page.

Most important in this text is the ‘Cartesian Method’ he develops, which is one of radical doubt. In what is often referred to as the ‘Stripping Away Passage’, Descartes examines the contents of his mind – questioning without restraint or relent. Anything he cannot have absolute certainty of, he treats as brain bruscar. He “suppose[es], that everything I see is spurious…” He doubts he has hands, eyes, flesh. He doubts if he’s dreaming all the time, and questions whether he’s being tricked by an evil demon. He bravely decides he will “stubbornly and firmly persist in this meditation; and even if it is not in my power to know any truth, I shall at least do what is in my power…”

It’s through this persistence he arrives at the initial undeniable truth, cogito ergo sum: I think, therefore I am. He has rejected all that he assumed, and no longer thinks of himself as before. This move is so brilliant, because now he holds a solid foundational building brick. From this foundation, he will build up a prince’s palace, furnished with ornate, immovable truths. Anything dusty with doubt won’t be polished by a smartly-dressed butler, but thrown out the nearest French window to rot in the surrounding squalor of obscurity.

One such truth, the grand chandelier in his palace, will be that the mind must be distinct from the body. The mind for Descartes, is immaterial, thinking and concealed from public view. It is sometimes referred to as ‘soul’. The body, however, is on display to all who care to look, extended in space and affected by mechanics. It is a hotly contested view, dismissed by many, but it is undeniably innovative.

Descartes died on the 11 February 1650. He was laid to rest in Sweden, where he had been tutoring Queen Christina. Most evidence says he died of pneumonia. In just fifty-three years, he had revolutionised thinking.

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