Rene Descartes Biography Essay Template

René Descartes, (born March 31, 1596, La Haye, Touraine, France—died February 11, 1650, Stockholm, Sweden), French mathematician, scientist, and philosopher. Because he was one of the first to abandon scholastic Aristotelianism, because he formulated the first modern version of mind-body dualism, from which stems the mind-body problem, and because he promoted the development of a new science grounded in observation and experiment, he has been called the father of modern philosophy. Applying an original system of methodical doubt, he dismissed apparent knowledge derived from authority, the senses, and reason and erected new epistemic foundations on the basis of the intuition that, when he is thinking, he exists; this he expressed in the dictum “I think, therefore I am” (best known in its Latin formulation, “Cogito, ergo sum,” though originally written in French, “Je pense, donc je suis”). He developed a metaphysicaldualism that distinguishes radically between mind, the essence of which is thinking, and matter, the essence of which is extension in three dimensions. Descartes’s metaphysics is rationalist, based on the postulation of innate ideas of mind, matter, and God, but his physics and physiology, based on sensory experience, are mechanistic and empiricist.

Early life and education

Although Descartes’s birthplace, La Haye (now Descartes), France, is in Touraine, his family connections lie south, across the Creuse River in Poitou, where his father, Joachim, owned farms and houses in Châtellerault and Poitiers. Because Joachim was a councillor in the Parlement of Brittany in Rennes, Descartes inherited a modest rank of nobility. Descartes’s mother died when he was one year old. His father remarried in Rennes, leaving him in La Haye to be raised first by his maternal grandmother and then by his great-uncle in Châtellerault. Although the Descartes family was Roman Catholic, the Poitou region was controlled by the Protestant Huguenots, and Châtellerault, a Protestant stronghold, was the site of negotiations over the Edict of Nantes (1598), which gave Protestants freedom of worship in France following the intermittentWars of Religion between Protestant and Catholic forces in France. Descartes returned to Poitou regularly until 1628.

In 1606 Descartes was sent to the Jesuit college at La Flèche, established in 1604 by Henry IV (reigned 1589–1610). At La Flèche, 1,200 young men were trained for careers in military engineering, the judiciary, and government administration. In addition to classical studies, science, mathematics, and metaphysics—Aristotle was taught from scholastic commentaries—they studied acting, music, poetry, dancing, riding, and fencing. In 1610 Descartes participated in an imposing ceremony in which the heart of Henry IV, whose assassination that year had destroyed the hope of religious tolerance in France and Germany, was placed in the cathedral at La Flèche.

In 1614 Descartes went to Poitiers, where he took a law degree in 1616. At this time, Huguenot Poitiers was in virtual revolt against the young King Louis XIII (reigned 1610–43). Descartes’s father probably expected him to enter Parlement, but the minimum age for doing so was 27, and Descartes was only 20. In 1618 he went to Breda in the Netherlands, where he spent 15 months as an informal student of mathematics and military architecture in the peacetime army of the Protestant stadholder, Prince Maurice (ruled 1585–1625). In Breda, Descartes was encouraged in his studies of science and mathematics by the physicist Isaac Beeckman (1588–1637), for whom he wrote the Compendium of Music (written 1618, published 1650), his first surviving work.

Descartes spent the period 1619 to 1628 traveling in northern and southern Europe, where, as he later explained, he studied “the book of the world.” While in Bohemia in 1619, he invented analytic geometry, a method of solving geometric problems algebraically and algebraic problems geometrically. He also devised a universal method of deductive reasoning, based on mathematics, that is applicable to all the sciences. This method, which he later formulated in Discourse on Method (1637) and Rules for the Direction of the Mind (written by 1628 but not published until 1701), consists of four rules: (1) accept nothing as true that is not self-evident, (2) divide problems into their simplest parts, (3) solve problems by proceeding from simple to complex, and (4) recheck the reasoning. These rules are a direct application of mathematical procedures. In addition, Descartes insisted that all key notions and the limits of each problem must be clearly defined.

Descartes also investigated reports of esoteric knowledge, such as the claims of the practitioners of theosophy to be able to command nature. Although disappointed with the followers of the Catalan mystic Ramon Llull (1232/33–1315/16) and the German alchemist Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486–1535), he was impressed by the German mathematician Johann Faulhaber (1580–1635), a member of the mystical society of the Rosicrucians.

Descartes shared a number of Rosicrucian goals and habits. Like the Rosicrucians, he lived alone and in seclusion, changed his residence often (during his 22 years in the Netherlands, he lived in 18 different places), practiced medicine without charge, attempted to increase human longevity, and took an optimistic view of the capacity of science to improve the human condition. At the end of his life, he left a chest of personal papers (none of which has survived) with a Rosicrucian physician—his close friend Corneille van Hogelande, who handled his affairs in the Netherlands. Despite these affinities, Descartes rejected the Rosicrucians’ magical and mystical beliefs. For him, this period was a time of hope for a revolution in science. The English philosopher Francis Bacon (1561–1626), in Advancement of Learning (1605), had earlier proposed a new science of observation and experiment to replace the traditional Aristotelian science, as Descartes himself did later.

In 1622 Descartes moved to Paris. There he gambled, rode, fenced, and went to the court, concerts, and the theatre. Among his friends were the poets Jean-Louis Guez de Balzac (1597–1654), who dedicated his Le Socrate chrétien (1652; “Christian Socrates”) to Descartes, and Théophile de Viau (1590–1626), who was burned in effigy and imprisoned in 1623 for writing verses mocking religious themes. Descartes also befriended the mathematician Claude Mydorge (1585–1647) and Father Marin Mersenne (1588–1648), a man of universal learning who corresponded with hundreds of scholars, writers, mathematicians, and scientists and who became Descartes’s main contact with the larger intellectual world. During this time Descartes regularly hid from his friends to work, writing treatises, now lost, on fencing and metals. He acquired a considerable reputation long before he published anything.

At a talk in 1628, Descartes denied the alchemist Chandoux’s claim that probabilities are as good as certainties in science and demonstrated his own method for attaining certainty. The Cardinal Pierre de Bérulle (1575–1629)—who had founded the Oratorian teaching congregation in 1611 as a rival to the Jesuits—was present at the talk. Many commentators speculate that Bérulle urged Descartes to write a metaphysics based on the philosophy of St. Augustine as a replacement for Jesuit teaching. Be that as it may, within weeks Descartes left for the Netherlands, which was Protestant, and—taking great precautions to conceal his address—did not return to France for 16 years. Some scholars claim that Descartes adopted Bérulle as director of his conscience, but this is unlikely, given Descartes’s background and beliefs (he came from a Huguenot province, he was not a Catholic enthusiast, he had been accused of being a Rosicrucian, and he advocated religious tolerance and championed the use of reason).

