René Descartes Facts & Worksheets

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    • Early Life and Works
    • Contribution to Philosophy
    • Atheism
    • Death and Legacy

    Key Facts And Information

    Let’s find out more about René Descartes!

    René Descartes

    René Descartes was a French mathematician, natural scientist, and philosopher best remembered for coining the phrase ‘Cogito, ergo sum’ (‘I think, therefore I am’). He wrote in physiology, cosmology, coordinate geometry, and optics, but he is best known as the ‘father of modern philosophy’. Descartes was not a direct Enlightenment participant, but his legacy would be his effect on others who made contributions to the scientific, political and social transformations that took place during this age of reason.


    • René Descartes was born on 31 March 1596 in La Haye, France. His father served as a landowner and councillor in the Brittany Parliament. Descartes began his education with the Jesuits at the College de La Flèche in the French province of Anjou when he was ten years old. Henry IV of France founded this institution, which is regarded as one of the finest in all of Europe. He studied languages, logic, ethics, maths, physics and metaphysics while he was there. Later, he would attend the University of Poitiers, where he eventually graduated in 1616 with a law degree. 
    • Despite having had what many people of his day would consider a good education, he eventually began to strongly doubt his teachers’ theories, with the exception of mathematical theories, which he thought were transparent, logical and straightforward.
    • He attended one of the most prestigious schools in Europe, but he soon developed doubts, and after making an attempt to educate himself, he soon realised what he considered to be his own ignorance. Descartes set off on a long journey that would fundamentally alter philosophy for decades to come, heavily affected by both Copernicus’ and Galileo’s theories, which both held that the sun, not the earth, was the centre of the solar system.
    • Early in the 17th century, science and philosophy in Europe underwent a significant transformation. 
    • Aristotelian philosophy and scholasticism dominated Western thought prior to Descartes’ assertion on the concept of doubt and the transition into rationalism, but science started a break from this traditional ideology to one based on an individual’s own power of reason. 
    • The old idea of empiricism, where knowledge was obtained through the senses or experience, was demonstrated to be unreliable in this new style of thinking, begun by Descartes. 
    • Science put a lot of focus on experimentation, observation and reasoning. The last of these three gave Descartes the freedom to doubt all he had been taught to believe, and inspired him to seek out the truth. 
    • He would attempt to establish his own existence by relying just on reason.
    • When Descartes enlisted to fight in the Netherlands and German armies and went across Europe, he started this search. He had an incident while stationed in the German state of Bavaria that would forever alter his life. On 10 November 1619 he took shelter to escape the cold weather in a small room that was solely heated by a ceramic furnace. 
    • He meditated all day because he didn’t have anything else to do. He had three distinct dreams one night. When he awoke, he saw these dreams as visions and realised that mathematics was the key to understanding the natural world as a whole. He questioned whether other fields of knowledge could benefit from the mathematical certainty.
    • He would spend the most of the remainder of his life in the Netherlands, a nation that provided more freedom of expression than any other in Europe, after leaving the army and out of concern for Catholic Church persecution. He started looking for a new way of thinking because the visions he had in Bavaria were keeping him up at night. The search for truth was at the heart of this new way of thinking. Descartes felt that the idea of doubt could lead to the discovery of truth.

      Principles on Philosophy
    • He would write his greatest philosophical writings between 1629 and 1649, including: 
      • Le Monde (1633), where the heliocentric theory of the solar system is defended. 
      • Discourse on Method (1637), which served as his Optics’ prologue 
      • Meditations (1641), in which he discusses his Cartesian philosophy and the existence of God. 
      • Principles of Philosophy (1644), where the connection between the body and the soul is investigated.
    • Descartes published a lot on science and maths in addition to philosophy, even though he is best known for his writings on philosophy. Le Géométrie (Geometry), Les Météores (Meteorology), La Dioptrique (Optics), and Passion of the Soul were some of these works.


    • His Meditations would change philosophical thought and introduce a new school of thought: rationalism. His Discourse laid the foundation for both his epistemology and metaphysics. Rationalists believe that reason should be used to learn about the world rather than relying on the falsity of the senses.
    • He described in his Discourse how he had to ‘reject as absolutely false everything as to which I could imagine the least ground of doubt’ throughout his own inquiry. One must put all of their beliefs to the test in this search and discard anything that doesn’t pass. Descartes emphasised the necessity to ignore experience and rely solely on the senses in his Meditations. For him, certainty is necessary for authentic knowledge or truth. There can be no place for uncertainty. One should not put too much faith in what they see or feel because their senses might be deceptive. When a stick is partly submerged in water, it seems bent.
    • Descartes explains in Meditations how he eventually came to this Cogito, which is the proof of his own existence.

