René Descartes: History & Most Notable Achievements

Widely regarded as the ‘Founder of Contemporary Philosophy,” René Descartes sought to reinvent the curriculum in science by abandoning its established fundamental principles. He developed a philosophical system that includes a method of inquiry, metaphysics, mechanical physics and biology, and an account of human psychology. The French scientist also gained recognition by rejecting the Aristotelian philosophy taught in schools as well as the authority it had on traditional philosophy.

Descartes was especially influential because he was a founder of the new analytic geometry, which merged geometry and algebra and served as a kind of model for the rest of his philosophy. The achievements of this French philosopher, scientist, and mathematician are numerous, however let’s take an in-depth look at some of these notable feats that made the French philosopher so famous.

Contributions to physical theories

He attempted to explain various phenomena on the level of physics, even coming close to the concept of Copernicus in regard to the heliocentric system, despite the fact that it was later decided that these approaches should be disregarded, primarily due to the fact that the Catholic Church by then considered them to be heresy. In a similar vein, despite the fact that many of his attempts at providing an explanation were not the most correct, he was laying the groundwork for what would eventually become one of his most significant contributions called the methodology of science.

“I Think, Therefore I Am”

Besides his nine books, René Descartes is famous for his many other writings. He made significant contributions in several fields, but his philosophy is the one that stands out the most. He shed light on how we should or may define ourselves and our beliefs. Among his many insights into philosophy and the human psyche, one particular comment stands out as very insightful: “Je pense, donc je suis” better known as “I think, therefore I am”. This is still widely regarded as one of the most influential and insightful philosophical phrases of all time.

He developed what could be termed as methodic doubt or Cartesian doubt, which highlights the need to develop a scientific process that questions the truthiness of one’s beliefs. In 1641, he published a philosophical treatise called Meditations on First Philosophy.

Descartes’s Scientific Method

The development of a scientific method was crucial in liberating the sciences from guesswork and hazy dissertations, and this trend has persisted ever since. The plan was to ensure certainty by keeping an eye on a few key procedures that took into account double-checking the reality’s facts. This stems from Descartes’s notion that the senses can mislead a human about its environment, hence a procedure leading to the truth must be used to submit all relevant factors.

He encouraged scientists to produce works grounded in observation and experiment. He believed that such methods would not be susceptible to knowledge gained from biased authority or the weakness of one’s senses.

“Discourse on the Method”

Discours de la methode by René Descartes. The book is titled as ‘Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and of Seeking Truth in the Sciences’ in English and ‘Discours de la méthode pour bien conduire sa raison, et chercher la vérité dans les sciences’ in French

René Descartes wrote about natural sciences in his work titled “Discourse on the Method.” In this work, Descartes discusses how our understanding of natural sciences ought to influence who we are and how we think, as well as how we must develop our knowledge pertaining to natural sciences in order to evolve as a species.

The French scientist is often regarded as the first man and philosopher to begin thinking autonomously of any particular perceptions or preconceived ideas. He had reiterated that the best approach to fully investigate the world is not to take the things we study at face value or as it is, but rather to doubt everything, trust nothing.

He states in his book that even in this day and age, the majority of people are content with how things are and have lost the kind of inquisitiveness that can actually enable a person to have a deeper understanding of themselves. That kind of inquisitiveness naturally causes them to question everything. After some time, this book gave rise to what came to be known as the Cartesian Law of Signs. This law made it possible for mathematicians to read the roots, both positive and negative, contained within algebraic equations.

Cartesian Geometry

Published in 1637, La Géométrie (Geometry), which is considered one of Descartes’s greatest works, is one of the appendices of Discourse on the Method.

One of Descartes’s most important achievements was the development of cartesian or analytic geometry, a method of describing geometry that makes use of algebra. He was the one who came up with the practice of representing unknown variables with the letters x, y, and z, and known values with the letters a, b, and c. In addition to that, he was the one who proposed the system of notation that uses superscripts to express powers or exponents.