Residence in the Netherlands

Descartes said that he went to the Netherlands to enjoy a greater liberty than was available anywhere else and to avoid the distractions of Paris and friends so that he could have the leisure and solitude to think. (He had inherited enough money and property to live independently.) The Netherlands was a haven of tolerance, where Descartes could be an original, independent thinker without fear of being burned at the stake—as was the Italian philosopher Lucilio Vanini (1585–1619) for proposing natural explanations of miracles—or being drafted into the armies then prosecuting the Catholic Counter-Reformation. In France, by contrast, religious intolerance was mounting. The Jews were expelled in 1615, and the last Protestant stronghold, La Rochelle, was crushed—with Bérulle’s participation—only weeks before Descartes’s departure. In 1624 the French Parlement passed a decree forbidding criticism of Aristotle on pain of death. Although Mersenne and the philosopher Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655) did publish attacks on Aristotle without suffering persecution (they were, after all, Catholic priests), those judged to be heretics continued to be burned, and laymen lacked church protection. In addition, Descartes may have felt jeopardized by his friendship with intellectual libertines such as Father Claude Picot (d. 1668), a bon vivant known as “the Atheist Priest,” with whom he entrusted his financial affairs in France.

In 1629 Descartes went to the university at Franeker, where he stayed with a Catholic family and wrote the first draft of his Meditations. He matriculated at the University of Leiden in 1630. In 1631 he visited Denmark with the physician and alchemist Étienne de Villebressieu, who invented siege engines, a portable bridge, and a two-wheeled stretcher. The physician Henri Regius (1598–1679), who taught Descartes’s views at the University of Utrecht in 1639, involved Descartes in a fierce controversy with the Calvinist theologian Gisbertus Voetius (1589–1676) that continued for the rest of Descartes’s life. In his Letter to Voetius of 1648, Descartes made a plea for religious tolerance and the rights of man. Claiming to write not only for Christians but also for Turks—meaning Muslims, libertines, infidels, deists, and atheists—he argued that, because Protestants and Catholics worship the same God, both can hope for heaven. When the controversy became intense, however, Descartes sought the protection of the French ambassador and of his friend Constantijn Huygens (1596–1687), secretary to the stadholder Prince Frederick Henry (ruled 1625–47).

In 1635 Descartes’s daughter Francine was born to Helena Jans and was baptized in the Reformed Church in Deventer. Although Francine is typically referred to by commentators as Descartes’s “illegitimate” daughter, her baptism is recorded in a register for legitimate births. Her death of scarlet fever at the age of five was the greatest sorrow of Descartes’s life. Referring to her death, Descartes said that he did not believe that one must refrain from tears to prove oneself a man.

The World and Discourse on Method

In 1633, just as he was about to publish The World (1664), Descartes learned that the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) had been condemned in Rome for publishing the view that the Earth revolves around the Sun. Because this Copernican position is central to his cosmology and physics, Descartes suppressed The World, hoping that eventually the church would retract its condemnation. Although Descartes feared the church, he also hoped that his physics would one day replace that of Aristotle in church doctrine and be taught in Catholic schools.

Descartes’s Discourse on Method (1637) is one of the first important modern philosophical works not written in Latin. Descartes said that he wrote in French so that all who had good sense, including women, could read his work and learn to think for themselves. He believed that everyone could tell true from false by the natural light of reason. In three essays accompanying the Discourse, he illustrated his method for utilizing reason in the search for truth in the sciences: in Dioptrics he derived the law of refraction, in Meteorology he explained the rainbow, and in Geometry he gave an exposition of his analytic geometry. He also perfected the system invented by François Viète for representing known numerical quantities with a, b, c, …, unknowns with x, y, z, …, and squares, cubes, and other powers with numerical superscripts, as in x2, x3, …, which made algebraic calculations much easier than they had been before.

In the Discourse he also provided a provisional moral code (later presented as final) for use while seeking truth: (1) obey local customs and laws, (2) make decisions on the best evidence and then stick to them firmly as though they were certain, (3) change desires rather than the world, and (4) always seek truth. This code exhibits Descartes’s prudential conservatism, decisiveness, stoicism, and dedication. The Discourse and other works illustrate Descartes’s conception of knowledge as being like a tree in its interconnectedness and in the grounding provided to higher forms of knowledge by lower or more fundamental ones. Thus, for Descartes, metaphysics corresponds to the roots of the tree, physics to the trunk, and medicine, mechanics, and morals to the branches.


In 1641 Descartes published the Meditations on First Philosophy, in Which Is Proved the Existence of God and the Immortality of the Soul. Written in Latin and dedicated to the Jesuit professors at the Sorbonne in Paris, the work includes critical responses by several eminent thinkers—collected by Mersenne from the Jansenist philosopher and theologian Antoine Arnauld (1612–94), the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), and the EpicureanatomistPierre Gassendi (1592–1655)—as well as Descartes’s replies. The second edition (1642) includes a response by the Jesuit priest Pierre Bourdin (1595–1653), who Descartes said was a fool. These objections and replies constitute a landmark of cooperative discussion in philosophy and science at a time when dogmatism was the rule.

The Meditations is characterized by Descartes’s use of methodic doubt, a systematic procedure of rejecting as though false all types of belief in which one has ever been, or could ever be, deceived. His arguments derive from the skepticism of the Greek philosopher Sextus Empiricus (fl. 3rd century ce) as reflected in the work of the essayist Michel de Montaigne (1533–92) and the Catholic theologian Pierre Charron (1541–1603). Thus, Descartes’s apparent knowledge based on authority is set aside, because even experts are sometimes wrong. His beliefs from sensory experience are declared untrustworthy, because such experience is sometimes misleading, as when a square tower appears round from a distance. Even his beliefs about the objects in his immediate vicinity may be mistaken, because, as he notes, he often has dreams about objects that do not exist, and he has no way of knowing with certainty whether he is dreaming or awake. Finally, his apparent knowledge of simple and general truths of reasoning that do not depend on sense experience—such as “2 + 3 = 5” or “a square has four sides”—is also unreliable, because God could have made him in such a way that, for example, he goes wrong every time he counts. As a way of summarizing the universal doubt into which he has fallen, Descartes supposes that an “evil genius of the utmost power and cunning has employed all his energies in order to deceive me.”

