René Descartes: An Introduction and Collection of Resources

This page contains an organized collection of links to beginner friendly videos, podcasts and articles on René Descartes. To get started, simply choose a topic from the list below.

Who was René Descartes?

“Descartes was born in 1596 in Touraine. His father was a provincial government official and a landholder. His mother died when he was one year old. He was educated primarily at the leading Jesuit academy La Flèche, where he received a grounding in traditional Aristotelian-Scholastic philosophy and developed a profound admiration for the ‘clarity and distinctness’ of mathematical knowledge. He later studied law at the University of Poitiers. After leaving the University in 1616 he traveled extensively in Europe as a volunteer in first a Dutch, and then a Bavarian army. In 1618 he became friendly with a Dutch scientist, Isaac Beeckman, under whose influence he began to do a good deal of creative work in mathematics and physics. In 1619 he arrived at the great ambition that was to guide his life’s work: that of producing a complete or universal science of nature according to modern mathematical and mechanical principles. A dramatic series of dreams on the evening of 10 November 1619 seemed to Descartes to indicate divine approval of his project.

Subsequently Descartes spent a number of years in Paris, where he became acquainted with the intellectual leaders of the time. Among his friends were certain theologians of Augustinian bent—rivals of the Jesuits—whose views concerning God and the will he seems to have found especially congenial. In 1628 he moved to Holland where he lived with only brief interruptions until 1649, when Queen Christina of Sweden persuaded him to come to Stockholm to grace her court. He died there in February 1650.” – Excerpt from Descartes by Margaret Dauler Wilson.

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Descartes’ Epistemology

“Descartes’ idea is that in order to put our knowledge on a secure foundation, it is necessary to first subject it to what he called the ‘method of doubt’. This involves doubting as much as can be doubted among one’s beliefs until one finds the indubitable, and thus epistemologically secure, foundation on which one’s knowledge can be built. In the service of this end, Descartes put forward a number of radical sceptical hypotheses – scenarios which are indistinguishable from normal experience, but in which one is radically in error, such as that one’s experiences are a product of a dream – in order to discover which of his beliefs were immune to doubt. By applying the method of doubt, Descartes was led to the conclusion that the indubitable foundation of our knowledge is our belief in our own existence, since in doubting our existence we thereby prove that we exist (since how else could we be able to doubt?). Hence the famous claim, ‘I think, therefore I am’.” – Excerpt from What is This Thing Called Knowledge? by Duncan Pritchard.

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Descartes’ Philosophy of Mind

“The philosophy of mind in the modern era effectively begins with the work of René Descartes (1596-1650). Descartes was not the first person to hold views of the kind he did, but his view of the mind was the most influential of the so called modern philosophers, the philosophers of the seventeenth century, and after. Many of his views are routinely expounded, and uncritically accepted today by people who cannot even pronounce his name. Descartes’ most famous doctrine is dualism, the idea that the world divides into two different kinds of substances or entities that can exist on their own. These are mental substances and physical substances. Descartes’ form of dualism is sometimes called “substance dualism.”” – Excerpt from Mind: A Brief Introduction by John Searle.

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Why is Descartes worth studying?

It is true that Descartes initiated a new, individualistic, style of philosophizing. Medieval philosophers had seen themselves as principally engaged in transmitting a corpus of knowledge; in the course of transmission they might offer improvements, but these must remain within the bounds set by tradition. Renaissance philosophers had seen themselves as rediscovering and republicizing the lost wisdom of ancient times. It was Descartes who was the first philosopher since Antiquity to offer himself as a total innovator; as the person who had the privilege of setting out the truth about man and his universe for the very first time. Where Descartes trod, others followed: Locke, Hume, and Kant each offered their philosophies as new creations, constructed for the first time on sound scientific principles. ‘Read my work, and discard my predecessors’ is a constant theme of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century thinkers and writers.[…]

There is no doubt of the enormous influence Descartes has exercised from his own day to ours. But his relation to modern philosophy is not that of father to son, nor of architect to palace, nor of planner to city. Rather, in the history of philosophy his position is like that of the waist of an hourglass. As the sand in the upper chamber of such a glass reaches its lower chamber only through the slender passage between the two, so too ideas that had their origin in the Middle Ages have reached the modern world through a narrow filter: the compressing genius of Descartes. – Excerpt from A New History of Western Philosophy by Anthony Kenny.

Further Reading

If you’re new to the philosophy of Descartes, the following books are a good place to start:

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Miscellaneous Resources

Videos

Audio Lectures

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy


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