    • He first used the question of doubt as a filter, subjecting all of his personal principles to it. An idea was eliminated if it couldn’t get past this filter.
    • He could build knowledge on these certainties to reconstruct knowledge after an idea had succeeded or failed. He created a set of guidelines for this search after keeping in mind that all intricate mathematical proofs include numerous phases. 
    • One must first divide a question into manageable chunks to start the procedure. Then progress gradually from the smallest and easiest to the biggest and most complicated before reviewing. 
    • Nothing that is not presented in a way that leaves no room for doubt must be accepted as true.
    • Descartes could not even be confident that he, himself, was real if he ran all of his views through this filter. We shouldn’t believe everything our senses tell us because they are susceptible to deception. He had to establish his existence by renouncing any reliance on his own senses. Even reality must ultimately be called into doubt. Can we even demonstrate our consciousness? Given how realistic some dreams may be, a person may be dreaming, or their entire existence may be a dream. Another possibility is that a person may be thought-manipulated by a wicked demon, a being that resembles a god. 
    • Descartes coined the statement ‘Cogito, ergo sum’, or ‘I think, therefore I am’, because, in the end, the only thing we can know for sure is that we exist because we are thinking.


    • Descartes expanded the scope of the issue of doubt to include both the ontological case for the existence of God and the areas eventually covered by his Cartesian dualism. He received the most of his criticism in these areas. According to Descartes, a person is made up of both their body and thought. For perception, memory, imagination and emotion, both of these are essential. 
    • However, in accordance with his concept of dualism, the body and mind are different and distinct: the body is physical and an occupant of space, whereas the mind is a thing that thinks and is not physical. Since the body is not necessary for the existence of the mind, the two cannot be the same.
    • Human rationality is predicated on the distinction between the mind and the body, which he noted in Meditations VI: ‘...there is a significant difference between mind and body, insofar as body is by nature always divisible, and the mind is totally indivisible. Since experience is what breeds the “demon” of doubt, the mind must include innate beliefs that predated experience.’
    • This was criticised by some of the time as being dangerously close to atheism. Four years after his passing, in 1663, the Holy Office of the Catholic Church prohibited the publication of four of his books. Years later, the Dutch reform theologian Gisbert Voetius attacked both his character and his Discourse on Method, branding him vain, vengeful, ‘peripatetic’, and ambitious.
    • Descartes thought that God existed and sought to prove it, even if many people have doubts about the ‘how’.
    • His ontological proof is not significantly different from those put forth by older philosophers like Anselm. 
    • Descartes understood that he was an imperfect person who was transient and limited, but he also held the idea of an infinite being who was everlasting, immortal and without flaw. 
    • This was God. He thought that since he could not have come up with the idea of God, God must already exist as a perfect creature. 
    • In contrast to a godlike demon, this God would not deceive him, thus he cannot be fooled by things that are clear to him.


    • Descartes moved to Stockholm in 1649 at the request of Queen Christina of Sweden to instruct her in philosophy. Descartes, who preferred to sleep late and had done so ever since his days at the College of de Le Flèche, was unlucky in that the Queen was an early riser. He had to get up at five in the morning for the lessons (three times a week), which proved fatal because he developed pneumonia and passed away on 11 February 1650.
    • Descartes’ remains, minus his head and one finger, would be transported from Stockholm to Paris 16 years after his death. He is buried in the St Genevieve du Mont Church cemetery in 1667. He would eventually be relocated, still lacking his skull and finger, and reinterred at the Saint-Germain-du-Pres Abbey. There is no doubt that Descartes would be remembered for his contributions to both science and philosophy, even if his remains were ultimately laid to rest and his head is rumoured to be in a museum in Paris.
    • His lifelong quest for knowledge and the truth formed a part of his legacy.

      Queen Christina and René Descartes
    • Although it had its roots in Plato’s works, this new idea of rationalism was a search for knowledge or truth using the power of reason rather than sensory input. 
    • It was a rejection of Aristotle’s widely accepted concept of empiricism and an extension of mathematical logic. 
    • This groundbreaking idea of a person seeking truth through their own capacity for reason would remain at the forefront of philosophy for more than 300 years. 
    • Descartes influenced other rationalists of his day, including Spinoza and Leibniz. 
    • Aside from philosophy, his writings would influence Newton and Leibniz in the creation of calculus, particularly in the area of geometry. 
    • Russell Shorto enumerated the impact Descartes had on future generations in his book Descartes’ Bones.