Although at this stage there is seemingly no belief about which he cannot entertain doubt, Descartes finds certainty in the intuition that, when he is thinking—even if he is being deceived—he must exist. In the Discourse, Descartes expresses this intuition in the dictum “I think, therefore I am”; but because “therefore” suggests that the intuition is an argument—though it is not—in the Meditations he says merely, “I think, I am” (“Cogito, sum”). The cogito is a logically self-evident truth that also gives intuitively certain knowledge of a particular thing’s existence—that is, one’s self. Nevertheless, it justifies accepting as certain only the existence of the person who thinks it. If all one ever knew for certain was that one exists, and if one adhered to Descartes’s method of doubting all that is uncertain, then one would be reduced to solipsism, the view that nothing exists but one’s self and thoughts. To escape solipsism, Descartes argues that all ideas that are as “clear and distinct” as the cogito must be true, for, if they were not, the cogito also, as a member of the class of clear and distinct ideas, could be doubted. Since “I think, I am” cannot be doubted, all clear and distinct ideas must be true.

On the basis of clear and distinct innate ideas, Descartes then establishes that each mind is a mental substance and each body a part of one material substance. The mind or soul is immortal, because it is unextended and cannot be broken into parts, as can extended bodies. Descartes also advances at least two proofs for the existence of God. The final proof, presented in the Fifth Meditation, begins with the proposition that Descartes has an innate idea of God as a perfect being. It concludes that God necessarily exists, because, if he did not, he would not be perfect. This ontological argument for God’s existence, introduced by the medieval English logician St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033/34–1109), is at the heart of Descartes’s rationalism, for it establishes certain knowledge about an existing thing solely on the basis of reasoning from innate ideas, with no help from sensory experience. Descartes elsewhere argues that, because God is perfect, he does not deceive human beings, and therefore, because God leads us to believe that the material world exists, it does exist. In this way Descartes claims to establish metaphysical foundations for the existence of his own mind, of God, and of the material world.

The inherent circularity of Descartes’s reasoning was exposed by Arnauld, whose objection has come to be known as the Cartesian Circle. According to Descartes, God’s existence is established by the fact that Descartes has a clear and distinct idea of God; but the truth of Descartes’s clear and distinct ideas are guaranteed by the fact that God exists and is not a deceiver. Thus, in order to show that God exists, Descartes must assume that God exists.

Physics, physiology, and morals

Descartes’s general goal was to help human beings master and possess nature. He provided understanding of the trunk of the tree of knowledge in The World, Dioptrics, Meteorology, and Geometry, and he established its metaphysical roots in the Meditations. He then spent the rest of his life working on the branches of mechanics, medicine, and morals. Mechanics is the basis of his physiology and medicine, which in turn is the basis of his moral psychology. Descartes believed that all material bodies, including the human body, are machines that operate by mechanical principles. In his physiological studies, he dissected animal bodies to show how their parts move. He argued that, because animals have no souls, they do not think or feel; thus, vivisection, which Descartes practiced, is permitted. He also described the circulation of the blood but came to the erroneous conclusion that heat in the heart expands the blood, causing its expulsion into the veins. Descartes’s L’Homme, et un traité de la formation du foetus (Man, and a Treatise on the Formation of the Foetus) was published in 1664.

In 1644 Descartes published Principles of Philosophy, a compilation of his physics and metaphysics. He dedicated this work to Princess Elizabeth (1618–79), daughter of Elizabeth Stuart, titular queen of Bohemia, in correspondence with whom he developed his moral philosophy. According to Descartes, a human being is a union of mind and body, two radically dissimilar substances that interact in the pineal gland. He reasoned that the pineal gland must be the uniting point because it is the only nondouble organ in the brain, and double reports, as from two eyes, must have one place to merge. He argued that each action on a person’s sense organs causes subtle matter to move through tubular nerves to the pineal gland, causing it to vibrate distinctively. These vibrations give rise to emotions and passions and also cause the body to act. Bodily action is thus the final outcome of a reflex arc that begins with external stimuli—as, for example, when a soldier sees the enemy, feels fear, and flees. The mind cannot change bodily reactions directly—for example, it cannot will the body to fight—but by altering mental attitudes, it can change the pineal vibrations from those that cause fear and fleeing to those that cause courage and fighting.

Descartes argued further that human beings can be conditioned by experience to have specific emotional responses. Descartes himself, for example, had been conditioned to be attracted to cross-eyed women because he had loved a cross-eyed playmate as a child. When he remembered this fact, however, he was able to rid himself of his passion. This insight is the basis of Descartes’s defense of free will and of the mind’s ability to control the body. Despite such arguments, in his Passions of the Soul (1649), which he dedicated to Queen Christina of Sweden (reigned 1644–54), Descartes holds that most bodily actions are determined by external material causes.

Descartes’s morality is anti-Jansenist and anti-Calvinist in that he maintains that the grace that is necessary for salvation can be earned and that human beings are virtuous and able to achieve salvation when they do their best to find and act upon the truth. His optimism about the ability of human reason and will to find truth and reach salvation contrasts starkly with the pessimism of the Jansenist apologist and mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623–62), who believed that salvation comes only as a gift of God’s grace. Descartes was correctly accused of holding the view of Jacobus Arminius (1560–1609), an anti-Calvinist Dutch theologian, that salvation depends on free will and good works rather than on grace. Descartes also held that, unless people believe in God and immortality, they will see no reason to be moral.

Free will, according to Descartes, is the sign of God in human nature, and human beings can be praised or blamed according to their use of it. People are good, he believed, only to the extent that they act freely for the good of others; such generosity is the highest virtue. Descartes was Epicurean in his assertion that human passions are good in themselves. He was an extreme moral optimist in his belief that understanding of the good is automatically followed by a desire to do the good. Moreover, because passions are “willings” according to Descartes, to want something is the same as to will it. Descartes was also stoic, however, in his admonition that, rather than change the world, human beings should control their passions.

Although Descartes wrote no political philosophy, he approved of the admonition of Seneca (c. 4 bce–65 ce) to acquiesce in the common order of things. He rejected the recommendation of Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) to lie to one’s friends, because friendship is sacred and life’s greatest joy. Human beings cannot exist alone but must be parts of social groups, such as nations and families, and it is better to do good for the group than for oneself.

Descartes had been a puny child with a weak chest and was not expected to live. He therefore watched his health carefully, becoming a virtual vegetarian. In 1639 he bragged that he had not been sick for 19 years and that he expected to live to 100. He told Princess Elizabeth to think of life as a comedy; bad thoughts cause bad dreams and bodily disorders. Because there is always more good than evil in life, he said, one can always be content, no matter how bad things seem. Elizabeth, inextricably involved in messy court and family affairs, was not consoled.

In his later years Descartes said that he had once hoped to learn to prolong life to a century or more, but he then saw that, to achieve that goal, the work of many generations would be required; he himself had not even learned to prevent a fever. Thus, he said, instead of continuing to hope for long life, he had found an easier way, namely to love life and not to fear death. It is easy, he claimed, for a true philosopher to die tranquilly.

