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René Descartes

Wednesday 7 September 2005

René Descartes is perhaps the single most important thinker of the European Enlightenment. At an age most people graduate from college nowadays, he quietly and methodically went about tearing down all previous forms of knowledge and certainty and replaced them with a single, echoing truth: Cogito, ergo sum , "I think, therefore I am." From that point onwards in European culture, subjective truth would hold a higher and more important epistemological place than objective truth, skepticism would be built into every inquiry, method would hold a higher place than practice, and the mind would be separated from the body.

In his book, Discourse on Method , Descartes outlines his skepticism, his method for inquiring into the truth, and his arrival at his famous conclusion (called the cogito, after the first word in the Latin sentence). However, these achievements obscure the crucial role Descartes played in practically every other area of the Enlightenment. Descartes was a pretty smart fellow who established several patterns for modern Europe to follow: he laid down the idea that the thinking mind was somehow more real than the body in which it is housed (this is called the Cartesian mind-body split); he established that emotions were due to the overall nature of the character of the individual—called Cartesian affect (i.e., emotion) theory: this would become the basis of things like music education, which attempted to develop the character by producing certain emotions in students, a kind of Beethoven emotion work-out; he established the supremacy of the observer over the things he observed.

Born in 1596, Descartes studied under Jesuits, who stressed the method of acquiring knowledge over everything else, even the content itself—unlike other universities which stressed the rote memorization of a massive amount of classical and scientific material. This gave rise to Descartes’s life-long obsession with how knowledge is acquired rather than the substance of knowledge itself. Over the course of his career, he wrote on Optics, on Passions of the Soul, and on the human body. But his first and best love was the basic principles of philosophy: How do we know things to be true? How do we distinguish the false from the true? He wrote on this subject over and over again in works like the Meditations on the First Philosophy and The Search for Truth .

However, his most famous and influential treatise on the matter was the roughly sketched and quickly-written Discourse on Method , intended to be a quick and dirty summary of the philosophy spelled out in detail in the Meditations . In the Discourse , Descartes lays out all the essential ingredients of Cartesianism: In the first part, he describes how he arrived at a radical skepticism. Suppose the entire world and universe were a lie created by the devil: how could you prove that what you see around you is not a lie? How could you prove that various mathematical truths are indeed true and not some satanic fraud? Descartes finds that when he investigates all the human sciences, he can’t prove them to be true against the objection that they might be false. So, he quite literally stops believing in everything, which he outlines in Part II of the Discourse; he refuses to accept anything that might be false. He is, as he says in Part II, going to tear down everything in order to rebuild a more solid structure on which to base his thinking. In Part III, he describes the problems this entails: if you stop believing in everything, including mathematics, how do you live your life? So he sets up some provisionary rules: if you can’t be sure that anything is true, then you should accept for the time being what the people around you believe, especially in the field of morals. Once you arrive at certainty, then you can reject what other people say is true, but until then, you need some system of knowledge and morality to live by.

Part IV narrates Descartes’ increasing desperation to find some certain truth upon which he can build a solid structure of certainty; while mulling over the problem, Descartes suddenly realizes that the very fact that he is thinking proves that he, Descartes, exists: Cogito, ergo sum , "I think, therefore I am." For if he didn’t exist, he wouldn’t be thinking. (Actually, Saint Augustine beat him to this realization: in Against the Academicians, Augustine proves that one can’t doubt everything because the mere fact that you’re doubting everything demands that at least one thing be true: that you exist, otherwise you wouldn’t be doubting.) From this point, Descartes can begin to prove other truths, such as the existence of God. What is so important about the cogito is that it privileges the individual over tradition (Descartes is explicitly rejecting tradition) and privileges the individual’s perception of the truth over some objective truth or some commonly shared truth. In other words, the individual subjective experience is the foundation of truth. This notion would radically transform thinking in Europe and the West up through the present day.


- Le principe de vie chez Descartes, Annie Bitbol-Hespériès, (Paris, Vrin, 1990). (Website)

- René Descartes et la médecine, Annie Bitbol-Hespériès (Le Sorbier, 1999; diffusion : éditions La Martinière) (Website)

- Descartes’ Natural Philosophy. By Stephen Gaukroger, John Schuster, John Sutton (Editors) (Routledge, August 1, 2000). ISBN: 0415219930
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- Website of Annie Bitbol-Hespériès

- Text by Richard Hooker