The Touraine-born mathematician was also the first person to suggest the use of algebra as a way of deducing the values of abstract and unknowable quantities. His body of work served as the foundation for Isaac Newton‘s invention of calculus, which in turn made it possible for Gottfried Leibniz to further develop calculus into an advanced form of modern mathematics.

Because Descartes’ Cartesian coordinate system basically formed the foundation of analytic geometry, he came to be known as the “Father of Analytic Geometry”.  His works in this area proved useful in many branches of math, including linear algebra, differential geometry, and complex analysis. Today, analytic geometry serves scientists in many areas of engineering and physics, especially in aviation and rocket science.

René Descartes’s Concept on Dualism

Descartes argued in his writings that the human body might be understood as a machine. The soul or mind, however, is immaterial and hence not subject to these physical laws. While he acknowledged that the mind typically rules the body, he argued that the body can also affect the mind when people behave impulsively. The term “dualism” was coined to describe this two-way flow of power.

The French scientist was the first known scholar to try and tackle the philosophical problem concerning the link between the human mind and body. He proceeded to formulate the first modern version of mind-body dualism known as Cartesian dualism.

He theorized that the pineal gland played a role in regulating the cerebrospinal fluid of the ventricles, which in turn controlled the neurons and therefore the body’s operations. The pineal gland’s vibrations in response to sensory input gave rise to feelings, which in turn activated the body and put it in command of the mind.

Read More: 10 Most Influential French Scientists of All Time

Scientists that Descartes influenced

In addition to being known as the “Father of Western Modern Philosophy”, Descartes had a tremendous amount of influence on many scientists, most famous among them English physicist Sir Isaac Newton, German polymath Gottfried Leibniz, Baruch Spinoza, Blaise Pascal, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Voltaire, among others. Modern philosophers like Avram Noam Chomsky also took a bit of inspiration from Descartes.

Other Interesting facts about René Descartes

How does one know that he or she exists? According to Descartes, the mere fact that individual doubts his own existence is proof enough to show that one’s mind is real and that the individual has a self. His famous quote “I think, therefore I am” (Cogito ergo sum) accentuates this point.

  • René Descartes was born to Joachim Descartes and Jeanne Brochard on March 31, 1596, in the French town of La Haye-en-Touraine. Located in the Centre-Val de Loire region, the town was renamed La Haye-Descartes in 1802 in honor of the famous mathematician and philosopher. Then in 1967, it was simply renamed Descartes.
  • Descartes’s mother, Jeanne Brochard, passed away when he was about a year old. Jeanne died during childbirth in 1597.
  • He received his early education at the Jesuit Collège Royal Henry-Le-Grand at La Flèche. As a result, he grew up to be a devout Catholic.
  • His initial exposure to math and science was at the Jesuit Collège Royal Henry-Le-Grand, a public school in his area. Upon graduating in 1615, he enrolled at the University of Poitiers to pursue a law degree. Although he did it to please his father, his real passion was mathematics, which he believed held the key to understanding everything in nature.
  • Descartes’s work “The World” was published in the 1620s or 1630s. Regarded as one of his best-selling works, it covers his whole body of work up to that point, including his extensive imaginings. It includes discussions on various disciplines, including biology, physics, and metaphysics.
  • His interests were diverse and his mind often wondered about new things. He’s also has been credited with writing “Le Geometre”, one of mathematics’ greatest works. The book, which was first released in 1637, details his groundbreaking mathematical discovery: the idea of analytic geometry, which merged the concepts of algebra and geometry.
  • Descartes was an unmarried man who lived alone. Nonetheless, in 1635, he became a father to a child (called Francine) with a Dutch woman called Helena Jans van der Strom, who initially served as the domestic servant of an associate of Descartes. Sadly, Francine’s life was cut short by scarlet fever. The scientist was said to have been devastated by the death of his five-year-old daughter.
  • René Descartes was struck down by pneumonia on February 1, 1650. A week and a half later, on February 11, at the age of 53, he passed away. At the time of his death, he was in Sweden instructing Swedish Royalty on the secrets of mechanical philosophy.

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