Final years and heritage

In 1644, 1647, and 1648, after 16 years in the Netherlands, Descartes returned to France for brief visits on financial business and to oversee the translation into French of the Principles, the Meditations, and the Objections and Replies. (The translators were, respectively, Picot, Charles d’Albert, duke de Luynes, and Claude Clerselier.) In 1647 he also met with Gassendi and Hobbes, and he suggested to Pascal the famous experiment of taking a barometer up Mount Puy-de-Dôme to determine the influence of the weight of the air. Picot returned with Descartes to the Netherlands for the winter of 1647–48. During Descartes’s final stay in Paris in 1648, the French nobility revolted against the crown in a series of wars known as the Fronde. Descartes left precipitously on August 17, 1648, only days before the death of his old friend Mersenne.

Clerselier’s brother-in-law, Hector Pierre Chanut, who was French resident in Sweden and later ambassador, helped to procure a pension for Descartes from Louis XIV, though it was never paid. Later, Chanut engineered an invitation for Descartes to the court of Queen Christina, who by the close of the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48) had become one of the most important and powerful monarchs in Europe. Descartes went reluctantly, arriving early in October 1649. He may have gone because he needed patronage; the Fronde seemed to have destroyed his chances in Paris, and the Calvinist theologians were harassing him in the Netherlands.

In Sweden—where, Descartes said, in winter men’s thoughts freeze like the water—the 22-year-old Christina perversely made the 53-year-old Descartes rise before 5:00 am to give her philosophy lessons, even though she knew of his habit of lying in bed until 11 o’clock in the morning. She also is said to have ordered him to write the verses of a ballet, The Birth of Peace (1649), to celebrate her role in the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years’ War. The verses in fact were not written by Descartes, though he did write the statutes for a Swedish Academy of Arts and Sciences. While delivering these statutes to the queen at 5:00 am on February 1, 1650, he caught a chill, and he soon developed pneumonia. He died in Stockholm on February 11. Many pious last words have been attributed to him, but the most trustworthy report is that of his German valet, who said that Descartes was in a coma and died without saying anything at all.

Descartes’s papers came into the possession of Claude Clerselier, a pious Catholic, who began the process of turning Descartes into a saint by cutting, adding to, and selectively publishing his letters. This cosmetic work culminated in 1691 in the massive biography by Father Adrien Baillet, who was at work on a 17-volume Lives of the Saints. Even during Descartes’s lifetime there were questions about whether he was a Catholic apologist, primarily concerned with supporting Christian doctrine, or an atheist, concerned only with protecting himself with pious sentiments while establishing a deterministic, mechanistic, and materialistic physics.

These questions remain difficult to answer, not least because all the papers, letters, and manuscripts available to Clerselier and Baillet are now lost. In 1667 the Roman Catholic church made its own decision by putting Descartes’s works on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Latin: “Index of Prohibited Books”) on the very day his bones were ceremoniously placed in Sainte-Geneviève-du-Mont in Paris. During his lifetime, Protestant ministers in the Netherlands called Descartes a Jesuit and a papist—which is to say an atheist. He retorted that they were intolerant, ignorant bigots. Up to about 1930, a majority of scholars, many of whom were religious, believed that Descartes’s major concerns were metaphysical and religious. By the late 20th century, however, numerous commentators had come to believe that Descartes was a Catholic in the same way he was a Frenchman and a royalist—that is, by birth and by convention.

Descartes himself said that good sense is destroyed when one thinks too much of God. He once told a German protégée, Anna Maria van Schurman (1607–78), who was known as a painter and a poet, that she was wasting her intellect studying Hebrew and theology. He also was perfectly aware of—though he tried to conceal—the atheistic potential of his materialist physics and physiology. Descartes seemed indifferent to the emotional depths of religion. Whereas Pascal trembled when he looked into the infinite universe and perceived the puniness and misery of man, Descartes exulted in the power of human reason to understand the cosmos and to promote happiness, and he rejected the view that human beings are essentially miserable and sinful. He held that it is impertinent to pray to God to change things. Instead, when we cannot change the world, we must change ourselves.

1. Early Years

Descartes was born in La Haye on March 31, 1596 of Joachim Descartes and Jeanne Brochard. He was one of a number of surviving children (two siblings and two half-siblings). His father was a lawyer and magistrate, which apparently left little time for family. Descartes' mother died in May of the year following his birth, and he, his full brother and sister, Pierre and Jeanne, were left to be raised by their grandmother in La Haye. At around ten years of age, in 1606, he was sent to the Jesuit college of La Flèche. He studied there until 1614, and in 1615 entered the University of Poitiers, where a year later he received his Baccalaureate and License in Canon & Civil Law. For the history and the text of his thesis, see the following supplementary document:

Descartes' Law Thesis

In 1618, at the age of twenty-two, he enlisted in the army of Prince Maurice of Nassau. It is not known what his duties were exactly, though Baillet suggests that he would have very likely been drawn to what would now be called the Corps of Engineers (Baillet, Livre 1, Chapitre 9, p. 41). This division would have engaged in applied mathematics, designing a variety of structures and machines aimed at protecting and assisting soldiers in battle. Sorell, on the other hand, notes that in Breda, where Descartes was stationed, the army “doubled as military academy for young noblemen on the Continent” (Sorell, p. 6). And, Gaukroger notes that the education of the young noblemen was structured around the educational model of Lipsius (1547–1606), a highly respected Dutch political theorist who received a Jesuit education at Cologne (Gaukroger, pp. 65–6). Although the historical records point to there being a military presence in Breda, there is no definitive evidence that speaks for there being a full-fledged “academy”. There are reasons for thinking that Descartes may have been a soldier, but the majority of biographers suggest that it is more likely that his duties were oriented more toward engineering or education.

While stationed at Breda, Descartes met Isaac Beeckman (1588–1637). Notes that Descartes kept related to his correspondence reveal that he and Beeckman had become more than simple acquaintances—their relationship was more one of teacher and student (Descartes being the latter). This relationship would rekindle in Descartes an intense interest in the sciences. In addition to discussions about a wide variety of topics in natural science, a direct result of certain questions posed by Beeckman compelled Descartes to write the Compendium Musicae. Among other things, the Compendium attempted to work out a theory of harmony rooted in the concepts of proportion or ratio, which (along the lines of the ancients) attempted to express the notion of harmony in mathematical terms. It would not be published during Descartes' lifetime. As for Beeckman, Descartes would later downplay his influence.

