Descartes and the Scientific Revolution

My recently submitted term paper deals with Descartes and the European Scientific Revolution that helped to form his philosophies. It’s very relevant to this chapter, so I figured I’d attach it.

Descartes, Voice of a Frontier

By: Joey LoMonaco

November 12, 2010

René Descartes is widely regarded as one of the most influential modern philosophers ever. His philosophies are often seen as a transition and departure from blind acceptance of empirical knowledge to a careful, guarded skepticism of all but the most basic truths. Born in the 17th century, Descartes was thrust into a tumultuous global period of transition. The hangover of the Copernican Revolution left the European world with an abundance of scientific knowledge, knowledge that was slowly ascending to a “gold standard” status in academia. Due to discovery,  exploration, and global trade, the world at large was shrinking at an alarming rate. At this period in time perhaps more than any other, political theorists, philosophers, and other “scientists of thought” emerged from the woodwork with regularity. Descartes’ philosophies were a direct result of the developments of the European world around him, and in particular, the Scientific Revolution.

Descartes was born on March 31, 1596 in the French town of La Haye. He attended the “College Henri IV,” a prestigious center of Jesuit education in Europe at the time.  In 1616, he received baccalaureate and licentiate degrees in law at the University at Poitiers. Temporarily putting his academic career on hold, Descartes joined the army of Prince Maurice of Nassau in 1620.[1] Many believe it was during a tour of duty in Germany that he realized his ultimate academic goal: to enlist all knowledge into the neat, tidy, and orderly efficiency of the science of mathematics. Simply put, Descartes wanted to iron out the rules of knowledge.

His first work was “Rules for the Direction of Mind.” In 1637, he published his most well-known and widely-acclaimed work, “Discourse on Method,” a work that sought to adequately explain his new holistic methodology. The first three sections of the Discourse dealt with the sciences, while the fourth treatise sought to incorporate everything previous into his new system of knowledge. In 1641, Descartes published “Meditations on First Philosophy,” a piece that was unique in the fact that included were a list of objections to the presented arguments along with the author’s (Descartes’) replies to them.

Descartes hoped to see his works ultimately replace those of Aristotle and the Socratic thinkers. To that end, in 1644 he published “Principles of Philosophy”, a work that he intended to replace Aristotelian textbooks in the universities of the time. Late in his philosophical career, Descartes became fascinated with human emotions. In 1649, he published “Passions of the Soul,” a piece that described the human soul and the role of emotions in controlling human behavior. Descartes spent his later days tutoring Queen Christina of Sweden in philosophy, a post that he held until his death in 1650.[2]

One of Descartes’ primary contributions to philosophy is the concept of Cartesian Dualism. The main tenets of Cartesian Dualism are that the mind is immaterial and the body is material; the two are separate entities.[3] Descartes contested that these two separate entities, mind and body, interact with one another, causing the events that we know as existence[4]. One of the main objections to Descartes’ theory is labeled as the mind-body problem. This objection centers on the lack of evidence that interaction occurs between the mind (immaterial) and the brain and body (material). Descartes himself believed the answer to be the pineal gland, an organelle located in the brain; this has since been proven to be anatomically inaccurate.[5]

“Discourse for the Method on Conducting One’s Reasons Well and for Searching for the Truth in the Sciences” is Descartes’ most celebrated work for good reason. “Discourse” seeks to describe the method by which all knowledge can be attained. Descartes set four basic precepts or guiding rules in the quest of gaining knowledge. They are:

“To never accept anything for true which I did not clearly know to be such; that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitancy and prejudice, and to comprise nothing more in my judgment than what was presented to my mind so clearly and distinctly as to exclude all ground of doubt.

The second, to divide each of the difficulties under examination into as many parts as possible, and as might be necessary for its adequate solution.

The third, to conduct my thoughts in such order that, by commencing with objects the simplest and easiest to know, I might ascend by little and little, and, as it were, step by step, to the knowledge of the more complex; assigning in thought a certain order even to those objects which in their own nature do not stand in a relation of antecedence and sequence.

And the last, in every case to make enumerations so complete, and reviews so general, that I might be assured that nothing was omitted.”[6]

His precepts can be simplified into clarity of reason, efficiency of reason, and efficacy of reason. Descartes, unlike many other philosophers, was not simply trying to solve one problem, but rather to provide a system to solve any problem.

Perhaps the most recognizable line in any of Descartes’ work is: “Cogito Ergo Sum.” Literally translated, “I think therefore I am,” this proclamation is the only sure-fire assurance of existence. Everything else could be non-reality; he gives the example of an individual believing he is in reality, but instead is in a dream. This was a case of his senses betraying him. He presents another, albeit more fantastical scenario to the same effect. A man could believe what his senses told him to be reality, but was in fact being misled by an evil spirit[7]. This would another case of the senses, the seemingly basic bearings of human existence betraying us. At this point, Descartes states that, if we doubt our senses, we have to doubt the existence of every pre-supposed truth in the entire universe[8]. The only way we can be sure of existence is because we think; to Descartes thinking proves existence because non-existence would absolutely devoid of thought.