2. The World and Discourse

After Descartes left the army, in 1619, his whereabouts for the next few years are unknown. Based on what he says in the Discours de la Methode (Discourse on the Method), published in 1637, there is speculation that he spent time near Ulm (Descartes apparently attended the coronation of Ferdinand II in Frankfurt in 1619). There is some evidence suggesting that he was in France in 1622, for it was at this time that property he had inherited was sold—the proceeds of which would provide him a simple income for many years. There is some speculation that between 1623 and 1625 he visited Italy. Descartes emerges in 1625 in Paris, his notes revealing that he was in contact with Father Marin Mersenne (1588–1648), a member of the Order of Minims. This relationship would prompt Descartes to make public his thoughts on natural philosophy (science). It is by way of Mersenne that Descartes' work would find its way into the hands of some of the best minds living in Paris--for instance, Antoine Arnauld (1612–1694), Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655), and Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679).

In 1628 Descartes left Paris. At this time he seems to have been working on the Regulae ad Directionem Ingenii (Rules for the Direction of the Mind), a work that he would abandon, some speculating around the time of the move from Paris. It is worth noting that relatively recently a copy of the Rules was discovered in a library at Cambridge University. Scholars are unsure how it got there. Currently, based on what it includes, it is thought that this manuscript represents the work as it stood when Descartes had abandoned it in 1628. The later Amsterdam printing (1701) and a copy that Leibniz acquired from Clerselier (c. 1670) make certain advancements over what is found in the Cambridge manuscript. So, it appears that Descartes picked up the work again, some speculating after a visit in 1635 from John Dury (1596–1680) and Samuel Hartlib (1600–1662). The meeting took place in The Hague. Dury and Hartlib were friends of the Cambridge philosopher Henry More (1614–1687), with whom Descartes had corresponded, and of others in More's circle, including John Milton (1608–1674). Perhaps the copy was made during the visit and brought back to Cambridge. (In any event, this is a new and interesting development in Descartes scholarship.) In 1630 Descartes moved to Amsterdam. There he worked on drafts of the Dioptrique (the Optics) and the Meteors (the Meteorology), which were very likely intended to be a part of a larger work, Le Monde (The World). In 1632 he moved again, this time to Deventer, to apparently teach Henry Reneri (1593–1639) his physics. It is also during his stay in Deventer that Descartes probably worked on a final draft of the Traite de l'homme (Treatise on Man), which in connection to the Optics and the Meteorology was probably originally intended to be a part of The World.

When The World had become ready for publication in 1633, upon hearing of the Church's condemnation of Galileo (1564–1642) in the same year, Descartes decided against its publication. For, the world system he had adopted in the book assumed, as did Galileo's, the heliocentric Copernican model. In a letter to Mersenne, dated November 1633, Descartes expresses his fear that were he to publish The World, the same fate that befell Galileo would befall him. And, although this is something that he understandably would want to avoid, some scholars question Descartes' expressed concern, for his living in the Netherlands would have kept him out of reach of Catholic authorities. The World appears to have been constituted of several smaller, but related, works: a treatise on physics, a treatise on mechanics (machines), a treatise on animals, and a treatise on man. Although much of The World has been lost, some of it seems to have survived in the form of essays attached to the Discourse which, as was mentioned earlier, would be published four years later, in 1637. And, some of it was published posthumously. Arguably, Constantijn Huygens (1596–1687) received what Descartes refers to as “three sheets” of The World, along with a letter dated 5 October 1637. These “sheets” deal primarily with mechanics.

Around 1635, at the University of Utrecht, Reneri began teaching “Cartesian” physics. Also during this year, a domestic servant by the name of Helene gave birth to a baby girl, Francine. Genevieve Rodis-Lewis claims that Francine was born 19 June 1635 (Rodis-Lewis, p. 40). According to a baptismal record, dated 28 July 1635, Descartes is named the father (AT I 395n). However, Gaukroger claims that the baptismal date was 7 August 1635 (Gaukroger, p. 294). In 1636 Reneri acquired an official chair in Philosophy at the University of Utrecht, and continued to build a following of students interested in Cartesian science. Around March of 1636, at the age of forty, Descartes moved to Leiden to work out the publishing of the Discourse. And, in 1637 it is published. With the Discourse out and a following of students building in Utrecht, Descartes seems to have turned his attention from career to family. In a letter dated 30 August 1637 we find him apparently working out an arrangement for Francine, but strangely refers to her as his “niece”—which suggests that he did not want certain people to know that he was a father (or that Francine had been born out of wedlock). Gaukroger suggests that despite this apparent denial of paternity, Descartes not only corresponds with Francine, but in 1637 brings her and Helene to his new home at Santpoort or Egmond-Binnen (Gaukroger, pp. 294, 332).

The Discourse is the first published work of Descartes', coming some four years after he had abandoned The World. The Discourse is important for many reasons. For instance, it tells us what Descartes himself seems to have thought of his early education, and in particular, his early exposure to mathematics. Roger Ariew suggests that these reflections are not so much those of the historical Descartes, as much as they are those of a persona Descartes adopts in telling the story of the Discourse (Ariew, pp. 58–63). Uncontested, however, is the view that the Discourse sketches out the metaphysical underpinnings of the Cartesian system. And, as a bonus, it has three works that are attached to it that are apparently added so as to exemplify the method of inquiry it develops (though admittedly it is unclear how the method is applied in these essays). The attached essays are the Optics, the Meteorology, and Le Geometrie (the Geometry). As was suggested earlier, the Optics and Meteorology were very likely versions of works originally intended for The World.

It should be stressed that the three attached essays are important independent of the Discourse, for they contain much worth studying. In the Optics, for example, Descartes works out his laws of refraction, and within this context, what would later be called Snell's Law (which Descartes seems to have worked out as early as 1632). Further, although the Geometry would seem to have come out of nowhere, there is evidence in Descartes's notes to himself, from which Clerselier reconstructed some of Descartes's correspondence, that he had been working on some version of it as early as 1619. In a letter to Beeckman, dated 26 March 1619, for example, Descartes discusses the subject matter that is found in the Geometry, and in a letter dated 23 April 1619, he explicitly mentions the book's title. It is in this work that Descartes shows how certain geometrical problems can be solved by way of algebraic equations.

The significance of the sort of connection that Descartes made between geometry and algebra was great indeed, for without it the mathematization of the physics and the development of the calculus might not have happened when they did—a generation later via Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1727) and Gottfried Leibniz (1646–1716). It should be noted, however, that as groundbreaking as this work may have been, contrary to the claims of many, nowhere in the Geometry is a “Cartesian Coordinate System” ever developed (that is, the x-y coordinate system taught to today's students of algebra), nor is he the originator of other mathematical concepts that bear his name, for example, the “Cartesian Product”. Carl Boyer notes that various concepts that lead to analytic geometry are found for the first time in the Geometry, and that the Geometry's mathematical notation is still used today. But, he argues, although Cartesian geometry is taken by many to be synonymous with analytic geometry, the fact is that the fundamental aim of Descartes' system is quite different from that of contemporary analytic geometry (Boyer, pp. 370–1). And so, the claim that Descartes is the originator of analytic geometry, at least as we understand it today, overstates the case. As Boyer rightly points out, however, this does not diminish the importance of the work in the history of mathematics.

3. The Meditations

In 1639 Descartes began writing the Meditations. And, in 1640 he returned to Leiden to help work out its publication. During the year, Descartes' daughter, Francine, died. There is evidence suggesting that he was called away from Leiden around the time of her death, returning soon after. Some have speculated that he left Leiden to be at her side. Also during this year, Descartes' father and sister died. Descartes' relationship with his father (and brother) was of the sort that Pierre, his brother, failed to even bother him with the news of their father's death. Rather, it seems to have been in a letter from Mersenne that Descartes first learns of it. In a follow up letter to Mersenne, dated 3 December 1640, Descartes expresses regret in not having been able to see his father before his death. But, he refuses to leave Leiden to attend his father's funeral, and instead stays to complete the publishing of the Meditations.

Today, the Meditations is by far Descartes's most popular work—though this would not have been the case in Descartes' day. This work is important to today's scholar for many reasons, not the least of which is its including as an attached text written objections from some of the best minds living in Paris. Mersenne sent the Meditations to philosophers and theologians for criticism. The list of critics includes: Caterus, Hobbes, Arnauld, Gassendi, and Mersenne himself, with several other unnamed readers who raised their objections through Mersenne. A later edition would include an objection from Bordin. Descartes replied to each critic, and the result was an appended text referred to as “The Objections and Replies.” The second edition contains seven sets in all.

The Meditations opens by developing skeptical questions concerning the possibility of knowledge. Through a series of several carefully thought out meditations, the reader establishes (along with the author) the groundwork for the possibility of knowledge (scientia). Descartes is not a skeptic, as some have insisted, but uses skepticism as a vehicle to motivate his reader to “discover” by way of philosophical investigation what constitutes this ground. In the Second Replies, Descartes refers to this style of presentation as the “analytic” style. There were two styles of presentation: analytic and synthetic. It is important not to confuse these terms with those, say, used by Kant. For Descartes the analytic style of presentation (and inquiry) proceeds by beginning with what is commonly taken to be known and discovering what is necessary for such knowledge. Thus, the inquiry moves from what is commonly known to first principles. The “discovery” moves in such a way that each discovery is based on what was discovered before. By contrast, the synthetic style of presentation begins by asserting first principles and then to determining what follows. Prompted by Mersenne, Descartes sketches out in the Second Replies a synthetic rendering of the Meditations.

In establishing the ground for science, Descartes was at the same time overthrowing a system of natural philosophy that had been established for centuries—a qualitative, Aristotelian physics. In a letter to Mersenne, dated 28 January 1641, Descartes says “these six meditations contain all the foundations of my physics. But please do not tell people, for that might make it harder for supporters of Aristotle to approve them. I hope that readers will gradually get used to my principles, and recognize their truth, before they notice that they destroy the principles of Aristotle.” Unlike his earlier work, The World, the Meditations parts ways with the “old” science without explicitly forwarding controversial views, like that of the Copernican heliocentric model of the solar system. Specifically, the Cartesian view denies that physics is grounded in hot, cold, wet, and dry. It argues that contrary to Aristotle's view, such “qualities” are not properties of bodies at all. Rather, the only properties of bodies with which the physicist can concern him or herself are size, shape, motion, position, and so on—those modifications that conceptually (or logically) entail extension in length, breadth, and depth. In contrast to Aristotle's “qualities,” the properties (or modes) of bodies dealt with in Cartesian physics are measurable specifically on ratio scales (as opposed to intensive scales), and hence are subject in all the right ways to mathematics (Buroker, pp. 596–7). This conception of matter, conjoined with the sort of mathematics found in the Geometry, allies itself with the work of such Italian natural philosophers as Tartaglia, Ubaldo, and Galileo, and helps further the movement of early thinkers in their attempts to establish a mathematical physics.

Descartes' letter to the “learned and distinguished men” of the Sorbonne, which is appended to the Meditations, suggests that he was trying to pitch the Meditations as a textbook for the university. Though the endorsement of the Learned Men would not have guaranteed that the Meditations would be accepted or used as a textbook, it could certainly be viewed as an important step to getting it accepted. Unlike today's notion of a textbook, in Descartes' day “textbooks” were intended mostly for teachers, not students. Typically, at the close of a teacher's career, his notes would be published for the benefit of those who would go on to teach such course material. The awkwardness of Descartes's seeking the acceptance and use of his Meditations by teachers is amplified by the fact that he was not a teacher himself. Consequently, his seeking “textbook” status would have very likely been viewed by those Learned Men as being a bit pretentious. He was, it could be said, a freelancer with no academic or political ties to the university (outside of his connection to Mersenne). And, he certainly lacked the credentials and reputation of someone like a Eustachius, whose widely used textbook of the period is of the sort the Meditations was in all likelihood aimed at replacing. Although the Meditations seems to have been endorsed by the Sorbonne, it was never adopted as a text for the university.

4. The Principles

Soon after his encounter with the Sorbonne, Descartes' public life was further complicated by the Dutch theologian, Gisbert Voetius (1588–1676). Voetius had attacked Regius, a Dutch physician who taught medicine at the University of Utrecht, for his having taught certain “Cartesian” ideas that conflicted with traditional theological doctrine. Regius was friend to both Reneri and Descartes, and was a strong adherent to Descartes's philosophical views. Voetius tried to have Regius removed from his position as professor, and attacked not only Descartes' work but his character. In his defense Descartes entered into the debate. The controversy would leave Regius confined to teaching medicine, and his published defense of (his conception of) Cartesian thought would be officially condemned by Voetius, who in five years time would rise to the position of University rector. At the end of the debate, which off and on lasted about five years, the situation ultimately became desperate for Descartes. He feared being expelled from the country and of seeing his books burned. He would even seek protection by asking the Prince of Orange to intervene and quell Voetius' attack.

In 1643, at the age of forty-seven, Descartes moved to Egmond du Hoef. With the Voetius controversy seemingly behind him (though, as mentioned above, it would again raise its head and climax five years down the road), Descartes and Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia began to correspond. In this exchange, Princess Elisabeth probed Descartes on the implications of his commitment to mind-body dualism. During this time, he completed a final draft of a new textbook, which he had begun three years earlier, the Principia Philosophiae (Principles of Philosophy), and in 1644 it was published. He dedicated it to Princess Elisabeth.