Philosophy is an ancient field, so much so that when Descartes began studying, he had the benefit (or disadvantage, it’s open to interpretation) of over 1,500 years of prior philosophical work to improve upon, tinker with, revise, or discard entirely. The earliest philosophers, known as the pre-Socratics, emerged as early as the fifth century B.C.E. They used various forms of the epistemological argument (assumes truths and uses them to explain the outside world) to answer questions about daily life, questions of mortality, and of larger concepts such as the universe.

The dominant school of philosophical thought when Descartes was living was that of Aristotelian philosophy. A major element of Aristotelian philosophy discusses causes, or the different elements that holistically compose an object. For example, the material cause of a table could be “wood” or “metal”, while the formal cause would be “tableness”, a concept or definition of what a table is that was ingrained in the mind of its creator when he made it.[9] All of the causes (material, formal, efficient, final) contribute to the overall composition of the example table. Descartes reconciled some aspects of Aristotle’s teaching, but believed that he relied too blindly upon faulty science.

This paper previously alludes to scientific breakthroughs, both prior and contemporary to Descartes, that influenced the development of his philosophies. This section will examine those discoveries. Nicolaus Copernicus’ development of a heliocentric model of the cosmos was the main scientific discovery that rocked the 16th century European world. The fact that the sun, not the earth is the center of the universe had dramatic philosophical and religious implications for the world. Centuries of Christian thinking that God created the Earth to be the center of the universe were reversed in a matter of months. Copernicus’ “De Revolutionibus” proposed mathematical and philosophical justification for the heliocentric model, and within 100 years came to be the standard belief system in the scientific world.[10]

Humanism was another movement that influenced the world that Descartes lived in. Dating back as far as the Middle Ages, humanism can be defined as a development of skills and advancement in knowledge for means of living a better life. It emphasized the infinite potential of man. The most important period of humanism, as far as European history is concerned, was the Italian Renaissance. Petrarch and Cicero were two of the most important figures in this movement, which emphasized reviving literary and scientific skills that had been untouched since the fall of Rome.[11] This emphasis on human potential is greatly evident in Descartes’ body of philosophical work, especially as it relates to the seeking of truth.

René Descartes changed the world; his doubt in the world of the sense paved the way for such modern philosophers as David Hume and Friedrich Nietschze. Never again would argument be viably performed epistemologically, or by using observations to create a unified theory. Descartes’ work set the standard for ontological argument, the form that seeks to first find a unified theory of everything, and then to explain the world. Descartes entered the world in an interesting time, and it was the breakneck discoveries and developments of this era that allowed him to thrive philosophically. He drew from the works of others, and would and will continue to serve as the predecessor and philosophical godfather to countless future thinkers[12]. The great philosopher John Locke believed that we are all products of environment and nurture, and there is perhaps no better example of the former than the life and works of René Descartes.

Works Cited

Bailey, Andrew. First Philosophy: Fundamental Problems and Readings in Philosophy. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2006. Print.

Boland, Vivian. St. Thomas Aquinas. London: Continuum, 2007. Print.

“Cartesian Dualism.” Philosophy – AllAboutPhilosophy.org. Web. 17 Oct. 2010. <http://www.allaboutphilosophy.org/cartesian-dualism-faq.htm>.

Descartes, René, and Donald A. Cress. Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy. Indianapolis, IA: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1998. Print.

Descartes, René, Richard Kennington, Pam Kraus, and Frank Richardson Hunt. Discourse on Method. Newburyport, MA: Focus Pub./R. Pullins Co., 2007. Print.

Era, By. “Scientific Revolution.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 17 Oct. 2010. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Scientific_Revolution>.

Gombay, André. Descartes. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2007. Print.

“Humanism” Philosophy – AllAboutPhilosophy.org. Web. 17 Oct. 2010. <http://www.allaboutphilosophy.org/humanism.htm>.

Jaspers, Karl. The Great Philosophers. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962. Print.

“The Scientific Revolution – Free Suite101 Course.” Suite101.com: Online Magazine and Writers’ Network. Web. 17 Oct. 2010. <http://www.suite101.com/lesson.cfm/17556/938/5>.


[1] René Descartes: Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy (Indianapolis, Hackett: 1998), Preface.

[2] André Gombay. Descartes. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2007), 153-158.

[3] “Cartesian Dualism” Philosophy – AllAboutPhilosophy.org. Web. 17 Oct. 2010. http://www.allaboutphilosophy.org/cartesian-dualism-faq.htm.

[4] Still a hot-button topic in the field of contemporary psychology

[5] Karl Jaspers. The Great Philosophers. (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962), 153-57.

[6] René Descartes: Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy (Indianapolis, Hackett: 1998), 18-21.

[7] An example of how Christian religion still permeates the mind of Descartes

[8] Some of Descartes’ assertions are ridiculous; denial of the senses is one thing; he goes further, verging on nihilism.

[9] Andrew Bailey. First Philosophy: Fundamental Problems and Readings in Philosophy. (Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2006), 31-48.

[10] “The Scientific Revolution – Free Suite101 Course.” Suite101.com: Online Magazine and Writers’ Network. Web. 17 Oct. 2010. <http://www.suite101.com/lesson.cfm/17556/938/5>.

9 “Humanism” Philosophy – AllAboutPhilosophy.org. Web. 17 Oct. 2010. <http://www.allaboutphilosophy.org/humanism.htm>.

[12] Examples include Hume and Nietschze

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