The Principles is an important text. The work is divided into four Parts, with five hundred and four articles. Part One develops Descartes' metaphysics. Although it would appear to be a quick run through of the Meditations, there are a number of dissimilarities. For example, the order of presentation of the proofs for God's existence, which some have argued is significant, found in the Third and Fifth Meditations, is reversed in the Principles. The principles introduced in Part Two are based on the metaphysics of Part One. And, the subsequent physics developed in Parts Three and Four is based upon the principles of Part Two. Although the physics turns out to be unsound, the Principles nevertheless inspired such great thinkers as Robert Boyle (1627–1691), Edmond Halley (1656–1742), and Isaac Newton. As an important side note, it must be stressed that even though Descartes had throughout his career put a great deal of emphasis on mathematics, the physics developed in the Principles does not appear to be a mathematical physics. Rather, it is traditionally taken to be a conceptual project with only a hint of empirical overtones—a physics rooted entirely in metaphysics. Arguably, however, Descartes' work on enumeration, order, and measure in the Rules provides the conceptual machinery necessary for establishing a ‘mathematical’ physics—a conceptual machinery that is carried over to the Principles (Smith 2003, 2010a). Two parts, never completed, were originally intended to deal with plants, animals, and man. In light of this and what Descartes says in a 31 January 1642 letter to the mathematician Constantijn Huygens, it is plausible to think that the Principles would have looked something like The World had it been completed as planned.

One of the more controversial positions the Principles forwarded, at least according to Newton, was that a vacuum was impossible. Descartes' rejection of the possibility of a vacuum followed from his commitment to the view that the essence of body was extension. Given that extension is an attribute, and that nothing cannot possess any attributes (AT VIIIA 25; CSM I 210), it follows that “nothingness cannot possess any extension” (AT VIIIA 50; CSM I 231). So, any instance of extension would entail the presence of some substance (AT VIIIA 25; CSM I 210). In other words, vacuum, taken as an extended nothing, is a flat contradiction. The corporeal universe is thus a plenum, individual bodies separated only by their surfaces. Newton argued in his De Gravitatione and Principia that the concept of motion becomes problematic if the universe is taken to be a plenum. Another controversial position was Descartes' insistence that matter is infinitely divisible. Gassendi, and later Cordemoy, argued that there must be a bottom, a ‘substance,’ to the physical universe upon which the being of all corporeal things depend. In line with the ancient atomist Epicurus, they argued that if matter was infinitely divisible, so dividing it would show that there was no bottom—and so, corporeality would not be substantial. So, if corporeality is substantial, as Descartes himself had claimed, there must be a minimum measure of extension that could not be divided (by natural means, anyway). And so, there are atoms. But, this conclusion is something that Descartes explicitly rejects in the Principles.

5. The Passions

In 1646, as a result of the probings of Princess Elisabeth, Descartes completed a working draft of Passions de l'ame (Passions of the Soul). During this year another prominent political figure began to correspond with Descartes, Queen Christina of Sweden. And, Regius published what he took to be a new and improved version of Cartesian science, which as we now know would draw the wrath of Voetius. But Regius did not stop there, for he seemed to have found important differences between his “Cartesian” view and that of Descartes', and attempted to separate the two, publishing a broadsheet that listed twenty-one anti-Cartesian theses (which his version of “Cartesian” science rejected). In response to this, Descartes wrote a single-page printed defense that was posted on public kiosks for all to read. Published in 1648, the Notae in Programma Quoddam (Notes on a Program-also referred to as Comments on a Certain Broadsheet) is Descartes' public defense. However, as mentioned earlier, tensions mounted as a result of the public exchange and Descartes felt his way of life in the Netherlands to be threatened. As luck would have it, an admirer and friend of Descartes'—Chanut, who worked for Queen Christina's court—and Queen Christina herself began probing Descartes about the possibility of coming to Sweden. And, after a not too lengthy correspondence, Queen Christina offered Descartes a position in her court. For many reasons, which would certanily include those related to his concerns about Voetius, Descartes accepted the offer. And, in 1649 he left for Sweden.

Queen Christina at first required very little from Descartes. However, according to Gaukroger, this would change. For, after he had some time to settle in, she ordered him to do two things: first, to put all of his papers in order, and secondly, to put together designs for an academy (Gaukroger, p. 415). Arguably, Descartes had some idea of how the latter might be done by way of his experience in Breda. In January of 1650 Queen Christina began to require Descartes to give her lessons in philosophy. These apparently would begin at five in the morning and would last for about five hours. They were given three days a week (Gaukroger, p. 415). During this time Descartes published the Passions, the work having emerged primarily from his correspondence with Princess Elisabeth (to whom he had dedicated the Principles). One aim of the Passions was to explain how the emotional (and thus moral) life of a human being was connected to the soul's being essentially united to a body. Simply put, a ’passion of the soul’ is a mental state (or thought) that arises as a direct result of brain activity. Such passions can move us to action. Since this is so, Descartes suggests that one needs to learn to control one's passions, for they can move one to perform vicious acts. Critics of Descartes, including Elisabeth, argued that Descartes' metaphysical commitments put real pressure on the view expounded in the Passions. For, according to Descartes' metaphysics, the nature of mind is to think and the nature of body is to be extended in length, breadth, and depth. One view concerning causation, a view that Descartes's critics seemed to have attributed to him, is that one thing causes another to move, for example, by way of contact. Contact, in this context, seems to be possible only by way of surfaces. Now, bodies, since they are extended and thus have surfaces, can come into contact with one another and thus can cause one another to move. However, if minds are not extended, they lack surfaces. And, if they lack surfaces, there is no way in principle for bodies to come into contact with them. Thus, there is no way in principle for bodies to move minds, and vice versa. That is, minds and bodies cannot in principle causally interact. And so, if the view expounded in the Passions requires that bodies and minds be capable of causal interaction, and Descartes' metaphysical commitments make such interaction impossible, Descartes' metaphysics puts a great deal of pressure on the view expounded in the Passions.

Although things seemed to be moving forward, they were not going as well as one would have hoped. In a letter to Bregy, for instance, dated 15 January 1650, Descartes expresses reservations about his decision to come to Sweden. He sees himself to be “out of his element,” the winter so harsh that “men's thoughts are frozen here, like the water” (AT V 467; CSMK III 383). Given the sentiment expressed in the letter, this remark was probably intended to be as much Descartes's take on the intellectual climate as it was about the weather. In early February, less than a month after writing Bregy, Descartes fell ill. His illness quickly turned into a serious respiratory infection. And, although at the end of a week he appeared to have made some movement towards recovery, things took a turn for the worse and he died in the early morning of 11 February 1650. He was fifty-three years old.


Primary Sources

In the above, the Adam and Tannery volumes, Oeuvres De Descartes, (11 volumes) are cited. Such citations are abbreviated as AT, followed by the appropriate volume and page numbers. I have whenever possible used the Cottingham, Stoothoff, and Murdoch translation, The Philosophical Writings Of Descartes (3 volumes). Volume 3 includes Anthony Kenny as a translator. This has been abbreviated as CSMK, followed by the appropriate volume and page numbers. The AT and CSMK numbers are cited, side by side, separated by a semicolon.

  • Oeuvres De Descartes, 11 vols., edited by Charles Adam and Paul Tannery, Paris: Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin, 1983.
  • The Philosophical Writings Of Descartes, 3 vols., translated by John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch (Volume 3 including Anthony Kenny), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Other English Translations

  • Meditations on First Philosophy, translated by John Cottingham, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
  • Principles of Philosophy, translated by V.R. Miller and R.P. Miller (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1983).
  • The Geometry of René Descartes, translated by David Eugene Smith and Marcia L. Lantham (New York: Dover Publications, 1954).
  • The Passions of the Soul, translated by Stephen H. Voss (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1989).

Secondary Sources

  • Ariew, Roger, 1992, “Descartes and Scholasticism: the intellectual background to Descartes' thought,” in The Cambridge Companion to Descartes, edited by John Cottingham, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 58–90.
  • Baillet, Adrien, 1691, La Vie de M. Descartes (2 vols.), Paris.
  • Boyer, Carl B., 1985, A History of Mathematics, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Buroker, Jill, 1991, “Descartes On Sensible Qualities,” Journal Of The History Of Philosophy, XXIX (4): 585–611.
  • Gaukroger, Stephen, 1995, Descartes: An Intellectual Biography, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Rodis-Lewis, Genevieve, 1992, “Descartes' life and the development of his philosophy,” in The Cambridge Companion to Descartes, edited by John Cottingham, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 21–57.
  • Smith, Kurt, 2003, “Was Descartes's Physics Mathematical?” History of Philosophy Quarterly, 20 (3): 245–256.
  • Sorell, Tom, 1987, Descartes, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Other Helpful Sources

  • Alanen, Lilli, 2003, Descartes's Concept of Mind, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Ariew, R., and John Cottingham and Tom Sorell (eds.), 1998, Descartes' Meditations: Background Source Materials, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Broughton Janet, and John Carriero (eds.), 2007, A Companion to Descartes, Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Brown, Deborah, 2006, Descartes and the Passionate Mind, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Carriero, John, 2009, Between Two Worlds: A Reading of Descartes' Meditations, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Chappell, Vere (ed.), 1997, Descartes's Meditations: Critical Essays, Lanhan: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
  • Clarke, Desmond, 2003, Descartes's Theory of Mind, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Cottingham, John (ed.), 1998, Descartes, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Cottingham, John (ed.), 1994, Reason, Will and Sensation: Studies in Descartes' Metaphysics, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Cunning, David, 2010, Argument and Persuasion in Descartes' Meditations, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Curley, E. M., 1978, Descartes Against the Skeptics, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
  • De Rosa, Raffaella, 2010, Descartes and the Puzzle of Sensory Representation, New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Des Chene, Dennis, 2001, Spirits and Clocks: Machine and Organism in Descartes, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
  • Garber, Daniel, 1992, Descartes' Metaphysical Physics, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Garber, Daniel, 2001, Descartes Embodied, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Garber, Daniel and Michael Ayers (eds.), 1998, The Cambridge History of Seventeenth-Century Philosophy, 2 vols., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Gaukroger, Stephen, 1995, Descartes: An Intellectual Biography, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Gaukroger, Stephen (ed.), 2006, The Blackwell Guide to Descartes' Meditations, Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Gueroult, Martial, 1984, Descartes' Philosophy Interpreted According to the Order of Reasons, 2 vols., translated by Roger Ariew, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Hatfield, Gary, 2002, Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Descartes and the Meditations, London: Routledge.
  • Kenny, Anthony, 1968, Descartes: A Study of His Philosophy, Bristol: Thoemmes Press.
  • Lennon, Thomas M., 2008, The Plain Truth: Descartes, Huet, and Skepticism, Leiden: Brill.
  • Machamer, Peter and McGuire, J.E., 2009, Descartes's Changing Mind, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Nelson, Alan (ed.), 2006, A Companion to Rationalism, Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Rodis-Lewis, Genevieve, 1999, Descartes: His Life and Thought, translated by Jane Marie Todd, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
  • Rorty, Emelie Oksenberg (ed.), 1986, Essays on Descartes' Meditations, Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Rozemond, Marleen, 1998, Descartes's Dualism, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Smith, Kurt, 2010a, Matter Matters: Metaphysics and Methodology in the Early Modern Period, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Smith, Kurt and Nelson, Alan, 2010b, “Divisibility and Cartesian Extension”, Oxford Studies in Early Modern Philosophy, Vol. V, Daniel Garber and Stephen Nadler (eds), Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp. 1–24.
  • Sorell, Tom, 1987, Descartes, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Stewart, M.A. (ed.), 1997, Studies in Seventeenth-Century European Philosophy (Oxford Studies in the History of Philosophy: Volume 2), Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Watson, Richard A., 1966, The Downfall of Cartesianism, 1673–1712, The Hague: Martinus Nijhoft.
  • Watson, Richard A., 2007, Cogito Ergo Sum: The Life of René Descartes, Boston: David R. Godine.
  • Williams, Bernard, 1978, Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry, London: Penguin Books.
  • Wilson, Catherine, 2003, Descartes's Meditations, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Wilson, Margaret, 1978, Descartes, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Other Internet Resources

  • The Descartes Web Site website directed by Patricia Easton (Claremont Graduate University)
    Online copy of Descartes' Passions of the Soul (French, 1649, Paris Edition; English, 1650, London Edition)
  • Descartes E Il Seicento, maintained by Giulia Belgioioso (Director, Centro Interdipartmentali Di Studi Su Descartes E Il Seicento), Jean-Robert Armogathe (Centre d'Etudes cartésiennes), and their colleagues
    A superb website on Descartes


I am indebted to the NEH for allowing me the opportunity to participate in the 2000 NEH Summer Seminar, “Descartes and His Contemporaries,” held at Virgina Tech. In addition to learning a great deal from the Seminar's leaders, Roger Ariew and Daniel Garber, I learned a great deal from my fellow participants. I am also indebted to Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania for providing me with a Faculty Development Grant, summer 2001. Lastly, I am indebted to Alan Nelson and Roger Ariew for comments on earlier versions of this article.

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